It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the unsolicited fitness advice out there, so I'll let you in on a little secret: Muscle-building exercises are pretty straightforward. The less complicated you make them, the more strength you'll build. Simple as that.
To build true, total-body strength, you really only need three foundation lifts and a few auxiliary lifts. These are multi-joint, compound lifts that recruit major muscle groups, load the entire core and incite a hormonal cascade that elicits muscle growth.
Being great at these three lifts translates to pure strength on and off the field.
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The Deadlift is the king of all exercises because it recruits most of the large muscle groups in the body. If you are to be good at one lift and one lift only, let it be this one.
- Approach the bar with your feet under your hips and your shins tucked tightly against the bar.
- Squat, sitting into your heels.
- Maintaining the natural curve of your back, flare your chest out and up.
- Grab the bar with both hands (a closed grip can help you move more iron) and lock your shoulder blades together.
- Keeping your shoulder blades locked (pretend you are holding a tennis ball between your shoulder blades), drive through your heels.
Common Deadlift Mistakes
- Not locking your shoulder blades. To maximize moving power, you've first got to fully engage your back. Hold those blades together for the duration of the exercise.
- Not training scapular retraction. This mistake builds upon the first one. Any time you train back muscles—whether through Deadlifts, Rows or Pull-Ups—it is very important to train your shoulder blades to engage. A great exercise for training scapular retraction is the Band Pull-Apart.
The Bench Press is the ultimate test of upper-body strength. Not only is it great for adding thickness to your chest, but it engages your core and lats as well.
- Position yourself under the bar so it runs perpendicular to your sternum.
- Hand position changes the effects of the exercise. A close grip puts more emphasis on the triceps. Going wider hits more of your chest and front deltoids. For our purposes, we'll discuss wide grip: Place hands about 1.5 times shoulder-width apart.
- Grip the bar as if you are trying to rip it apart. This will engage your lats more, allowing you to move more weight.
- Unrack the bar and slowly lower it to your chest.
- As you press up, pretend you are "exploding it off your chest" while simultaneously exhaling.
Common Bench Press Mistakes
- Not gripping the bar properly. Most people mess up their Bench Press before they unrack the weight. After you place your hands on the bar, hold it with a crushing grip. This will fully activate your forearms and shoulder stabilizers. Also, pretend you are trying to rip the bar in half. This engages your lats. By incorporating both techniques, you will not only move more weight, but also will engage many more muscles for more gain.
- Failing to get the "lock out" because your triceps are weak. What good is a large, aesthetically pleasing chest that is all bark and no bite? Start incorporating triceps exercises that are pressing-based, such as the Close-Grip Bench Press. It's an awesome auxiliary exercise for improving your bench.
When was the last time you saw a running back or sprinter who had toothpicks for legs? The Back Squat is essential to building strong legs and a strong core. Think of it this way: when you load your spine vertically, every muscle below that weight must fire to maintain its integrity. Thus, Squats aren't a leg-only exercise—they're a total-body exercise.
In order to gain full advantage of the Squat's benefits, you need to step away from the Smith machine, which doesn't incorporate your core, and squat with a free barbell.
- Position the bar on your back.
- There are two types of bar "rack" positions—high bar and low bar. The high bar position sits the bar on the upper traps behind your neck; the low bar position sits the bar on your mid-traps.
- Regardless of position, when placing the bar on your body, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold them together for the duration of the exercise. This will maintain your center of gravity and allow you to safely lift more.
- After positioning the bar on your back, put your weight on your heels.
- Push your butt back far behind you, as if you were about to sit in a chair.
- Resist the weight slowly as you sit into your hips.
- When driving up, do so explosively while exhaling.
Common Back Squat Mistakes
- Not training the hip stabilizers. The glutes are the body's largest and strongest muscle group. Their function is to move the legs inward and outward, flex and extend the hips, and stabilize the entire body. Weak hips have been the limiting factor in many Squats I've observed. Incorporate Monster Walks into your squatting routine. You can even do them as a dynamic warm-up.
- Squatting with an excessively wide grip. This tells me you have shoulder immobility issues, namely excessive external rotation. The most dangerous position for your shoulder is bent 90 degrees while externally rotated, which is what happens when your squatting grip is extremely wide. Instead, prior to loading the bar onto your shoulders, lock your shoulder blades back and keep them pinched together for the entire exercise. This creates a few extra inches of mobility for your shoulder. Not to mention, it's the correct way to "rack" the bar.
Finally, if you take away just one thing from this article, let it be that retracting your shoulder blades is probably one of the most critical elements of weight training. Period.
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