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Start Small To Lift Big: How To Master 4 Fundamental Exercises

It’s easy to look at complex movements like dribbling a soccer ball, throwing a baseball, or handling a hockey puck and see how that took years to perfect. Athletes rehearse these movements endlessly, stick to the fundamentals, and trust that practice will improve execution in game situations. One day it finally does, but this happens over time, not overnight.

The same theory should apply to weight training. In a perfect world, we would all practice and progress safely, building the type of strength that allows us to handle heavy loads without injuries or negative compensation patterns.

Nevertheless, there’s almost always a look of befuddlement on a trainee’s face when I explain that they must first build a foundation with basic exercises. They simply don’t believe the basics will increase their arm size, build chiseled abs, or sculpt jean-busting legs. They want quick results from extreme plans like they see on television.

It sounds simple, I’ll admit, but my formula for success is this: commit to long-term training goals, and get the most out of the staple lifts like the push-up, dumbbell row, squat, and deadlift. These four are probably the most common exercises within weight training circles, and they’re included in nearly all of the programs you’ll see on this site.

Believe it or not, these exercises are enough to put you on the road to physique of your dreams, if you do them right. However, despite their popularity, they’re very technical movements that can be easy to butcher.

It’s easy to attribute technique flaws to a lack of mobility, but here’s what that excuse overlooks: Most exercises are corrective in nature and relatively easy to master, provided you take the time to progress through them and learn them properly.

Let’s go upstream and solve these problems before they start! Here’s what I see going wrong with the way most people perform the four fundamental lifts, and how you can perform them to get the most bang for your buck in the gym.

Exercise 1

Many push-up issues start when people focus on what muscle groups the push-up “works.” If you’re thinking all about chest, arms, and shoulders, you’ll forget to keep the rest of the body tense and stable. This should be a full-body lift!

Make sure your hips and shoulders are lined up your arms and are in the best position to develop true pressing strength. This will help you build the most force at the bottom push-up position.

Push-Up Fixes
Watch The Video – 02:06

Push-up coaching points
  • Squeeze your glutes and abs to lock your hips to your core.
  • Keep your arm tight to the armpits.
  • Hit the ground with your chest before your head.

Exercise 2

Most issues dumbbell rows happen when the spine is held in a flexed and rounded-back position, rather than a neutral position. Improper spine positioning causes the shoulder blade to move up instead of down when the upper back is rounded, which forces the upper traps to work instead of the lats.

Focus on keeping a long, tight spine during the movement, and you should feel the burn directly below your shoulder blade, into to your tailbone, and through the lats.

Breaking Down The Dumbbell Row
Watch The Video – 02:17

Dumbbell row coaching points
  • Take a wider stance than you think you need.
  • Keep the spine long and straight with the chest up.
  • Let the shoulder blade do the work. The wrist and elbow follow the shoulder.

Exercise 3

Problematic squatters generally fall into two camps: those who are stiff and tight, and those who are mobile but have trouble controlling the movement. I discussed squatting issues before in a power panel with my fellow strength training coaches, but this never-ending battle is always worth discussing.

Squatting is very technical and involves many moving parts. The best plan: Don’t jump into heavy weight too quickly. Start by doing bodyweight reps within your scope of control. Once you add weight, focus on getting comfortable at hitting depth and building a more effective range of motion.

Before you even think of going heavy, ensure that you can control the movement with your heels on the floor, hamstrings resting on your calves, and your torso positioned long and tall.

Squat Fix: Low Mobility
Watch The Video – 05:12

Squat coaching points
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and press evenly throughout.
  • Create force through the hips to drive the movement.
  • Lean the torso forward as your hips move into the rep.
  • Keep the core tense without restricting airflow.
  • Keep the shoulders vertical over the middle of the foot.

Exercise 4

The deadlift is a skill-based movement that takes reps and consistent practice to improve. Most common deadlifting issues derive from the spine doing too much work instead of the hips, which are supposed to drive the movement. The spine should be a rigid lever that transfers force from the legs and hips up through the arms, thereby moving the weight.

Get your core and shoulders tight and keep the spine stiff to assist the movement. The deadlift isn’t easy, but once you perfect your technique, you’d better believe it can be fun to lift a heavy weight off the ground.

Deadlift Tutorial
Watch The Video – 05:23

Deadlift coaching points
  • Keep the spine straight and drive the movement from your hips.
  • Set the bar close to your shins at the start of the movement and keep the shin vertical, without positioning the knee ahead of the bar.
  • Brace your abs, squeeze your arms down tight to your ribs, and stand tall without over-extending at lockout.

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How to fast-track fat loss

How to fast-track fat loss Want to know the key to fat loss? Master trainer Daniel Tramontana shares his tips for guaranteed fat loss.To fast-track coveted progress such as greater fat loss, Tramontana says you need to get back to basics.Cardio is not ‘hardio’With a combination of higher intensity interval training (HIIT), low-intensity steady state (LISS) training, body weight training sessions and a nutritious diet, Tramontana ensures his clients are given the best formula for their body.“My cardiovascular programming is based around a 75/25 split of LISS and HIIT. So based on the available amount of time for a client to add in cardio on top of resistance training would determine the amount of each they conducted,” he says.Here’s what your cardio program could look like:2 hours per week for cardio training = 30 minutes of HIIT over two to three days + 90 minutes of LISS over one to two sessions.Be wary, if HIIT was all you did, you may encounter the downside of too much stress on your body, which can ironically turn HIIT into a fat retention tactic.So what about weight training?“For fat loss, I structure everything around two to three full bodyweight training sessions – two sessions based on linear periodisation macro cycle of 16-to-24 week programming, altered every four to six weeks,” he explains.Translation? A program that begins by incorporating high-volume and low intensity weight training, and progressively moves into phases when the volume decreases and intensity increases.

7 Exercises That You Need To Fix Right Now

We are creatures of habit. We each default to our favorite exercises, those bread and butter lifts from programs we love for as long as they keep bringing results. Familiarity just feels right. It wraps you in a secure blanket of warmth, growth, and gains. Unfortunately, that familiarity begets false confidence in your exercise technique, which could cost you even further gains.

“But, Rock Lock, I’ve improved 10 pounds over the last year!” you cry. That’s sweet. But imagine the results you could net with precise exercise form and practice. Unless you or a training buddy have an acute awareness of form, it’s possible that you may have been missing key form points. Remember that poor form calls out compensatory mechanisms while still building strength, albeit inefficiently.

Don’t fret, young Padawan. Here’s how to fix these seven key movements that you previously thought you owned.

Exercise 1

Squats have helped Mr. Olympias, World’s Strongest Men, and other athletes launch from so-so athletes to epic gladiators. There’s no reason not to reap the benefits of the almighty squat, right? But after weeks of nearly crushing yourself under the bar, your results can still end up lackluster.

Team Cellucor‘s Jen Jewell explains why.

“I see a lot of ‘newbies’ just lower their butt down really quick with their knees wobbling all over the place—over the toes or collapsing inward. I’ve even seen this with bodyweight squats! So, when I instruct new clients or am giving pointers, I tell a client to push her butt back as though she’s going to sit down in a chair. This usually helps her get into better position and keep from hobbling forward so much.

“Additionally, I encourage clients to ‘push the booty way back—as if you’re trying to knock someone out with that thing—lower, go back up, and repeat.’ Even though that might be an exaggeration of breaking at the hip, it helps clients picture it and will typically do the trick!

“I typically see people barely start to lower, call it a rep, and bounce back up. That’s not low enough! That’s not even a proper squat! To benefit from squats, you have go to at least parallel, which is the position at which your hip joint and knee joint are aligned parallel to the ground. This ensures quad burn, but also fires up the hamstrings and glutes as well.”

Squat

Exercise 2

I cringe every time I see someone fling heavy dumbbells as high as they can using their back, and then allow momentum to not only carry the weight up but send it back down with zero control. This makes back and rotator cuff injuries almost inevitable if someone continues on this self-destructive path. Thankfully, that won’t be you!

First of all, when you hold the dumbbells, they should rest at your sides instead of in front of you. This way you will be less inclined to harness a back-initiated swing to begin the exercise. Visualize generating force from only your delts as you lift the weights out to your sides with a slight bend in the elbow. Locking out the elbows places strain on the tendons in that area and can make them susceptible to injury.

To avoid unnecessary shoulder strain, stop the movement when your arms become parallel to the floor. At that point, turn the weights so your pinkies point toward the ceiling and pause for one second before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position in a controlled manner. Use a challenging weight you can control throughout the exercise to ensure you don’t cheat.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Exercise 3

The triceps rope pushdown should primarily activate your triceps and core, but this exercise is blundered and haunted by our old enemy, the lower back-generated swing monster. Time and time again, I watch people use momentum to press down heavy weights. This only hurts your elbows and yields no benefit for those muscles in the back of your arms. Again, slow, controlled movement reigns supreme here.

Take the rope and step away from the cable stack. The extra distance increases tension on the triceps more than standing next to the pulley. Keep your shoulders squared and back, chest out, and glue your elbows to your sides. By keeping your elbows tucked in, you emphasize triceps contraction rather than elbow destruction.

As you press the weight down, focusing on working the triceps muscles, spread the ends of the rope apart, and squeeze the hell out of your triceps. That squeeze and tension stimulates growth in the target area.

Afterward, let the weight slowly come back up. Right before you feel as if your elbows are about to be yanked out of place, stop, and then do another rep. This constant tension will make your triceps scream bloody murder by the end of your set.

Exercise 4

A king of the exercise world, deadlifts could well be the most basic movement—in theory. You pick up the weight, hold it, and put it down. What could go wrong? Everything. There are oh-so many instances where a deadlift can go wrong and make lifters vulnerable to injury.

“Deadlifts are often a mess all the way through,” Jewell says. “I often see people with their shoulders rolled forward and hunched over as they lower the weight. Then they lose control over their body as a whole. Having your shoulders back, lats tight, core activated, and chest up will help eliminate this hunchback stature that I see all too often in the gym!

“I see another problem with neck alignment. At the beginning of the pull, you might be tempted to look down at the weight. This puts your neck out of neutral spinal alignment, which makes you more prone to hunching your shoulders and keeps you from engaging your core. Keep your neck aligned with the rest of your spine at the start and finish of your pull.”

Exercise 5

“Although dumbbell curls are a great exercise, problems rear their ugly heads when they are performed improperly.”

You want perfectly rounded biceps like IFBB Men’s Physique Pro Craig Capurso? He’s going to let you in on the “secret” to winning the arms race.

“Although dumbbell curls are a great exercise, problems rear their ugly heads when they are performed improperly,” Capurso says. “Many people will either pick up a light weight that can be lifted a million times or a weight that’s simply too heavy. Either of these prevents people from ever performing a worthy rep. Many people start the exercise with a shoulder swing followed by a fading elbow. This movement pattern doesn’t actually involve the biceps. It basically makes the exercise one big cheat.

“The goal is to achieve a well-controlled movement that isn’t aided by the aforementioned body swing. You should feel a deep burning sensation in your biceps and a noticeable pump or swell. You should also be able to perform the recommended reps in your program. After four sets of this type of training, you’ll feel fatigued, making it difficult to even bend your arms. That’s good because you are doing it correctly and have picked proper weights.”

To mix things up and really focus on your mind-muscle connection, try hammer curls. “This is when you stand in a neutral position, with your hands at your sides and the palms facing in toward your body,” Craig says. “Notice where your elbow rests in reference to your body and actively think about maintaining this position throughout the exercise. Really think about contracting the muscle groups involved as you bring up the weight. If you feel the heat in your shoulder, elbow, or any other muscle group that shouldn’t be firing, restart the process or perhaps lower the weight.”

Exercise 6

The bench press is an excellent indicator of upper body strength. When performed correctly, it is a money exercise that builds strength, muscle size, and athletic function. Haphazard execution of the bench press can increase the risk of shoulder or pec injuries, but that can usually be rectified by going with lower weight or just doing the damn exercise the right way!

In preparing to pump out your first rep, make sure your shoulder blades are squeezed together. This will protect your shoulders and bring your chest higher so the bar doesn’t travel as far. Next, plant your feet firmly on the floor and get yourself in a stable position. Otherwise you increase the chance of getting hurt. Keep everything tight, including your shoulders and butt.

As you perform the lift, lower the bar to your nipple line and keep it there for a one-second pause. Think about pushing your chest away from the bar rather than pushing the bar away from your chest. Remember to drive your feet into the floor for force production, keeping your butt on the bench, and arching your back to transfer force to the bar. Once you press the weight up, focus on squeezing your pecs as if you were trying to crush a walnut sitting between them.

Bench Press

Exercise 7

Crunches are a perennial favorite and also one of the most poorly performed exercises in the gym. Even if you think you’re a crunch king, you might be doing them wrong and actually jeopardizing your neck health.

The first step to being a crunch master: Don’t cross your arms on your chest or clasp your hands together behind your head. Instead, lightly place your hands on the temples of your noggin and focus on keeping your elbows in line with your shoulders. Don’t bend your neck; the idea isn’t to bang your head against your crotch, but to dig your lower back into the floor and lift your shoulders about 3-4 inches off the floor.

Squeeze your abdominals and forcefully let out a big breath. Slowly drop yourself back to the floor and repeat. Now do 10 reps and let me know the difference this makes. Don’t worry, you can catch your breath—I can wait.

Do you see other poorly performed exercises at your own gym? Sound off in the comments below! Let us know if you have any favorite tips or techniques. Share with the community to help improve everyone’s form—and results!

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Health and fitness talk with Elise Carver

Health and fitness talk with Elise Carver We chat to Elise Carver, owner and sole trainer of Surf Style Training for Little Bantam Health and Fitness to get an insight into her journey so far, her training and nutrition.On the road so farI studied to be a master trainer through the Australian Institute of Fitness about nine years ago and worked part time at a gym in South Yarra with some fantastic mentors who showed me the value of quality training. Shortly after, I began to fall in love with surfing. When I decided to make the shift to Torquay, I was already on my way to changing my body shape to suit surfing and so the Surf Style Training method was born and developed organically. I soon realised the mainstream way of training wasn’t for me and I have now run a successful business out of my own studio for three years.On body typeYour natural body shape is what you make it.

Family And Fitness: How James Grage Combines The Two

When it comes to reasons for missing the gym, family often floats to the top of the list. Think for a moment about the conversations you’ve had with friends or co-workers about fitness. When trying to rationalize why they can’t find the time to train, and recounting all the commitments they have, family tends to play a key role. They might say they don’t want to take quality time away from their spouse or kids to focus on themselves, and that they can’t be that selfish. What they need to know is that focusing on fitness won’t hurt—and will likely even improve—connections with their loved ones.

Need proof? Look no further than James Grage, co-founder of BPI Sports. With a wife, two kids, and an ever-growing business, he can’t be as mono-focused on training as he was in his 20s, but that doesn’t mean he can’t train at all. They key is learning how to strike a balance between training, nutrition, fitness, and the rest of your life. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“I see a lot of people who have similar obligations really struggle when it comes to finding a balance,” says Grage. “They feel like ultimately something suffers. But it doesn’t have to. Fitness isn’t just something we do in our house—it’s our way of life.”

Wanting to devote as much time as possible to your family is admirable, but don’t use it as an excuse to relish in your unhealthy ways. Commit to fitness, get your family involved, and lead by example. Not sure where to start? Follow these Grage-approved steps.

1 Reframe Your Mindset

Before you make any physical changes, you need to change your mindset. If you keep thinking your moves toward a healthier, fitness-focused lifestyle are a burden to your family, you’ll undoubtedly fall off the wagon. No one wants to better themselves at another’s expense—especially not at the expense of loved ones. Remind yourself that that’s not what you’re doing. You’re creating a healthy change for everyone. Get excited. Making healthy habits something fun that everyone can enjoy is crucial to the success and longevity of your new lifestyle. It’s not an obligation; it’s an opportunity.

“Making healthy habits something fun that everyone can enjoy is crucial to the success and longevity of your new lifestyle.”

2 Make Meal Prep Fun

Meal prep doesn’t have to mean hours slaving over a stove and filling up Tupperware by your lonesome. Make meal prep a family affair, and get everyone involved. When you cook meals at home, explain the importance of a balanced diet to your children.

Make sure you have as many healthy options as possible available on hand, and limit the sugary cereals and candy bars that might line your pantry and fridge—for example, trade in those brownie bites for pre-cut celery and peanut butter or air-popped popcorn. This will help you realize that clean eating is a lifestyle choice, not a short-term sacrifice. “My wife and I don’t diet,” says Grage. “That’s just a horrible word that sets people up for failure and makes all of your life-long changes sound like a short-term remedy. Instead, we just eat healthy and take care of ourselves.”

“Make meal prep a family affair, and get everyone involved.”

Even when he’s really dialing in is nutrition for a shoot, James doesn’t resort to dieting. Instead, he just thinks of it as another stage of discipline in his eating. This way, he avoids the all-too-common yo-yo dieting. “Year round I eat well, and even at 40 I’m always no more than 4 weeks out from photo-shoot shape,” Grage explains. “When I’m done with the shoot, I don’t ‘fall off a cliff’ with my program—I just go back to my maintenance plan.”

What helps him maintain his lifestyle? Family support. “The great thing about it is my whole family eats this way,” he says. “My meals don’t isolate me—they bring us all together. This way, I’m also teaching my kids healthy eating habits that last a lifetime. That’s when habits start, when you’re young.”

3 Exercise Together

While you don’t want your children positioning themselves under the squat rack or hanging around the heavy weights, it’s still possible to teach them about the importance of exercise on a regular basis. Grage always finds ways to include the most important people in his life in what he feels is the most important part of his day: his training time.

In addition to being a way to blow off stress and reinvigorate your body, exercise can be a powerful bond between you and your children. It is for James. “My 7-year-old son loves doing jumping jacks and push-ups with me,” he says. “I’ve never forced it on him. He wants to do it because in our house we make fitness fun. That’s the key to making anybody want to do anything. Make it enjoyable.”

“In addition to being a way to blow off stress and reinvigorate your body, exercise can be a powerful bond between you and your children.”

Not sure how to get your children involved? Follow these tips to get them tuned in at any age:

Pre-school: Nothing’s more motivating than your tot cheering you on. Young children can serve as motivational coaches whether you’re pushing them in their stroller around the track, or they’re stretching alongside you during your post-workout cool-down. Don’t be afraid to teach them basic bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, bodyweight squats. Take advantage of any daycare services your gym offers and talk to your little ones about why it’s so important for mom and dad to be in shape. They’ll feel more involved and excited to be a part of your commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

Elementary School: Once your children are a bit older, they’ll be able to take on an even more active role in your fitness journey. Have them run with you for a few minutes or perform a few basic exercises or—if they’re bitten by the fitness bug—consider running sprints. End the day with stretching, deep breathing, and maybe a walk for a few minutes to cool down. Your encouragement and example might even pique their interest in team sports where they’ll learn about fitness, commitment, and sportsmanship.

Middle and High School: If your children are a bit older, consider taking them to the gym with you. Different gyms have different policies, but many allow teenagers to attend if accompanied by a parent. This is an opportunity to work one-on-one with your child and teach them a bit on proper form, setting goals, and possibly incorporating their training into helping them perform better at team sports. Consider setting up a rewards program to help them reach certain goals. The benefits could be greater than you realize—even positively affecting their schoolwork. According to a report by The Institute of Medicine, children who are more active have greater attention span and perform better on standardized testing than their less-active peers.

Perhaps more importantly, these changes will stick with them later on down the road. “My kids may or may not continue a health and fitness lifestyle when they’re older, but they’ll know the difference between good and bad lifestyle choices,” says James. “From there they can choose, but I believe it’ll be an easy choice for them. They don’t feel like they are missing out or deprived. As a family, we still have our indulgences. We’ll go get ice cream on the weekend or order the occasional pizza.

“At the end of the day, when it comes to getting my family excited to go do something physical, I never have to twist their arm or bribe them. They are always ready to do it. That’s the environment that my wife and I have created.”


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About The Author

Bodybuilding is the reason I am who I am today. I am more confident in myself, actually looking for the next challenge, and inspiring others.

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