As I have mentioned previously, the lats are extremely crucial to your performance on the bench. They play a huge roll in creating power and drive and stabilizing your body throughout the duration of the range of motion. When performing sets with heavy loads your rest periods can be quite lengthy. As a result, it is imperative that you utilize these resting periods to put yourself in the best possible position to succeed during your next set. Focusing on certain areas of your back and shoulders during your time between sets can be key in helping create upper body torque via maintaining proper posture and ability to externally rotate your shoulders and activating your lats and upper back musculature. By incorporating and varying these three exercises in between your sets you will ensure that you are in the most ideal position to perform your optimal bench press. Band pull aparts, slow eccentric wide grip pull-ups, and wide grip lat pull downs will surely put you in the best possible position for your bench press.
It is truly remarkable. If you actually utilize your time between your bench press sets you can accomplish some amazing things. Much more amazing than if you stand there and scroll through your instagram feed and find pictures to like. Yes, it is shocking I know. Once again I am here to provide you with a massive revelation. Now, let’s get to those exercises.
Band Pull Aparts
Activating your upper back musculature, specifically in your scapular area can be extremely beneficial to your bench press. Not only does the natural motion of a band pull apart improve posture, but doing so can also activate your upper back muscles so that you will be able to properly externally rotate your shoulders. It is IMPOSSIBLE to create the necessary torque for heavy bench presses without being able to externally rotate and create torque. With that being said, posture and activation of your upper back muscles play a huge role in that.
Wide Grip Pull-Ups
In addition to Band Pull Aparts, Wide Grip Pull-ups with a focus on slow eccentrics do a tremendous job of not only activating your lats, but also your shoulders in an externally rotated position that is quite similar to how you grip the bar. Perform only a few reps with exceptional form. The goal here is to engage your lats, not pre exhaust them. As I have mentioned previously, your lats play a huge part in stabilizing yourself against the bench. I often cue an athlete or client to “engage and drive” their lats while bench pressing. These pull-ups will help activate
them so they can properly be engaged.
Wide Grip Lat Pull Downs
These will provide a similar effect to the pull-ups, but are a nice alternative to those who either struggle with the pull-ups or just want a slightly easier way to activate their lats. Again, with these I advise to maintain the grip width similar to when bench pressing as it will help create muscle memory and motor control of the proper torque needed to externally rotate the shoulders in the bench press. Again, keep it light and keep the reps to a minimal. The goal of all these exercises are to engage and activate, not exhaust and create the presence of lactic acid.
Now, go implement these exercises and unlock the ultimate rest period bench press hack!
You just completed a workout and you cannot believe it. It has been three long months since you began your journey into the iron paradise. You worked your way up to five days a week at the gym and a couple protein shakes per day and you cannot believe the results you are noticing and the progress you have made. However, another month or two go by and before you know it your progress slows to a halt as you advance past your first six months in the gym. It is a harsh reality to face at first, but you are learning what every advanced lifter, athlete, and strength and conditioning coach has learned at some point. The idea of neuromuscular adaptation is simple enough to understand. Your body undergoes functional and structural changes as a result of strength training. This process is responsible for your ability to gradually handle more weight on the barbell, more minutes of cardiovascular activity, and an overall increase in volume and intensity. It is also responsible for muscle growth (the holy grail), and improvements to the central nervous system. Do not be discouraged. I am going to explain the idea of periodization, introduce methods to vary and introduce several different stimuli, and give you sample repetition ranges to deal with adaptation.
Periodization is the idea of cycling various methods of training for a specific time in order to efficiently achieve certain goals. For athletes periodization is key in ensuring that peak performance occurs during the most important time of yearly competition. For the average gym goer, periodization can more simply be thought of as an altering of several factors, but most specifically set and repetitions structures. The reason most lifters have a problem with limited gains after a certain period of time is because they do not effectively shift from one method of training to others often enough. Think of this concept as if you were buying a new pair of shoes. At first, the shoes are rugged and uncomfortable and need to be broken in. Think of that time when your training really pushes you and demands extreme amounts of energy from your body. Eventually, you settle in and break these shoes in. The shoes are ready for peak performance, and you excel. Sooner or later these shoes wear out and you no longer get the same results. This is the same as your training! You have become overly accustomed to a certain routine and as a result you have become “overly broken in,” to this training. It is time to use a new pair of shoes for a while! As I will later explain, you must alter your sets and reps, exercises, change the amount of resistance you are using, use differing bar speeds, and make changes to your rest periods and overall volume.
Introducing New Stimuli
Aside from adjusting your number of sets and repetitions alone, there are three main stimuli that can be altered in order to deal with adaptation. I am not going to count this as one of the three because I feel that it is obvious, but I will address it just to be safe. One of the easiest ways to deal with adaptation is to introduce new exercises into your routine. For example, if you are training strictly for the purpose of hypertrophy and aesthetics, different exercises can target musculature differently and change ranges of motion, and doing that alone can stimulate growth. Let’s say for arguments sake that you have been barbell bench-pressing on your chest days for a couple months. Switching to a dumbbell bench press can target each side of your chest individually and spark more growth. Or, you simply change the grip on your barbell bench press and this will provide the slightest tweak in your range of motion and the path of your arms through flexion and extension. Not only will this be beneficial to a lifter with bodybuilding and aesthetic aspirations, but it will also benefit a performance-oriented athlete. Teaching the body to acquire the necessary motor skills and stability and mobility with different movements is key to improving performance and more sports specific functional training methods. Being able to load your spine and maintain it in a neutral position through various ranges of motion will be critical for your continued development as an athlete.
The first way you can introduce stimuli and increase the training effect would be via an increase in the load you are using. It is simple. Slowly increasing the weight you are using can alleviate the negative side effects of advancing adaptations. Basically, by increasing the load you are requesting that your body further grow and become stronger because it will need to in order to handle more weight. You can also place higher demands on your central nervous system with an increased load, which plays a key role in whether or not your body will be able to handle more volume and exertion down the line.
Another way to introduce more stimuli is to alter the speed of the bar during your exercises. This can be beneficial to both bodybuilders and athletes when it comes to the training effect. Want to increase your time under tension and build muscle? Slow the bar down during the eccentric (negative) portion of the movement and doing so will increase how long a muscle is held in a contraction and it will be driven to grow. Want to develop power as an athlete? Focus on maintaining the fastest possible bar speed through the concentric portion of the lift and you will most definitely develop power.
Lastly, you can adjust your rest periods and your total volume. Lifting heavier for a minimal number of repetitions? Your rest periods will undoubtedly be longer. Lifting lighter with far more repetitions? Than your recovery time will surely be far less. In terms of volume, let me first explain what volume actually is. Volume is a product of your sets, repetitions, and time under tension (think about when I discussed bar speed). Making even minuscule changes to this formula can be enough to bring about an additional training effect.
Sample Repetition Ranges
Here are some repetition ranges and their corresponding goals. Basically, if you want to achieve a certain goal you can match it with these rep ranges. Also, rotating through these different rep schemes every several weeks can be a great way to not only achieve different results but also deal with adaptations and ensuring that you always get the best possible training effect.
Hypertrophy (muscle mass)
Now, go continue to make gains and reach your performance goals while managing the limitation of adaptations! Every day presents a new way for you to challenge yourself!
The picture above is none other than Ray Williams setting the raw squat world record this past weekend with an astonishing squat of 1,005 pounds. Contrary to popular believe I am leaving this here to inspire you and not make you depressed. Anyway, I digress.
So far you have seen me divulge the five best accessories to build both your bench press and deadlift. Now, I will take you through the top five accessories to build your barbell squat. Since the dawn of weightlifting the squat has been a highly regarded power lift variation that demonstrated true overall power. Just because we all do not possess the ability to load 600 pounds on our backs does not mean that you cannot make significant progress with your squat and improve your form and range of motion with various accessory exercises. From exercises that do not involve a barbell, to variations you can add to your barbell work, these accessories will target improved form via muscle memory and added strength, and help develop power through the entirety of the range of motion.
First and foremost, the goblet squat is a great exercise to use with beginners as they develop the proper mobility, stability, and motor control to perform the squat properly. By using a dumbbell that is loaded anteriorly, goblet squats simplify the squat movement because they do not require the added shoulder stability and mobility that a back loaded squat entails. In addition, they are a great alternative to use for rotational athletes (think hockey and baseball players), or lifters with elbow and shoulder pain, who do not want to compromise these areas by engaging in a back squat. Goblet squats can aid in developing necessary strength throughout the full range of motion while allowing a way to practice creating torque and driving out the knees, maintaining a neutral spine, and getting a feel for the proper depth required for the squat. So, go pick up a dumbbell, and master proper form and motor control that will lead to a better barbell squat.
Bulgarian Split Squats
One way to improve unilateral strength (each individual leg), while again practicing the proper squat cues is the Bulgarian split squat. This variation is a great way to build your quads, hamstrings and glutes, while also building significant mobility and stability in your individual legs. While performing the split squat it is imperative that you still practice the same squat techniques so you do not develop poor habits and have the exercise become a detriment to your motor control. Be sure to hip hinge prior to engaging the knees, so that the exercise places the load on your hips and hamstrings and does not place too much stress on your knees. If you do this with your barbell squat you are staring down the barrel of an impending knee injury. Also, as an added bonus, split squats are a great way to improve single leg eccentric strength and starting strength (the two most important components to agility) so split squats also provide a great benefit to team sport athletes. So, use split squats as a good way to not only build unilateral strength and control, but to also practice critical facets of squat form.
Yes, I know this was an accessory I included in the five best accessories to improve your deadlift. However, this does not mean that hip thrusts are not equally as important to help build your squat. Look at this as one of those “kill two birds with one stone,” situations. Adding hip thrusts to your routine will augment not only your deadlift but your squat as well. Having strong glutes is imperative to help you drive out of the hole when squatting. In addition, if you load your hips properly, most of the stress of the squat will be placed on your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and hips). So, as you can see, developing your glutes will be key to ensuring you can be in an optimal position to perform a squat correctly and effectively, and also enhance your overall strength, power, and stability.
Dynamic Effort Box Squats (with bands, also known as “futures” method)
Now, you heard me mention power way back at the beginning of this article, and you are probably thinking to yourself, “When the hell is this guy going to actually address this?” Well I am a man of my word and that time is now. Firstly, let me explain the concept of power. Power is a product of speed and strength. Basically, I like to think of it as how quickly you can utilize your strength to create force and be explosive. The best way to develop power is through compensatory acceleration training. Made famous by Dr. Fred Hatfield, compensatory acceleration training is a method, which focuses purely on bar speed. Think about it. What better way is there to develop power than to emphasize speed on a movement that requires strength? A good way to cue dynamic effort training is to emphasize three-five seconds for the eccentric (negative) phase of the movement, and then a one second concentric (upward movement) portion of the movement. This will help develop ultimate power for team sport athletes and general lifters just looking to improve their squat. Finally, adding bands from the top down (think putting a band around the end of the barbell and then attaching it to the top of the power rack) is a great way to acclimate a lifter’s central nervous system to heavier loads than they can handle as the bands will help drive the load during the duration of the lift, but allow the athlete to adapt to the heavier load simultaneously. This is a great way to advance towards heavier loads in the squat.
Slow Eccentric (Negative) Pause Squats
Slow eccentric pause squats are a great way to develop necessary eccentric strength, which will be key when you begin to advance to heavier weights. Anatomically, the body is stronger in extension (think the top half of the squat) then it is in flexion (think the bottom half of the squat). This basically means that you can handle a far heavier load at the back end of the movement then you can as you lower the bar and enter into flexion. With this being said, I am always a proponent of attacking weaknesses, so I feel that slow eccentric squats with a slight pause are a great way to improve this strength in flexion and help with your ability in the bottom half of the squat. Adding pauses are a great way to increase the time under tension, and maintain the contraction, which will aid in building strength and muscle mass.
I have given you the tools to build a better squat, so go push some heavy weight and reap the multitude of benefits in the process!
So, you just spring off the bench with a feeling of immense excitement. Today, your workout centered on the bench press. You are super excited, as you should be. For the first time since you began weight training you finally were able to fully execute a repetition with 225 pounds. This is a major milestone. Anyone who has ever lifted a weight (from the strongest power lifters and most elite athletes, to the soccer dads who relieve their work and family stress at the gym) knows the feeling of exhilaration that accompanies finally joining the 225-pound bench press club! You launch yourself off the bench feeling like you were the first man to set foot on the moon, except you just placed your flag on planet bench press. Do not let anyone fool you; what Neil Armstrong did pales in comparison to your most recent accomplishment. Your jubilation leads you to approach your freakishly strong gym partner who for the first time ever, benched 405 pounds. Basking in your achievements you both raise your arms to give each other a high-five. However, there is only one problem. You both shout in pain as you receive an excruciating sensation that shoots right to your shoulder. For the next several weeks you do not bench. Then, you get back at it, but after a few weeks the problems persist again. You continue this on and off cycle until one day you wake up at age 50 and have two torn labrums, much like my poor father. Well, Dr. Brady Blaszka and I are here to help you break this vicious cycle and lead you to a safer bench press, with reduced shoulder pain.
Essentially, the main goal here is to show you how to alleviate common pains associated with overhead activities, and also cue you to perform such activities in a way that can help you avoid pain in the first place. There are several ways to do this. Firstly, we will show you how to activate your shoulder stabilizers. Targeting the musculature of your scapular region can go a long way in improving your posture and lessening the tension placed on your acromioclavicular (AC) joint, and prevent severe injuries to your labrum and rotator cuff. From there, we will give you some cues that you can pay attention to when completing overhead movements with both dumbbells and barbells. These cues include grip, hand positioning, and the pathway of your elbows throughout flexion (eccentric or negative portion of the movement) and extension (the concentric or pressing portion of the movement).
Activating and Strengthening Your Shoulder Stabilizers
Shoulder and neck pain are some of the most common complaints of the overhead athlete, desk jockey and weight lifter. Research has shown a correlation between the importance of scapular muscles on shoulder and neck pain, in addition to dysfunction. A stable, functionally mobile shoulder blade can help improved posture along with shoulder and neck pain.
Three exercises that can active and strengthen your shoulder stabilizers along with strengthening the musculature surrounding your scapula are I's, T's and Y's. These exercises target shoulder flexion, horizontal abduction and extension. They help activate the shoulder stabilizers and are a good starting point for pain in the neck or front of the shoulder. In addition, the augmentations they provide to the strength of the muscles surrounding your scapula are key in improving posture and avoiding pain to areas such as the acromioclavicular (AC) joint. As always, be sure to consult your local physical therapist should pain worsen or persist!
Proper Hand Positioning and Grip to Ensure Shoulder Health
Now that you have some specific ways to alleviate and prevent pain through a variety of exercises, it is time to discuss your grip and finding the appropriate width and techniques to promote shoulder health. Firstly, the further apart your hands are the more strain is put on your shoulders. We will get to this next notion, but essentially a wide grip does not allow you keep your elbows tight to your lats, and makes it a necessity to drop your elbows below parallel to your shoulders in order to complete the full range of motion in flexion (also known as bringing the bar to your chest). While you do not want to have your grip become too close as it will turn into more of a triceps centered movement, you should seek to bring your hands in to a moderate distance. A good cue that I often use is to place your index fingers around the rings in the bar. Doing so will put you in a good position to allow your elbows to follow a proper path, but it will also allow you to generate necessary torque. Torque is the idea of grabbing the bar and rotating your right had in a clockwise direction and your left hand in a counterclockwise direction. Yes, you cannot rotate your hands and properly hold on to the bar, so a good cue to use here would be to pretend as if you are trying to “break the bar.” To do so you would need to rotate your hands in the aforementioned directions. Generating torque in such a manner will force your shoulders to externally rotate. In addition to ensuring shoulder health by preventing internal rotation, creating torque will also add power to your bench-press or overhead press. Would you look at that! I said I would help with your shoulder health and here I am providing you a way to better your actual bench-press and overhead press performance. I am just way too nice!
Creating The Proper Pathway For Your Elbows
One of the most common ways to put undue stress on your shoulder and neck while doing overhead or pressing movements is to improperly track your elbows throughout the duration of the range of motion. Previously I had given a much more basic explanation of how a wide grip will lead you to drop your elbows down past your shoulders in order to achieve the full and necessary range of motion. More specifically, driving your elbows out and away from your lats in the eccentric (negative) portion of the lift will almost guarantee that you will not be able to generate proper amounts of torque. As I mentioned in the previous section, not generating torque prior to the onset of the lift will leave you extremely susceptible to shoulder injuries. Think of your body as a giant circular train track. Now, in case of emergencies this big track has deviations where the train can leave the circle and take an alternate route. Based on common sense you would know that if the train takes an alternate route there must be a problem with the traditional pathway. Your body is a very smart machine that will never let you perform a movement in an unstable fashion. Basically what this means is if you do not generate torque properly your body will seek alternate ways or routes (think of the train analogy) to achieve stability. While doing so will allow you to perform movements you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, it is not efficient and will lead to problems down the road. The alternate route you take when not generating necessary torque is to internally rotate your shoulders and place immense stress on your AC joint. I will reiterate that you cannot create torque if your elbows flare out. So, your shoulders will internally rotate as a result you are heading towards major injury. Couple the cues from the previous section on how to create torque with tracking your elbows close to your lats and you will immediately be in a much safer and traditional position.
Now you have some common cues to help you achieve a much safer bench press and overhead press movement, along with some simple and effective ways to deal with the pains associated with performing the movements incorrectly. Take these tips and ensure that next time you accomplish a personal best with a pressing or overhead movement you are doing so with healthy and efficient shoulder and neck musculature.
Now Go lift and press some heavy weight and leave your shoulder and neck pain behind!
The deadlift is one of the most popular and demanding compound movements in the world of strength training. Ask anyone who has ever grinded out a new personal record or an intense and heavy high repetition set of deadlifts, and they will surely tell you it is a grueling full body workout. Well, here I am with my five favorite ways to augment your deadlift, and build more stability and strength throughout the key muscle groups that play a pivotal role in maintaining proper form throughout the entire range of motion. What I just said is very important. Yes, I am here to help you develop a deadlift that is the equivalent of picking up your eco friendly buddy’s Fiat when he insists he can drive in a foot of snow in mid January. A powerful deadlift is obviously a goal for many lifters and athletes. However, even more important than this is that these accessories will help you maintain a neutral spine throughout the full range of motion, and help you avoid the back injuries many people suffer due to poor form and positioning. Now, get ready to read and implement these accessories into your program before you head in for another battle with the barbell!
Bent Over Barbell Row
As I have mentioned in my previous article about building a better bench press, the latissimus dorsi (more commonly known as the lats), are also a significant factor in the deadlift as well. Properly engaging your lats before you even attempt to pick the bar up off the ground is key in not only aiding your power, but also giving you the ability to maintain a neutral spine. Engaging your lats helps transition torque created from your grip on the bar and externally rotating your shoulders down the remainder of the kinetic chain. Obviously torque is important (we will get to this in future articles), and getting bigger and stronger lats can go a long way in helping create torque while also protecting your spine. Now, if you have ever seen a barbell row performed in a bodybuilding sense this is a bit different. I have found that staying a bit more upright better mimics the movement of the deadlift. Essentially, I will hip hinge, getting my spine into a neutral position, and then perform the row. I have found this to be effective because the lats are often lost once the bar moves past the knees in the deadlift. So, performing the bent over row in a similar position and moving the bar in a range of motion that tracks your thighs helps place emphasis on engaging the lats throughout this portion of the lift.
Stiff Leg Deadlifts or Romanian Deadlifts
Firstly, I honestly have not found one official name to refer to these. Half of people know them as stiff leg deadlifts, and the other half know them as Romanian Deadlifts. When I write my usual programs I usually include both names so my athletes do not give me a blank stare of complete and utter confusion. Side note, my goal is to try and get that look as few times as possible. I will keep you all updated on how that is working out for me. Anyway, I digress. Performing Stiff Leg or Romanian Deadlifts are a great accessory to target the hamstrings, which are a primary agonist muscle during the deadlift. Basically, this means it is one of the main muscles to contract during the movement. Grab a barbell and with stiff legs, hip hinge with a neutral spine and lower the bar a little past your knee cap until you feel a great stretch in your hamstrings. One piece of advice I will give with this is that if you have never done them before, please use a lighter weight. I do not want you to compromise the position of your spine because without flexion in your knees it will be much harder to maintain a neutral spine position.
Face Pulls/Band Pull Aparts
Let me tell you this from experience. You could get your spine into a neutral position, and master proper torque creating techniques, but as you approach much heavier poundage in the deadlift it is very difficult to not round your upper back. You will probably be able to maintain a neutral position in your thoracic and lumbar spine (mid and lower back), but more often than not, the upper areas of your thoracic cervical spine (upper back) will be the hardest to maintain. This is caused by a lack of muscular strength and endurance in the scapular area, in particular the supraspinatus, rhomboid, and scapulae musculature. The average lifter avidly targets and grows their chest, and thus creates and imbalance between their chest and upper back strength, in addition to tightening their chest to a point where they ruin their posture. Face pulls and horizontal abduction (band pull aparts) are a great way to not only increase the strength and endurance of this musculature, but to also improve posture. For even better results, implement an isometric hold (a hold upon completion of the contraction and before you begin the eccentric portion of the movement).
Here again is another exercise that targets an important aspect of the deadlift. As I mentioned in my article for bench-pressing, sometimes the hardest part of a movement is the lock out. Many lifters can move through the first three quarters of the movement effectively, but get stuck at the top. For the deadlift, the glutes are key in achieving an effective lock out. Basically, position your upper back on a bench at a level right below your scapula. Place either a dumbbell on your pelvic area or use a barbell. Perform a basic bridge and be sure to squeeze your glutes and properly engage them at the top of the movement. You will not be sorry!
Last but not least, I give you a way to improve your drive off the floor if you struggle with that particular part of the movement. Perform a deadlift in the way you usually would, but stand on a slightly elevated surface (such as placing one or two plates under your feet). This will increase the range of motion in the movement and ensure that you create the necessary torque to drive the weight off the floor. By making the range of motion greater and thus the lift more difficult, you will increase your ability to improve any problems you have getting the barbell off the floor when you perform the deadlift conventionally.
Go get stronger and build a better deadlift!
In today’s world of strength training and fitness the forearms are quickly becoming forgotten and neglected. Many athletes and weight lifters focus purely on increasing the mass and overall definition of their biceps and upper arms, but seldom do they increase the size, and most importantly strengthen their forearms. Forearm and grip strength can be beneficial to a wide range of lifters. From athletes, to combat fighters, to power lifters and yes, even bodybuilders.
First and foremost, the most important thing to remember is that you cannot lift what you cannot grip or hold, no matter how strong you are. You could have the strongest lower back and hamstrings the world has ever seen, but you most certainly will not handle extreme poundage in the deadlift if your grip strength is not up to par. For power lifters and bodybuilders this fact is key to their success. For power lifters it is obvious. To be able to compete at a high level and increase your compound lifts to record breaking numbers you need animal like grip strength. If you cannot handle the bar, you cannot handle the awe inspiring weight I am sure you are trying to lift. On the other hand, this also applies to bodybuilders. How do you get bigger? How do you increase your mass and capture desired gains in hypertrophy? Time and time again this has been proven to be simple. YOU NEED TO LIFT HEAVY. So, I will reiterate. How can you possibly handle the necessary loads and volumes to trigger growth if you cannot properly grip the weight? The answer to that is simple, you cannot!
In addition to power lifters and body builders, athletes and combat fighters (from mixed martial arts, to wrestling etc.) can reap multiple benefits from focusing on their grip and forearm strength. The first benefit is obvious, and is the same one, which applies to power lifters and bodybuilders: being able to handle heavy weights in your training. With that being said, athletes and combat fighters can reap a multitude of other advantages. Football players can have unearthly grip strength and rid of annoying blockers, make jersey grabbing tackles, and make great improvements with their catching ability. Baseball players can increase their arm health by strengthening all the musculature that surrounds their ulterior collateral ligament (the ligament that when torn requires the dreaded Tommy John surgery). These are just a couple examples of athletes that can benefit from working on their grip and forearm strength. Lastly, grip strength can mean the difference in which fighter has the literal upper hand in a bout. Taking hold of an opponent with mammoth grip strength is a key to success and just downright intimidating.
With all this being said, here are five surefire exercises to help not only improve grip strength, but also build massive thigh sized forearms.
Thick Bar Lifting
Yes, this is one of the five surefire exercises to build your forearms grip strength. It is not so much an exercise, but it is something to incorporate into your everyday training. Thick bar lifting not only immediately works your forearms, but it requires extreme levels of grip strength. A standard barbell has a diameter of 1-¼ inches. Lifting with a bar that has a 2 or 3-inch diameter will immediately test your grip. Be aware though and do not be prideful. It takes months and even years to develop well founded grip strength. Use less weight than you usually do and slowly work yourself back up to the weights you would normally use. There is no better way to ignite the “life or death” tension in your grip and spark your central nervous system than by using thick handled barbells and dumbbells. Now, apply this theory to the following exercises that include dumbbells and barbells and you will be well on your way.
Some of the strongest men of all time could deadlift incredible weights with just one or two fingers. Their thumb coupled with their index and middle finger almost created a claw like grip. The number one way to achieve this is by way of pinch gripping. Grab a flat plate (heavy enough to challenge you) without a lip on it that can be grabbed, and hold it down by your side only with your thumb and finger tips. Maintain this hold for as long as possible for multiple sets, and obviously as time goes on be sure to increase the time under tension and the weight of the plates.
Heavy Wrist Curls
I am sure anyone who has ever been to the gym has seen someone off in the corner pumping out loads and loads of low weight and high repetition based wrist curls. If you would like to have some nice definition on your forearms and pop some veins out that will impress all the girls at your beach during the summer, then by all means go right ahead. But, if you are looking to turn your wrist ligaments into steel cables and have bicep thick forearms then ditch the lightweight and go heavy. Like I said, get yourself a pair of 2 or 3-inch fat gripz and really turn it up a notch. Find a weight that allows you to do two or three HARD wrist curls and watch your forearms explode and your wrists strengthen.
Another great way to build forearms that can withstand the tension of heavy lifting is to religiously practice power holds. Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells or a barbell (again, use thick bars if you can), and grab hold of them and do not let go until your fingers literally give out and drop the bar involuntarily. When using barbells be sure to not have the bar resting against your thighs, as you want the entirety of the tension to be left solely on your forearms. Perform multiple sets, and seek to increase your time of the holds and weight as you build your strength.
Heavy Hammer Curls
Hammer curls have always been a true mass gainer for the biceps. But, they can also hit your forearms hard. Especially when you go heavy and use thick grips (this seems like a recurring trend doesn’t it). Grab a dumbbell in neutral position (hands facing top to bottom) and pump out a few sets of heavy, low rep hammer curls.
I could give you every secret there is, but the most important attributes you will need for progress here are patience and hard work. Your forearms will not grow overnight and you’re not going to be able to palm medicine balls after one week. Dedication over and over again for months and years at a time will bread results. Lastly, I cannot overstate this enough. GO HEAVY and GO HARD. Heavy weights and exhausting training of your forearms and grip will be the most effective way to steadily see results.
Ok, so you just sat down to read this article. Let us just say that while I am not sure what the duration of the time will be for you to read it, I am definitely sure that while you do I will be known as the “calf saver.” I may not be the hero you want, but I am the one you deserve. You deserve to have nice calves. All the shorts you have stock piled in the back of your closet also deserve to see the light of day. Well, have no fear. I am here to make you comfortable enough to wear shorts to the gym again. All of the dreams you have ever had about having respectable calves may finally be ready to come true. So take out your ankle socks, retire your old gym sweatpants and get ready for me to unlock the door to the room that is effective calf training.
Firstly, let’s just get the gigantic two-ton elephant out of the room before I even say anything else. Yes, I am aware that one of the most important variables when it comes to calf development is directly related to your genetic make-up. So, if you are reading this and have enviable calves, go hug your father and let him know you are very grateful. In addition, for those of you reading this who know me personally, I am sure you are thinking, “oh, easy for him to say. He can’t even roll a pair of long baseball socks up past his mid leg because he is genetically gifted and has calves that even a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby would envy.” Sure, I have that oh so important variable that is a great genetic make-up, but that doesn’t mean that I do not know a great way to train your calves and maximize their growth potential for whatever your genetic make-up may be. As a disclaimer, I have trained my calves in the following manner ever since I first picked up a weight back when I was fourteen. To achieve desirable calves you must understand three concepts. If you can learn to work with the specific muscle fibers of the multitude of muscle groups throughout the body, appropriately apply the ideal repetition and set schemes as a result, and utilize the indispensable idea of time under tension then you will be well on your way to maximizing your calf potential.
Type IIa and Type IIb muscle fibers
If you have ever heard someone refer to another person as “fast-twitch” or “slow-twitch,” you have already unknowingly begun to crack the code that is muscle fiber composition. Basically, your genetic make-up also controls which muscle fibers predominantly appear throughout your body. Fast-twitch people are those who are made up of Type IIa and Type IIb fibers, and thus they are usually fast, explosive, and develop mass and strength at an easier rate. However, the “slow twitch” types are made up of more Type I fibers, and as a result they do better with aerobic type conditioning. Although less explosive, these people often have a higher ceiling for their working capacity. With this being said, both types of people have Type IIa and Type IIb fibers in their muscles. Each muscle group differs in which types are more pertinent, and thus how you train each group also differs. Type IIa fibers show better growth and development from training that includes more sets of low repetitions and heavy weight, while Type IIb fibers respond better to higher repetitions at a weight more conducive to such a workload. Guess what? Training your calves heavy will accomplish next to nothing if you desire to augment their size! This is due to the fact that your soleus muscle (fancy name for one of the actual muscles that makes up your calves) is made up of mostly Type IIb fibers. So, to conclude this first notion, you must understand and accept the fiber composition of the muscle you are aiming to train.
So, I just explained how important it is to understand the composition of your fibers. But, at this point I’m sure that you are dying to have some practical information to apply to your calf training, and look no further. Here is the part of the article where I give you the code to the door, now you just have to open it. Also, a bit of a disclaimer here, but I thought I should mention that I could tell you these things until I’m blue in the face, but it will not mean ANYTHING if you do not apply them and religiously put the necessary effort in at the gym. Warning, this is a bit of a tangent but this definitely needs to be said. Training your calves once a month is worthless. The ONLY way to achieve results is volume and months and months of work. Please do not read this and then go work out your calves three times next week, stop, and then complain that I have no idea what I am talking about. That one is on you my friend. Now that’s over and I can actually give you some applicable information. As I said before, your calves are made up of predominantly Type IIb muscle fibers. THIS MEANS YOU NEED TO EMPHASIZE HIGH REP TRAINING TO ACHIEVE DESIRED RESULTS. So, chose a couple of different exercises (standing calf raises, seated calf raises etc.) and lock yourself into 3-5 sets of 15-25 repetitions. You need this amount of volume to activate and recruit these fibers and coax them to grow. So, turn up the volume and go build your calves.
Utilizing Time Under Tension
Consider this the bonus section of the article. I definitely did not have to include this golden nugget of information but I am a nice guy so here you go. Think of Time Under Tension as the extra five-point question on a test in school. Sure, you don’t need those five points, but you sure as hell could use them at the end of the semester when you’re a fraction of a point away from a B and your professor will not budge. Consider your calves to be that annoying professor. They will not budge unless you do the necessary work. Implementing high repetition training will surely target the fibers that make up your soleus muscle. But, there is more. If you read my last article you will remember the brief time I spent talking about time under tension. Time Under Tension is a very interesting topic. Basically, you can track the amount of volume in a given set of an exercise in a workout based on calculating the Time Under Tension. This time is more simply known as how long a muscle spends in a contracted state, or a state where it is under strain and continuously working. In addition to needing high rep training to grow, Type IIb muscle fibers also benefit from longer periods of contraction. This can be done by holding out the calf raise at the top of the movement, or like you will see in my video post today, driving for more of a contraction after the initial contraction is achieved. I promise you, apply the science behind time under tension to your high rep training and when it comes to Type IIb fibers you will be a better recruiter than Nick Saban.
I have given you the valuable information on how to grow your calves, now go and use it. Work hard, have patience and above all else TRACK YOUR PROGRESS. Tracking your increases in loads, volume, and frequency brings on a proper training effect. Have a purpose, go work your ass off, and build calves you can be proud of!
Have you ever walked into a gym and saw someone pushing out 315 pounds on the bench press and thought to yourself “man, I wish there was some way I could do that.” You admired the ease and the fluidity of the motion, but then thought that there was never a way you could build your bench press up to the same level no matter what you did. Today, I am here to give you some tools that if used properly and couple with determination and hard work, could have you on your way to making tremendous strides with your bench press.
In today’s day and age the bench press is one of the most highly regarded and sought after lifts in many platforms. The National Football League swears by it. In fact, the number of reps a player can pump out at 225 pounds could either launch them into the first round, or leave them mired in middle round mediocrity. Every basic bro that has ever stepped foot in a gym has had dreams of joining the 225-pound club with their bench press. With so much focus numbers and not enough on strategy, many lifters have ignored accessory lifts that can assist your bench and take it to the next level. Incorporate these movements into your workouts and I can assure you that you will see significant improvements with your bench press.
Close Grip Bench Press
If you have ever seen someone fail at a new bench press PR, or even get stuck on the last rep of set, you can almost guarantee that they got stuck at the top part of the movement, otherwise known as the lockout. That is, they can get the bar off their chest, but driving it that last third of the way into a lockout is too challenging for them to complete. A major cause of this could be a lack of focus on the triceps. The triceps play a pivotal role in helping you drive the bar the last third of the way up, and can be extremely significant when going for a new PR. One way to improve the strength and endurance in your triceps would be the close grip bench. Placing your hands closer together on the bar in comparison to your grip on your standard bench allows for you to take a good amount of the stress off your chest and overload your triceps, thus targeting them and getting them stronger.
Another important facet of the bench press is your back, and more specifically your latissimus dorsi (more commonly referred to as “lats”). If you are performing the bench press correctly (this will be addressed in another article), then you should be engaging your lats and almost be performing a “lat pull down” type movement when gripping the bar. One of the key power components of the bench press comes from driving your lats down into the bench during your lift, and engaging them so they can power you throughout the full entirety of the motion. The inverted row is one effective way to address strength building in your lats.
Find a power rack and adjust the pegs to a height that will allow you to place the barbell high enough so that you can hang from under it and perform a pull-up without your back ever touching the ground. Now, perform inverted rows and really target your back and lats. If this movement is too easy there are multiple ways to increase the difficulty. Slow your tempo down to increase your time under tension (otherwise known as the amount of time your muscles are contracted during the duration of a repetition). Studies have shown that increased time under tension directly correlates to mass and hypertrophy gains. In addition, you can grab a weighted vest from your local sporting goods store if your bodyweight simply isn’t challenging enough.
Dumbbell Bench Pressing
One of the biggest problems many lifters have with the barbell bench press is that there is an imbalance between their right and left sides. Meaning, that they could be stronger with their dominant hand, and since the barbell bench press is a bilateral exercise the weaker side can be masked by the stronger and more dominant side, which will mean the former will never properly develop.
With this being said, dumbbell bench pressing can be extremely beneficial since it isolates both side of the chest and can make sure that if there is an existing imbalance it will eventually be minute. Flat dumbbell benching is obviously ideal, but incline benching can be helpful in better engaging the shoulders, which you will see are very important when I discuss overhead pressing.
Abdominal Roll Outs
Please do not think I am some bitter, fat storing endomorph that resents abs. A shredded core is awesome, purely for the aesthetics alone. But, if we are speaking about functionality, a shredded core is sometimes very superficial. I say this because visible abs are the result of body composition and dieting, not a strong and stable core. With this being said, core exercises that incorporate bracing are extremely important.
As many of you know, the art of breathing during compound lifts is extremely important. This is especially true during the bench press. The body is one big kinetic chain from the shoulders across the body down to the hips. Thus, a strong and stable core is incredibly important if you wish to efficiently transfer energy across this kinetic chain and maximize your body during the lift. During the bench press, a strong and properly stabilized core will allow you to get much more out of your body as you will drive your back and lats into the bench which will help you create more drive. As a result of this, abdominal rollouts are a perfect way to increase and augment core strength while practicing the art of core stabilization and bracing. So, go ahead. Grab a pair of rollers, get on your knees, breath and stabilize, and roll your way to a stronger and more effective core.
I have listed this last mostly because it is one of, if not the most important thing you can do to make improvements to your bench press. Thus, I want it to be the last thing you read before you get up and down three scoops of pre workout and get to the gym.
Overhead pressing has become a lost art in the world of strength training. Many lifters feel that pumping out tons of front and side raises gets them the ideal shoulder definition they want. Firstly, let me say this. Oh, and by the way I am going to preface this by saying that the basis for this claim is from first hand experience. If you desire rounded and well developed anterior deltoids (these give you those “boulder” type shoulders), then let me tell you that no number of raises will be more effective in achieving this more than good old fashioned heavy overhead pressing. Like I said, this is from first hand experience. Over the last six months I have made overhead pressing a staple of my shoulder training. The results I have noticed in my shoulder size and development have been astounding. Go ahead, and give it a try.
Now that I have addressed the topic of aesthetics and your fear of hampering that aspect of your training, I can move on to the actual bench press related developments of overhead pressing. Go on Google and look up some of the best strongmen of all time. Hell, look at the ones prior to the mid 1960’s when steroids started to permeate the land of training. Anyone who had a dominant bench press almost certainly had an equally dominant overhead press. The overhead press allows you to develop the shoulders without being able to drive your back into the bench to assist your drive. So, grab some dumbbells or a barbell, stand up, and press your way to a better bench.
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.