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Grind To Grow: Try Your Squats And Presses With Kettlebells!

I’ll never forget the first time I squatted with a pair of 32-kg kettlebells on my chest. It felt like an elephant was sitting on me. The pressure in my gut was immense, and I could barely breathe. Afterward, my abs were almost immediately sore. I was shocked, because as a competitive weightlifter I could front squat, butt-to-ankles, more than 400 pounds. But these two 70-pound balls of iron made me feel like I was fighting for my life!

I quickly learned that kettlebells are unjustly overlooked as strength equipment; they are often only favored as endurance tools for high-rep ballistic movements like swings and snatches. They’re equally adept and providing muscular overload on slow, heavy lifts like squats and presses.

Why? It’s simple: Your body knows that to get stronger, as well as to continue burning fat, it must adapt. Heavy kettlebells give it a challenge that is uniquely difficult to overcome. Because of their odd shape, kettlebells actually make the body do more work than traditional implements such as barbells and dumbbells. Sub them out even just for a couple of movements you already do, and you may be surprised at the benefits you receive.

The Toughest Squat You’ve Never Done

The reason the double-kettlebell front squat is so much more challenging than its barbell cousin is due to leverage. Consider the rack position: With a barbell, the load rests near the top of the spine, across the collarbone and the front of the deltoids, just below the head. In this arrangement, the barbell becomes virtually one with the lifter, making it easier to move the external resistance. This allows you to move much more weight.

With a kettlebell, it’s almost the opposite. In the rack, the weight rests low, against the outside of the forearms, with the elbows pointed down rather than out. The bells try to pull your body forward and off-balance, which forces your entire midsection to reflexively contract in order to keep you from folding in half.

If you’ve been lifting—or just reading about lifting—for a few years, you’ve probably heard this same argument used as a reason to do barbell front squats rather than barbell back squats. But the truth is that the simple substitution of two kettlebells—or even just one—for a barbell means your midsection will take even more of a beating. And this has benefits beyond building core strength.

To start with, you’ll become a better squatter. Because the spine is protected due to the increased reflexive core activation from the rack, lifters can usually squat deeper with kettlebells than they would with a barbell. The difference here is one you’ll likely feel on your backside for days after the first time you try it, so consider yourself warned.

Kettlebell Exercises
Watch The Video – 0:44

Grind To Grow

The increased stability demands upon your core musculature during the front squat are also present in other slow kettlebell lifts—or “grinds,” as they’re often called. Look at the double kettlebell military press, for example: The increased demands placed upon your core mean your body has to work harder to stabilize your joints so your prime movers—the lats and delts, in the case of the press—can do their work.

The upshot, as with the front squat, is that you’ll need less weight to make all types of muscles work more efficiently—particularly the crucial stabilizer muscles around the shoulder and other joints. Efficiency, in this case, means they’ll do what they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to do it. To pick one painful example for many lifters, a strong rotator cuff stabilizes your shoulder joint so you can safely bench press. A weak or injured one, on the other hand, keeps you from benching heavy, or from doing it at all.

Double Kettlebell Military Press

I’m also of the opinion that one of the causes of what are commonly called workout “plateaus” are actually stabilizer muscles that are weak or don’t work properly. Faced with a heavy load that might damage the joint, your body intuitively protects itself by shutting down the nerve force to the bigger muscles—the prime movers—that traditionally do the work.

You may have heard similar logic used to tell you why you should train with free weights rather than with machines. Yes, it’s true: Core and joint stabilizer activation happen to a certain extent with any training tool, but both are more intense with a kettlebell, due to the increased muscular activation from the offset handle. Consider them the freest of free weights.

You Only Need One

“Resist the urge to let your stronger side set the pace. Train both sides to be relatively even with each other.”

Want to know what’s even tougher than a double-kettlebell grind? The same movement loaded unilaterally. Working one side of your body at a time, as with a single-kettlebell military press, requires your body to make all the muscles on the side opposite of the load—and especially the core musculature—contract to keep you from being pulled over sideways.

Another interesting result from training with a single-kettlebell is that you can even-out strength imbalances from side-to-side. Often, side-to-side imbalances are responsible for holding back your progress on traditional bilateral exercises like the barbell squat, deadlift, and military press. Many people find a single-kettlebell front squat to be much more challenging on the core than a double front squat. The same thing holds true for the military press.

If you find you have a strength imbalance, resist the urge to let your stronger side set the pace. Train both sides to be relatively even with each other, both in the number of reps and the amount of weight you put over your head. You may feel like you’re holding back at first, but don’t be surprised if your big barbell lifts get stronger as a result.

Grind to Burn

Strength is a worthy goal on its own, and it’s more than enough reason to try kettlebell squats and presses. But getting stronger is also essential for burning fat and getting leaner over the long term.

Think of it as a cycle. The increased muscle activation and range of motion you experience from doing deep, difficult squats and overhead presses demand that more muscles work harder than they would otherwise. When you work harder, you burn more calories. And since training the core, especially in an integrated manner while standing, makes the body stronger, you’ll be able to lift heavier and work even harder in the future—which burns even more calories. And so on …

The downside, if there is one, is that kettlebell grinds are known to leave bruises—on your ego. I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was at just how hard they make you work. But stick with them, and you’ll also be surprised by the fruits of your labor: A stronger midsection, a more powerful and defined body, and more strength you can put to good use.


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15 ways to upgrade your gym workout

1.Try outdoor bootcamps… inside!
Such is the success of outdoor bootcamp classes, they’re now coming to the gym floor. ‘We’re seeing a lot of “outdoor-style” activity in the gym,’ says Technogym master trainer Steve Harrison (technogym.com). ‘They involve plenty of space, lots of running drills, small group interactions and shorter, sharper classes.’ Bootcamp classes are varied, improving your cardio fitness and stamina as you’ll be running, doing intervals and encountering obstacles. You’ll also boost your  strength using dumbbells, resistance bands or your own bodyweight for resistance. Some classes even add in some yoga poses to help your flexibility. You may focus on upper body and abs one week, then lower body the next, giving good variety. Pumping music will get you motivated.

TRY: David Lloyd’s Orangetheory class, for example, is a 60-minute session for up to 20 people. Like a Bootcamp class, it also consists of cardio and strength-training intervals, featuring treadmills, rowing machines and weight-training blocks. It’s claimed to burn at least 500 calories per class.

2. Form a group
Create a mini workout club at the gym. Devise your own group circuits, or train together on the cardio machines. You’ll burn more calories when training with friends. A study of 1,000 women carried by Virgin Active shows that women who exercise with friends burn up to 236 calories, compared to 195 for those who train alone. The study also showed that 64 per cent of women push themselves harder when training with friends. ‘I can see more and more people forming HIIT groups and working out together,’ says personal trainer Philip Kasumu, an ambassador for BioSynergy. ‘Training alone can be daunting and working out together is a great way to socialise.’

TRY: Forming a group with friends and working as hard as you can in HIIT sessions. Go to a HIIT-based class for inspiration, then do your own to suit your availability.

3. Be the boss
Want some one-on-one advice but don’t like the idea of being bossed around by a PT? Good news. There’s a new, more empathetic breed of personal trainer, re-shaping themselves as lifestyle coaches and trying to find out what really makes you tick. The result? You get to take control of the sessions. ‘I tell trainers to let the client lead the workout,’ says Harrison. ‘There’s no point having a varied workout if the client doesn’t like it. I encourage personal trainers to ask the client: “Do you think you’d like to run?” “What sort of activities did you enjoy on holiday and how can you bring them back into daily life?” The aim is to get people relaxed and to have fun.’

TRY: Tell a prospective personal trainer what exercises you like and dislike. A good trainer should be willing to ditch those you don’t enjoy and offer alternatives.

4. Train for an event
Competing in an event such as a triathlon or a 10K run is one of the best ways to boost your motivation to train. Too daunted to sign up? Many gyms are now offering classes to help you get fit for triathlons and races, with classes ranging from triathlon training to express treadmill classes.

TRY: Some Nuffield Health clubs run Express treadmill classes lasting just 15 minutes and aimed at setting the right pace for you and improving confidence, which is ideal for new runners or those training for their first 5K.

5. Make it short
Gyms know your time is precious, so increasingly, they’re offering express classes to get you fit in half the time of regular ones.

Afterwards, your metabolic rate will be elevated, meaning calories burned at a faster rate post-exercise. Kettlebells are great for improving your strength and power, while also giving you a cardio workout, as your heart rate will soar, even while you’re doing the basic kettlebell swing. ‘During a shorter session, you tend to push yourself harder and the results are long lasting,’ says Harrison.

TRY: Nuffield Health offers Express Kettlebells classes and Express Circuits that work your whole body in half an hour. Both are high intensity, so your heart rate will rise and you’ll burn optimum fat and calories.

6 Train in 3D
It’s all too easy to focus on exercises that involve moving in a straight line, such as squats or forward lunges. Yet in real life, we move in all sorts of directions. We rotate our bodies diagonally, twisting, turning and bending in many directions. Even when we run, we have to twist and turn to avoid pedestrians, other obstacles and potholes. So it makes sense that your training routine should reflect daily movements.

 ‘I like to incorporate functional training into my workouts,’ says personal trainer and fitness model Phoebe Robinson Galvin, an ambassador for Bio-Synergy. ‘We work on rotational lunges, rotational ball throws and standing ball cable woodchop, as I believe working in this range of motion helps to prevent injury.’

Multi-directional training will also help to improve sports performance, as many sports, including tennis, squash and football, involve multi-directional movement.

TRY: Nuffield Health and Virgin Active offer ViPR classes, where you move the cylinder in all directions, twisting and turning it across your body. You could also do moves such as hip crossovers on a Swiss ball.

7. Devise your own circuit session
If you want a flatter belly but don’t have time to join a circuit class, set up your own workstations – high-intensity circuit training is an effective way to reduce abdominal fat, reports the American College of Sports Medicine.

Circuit-style training is one of the fastest ways to improve your cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, giving you a lean and toned body. And it’s easy to devise your own 20-minute circuit.

Make sure you have plenty of room and build in adequate rest breaks. Try setting up six workstations, then perform a minute on each workstation and move to the next one without resting, then rest at the end of one complete circuit. If this is too strenuous, reduce the work period on each station down to 40 or 30 seconds, then complete the circuit and have a minute’s rest, or rest for up to two minutes if you need more time to recover in between circuits. Depending on which body parts you want to work, you can set the circuit up in several ways: either to focus on a particular body part – such as doing three abdominal exercises back to back, (crunches, twists and reverse curls) or legs (deadlift, squats, step-ups) or you can alternate between upper and lower body exercises.

If space is limited, it may be safer to bring in more bodyweight exercises that require less equipment, such as squats, box press-ups and crunches.

If you’re new to circuits or new to exercise, it’s best to work on technique and perform each exercise at a slower pace to reduce injury risk. If you’re fitter or familiar with the exercises, you can perform each rep at a faster pace.

TRY: Squats, Push-ups, Kettlebell swings, Shoulder presses, Bench dips and Ab crunches. Rest for a minute at the end of the circuit, then repeat twice more. Make sure you stretch afterwards.

8. Be ahead of the rest
Keep your fitness ahead of the game and keep your motivation sky high by being the first to try new kit when it appears on the gym floor.

TRY: Some Fitness First and Virgin Active gyms now have Woodway Curve Treadmills in their gyms, which are self-powered. There’s no motor or button – the treadmill works by your own effort. Walking on a Woodway Curve could give you the same cardio workout as running on a motorised machine. Powering yourself means you burn 30 per cent more calories than on a normal treadmill. The harder you run, the more power you generate. The curve shape of the belt also means less impact on knees and joints, and it works your core, too.

9. Lift your own weight 
Using your own body weight for resistance (with exercises such as press-ups and pull-ups) is a great way to get really strong and toned. Many gyms are now offering gymnastic rings, TRX machines or rigs consisting of ropes and pulleys to help you improve upper-body strength and build up to supporting your own bodyweight.

TRY: Use a TRX Suspension Trainer to do squats, reverse lunges, side lunges, chest press, rows for your upper back and many more moves. Change your body position to add or decrease resistance. For example, if you’re doing rows, the lower the angle of your body to the ground, the more of your own body weight you’re lifting. Remember to engage your core muscles while doing the exercises to support your body and strengthen your abs.

10 Beat the plateau
It’s easy to get stuck in a training rut or think you’re not improving. Checking your progress every four weeks will help you see how far you’ve come. For instance, if weight loss is your goal, you can check your body fat every four weeks (try the Omron BF306 Body Composition Monitor, £31.98 at www.amazon.co.uk). Having a varied training programme will also boost motivation and prevent boredom. ‘Continuous training with a clear goal in mind will get results. I keep measurements to track progress every few weeks,’ says personal trainer Carl Wallace from PureGym in Stoke says. ‘Change your workouts week-by-week, focusing on both cardio and resistance training. This will keep sessions fun and interesting.’ Another way to track progress is to set regular fitness tests.

TRY: Run 1K on the treadmill as fast as you can, record your time, and try to beat it four weeks later, after running regularly. Or complete 5K on the cross-trainer, again recording your time and try to complete it in less time in four weeks.

11. Find a swimming coach
If you did a lot of swimming on holiday, why not keep it up and improve? Hiring a swim coach can give you a better workout because if your swimming technique is stronger, you’ll be more efficient. This means you’ll have the energy to keep swimming for longer, burning more calories and making you fitter, plus improving your endurance.

TRY: Fitness First has a number of clubs offering Swimming Nature, a tailored instructional swimming programme, while Nuffield Health offers Swimfit classes. ‘Around 95 per cent of our centres have swimming pools and most of these offer swim schools,’ says Sarah Henderson, communications manager for Nuffield Health.  

12. Count time, not reps
If you want to burn more calories, forget about counting the number of reps for each set of an exercise – try ‘time under tension’ instead. This simply means timing your exercises, rather than counting reps.

‘Remember, if you’re burning more calories, you’re burning more fat.’ It will also improve your strength too. A study published online in the Journal of Physiology showed that slower lifting movements create more strength.

TRY: ‘Do 30-45 seconds flat doing as many reps as you can, which will burn more calories than counting reps without worrying about a time limit,’ says Anthony Mendoza, David Lloyd platinum personal trainer.

13. Create an ‘afterburn’ 
Rather than just focusing on how many calories you’ve burned in your workout, create a fat-burning effect that lasts way beyond the session. ‘Triggering excess post-exercise consumption (EPOC) or ‘afterburn’ is crucial in prolonging the benefit of a session, as calories can continue to be burnt for up to 36-48 hours post workout,’ says personal trainer Alastair Crew. ‘I use a heart rate monitor to help gauge the correct intensity for myself and my clients – in a typical workout I’d like to achieve a minimum of 12-20 minutes at 84 per cent of maximum heart rate in order to trigger the EPOC effect.’

EPOC, also known as ‘oxygen debt’, is the amount of oxygen needed to return your body to normal after a workout. Exercise that places a greater demand on the body can increase the need for oxygen after a workout, creating the EPOC effect. High-intensity interval training is the most effective way to stimulate an EPOC effect.

TRY: To work out your maximum heart rate, deduct your age from 220.

14. Make cycling harder
Ditch the stationary bike and check out the Wattbike. It’s a serious way to burn more calories. The Wattbike can measure your power, your pedalling technique and heart rate, giving you instant feedback on your progress. It has a dual braking system, offering gears and a braking system on the flywheel to create the feeling of climbing hills. As it’s like a normal bike, it’s easy to vary the intensity and choose between sprints and climbs.

Try: The Watt Bike is available in David Lloyd health, Nuffield Health clubs, 29 Fitness First clubs and many Virgin Active gyms, while PureGyms have similar bikes called Matrix.

15. Beat the Plateau

It’s easy to get stuck in a training rut or think you’re not improving. ‘Change your workouts week-by-week, focusing on both cardio and resistance training. This will keep sessions fun and interesting,’ says personal trainer Carl Wallace from PureGym in Stoke. Another way to track your progress is to set regular fitness tests.

TRY: Run 1K on the treadmill as fast as you can, record your time, and try to beat it four weeks later, after running regularly in the intervening period. Or complete 5K on the cross-trainer, again recording your time and then try to do it in less time four weeks later.

Iron Is A Girl’s Best Friend

When I first picked up weights a few years ago, maximal lifting wasn’t even on my radar. I ran around in circles with my 10-pound dumbbells, completely unaware that I was missing out on an entire world of fitness.

In the world of 1RM strength, you set specific goals and work for weeks or months to inch closer to them. You push your body to its limits to achieve a triumph that only lasts a couple of seconds. But you also get rewarded with a rush unlike anything else. It’s a great world to be a part of, and it’s changed the entire way I view health and fitness.

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on heavy lifting—yet. But I’ve still learned some important lessons along the way, and I’m confident you’ll find them just as helpful as I did. If you’re looking to find your numbers or move them up into uncharted territory, here are five rules you need to take to heart.

1 Train Systematically

If you’re currently training in the 10-20 rep range and have limited experience with anything less—think 3-8 difficult reps—then you aren’t ready for a 1RM test. Attempting a max test when you’re mentally and physically unprepared is a bad idea. You’re just setting yourself up for failure.

I highly suggest using a program that trains specifically for the kind of intensity you’ll find in a 1RM test. I used Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 system successfully for several months before getting a more personalized powerlifting training program from the Strength Guys. Trust me, proper programming makes all the difference both in terms of performance and safety. Squatting 3 reps at 85 percent 1RM is an entirely different ballgame than doing 15 reps on the leg press. Programs like 5/3/1, the Westside System, or Stronglifts 5×5 will prepare you for the intensity that lies ahead.

If you’re unsure of your max or haven’t yet had the chance to test it, I suggest using a 1RM calculator initially. Just enter your best lift, and it does the work for you. The heavier the weight and the lower the number of reps, the more accurate the calculator is. For example, 200 pounds for 5 reps is more accurate than 150 pounds for 9 reps. Nothing is as accurate as actually getting under the bar and testing your 1RM—preferably with some supervision from somebody who’s done it many times—but, these calculators can give you a sufficient idea of what your max should be. You’ll need that number in order for the percentage-based training of strength programs to be effective.

2 Learn How To Get in the Right Headspace

Testing your 1RM requires a serious amount of intensity and concentration. You won’t be frolicking in the land of unicorns, bunnies, and rainbows here. To be honest, testing your 1RM sucks. It usually hurts physically, and it always challenges your body’s idea of what is “possible.” Putting that kind of stress on your body is more than just a physical trial, though. It’s a mental one, too. Before you step up to a barbell to try for your max lift, you need to be a master of these three skills:

Focus

If you find your mind in 35 different places and none of them are at the gym with the bar, it’s not the day to test your max. There may be no such thing as the perfect day, but there are optimal conditions that give you a shot at hitting your best numbers. You want to be present and composed with mental clarity. Your focus should be on one thing and one thing only: moving that heavy weight.

Bench Press
Visualization

Visualize yourself easily pulling your deadlift max. Then see yourself adding some more weight and pulling again with ease. Picture your bench max going up without a hitch. Visualizing not only gives your confidence a much needed boost before you tackle your lift, but it can also actually improve motor performance, making your 1RM attempt a major success.

Jamming Out

Not everybody needs music in order to get into a PR headspace, but for many of us, it’s crucial. Listening to music during a training session has been proven to improve performance; it can also be a great boost of motivation when you’re aiming to venture into uncharted waters. Some people like screamo heavy metal to get their blood pumping, and others prefer electronic music, jazz, or film soundtracks to help calm their mind and set the scene for an epic triumph. Whatever works for you, do it!

3 Embrace The Routine

Everyone has their own way of getting ready for a max. Some people do a specific number of warm-up sets, and some people listen to a particular playlist or eat a particular meal. Find a routine that works for you and stick with it. For people who haven’t yet had the chance to take a 1RM, this is what I suggest the first time around:

Warm up

An extensive warm-up process is essential to get an accurate 1RM and prevent injury. I start with some basic mobility work, taking my joints through a full range of motion, and then I move to my warm-up sets.

Get heavy slowly

Opinions vary about which rep scheme to use as you work up to a heavy weight. Your program or coach might have a specific way of doing this; if so, follow it. Here’s the routine that I like to follow when testing my max or going for a PR.

  • Bar x 10
  • 50% x 5
  • 60% x 3
  • 70% x 2
  • 80% x 1
  • 90% x 1
  • 95% x 1
  • 1RM attempt

High reps don’t have a place on max day. I want to know that I can push or pull heavy weight, which is why I perform several sets of a single rep as I get closer to my max. Each of these reps boosts my confidence and prepares me mentally and physically for the pinnacle lift.

No matter how you choose to arrange your warm-up sets, they should fully prepare your muscles, joints, and central nervous system for the lift ahead. I always leave at least 2-3 minutes of rest between my warm-sets, and then I give myself an extra minute or two as I get closer to my max attempt.

“High reps don’t have a place on max day. I want to know that I can push or pull heavy weight.”

4 Find a spotter

I like to train alone. If you see me in the gym, my headphones are usually in, my hat is down low, and I have a leave-me-alone-until-I’m-done look on my face. On max day, it’s a different story. It’s crucial that you have someone spotting your bench max, unless getting pinned under a barbell sounds like your idea of a good time.

Utilizing a spotter on squat max testing isn’t always necessary, particularly if you squat in a rack with safety bars. If I’m testing my squat, I generally use the safety bars for warm-up sets and then grab the most experienced lifter I can find to spot me for my max attempt. Pulling a random spotter off the gym floor isn’t something that I mind doing, but if this is something you’re uncomfortable doing, bring a friend you trust to put your nerves at ease. And maybe have them read up on the rules of spotting first.

There’s no way to spot a deadlift physically, since you either pull the bar off the ground or you don’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invite a mental or emotional spotter along for the ride. If you feel like having someone yell “light weight!” in a Ronnie Coleman voice would help you move a heavy weight, then by all means make sure they’re there!

5 Make Your PR A Lift Like Any Other

The time has come. You’ve been training for this moment for months. You’ve done your warm-up sets, you’re focused and ready, and now it’s go time. All of your prior training has led you to this moment. Scary, right?

“I’m nervous, I’m pumped, I’m motivated, and I want to do something I’ve never done before.”

I’m always a mixed bag of emotions right before my lift, but I think that’s what carries me through and gives me the best possible lift. I’m nervous, I’m pumped, I’m motivated, and I want to do something I’ve never done before. Somewhere in that mess of emotions, I usually just say “Enough! I’m ready to do this,” and then I go for it.

Aside from this inevitable dialog, though, the mechanics of a max attempt should be the same as all the other lifts you practiced up until this point. This isn’t the time to do a quarter-rep or forget to engage your lats when you deadlift. As you visualize your lift, you should be taking note of form and remembering all your normal cues. A max lift where you injure yourself in the process doesn’t count in my book.

After your initial attempt is complete, step back and assess. How do you feel? How did the lift go? Are you ready for more, or did it take everything out of you? I like to keep going until I either miss a lift or know there’s no logical way I can get that weight back up. But many people will stop after one, and that’s fine.

If you feel like you’re ready to conquer another max attempt, I suggest giving yourself 7-10 minutes of rest before you step up to the bar again. Add no more than 5-10 pounds to the bar; don’t get greedy. Even if you leave that second or third max attempt unrealized, you should feel damn good about what you accomplish!

6 Don’t Overthink It

I’m often guilty of beating myself up after the fact. Did I eat too much? Too little? Could I have done another rep? Should I have done more weight? We all do it. When you’re completely invested in something—like so many of us in the world of health and fitness are—you want to be perfect.

But when you’re waging war against big numbers and percentages, there’s nothing to be gained by harboring regrets. Nagging doubts and questions can take over your brain and prevent you from improving, but just as importantly, they can keep you from enjoying an important victory.

The best possible advice I can give you is to let go. At no time is that more crucial than during and after your 1RM attempt. If you walk up to the bar wondering if you’re going to miss, or questioning your preparation, or revisiting the failed lifts of the past, you’ve already lost. You just have to go for it.

You’re ready. It’s time to believe in yourself. Pick up that weight and show the bar who’s boss.


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