Time for a Training Tune-Up
(Source: Bev Childress Creative)
If you own a car, you know that to get the most out of it, you need to fill it up with quality fuel, be careful not to abuse it, and keep it looking good. You also know that you have to keep up on the maintenance. Not just routine stuff, but also a full tune-up every now and again, where you replace hoses, flush fluids, and adjust brakes and suspension for improved performance.
Why wouldn’t you do the same regarding your training?
Eat right? Check. Train consistently? Check. Get proper rest and recovery? Check and check. But what about dissecting your training making sure everything is working as it should? Just like your vehicle, your body may not be taking full advantage of what you are trying to accomplish each day. You go to the gym and train like a beast, but what if you could do better? Optimization is the key, here. Practice doesn’t make perfect—perfect practice does.
Below are a few fixes for your training you may have overlooked. Chances are, you’ll find a few on here you’re guilty of. The fixes I provide aren’t miracles, but they will help you optimize your training to be more effective in the long run. All that is required of you is to be honest with yourself, swallow a little pride, and tune up that engine the right way.
Rebuild Your Bench Press
The biggest ego lift of all time is also one of the most abused. Bent and bowed backs, butts in the air, and ugly reps dominate the gym floor on any given Monday. Yet results seem to be few and far between. If strength and size are the goals, then learn to set your ego aside and do it right.
The Fix: Lie on the bench in a five-point contact posture: your head, upper back, and butt on the bench, and both of your feet firmly flat on the floor. Without lifting your butt up, arch your lower back slightly and drive your shoulders down to the floor and toward your waist. Keep your chest high at all times and drive your feet into the ground for stability while you try to break the bar during the lift.
Find the Bottom Half of Your Squat
You’ve seen it, you scoff at it, but let’s be honest, you’ve probably practiced it too. Half-squats are as common in any gym as sweaty towels. Is it fear? Is it ego? Maybe it’s a little of both. Virtually anyone can perform a full range squat with their bodyweight but, for some reason, once you put weight on the bar, they wade in the shallow end. This isn’t doing you any good.
The Fix: I can talk about the mechanics of the squat all day, but the real culprits are mobility and ego. First, ditch your ego and start squatting with just the bar until you can do it right. Next, increase hip, hamstring, and calf mobility by stretching. Get comfortable in the bottom position of the squat and don’t add a single pound to the bar until you have perfected a full range of motion.
Bend All the Way Over
The bent-over row is a very technical move for developing back strength, size and thickness, but so many people screw it up and perform it like an upright row. Their upper bodies are well beyond 45 degrees, and they “bump” the weight up in small, quick jerks.
The Fix: Treat the barbell bent-over row as the name implies. First of all, lighten the load on the bar. Next, step up on a riser or a weight plate or two for a better range of motion. Bend over only at the hips with a straight back until your torso is completely parallel with the floor. Tighten your core and lift the bar to your lower abdominal area while maintaining that parallel position.
Blast Your Tiny Calves
Calves. Either you have them or you don’t, right? Many gym-goers just chalk it up to genetics and don’t even bother with another calf raise in their lives. Yes, genetics does play a role in overall muscular development, but why surrender that easily? Why not work with what you have and get just a little better each day?
The Fix: First, perform any straight-leg calf exercise with locked knees. This will ensure you’re targeting the calves without involving your quads. Next, train your calves with 4-8 quality sets, every other day. Do this for a solid three months, and you’ll be surprised at what you can do with bad genetics.
Raise Your Plates
The dumbbell side lateral raise is one of the most abused exercises known to man. People look like dying moths, as they throw the weight up and out haphazardly without any rhyme or reason. The side lateral raise targets a rather vulnerable joint, so it would behoove you to do it right to avoid injury.
The Fix: Ditch the dumbbells and grab a pair of weight plates—start with the ten-pound variety if you have to. The plate will introduce a stability challenge that will make your deltoids work harder, and will also challenge your grip. With the slightest bend in your elbow, raise the plates from your sides straight up to shoulder level where the plate is parallel with the floor. Slowly and under control, lower the plates back down to your sides.
Your Legs Deserve Better
The leg press is another horribly abused machine. Yes, most squat variations are superior in overall muscular development, stability, and functionality, but if you find you are one who needs the leg press as an alternative, then let’s take a look at a few things. There are two camps of transgressors on the leg press: Those that use a too shallow range of motion, and those who lower the sled too far down and round their backs. There is a simple remedy for both groups, but it may take an observer to help out.
The Fix: As you lower the weight, have your observer keep an eye on your pelvis. Once your butt starts to rise off of the pad, stop the descent and press the weight back up. Avoid any pelvic tilt as you lower the sled. This puts tremendous strain on the lower back, as it has to straighten out under all that weight. Believe it or not, there is such thing as too much range of motion on the leg press.
Ditch the Box for RDLs
The Romanian deadlift is an effective posterior chain builder. It works almost every muscle in the body directly or indirectly. It’s common to see someone stand on a box or riser as they perform these with rounded backs and locked legs. This is not only ineffective, but also dangerous.
The Fix: Ditch the box. Once you perform RDLs correctly, you will find your range of motion will be considerably shortened. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead, and an overhand grip on the bar. Bend your knees slightly and lock them into that position. Next, hinge at your hips only, not your lower back. You should feel a stretch in your glutes and hamstrings. The bar should reach around your mid-shin level—any lower, and you are almost certainly rounding your back.
Stop Overtraining Biceps
The principle of specificity states that you should train specifically for what you are trying to accomplish. So, if you want bigger biceps, train the crap out of them, right? Well, if that were true everyone would be walking around with mountain peaks for upper arms. But why isn’t this true? One word: overtraining. Too many sets, and too much weight.
The Fix: To get bigger arms, think bigger. Focus on more rows and pull ups in your program, and look to perform biceps work only as finishers. If you put more emphasis on increasing strength on bent-over barbell rows, T-bar rows, and all types of pull ups, your biceps will have no choice but to grow. When training biceps specifically, keep it simple. Go with barbell curls or dumbbell curls for just a handful of sets, and increase strength there as well.
Press All the Way
Gym-bro shoulder presses are a lot like their squats. They lower the weight just a few inches, and arch their backs, turning it into an incline bench press. Two things wrong with that. One, the shoulders have a massive amount of range, and you should be training all of it. Second, leaning back on a standing shoulder press is a great way to destroy your lower back. You need to handle the appropriate amount of weight with control.
The Fix: The no-brainer solution is to lighten your load and use a full range of motion. This includes (for seated dumbbell press) being in an upright position, lowering the weight until the bells touch your shoulders, and then pressing back up to just short of lockout. Another quick trick is to pre-exhaust your deltoids by performing all sets for your medial and posterior heads before finishing with presses.
Do a Real Pull Up
A properly executed pull up is a beautiful thing, but few actually practice them correctly. In fact, very few are ever performed in the average commercial gym. Pull-down machines, counterbalance-assisted pull up machines, and other apparatuses have become preferred alternatives.
The Fix: The easiest way to welcome more pull ups in your life is to take a two-pronged approach. First, perform them every day. One set done any time of day will be sufficient, in addition to your normal training schedule. Second, choose a number (start with a low number if you can only manage a few reps). Let’s say you start with 10. Perform as many sets as it takes to get to that total. If it takes 10 sets of one, then so be it.
Tune Up to Get More From Your Training
Like a fine-tuned engine, you can make tweaks and adjustments to any exercise to get the most out of it. The key is to take a good, honest look at what you are currently doing and make real, ego-swallowing changes, so you can get more out of every exercise and workout. Take care of your machine and it will take care of you.
Think you need a complicated program to get a good workout? Think again: