Keeping these twelve points in mind will help you make educated interpretations of the information you read on a daily basis. This is especially important for information regarding fitness and nutrition. Enjoy!
January was a busy month for me and I didn’t get many opportunities to work on the blog. Between training hours, university classes, and my own lifting I’ve been writing less, but I’d like to sum up my experiences in one concise post to share what I’ve been up to.
January 10th and 11th – NSCA Coaches Conference
This was a spectacular event. I made the drive from Cleveland to Indianapolis (roughly 5 hours) for the two day conference and had a great time. The presenters were enthusiastic and passionate and I got to try some some awesome new equipment that was brought in by exhibitors. A few things really stood out to me.
The Power Squat Pro from Rogers Athletic Company was an amazing piece of equipment. Even though I never get to use plate loaded machines in my training (my gym doesn’t have any), I think they’re pretty cool. I’m honestly not sure there’s a simpler back builder than the good ole hammer strength row machine! But seriously, this one was impressive and functional. I saw maybe 6-8 people get on this thing, and everyone (both guys and girls with different limb lengths) were able to squat below parallel with a neutral spine. You can also also tailor the loading to favor a more hip dominant or knee dominant squat. I was able to notice a significant difference in muscle activity after trying out both loading techniques.
Here’s a video demonstration.
I also got to try out a Tsunami Barbell for a set of bench presses. The bendiness of these bars is pretty unusual but they challenge you in a very unique way.
During the eccentric portion of a bench press, the plates on the bar continue to move down even after the middle of the bar has reached your chest. This forces you to rapidly decelerate the load as you begin the next press. When you reach the top, the plates on the bar should continue moving above your hands. At that point you must decelerate the load by pulling the bar back down to your chest. The faster you move the bar, the more you can feel the oscillatory effects.
Here’s a pretty good demonstration of 10 rep set with 135. This is perfectly fine, but I would suggest moving the bar with much more speed. The muscle contractions that I felt once I had a good rhythm going were intense and powerful.
The last one I felt was notable was the wattbike. Without a doubt it was the smoothest cycling machine I’ve been on. It monitors way more than a regular gym goer would ever need to know, but it’s pretty impressive. Most interesting to me was how it could measure the effectiveness of your strides. Ideally, you’ll be distributing force evenly throughout the cycle between both legs. It doesn’t take long to notice that this is actually very difficult to do and every harder to maintain. Overall it is a fantastic piece of equipment.
January 24th – New STACK Article Published
This article highlights some of my favorite core specific exercises. I cover hollow body ISO’s, deadbugs, single-arm TRX rows, and banded pallof presses.
Having never competed before, this was a great way to get introduced to the environment of a powerlifting competition. It was super laid back and everyone that I talked to was encouraging and positive. The ages of the lifters ranged from preteens all the way up to some dudes pushing 60. I lifted in the 181 pound class and 20-29 age group. Overall there was probably a mere 25 lifters there.
I came into the meet with goals to bench 250 and deadlift 450. Fortunately, I was able to surpass both numbers fairly easily. I benched 190, 220, and 255 with maybe another 10-15 pounds in me. I then deadlifted 375, 420, and 460 with another 5-10 pounds in me. I was just happy to make all my lifts. The crowd cheering you on and the energy in the gym definitely helps!
It was also a great experience because the meet was hosted by someone I used to work for. He owns a facility in Parma, OH called Cal Crowell Diverse Fitness and Athletic Training. Cal’s a caring guy and a passionate coach and has been somewhat of a mentor to me since I got into the training business.
Here’s a short list of the videos I uploaded this past month.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The vast majority of gym-goers cannot properly lift a straight metal bar placed in front of them off the floor. This isn’t surprising since that’s not at all an easy way to pick something up.
Conventional deadlifts are an advanced exercise. Getting into a good position for the lift requires mobility and stability in some commonly weak areas. Keep in mind that there are many other ways to replicate a deadlift pattern depending on your level of strength and training goals. In this post I’m going to cover a lesser known variation, the jefferson!
Why It’s Awkward
I really don’t even have a great explanation for why it’s awkward. For gentlemen, it’s a little bit unusual to accelerate a heavy bar in between your legs up to your balls. Otherwise, it just feels different. It’s slightly unilateral by nature and usually produces soreness in some unique areas.
As with most exercises, there isn’t just one perfect way to perform a jefferson lift. It’s probably going to take some time to find a comfortable setup and pulling pattern. Most beginners will have to experiment with different stances and hip angles. Embrace the awkwardness and find a style that feels good for you.
Why It’s Awesome
For starters, it’s incredibly low back friendly. By straddling the bar it stays very close to your center of gravity and takes away some of the shear force on the spine. It also takes a little bit less mobility to perform well than a conventional deadlift does.
What I really like is how you can modify your technique to target different musculature. For a more quad intensive lift, make the movement more knee dominant by dropping the hips and kind of squatting the bar upward. For more posterior chain, make the movement more hip dominant by hinging over and letting the butt travel back. Always finish the lift with a forceful hip thrust and glute squeeze.
Here’s a set performed from a short deficit to increase the range of motion and emphasis on quads.
Here’s a set performed off the floor with a more hip dominant strategy.
Add in some jefferson’s to your deadlift training and see how they feel. Test out both knee and hip dominant styles. Chances are you’ll be giving your low back a break while gaining more strength for the long term. Get after it!
If you can press overhead with good technique and no pain, you should be taking full advantage of that ability. Not everyone is able to do it effectively, but it’s a safe pattern for most people. As a general rule, if it’s difficult to place your arms overhead without pain, don’t do any type of vertical pressing or pulling. Some people may possess fixable mobility or stability issues that are causing the pain, and others might possess shoulder anatomy that places them at a predisposed mechanical disadvantage for this type of movement. Either way, the pain is an issue that should be addressed.
I’m not going to cover all the prerequisites that you must have before you can safely push a barbell over your head. This post is to share some challenging variations that aren’t very common and provide unique benefits. If you’d like to read more about that topic specifically, check out these articles:
Military presses are great, but there’s a lot more to consider when addressing upper body strength and healthy shoulder function. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, meaning it can move freely in any direction and allows us to train the muscles in many different ranges of motion. This is cool, but it also makes the shoulder complex more prone to injuries and frustrating pains.
Although heavy pressing with a barbell will undoubtedly make you big and strong, if that’s the only exercise you used you’d be setting yourself up for problems down the road. Dumbbells, kettlebells, specialty bars, and landmine attachments all present opportunities to incorporate some very useful exercises into your training sessions. Let’s get down to business!
Half-Kneeling S. Arm Landmine Press
I really like exercises done in a half-kneeling stance. It’s a good way to teach proper core positioning and if you squeeze the glute of the back leg, you can also get a stretch throughout the hip flexors. Due to the nature of the press – vertical but angled slightly forward – it is a tolerable movement for almost everyone. Don’t allow the barbell to drift out to the side. You want the wrist to stay in line with the elbow and shoulder.
Half-Kneeling S. Arm KB Press
Similar to the half-kneeling landmine exercise, the only difference here is you’ll be pressing a kettlebell straight overhead. As long as you are comfortable holding it (the heavy bell will be resting on your radius bone) then I highly recommend this exercise. Otherwise, you can substitute a dumbbell. Your focus with this one should be to resist an type of lateral flexion in the spine. Don’t let the load tip you over sideways. And with anything else in the half-kneeling position, squeeze the glute of the extended hip.
S. Arm DB Push Press
A very good unilateral upper body exercise for strength and power. With a little bit of leg drive you can get pretty damn heavy with single arm presses. Grab a heavy dumbbell (preferably above half of your body weight), dip into a quarter squat and then forcefully accelerate the weight straight up over your head. I like 4-6 reps for around 3-4 sets on this one.
Military Press w/ Chains
In this one, the chains sway around and cause the bar to get a little shaky on you. I find that it forces me to grip the bar harder and squeeze my glutes harder in order to keep myself stable. If you’re not tight it’s not going to look pretty, but you’re going to make it look impressive. Control each rep with a full range of motion and consistent tempo.
Barbell Z Press
The Z press is incredibly challenging. It’s going to require a lot of core strength and pretty decent hip mobility. Ideally you want your spine to be completely vertical and rigid for the whole set. Avoid any rounding at the lumbar spine and actively think to keep the chest out and up.
TRX Handstand Pushups
If you don’t mind turning some heads at the typical big box gym, then this could be a great exercise for you. Personally, I’m not very confident going into a free handstand and maintaining it, and it’s not really something I feel like taking the time to get good at. By using the TRX as kind of a spotter, you can get into a decent handstand with relative ease. From there, lower your head until it’s just above the floor and push back up. Get some quality reps in on multiple sets, but don’t get too fatigued or get anywhere near muscular failure. You’ll want to leave a little in the tank so you can walk your hands in safely after the set, which isn’t all that easy!
Seated Double KB Overhead Press
Killer movement for grip strength, wrist stability, and proper shoulder mechanics. Since you can’t get really heavy with these, I like to do a set or two before any type of heavy bilateral pressing. It’s a good way to create some tension prior to your big lifts for the day. Remember to crush the handles!
Try these out. You’re likely to expose a weakness or two that you were previously unaware of. If you find it extremely difficult to stabilize two light kettlebells upside down, you know you need to work on your grip and forearm strength. If you cannot avoid excessive spinal flexion during a Z press, you may need to focus on anterior core stability and the isometric strength of your spinal erectors. The more you learn these types of things about your body the better you will be able to plan in the future, therefore bringing you closer to optimal training.
Strength and conditioning is cool because it’s pretty hard to screw up. In other words, there are plenty of recipes for success.
You see, there’s pretty much one common goal: Get people to perform and look better while reducing the likelihood of them suffering an injury (I realize that people may have more unique goals than that, but most all of them will fall under this in one way or another). With so many tools and strategies available, there are endless amounts of combinations a coach or trainer can use to reach that goal. This allows us to get extremely creative with our program design, and most would agree that getting creative is both fun and rewarding.
Trainers and coaches have LOADS of freedom. A client comes to us with a goal, and we can do whatever we want to put them in a position closer to that goal. If we’re good at our job, “whatever we want” will be our idea of the most optimal training approach to take in order to move that client closer to their goal. Different programming approaches are going to be more or less optimal for different people.
Whatever approach we decide on is going to be determined by a large number of training variables that are specific to that client only. Many people will need the same things (like more hip mobility, more core stability, etc.), but no two clients will be trained identically. Over time as they start to move better and build strength, it gets easier to simplify the programming and many clients will end up following a similar style of training.
To help clear that up, let’s take a look at what the training experience might look like for two very common types of clients. I’ll refer to them as Jane and Joe. These are completely hypothetical scenarios.
Jane is somewhere in her 40’s. She has some exercise experience, but she’s never really practiced any type of resistance training. She’s not overweight, but she’s weak and not very active. She wants to start training mainly for aesthetic reasons (aka to “tone up”) but she also wants to gain some strength to make daily life activities easier. Jane has pretty good mobility in her joints and overall she’s pretty flexible. Jane is also very unstable, so she’s a little shaky when attempting basic body weight movements.
Joe is in his late 20’s. He’s done some strength training routines in the past, but he hasn’t stuck with anything for a considerable amount of time. He played a couple of sports throughout high school and he stays reasonably active. Joe wants to start training to develop some athleticism and could use some extra motivation to push himself harder. Joe already has some foundational strength, but his mobility is lacking in key areas and his posture sits in a very extended position. He feels like he’s tight in a lot of different muscle groups.
Jane’s initial programming will be focused mainly on developing joint stability and body awareness. Due to her inexperience with lifting, Jane is going to have to familiarize herself with how it feels to contract certain muscles that she has probably never trained before. We can go about many ways of accomplishing this, but it’s at the trainers discretion to decide what is best (aka optimal) for Jane.
Joe’s on the other hand will place more emphasis on correcting his immobilities and any other movement dysfunctions he may have. Due to Joe’s prior lifting experience and athletic background, he is more likely to have muscle asymmetries and joint dysfunction that will need to be addressed. Again, many ways to work on these issues, and it will be up to the trainer to develop a plan in Joe’s best interest.
The initial goal is to get each client to a point where they possess adequate mobility where they need it (shoulders, hips, ankles, etc.) and adequate stability where they need it (knees, hips, lumbar region, etc.). From there they’ll be ready to perform basic strength training movements (squat, hinge, push, pull) with decent enough technique to make the exercises effective.
Once they reach that point, Jane and Joe are basically on an even playing field. Obviously their level of strength is going to determine what specific exercise variations they’ll be doing, but most of the movements are going to be similar in nature. They’ll both be doing some type of deadlift and squat variation, some pressing and rowing variations, and definitely some kettlebell swings and weighted carries. It really is that simple. Their programming is still going to be unique to them, but the overall philosophy behind it remains constant.
So what’s the take home point?
Relax!!! Your program/routine isn’t just automatically determined to be favorable or unfavorable based on it’s substance alone and nothing else. There are too many variables present to label it such a black and white manner. Instead, try to figure out how you can make improvements to it for your own wants and needs.
One of my favorite Dan John quotes states that “everything works, for about 6 weeks.” If you remain consistent with any training program, you’re not NOT gonna get better at it. Will it be optimal for you? Probably not even close! But really, chill out with the labeling. Good, bad, right, and wrong are all useless terms in this industry. There is no way to define them given the context. You may think running is bad, but people do it and they better themselves. You may think CrossFit is good, yet not everybody shares the same experience. People get results from a variety of different methods, and that’s part of what makes exercise so great – the freedom to choose!
As a fitness professional, I don’t like the idea of telling someone that what they are doing is “wrong” and that I’m going to teach them how to do what is “right.” Instead, I’d much rather express that what they are doing is okay, but that I can show them how to optimize their training for them. This is much less intimidating to someone who might be new to fitness and it also gives them a more realistic and practical idea of how to approach exercise.
I hope this post has given you some new insight into how you work towards your fitness related goals. Keep your mind open, try new things, and always strive to be optimal!
This blog post is going to highlight some important cues that will increase the effectiveness of your lifting repetitions.
Mechanical efficiency… aka masterful technique
I like to think about efficiency as “making it look easy.” Your reps should be consistent, controlled, and fluid in nature.
“Good form” is really just a matter of practicing positions. The way you set up for a loaded multi-joint exercise is going to significantly impact the following execution of the movement.
It’s like setting up for a deadlift with a slightly flexed spine. In doing so, you are guaranteeing that your spine will now have to extend under load. It’s generally agreed that significant shear stress on the lumbar discs of the spine probably isn’t the best idea. Therefore, if you place your spine into a position of neutral or slight extension before the lift, you now have the opportunity to maintain that position by using the active tension of your skeletal muscle tissue.
You need to consciously feel tension in the targeted muscle groups while training
Exercises are meant to stimulate different muscle groups. If you go through the motions without actually feeling the muscles you’re trying to target, you’re leaving a lot on the table.
Developing a strong mind-muscle connection (MMC) is in your best interest. It’s kind of a hard concept to define clearly, but the more you train the more you’ll understand how it works.
Essentially, the mind-muscle connection is a concentrated mental effort to keep maximal tension/stress/activation on the working muscles throughout the full range of motion of the exercise.
One common movement that people struggle to “feel” properly is any type of rowing variation. I’ll use the single-arm DB row as an example.
Too often, the DB row is “felt” more in the forearms and biceps rather than the lats and upper back, which should be the primary targets of the movement. Using the MMC, you should be consciously aware of the stretch in your lats and rear delts at the bottom of the row. As you begin to lift the weight, you should still be consciously aware of the intense muscular contraction in your lats, rear delts, traps, and mid back. Sure there will still be stimulation in the forearms and biceps, but the bigger muscles of the back should be doing the most work.
Apply this idea to all of your exercises. Know what you’re targeting, and then feel it. The contraction might not be perfect right away, but just knowing where you’re supposed to feel activation can make a big difference.
Use inertia to your advantage
Newton’s 3rd law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Think about touch-and-go deadlifts. When the plates hit the floor, they are essentially “bouncing” and therefore the completion of each rep is usually going to be easier. Touch-and-go deadlifts are a good option for low back endurance as well as grip strength, however I would stick to more dead-start reps if your goal is maximal strength.
I program a lot of paused squats and paused deadlifts with my clients. Both are good options for taking some elastic energy out of your muscles and forcing you to accelerate through reps without the assistance of the stretch-shortening cycle.
Front squats done from a dead start are a game changer!
Anything that enables you to generate starting force from nothing is extremely valuable. Take advantage of these challenging strategies!
Better reps = better results
As with most things in life, quality is superior to quantity in training. Regardless of your training goals, one perfect rep is more beneficial than five shitty reps. Keep these thoughts in mind and apply them to your lifts and I’m sure you’ll feel the difference.
Almost all of the blogs I’ve listed in the “Links” section of this site also have a YouTube page. Sometimes video explanations and exercise demonstrations can be more effective than words on a screen. Here are some of the best I’ve seen recently.
3 Common Mistakes in the Bench Press
These aren’t necessarily new tips but I’ve never heard them explained this way. Brandon Lilly provides some fantastic insight here.
Are All Hip Extension Exercises Created Equal?
Bret Contreras goes into great detail with the good morning, 45 degree back extension, and horizontal back extension.
Squat Cycles and Training Talk
Elite powerlifter Bryce Lewis narrates a max effort squat day. Pay attention to his incredibly thorough warmup and the consistency of his reps.
Eric Cressey on Shoulders and Snatches
Wil Fleming posted this one on his page where EC highlights some shoulder assessments to determine your ability to work safely overhead.
Being a Fitness Educator: So You Want to Train the Trainers?
I’ve always respected the information Nick Tuminello puts out because of his evidence based approach. He shares some valuable words of wisdom in this video.
I’ve been “working out” since I was around 13 years old. My first ever piece of equipment was a Total Gym 1700 that my parents bought and set up in the basement. The basement was my dwelling for Xbox Live and calisthenics. I was always down there, and therefore I used the Total Gym pretty extensively and made some improvements in my body composition.
This was long before I discovered the value of absolute strength, and my primary goal at the time was to build some broad, rounded shoulders. I didn’t just want to attain “the curve,” I wanted to sculpt colossal lateral deltoids. Like Lebron James deltoids.
Eventually I got good enough with that thing that I would jack it up to the highest incline and absolutely wreck my upper body. Rows, curls, delt raises, chest presses, flys, pullovers, tricep extensions, and reverse flys could all be performed reasonably well. Even though it has no business in any type of quality performance based facility, it really wasn’t that bad. Especially not that bad for an active 13 year old with limited resources looking to get his swole on.
It’s biggest drawback is that it’s absolutely useless for your lower body. Well, useless unless you’re one of those ever so common individuals who gets stronger from squats done with less resistance than gravity can provide. But I’m exaggerating. I used to do some single leg squats on the Total Gym that were actually challenging for higher reps. Certainly not optimal, but better than nothing!
I’m actually quite thankful that this is how I got started with training. The only resistance the Total Gym used was my bodyweight. I made noticeable improvements at moving my bodyweight around. Fortunately I was able to build up some type of foundational strength before I ever stepped in a weight room, where a new teenager has many more opportunities to damage their body.
It was when I did gain access to some weights that I started to jack myself up a little. I actually did the majority of the jacking up in about the span of a week, which I can recall quite well.
I was with my family on our annual spring vacation to Disneyworld. We were staying at a resort called the Beach Club, and I was just old enough to enter the fitness center with an adult. The family was actually pretty dedicated on this particular trip, and I can remember the four of us getting to the fitness center almost every morning before spending the rest of the day touring the theme parks and stuffing our faces.
The resort fitness center was obviously sub par. Some cardio equipment, a big smith machine, some body part machines, a cable apparatus, and probably some dumbbells up to 50 pounds.
Oh! And a couple of stability balls for good measure. Ya can’t forget about those huge spheres of rubber that are supposed to help get your body in a better physical condition. Remember, they are huge spheres of rubber, it only makes sense that they’ll make you stronger. And yes, people trusted these things so much that they were willing to hold heavy dumbbells and then LAY DOWN ON THEIR BACK ON TOP OF THE MASSIVE RUBBER SPHERE. Type “stability ball injury” into Google for a host of articles featuring accidents, injuries, lawsuits, and recalls. Fun stuff!
But seriously, stability balls are great for hamstring curls and the “stir the pot” core exercise. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to run through every commercial gym in America with a katana, slicing through each and every stability ball in existence. I’d also be wearing a Tapout shirt that I converted into a cutoff, because I don’t know, that happens? And forget scissors, I just ripped the sleeves off and then ripped the sides down all the way to the stitching on the bottom. I’m going for more of a modern look anyway.
Of course that’s just a random fantasy, so let’s get back to that week I was talking about.
I was freaking pumped about this fitness center. All I wanted to do was bench press with the smith machine, but I only got to try that a couple times because it was almost always occupied. A fellow gym goer even gave me a tip one day while doing tricep pushdowns with a rope attachment. He told me to force the rope outward as I pushed down, because “that’s what will form it for you.” He said this as he flexed his tricep, which was “formed” pretty well and helped raise his perceived credibility.
Looking back, that was a pretty good tip. That minor change noticeably intensifies the muscle contraction and just feels solid. If I ever did tricep pushdowns anymore, I would definitely do them that way. Thanks to that guy!
Anyway, I did a lot of resistance training this week. I had never really lifted before, but my Total Gym experience helped me a little bit with feeling the movements. I did almost all machine based isolation exercises. I spent the bulk of my energy on the leg press machine, and also doing my fair share of leg extensions. My knees were taking a beating and I was not even thinking about recovery. I pushed it hard I think almost everyday that week before we departed from Disneyworld to get on a cruise ship for the second part of our vacation.
The thought of playing basketball on the top deck of a giant, entertainment packed vessel in the middle of the ocean is pretty hard to resist. You know that first day we got on the ship that I played ASAP, with the hopes that my one week of resistance training would pay dividends with an increase in my vertical jump. Yeah, I really thought that might happen, and I was hecka wrong.
I got up to that half court and immediately tried to do a super athletic looking layup for my age where I jump really high off two legs and slap the backboard while sinking the layup. According to other basketball players, it’s like pretty much like the coolest thing you can do in basketball.
As soon as I planted my feet and put some force into the ground for that legendary layup, my right knee buckled and I almost fell over.
It was pretty painful initially. I had no idea what had happened. I walked it off for a little bit and eventually limped back to the room. I limped for 2 or 3 days after, still not really knowing anything except that the front of my knee hurt.
It took some time and some doctor visits, but after enough research it was concluded that I had Osgood-Schlatter disease. When I tell people that, almost nobody has heard of it. I don’t think it’s super uncommon, however, and I can remember a couple of classmates that had it in early high school years. The pain bothered me for about 3 years, but only significantly for about half of that. I was able to play basketball at 100% and only had to deal with minor pains and frustrations.
It really wasn’t that bad, and I fully recovered when I stopped growing, but it was there for a long time and it created some tiny imbalances that I still notice today. Nowadays, my knees as well as all my other joints feel great. I’m able to train hard 4 days a week consistently without having to deload very frequently. I can squat deep with near-max loads day in and day out, and both knees respond fantastically. I can squat deep with sub-maximal loads and more volume, and the knees feel no different.
So really the only downside of “suffering” through a few years of Ozzy is a permanently protruded tibial tuberosity. Or if you like anatomy even more, simply an epiphysitis of the tibial tubercle. Essentially I have this lifelong bump on the front of my knee, which sucks because I am like soooooo self-conscious about my knees.
I learned a lot from this portion of my training career. I saw some results, trained consistently, injured myself, and created some imbalances, among many other things. It wasn’t until about my junior-ish year of high school that I started training more for performance and function.
I’d say I have about 3 years of smart lifting under my belt. And it wasn’t until this past year that I really dialed in on the specificities of powerlifting and olympic lifting. But finally, I feel like I’m training as close to optimal as I ever have for my goal at that time, and today that goal is primarily to increase absolute strength with a secondary goal of increasing power output. I’d also like to compete in powerlifting within the next year, which adds to my motivation.
I’ve developed a number of habits throughout the past few years, most of them positive, and I think a lot of newer lifters could benefit from them. They’re simple and easy to follow and they will make a difference.
Goblet squats will get you on the right track. Start with those. Full back squats and full front squats will take you to another level.
Once you can hit half of your bodyweight (dumbbell or kettlebell, I prefer dumbbell) for 10+ reps in the goblet squat, you’re ready for a barbell. Whether you decide to follow the progression or not will of course depend on your goals.
Looking to maintain your mobility and protect some lean body mass? You’ll be fine sticking with the goblet squat. You should still progressively overload it, but if you work your way up to a 75-100 pound dumbbell for consecutive sets it’s perfectly fine to maintain.
Looking to be a game changer? You’ll want to move on to the barbell. Just make sure your goblet squat is perfect with a 75-100 pound dumbbell.
Start with front squats. They’re easier to learn because they force good technique. The first thing you’ll do to compensate for weak squat form is lean forward and get your low back involved. If you do this with a front squat, you’ll dump the bar. The front squat heavily recruits the upper back, and people hate that because it’s a difficult position to maintain. It’s a good thing because just about everyone could use a stronger upper back and stronger thoracic extensors.
I back squat at least twice a week. I front squat sometimes too, maybe once every couple of weeks. If I’m not front squatting or back squatting, I’ll at least do a set or two of goblet squats during my warm-up.
I wear weightlifting shoes when I squat, specifically the adidas adiPower. The raised heel gives me a mechanical advantage so I can reach an ass to grass squat and increase the distance the bar travels. This isn’t mandatory, but I like the stability they provide and the leverage they help me get during the exercise.
2) Learning to Use My Glutes More Efficiently
This one was a huge difference maker for me because I completely neglected my glutes until this past year or so. I still did plenty of hip dominant exercises and some knee flexion ones as well, but I never really focused on anything except my hamstrings. This resulted in some strong hamstrings, but very weak and inhibited glutes. If I were to train glute specific exercises (hip thrusts, single leg glute bridges, etc.) my hamstrings would almost always take over. I had to develop a completely new mind-muscle connection with my glutes, which was beyond worth the time investment.
The horizontal back extension was extremely helpful here. I started performing them with a slight knee bend, my femurs slightly externally rotated, and a big glute squeeze at the top to bring me into posterior pelvic tilt. I like to focus on thrusting my hips into the pads as hard as possible.
The results were fantastic. My ability to manipulate the positioning of my pelvis has increased my confidence and positioning during my heaviest lifts. Whatever your goals are, consciously feeling your glutes contract and contribute to hip extension/hyperextension is a huge advantage.
3) Minimalist Footwear
This one could be skipped by simply lifting in socks or barefoot, but that’s not a great alternative for those who lift in commercial gyms or for those who feel uncomfortable without any footwear while training.
Minimalist footwear has made a significant difference in my movement quality, strength, and overall perception of certain exercises. The super thin soles combined with zero drop off from heel to toe put you much closer to the ground, giving you more “ground feel” and an overall better ability to direct force into the floor beneath you. I think it allows you to be more “in touch” with your body.
Excluding squats done in weightlifting shoes, I personally wear Vibram Fivefingers and New Balance Minimus when I lift. Both are excellent options, but any thin soled and flat shoe will benefit you greatly.
4) Very Limited Use of Lifting Gear
I’ve never put on a weightlifting belt for a set. I don’t use any type of knee sleeves or knee wraps. I rarely use straps.
Truth is I could lift more weight with these things, but I choose not to.
Instead of wearing a belt, I’ve spent time training the hell out of my core from all angles. I can brace my midsection to withstand large amounts of force, and I personally don’t want to be assisted by pushing out against a thick strap around my stomach. I could care less if I could lift 5-10% more weight with a belt on. I want to get as strong as I possibly can without ANY type of external assistance.
Build up your core. Grip things as tight as you can. Challenge your knees to resist and absorb strong forces. Chances are you’ll be more balanced out in the long run and less likely to develop joint instabilities or asymmetries.
5) Losing Focus in Between Sets
This makes no sense, but hear me out.
We’ve all seen those people in the gym who are clearly serious about their workout. Headphones in, flashy compression gear, rigid facial expression, pretty much “in the zone.”
I actually characterize all of those things. I’m sure it annoys some people, I’m sure it inspires some people, and I’m sure the majority don’t care or pay attention at all.
But I like to get “out of the zone” sometimes. I don’t want to take my workout too seriously, so I use my time between sets to relax a little bit. I record my exercises, sets, and reps in the notes section on my phone, so I’m on it pretty frequently. I might also text someone, check some social media or email, or even read a couple paragraphs of a fitness related article. Really just anything to get my mind off the task at hand for a moment. I also enjoy the music on my iPod and tend to groove a little bit while resting.
I also use this time to think about what I’m going to do next. I brainstorm about loading considerations, perceived rate of exertion, performance up to that point in the workout, and expected performance for the next set or exercise. I might do a quick joint mobilization that will specifically help my positioning and performance for the movement I’m about to do.
Once I feel ready to perform at high level again, I NOW regain my intense focus on the lift. If it’s a near maximum lift, I’ll find a good song for the moment and hype myself a bit more mentally, but most of the time I stay reasonably calm. I find my set-up for whatever it is I’m doing, build loads of tension, and initiate. After that, I don’t have to think about much of anything. I’m “locked in” by this point.
I repeat this process over and over throughout the workout. Brief periods of intense concentration on a very specific task, followed by longer periods of free thinking and brainstorming. I wonder if each state of mind complements one another. Maybe the longer rest periods allow the CNS to recover enough so I can come back with a stronger focus for the next set, and the accomplished feeling of lifting a near maximal weight makes it easier to sit back and reflect for a few minutes.
Either way, this mental approach has worked very well for me. Give your sympathetic nervous system a break and do something to relieve stress while you’re resting. It doesn’t mean you’re slacking at all, and for a lot of people it would result in better intra-workout recovery and increased subsequent performance.
6) Flexible Nutrition
Nutrition is a simple concept, but we do a great job of overcomplicating everything about it. Nutrition is how we fuel and repair ourselves. A nutrient is any substance that can be metabolized by an animal to give energy and build tissue. We need nutrients in order to have optimum nutrition.
Could it be possible that a larger variety and abundance of nutrients might lead to better nutrition? You’re kidding!
But really, you’d be silly not to understand that almost all of us would benefit from more protein, fat, vegetables, and water. Take time to make an investment in your health by learning how to read an ingredient list. The more ingredients there are in a food product, the more processing it took to create it.
It’s time to stop with the blanket statements, the food demonizing, and the bashing of others dietary choices. You can make better use of your time with more positive actions.
Eat what you enjoy.
Eat the foods that will give you the most nutritional bang for your buck.
Don’t be afraid to binge on nutritious food occasionally.
Don’t label things as “good for you” or “bad for you” but rather try to see the value (aka the nutrition or the nutrients you’ll receive) in every food.
Cook for yourself as often as possible. Make sure the food looks good and tastes even better.
Make trips to the grocery store more often but buy less. Use ALL of the food that you buy. Try to discover new ways to use what you have available.
And as with anything else in life, everything in moderation.
Learn to adapt to intra-workout biofeedback as quickly as you can. This is the most important habit to get into. I won’t delve into it here, but if you click on the link you’ll be directed to a full explanation of the concept.
The good morning may be the best assistance exercise when it comes to improving the squat and deadlift. It hits the posterior chain hard and forces you back to maintain a huge amount of isometric force throughout the back.
To me, the more range of motion you can reach while maintaining solid form, the more beneficial the exercise will be. I don’t think it’s terribly important to go super heavy with good morning variations. Focus on quality over quantity and perform the exercise with perfect technique on each and every rep.
Here is a demonstration of good mornings performed with a straight bar. Notice the flat back, the slight knee bend, and the butt moving back horizontally.
Good mornings can also be done with a cambered bar. It’s hard to explain, but using this specialty bar feels quite a bit different. Check it out here:
If you want to get better in the big 3, you could probably benefit from good mornings. They’re a great assistance lift when used properly.
However, don’t try to go too heavy with this lift. Keep the load relatively low and stay around a medium rep range (6-12). Of course it’s acceptable to go heavier occasionally, but personally I wouldn’t go below 4 reps with any good morning variation. The risk just isn’t worth the reward at that point.
Whether you use them or not, the good morning is a great supplement to any powerlifting friendly program. Just be easy and stick to moderate loads for medium reps.
Ah, the hamstrings. Talk about a popular muscle group.
The hamstrings are important, annoying, and confusing. If you’re reading this, you could very well feel that your hamstrings are “tight” right now. It’s also possible that you’ve suffered some type of hamstring strain throughout your athletic career. It’s also possible that you don’t train your hamstrings as much as you should or as optimally as you should.
Three specific muscles make up the hamstrings. The biceps femoris (which has a long head and a short head), the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. They really are like strings on the back of your thighs. They are also powerful as hell, and that is precisely why you should to train them frequently.
This post is not meant to cover any universally accepted method for hamstring training. This is simply a brief overview of why the hamstrings are important and what I believe are some of the best movements to train them with.
Hip extension and knee flexion are the two primary responsibilities of the hamstrings.
Hip extension occurs when you go from bending over at the waist to standing straight up.
Knee flexion occurs when you kick your butt with your heels.
During hip extension exercises your hamstrings are stretched under load (think about the bottom of an RDL). You then use them to lift your upper body upward and move your hips through the air horizontally. Any exercise that targets hip extension under load will train your hamstrings to handle large eccentric forces and to maintain protective tension.
During knee flexion exercises your hamstrings are working through a shortened range of motion (think about a machine leg curl). You are flexing and extending at the knee, but the hamstrings are not actually resisting much eccentric force. Exercises that focus on knee flexion under load will train the concentric action of the muscles more effectively. The loads used during these exercises will be much lighter.
Training the hamstrings through both hip extension and knee flexion is a great way to build strength through a full range of motion.
The hamstrings are especially involved in resisting massive eccentric forces. Every time you take a step your hamstrings must contract to counteract the rapid lengthening of the muscle.
This action is more extreme when bounding or sprinting. As most of us know, it’s very easy to strain a hammy when we’re running at full speed. Training your hamstrings to handle huge eccentric loads can effectively reduce your chance of straining anything while also helping to stabilize the knee joint.
In order to train your hamstrings optimally you must be able to perform a proper hip hinge. There are plenty of cues to help explain the movement.
Toes pointed out slightly
Slight knee bend
Ribcage locked down to pelvis
There are quite a few ways to learn to hinge properly, but my favorite exercises for it are the pull through and kettlebell swing.
The pull through done with a cable and rope attachment or a resistance band really forces you to sit back and “load up” the hamstrings. If you don’t dig your heels into the ground and get your butt back, the loading implement is probably going to pull you backwards.
The kettlebell swing is slightly harder to learn than the pull through and offers a much different training stimulus. I like to describe the swing as a loaded bow and arrow being shot off repeatedly. As you sit back into the hinge, the tension on the strings gradually increases before one massive contraction rapidly propels your hips forward. This is similar to pulling back on a bow and arrow and releasing it once a desired amount of tension has been reached.
During both exercises, it’s a good idea to finish each rep with a big glute squeeze. Think about bringing the hips through as if you were humping the air. If you’re recruiting your butt effectively it should take you into slight hip hyperextension and posterior pelvic tilt.
There is no best exercise to hit the hamstrings, but in my experience it’s pretty tough to beat a properly executed romanian deadlift (RDL).
You can load it heavy, it’s easier to learn than a conventional deadlift, and it absolutely murders the posterior chain. There are a few pointers to keep in mind:
Engage the lats by pulling the bar back into your body and keeping it close the whole time
Imagine that you’re trying to touch the wall behind you with your butt
Finish with the glutes by humping the bar
Check out some band resisted RDL’s here focusing on maximum bar acceleration for speed development.
The RDL doesn’t have to be done with a barbell either. If you’re new to the movement it will be easier to start with dumbbells or kettlebells held at the sides.
Another one of my favorites is the glute-ham raise (GHR). It is an advanced exercise that puts more emphasis on knee flexion than hip extension, provided that you keep the body in a straight line throughout each rep.
GHR’s can be loaded with a weight vest or by placing a band around your neck.
I usually train RDL’s in a 4-8 rep range and GHR’s in a 10-15 range, but that’s just me. You can certainly take RDL’s for higher reps or load up GHR’s and go for lower reps.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago I did just one all-out set of RDL’s on a lower body day to switch things up a bit. I was ready for a challenge that day and went with 225 pounds for 20 reps with a double overhand grip and no straps. It was brutal but it was a nice change of pace from my normal tendencies.
A few more things to consider before I wrap this up.
Soft tissue work – Hamstrings get sore very easily. When things are sore we tend to stretch them with the hopes of alleviating some of the DOMS. It sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t seem to actually do much at all in terms of recovery. Foam rolling the hamstrings feels good, but a standard foam roller will have a tough time putting enough pressure on the muscles, especially if you’re experienced with self-massage. I personally use a PVC pipe or the stick from perform better to work on my hamstrings.
Stretching – No evidence to back this one up, but throughout my experiences I’ve observed that stretching the hamstrings is somewhat overrated. I’m not going to tell you you shouldn’t stretch them ever, but just don’t go overboard with it. The “tightness” you feel might actually be a good thing and it’s there for a reason. Personally, I like to do a couple of quick hamstring stretches before a workout just to expose myself to the extreme ranges of motion that I’ll be encountering during the workout. You won’t find me holding the stretches for long periods of time, however, as I don’t see much benefit coming from that for myself or most other people.
Aesthetics – Well developed hamstrings look great. If you train them consistently and intelligently they will even out relationship between quad size and hamstring size, giving your thighs some good shape and definition.
Hamstring curls before squats? – This is something I actually haven’t tried yet, but I could see it being beneficial. I’ve heard of quite a few lifters experimenting with it and seeing good results. John Meadows wrote an article for T-Nation about it HERE.
So there ya have it. If you’ve been neglecting your hamstrings, stop it right now. Spend some more time addressing your posterior chain strength and good things will always result. Have fun!