Friday, March 2, 2012

Training Tricks

By Andrew McGunagle

While working with clients at an internship this past summer, I often found myself saying, "The trick for this exercise is..." I hadn't realized it before that time, but it quickly became clear to me that I had little "tricks" for just about every exercise that my trainees performed. These tricks improved exercise execution and performance instantly, and the individuals that I worked with enjoyed those quick improvements immensely.

Silly rabbit, tricks are for improved lifting safety and performance.
Now, these tricks are not things that I made up on my own. Rather, I picked them up from other lifters and coaches and then tested them in the gym. Whenever one of these adjustments made an exercise safer and more effective, I continued to employ it and made sure to file it away in my memory banks for future teaching purposes. If you have been lifting for a while, you may already employ some of these tricks in your own lifting sessions. Those of you with more gym experience will not find this list particularly revolutionary. Newer lifters, on the other hand, will likely learn some things that will make their next lifting session better than their last one. So, here are four tricks that will lead to instant lifting improvements:  

1. When doing dumbbell rows, stick your leg straight out to the side: For the longest time, I absolutely hated dumbbell rows. I understood their utility in terms of strengthening the lats, lower traps, and rhomboids. However, whenever I did them with heavy weights, I found myself too unstable for the exercise to be effective. When I finally figured out how to fix this problem I facepalmed, as the solution was so ridiculously simple.

Instead of having my foot that was contacting the ground directly underneath me, all I had to do was kick it straight out to the side. Viola! Wider base of support, increased stability, more weight moved with better form. This trick is stupidly simple, yet I have seen surprisingly few lifters actually employ it. Most of the time, you see this (what I was doing before):

This dude just looks unstable
The trick (which I first realized when Bret Contreras mentioned it in his excellent rotary stability article) is to set up like this:

The Glute Guy's got tricks.
Simple? Yes. Effective? You bet. Try this the next time you do DB rows, and I promise that you will be pleasantly surprised with how much more stable you are and, in turn, the ability to move more weight due to this stability. Using this set-up isn't cheating; you are simple getting stable enough to actually utilize the strength that you have. Falling all over the place doesn't get you stronger; moving more weight does. So stick your leg out to the side and use your strength to build your strength!

2. Dig the bar deep into your palms when doing pressing exercises: I will admit that the description "lifting fundamental" fits this tip better than "lifting trick" does. However, despite the fact that virtually every serious lifter know to do this, I have seen enough beginners screw this up to understand that it bears mention. Unless instructed otherwise, the majority of inexperienced lifters will simply grab the bar and hold it up near the bases of their fingers when they first learn to bench or overhead press. When the bar sits up near the fingers, it is further away from the axis of rotation at the wrist. This unnecessary distance makes the position of the hand harder to control, and it almost always causes the lifter's hands to bend back. Digging the bar deep into the palms of your hands gets the bar closer to the axis of rotation at the wrist, which, in turn, makes it much easier to maintain a neutral wrist position.
Left = wrong, right = right
Why is a neutral wrist position important? Well, when you press, you are doing your best to apply force to the bar, right? This force, which is being generated by your pecs, shoulders, and triceps, is utilized most efficiently when it is able to travel from the elbows, up the forearms, through the wrists, and straight into the bar. When the bar is behind the wrist joint, this system is out of balance and the forces that your muscles are producing are not being directly applied to the bar. Whenever I am teaching a person to do a pressing movement, I always make sure to tell them to dig the bar deep into their palms and to squeeze the bar as hard as they can. These two simple cues allow for proper alignment, more efficient pressing, and, last but not least, less stress on the wrists. Dig and squeeze when you press, all the cool kids are doing it.    

3. Set up in the bottom position when doing rear foot elevated split squats: The rear foot elevated split squat (more conveniently called the RFESS) is a good single-leg exercise. I wouldn't go so far as to replace squats with the RFESS, but it is a useful exercise nonetheless. There are two problems that I often encountered when first teaching people the RFESS, 1) they complained about their back foot hurting, and 2) they were too close to the bench in the bottom position. The foot pain caused people to abhor this exercise, and they would do their best to rush through it as quickly as possible. The poor bottom position caused these individuals to shift their weight towards the front of their supporting foot, causing their knees to be subject to increased amounts of stress. Both of these issues were fixed by setting up for the exercise in the bottom position:
Start down here. Weighted vest, heavy DB, and added ROM optional. Unless you are Ben Bruno.
When you set up in the bottom, place the top side of your back foot flat on a bench and position your back knee on a mat/folded towel on the floor. From there, set your forward foot out in front with the knee at a 90 degree angle (shin vertical). Starting with this vertical tibia is important because your weight will inevitably shift forward when you first stand up. If you make the mistake of setting up with an angled shin, you will find that you are much too cramped during your set. A good start makes for a good set, and it also seems to lessen the stress on the back foot. Lastly, setting up this way allows you to avoid fumbling around on one leg trying to find the bench with your foot. Using that method, not only are you unstable, but you inevitably set up a little bit differently each set you do. Consistency trumps inconsistency in the weight room, so set up in the bottom and get it right every time.      

4. When squatting, use a thumbs on top grip and lift your elbows up: This last trick is straight from Mark Rippetoe's fantastic book, Starting Strength. Sure, sure. You've read the book. So has every other serious lifter. But, do you actually use a thumbs on top grip and lift your elbows up? I see very few people actually follow this advice, and I think that they ignore it for three main reasons:
  1. They have always wrapped their thumbs around the bar when squatting and it feels awkward to change.
  2. They believe the, in my opinion, faulty advice to rotate their elbows under the bar when squatting.
  3. And, lastly, they simply do not understand the long-term consequences of using a full grip and having their elbows under the bar.
For those of you that do not understand the difference between the two grips, here is a picture:

Left = wrong, right = right (as a left handed person, this trend is starting to bug me)
On the left, we see what a lot of uninformed lifters do; they, intentionally or unintentionally, have their elbows directly under the bar. This is inadvisable for a couple of reasons. First, your wrists, forearms, and elbows will inevitably be forced to support some of the load when in this position. If you plan on getting strong, then you should also plan on having wrist and/or elbow pain in the future if you use this positioning. The back is a big, solid base that can support heavy loads. The wrists, on the other hand, are relatively meager. The second reason that low elbows is inadvisable is because this position will make it more difficult to maintain your upper back tightness. Squeezing the upper back is a very important part of the squat. This tightness makes it easier to keep your chest up and it prevents the bar from digging down in to your spine. When the elbows are lifted up, your upper back muscles are forced to bunch up, creating a solid base of muscle to support the bar. Also, because the elbows are behind the bar, the majority of the weight is being supported by the back. The back can support loads in excess of 405 pounds; the wrists can not do this effectively.

Placing the thumbs on top of the bar furthers your efforts to keep the stress off of the wrists and on the back. A thumbs on top grip makes it easier to maintain a neutral wrist position when squatting. When you make the mistake of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, the bar tends to drop down into your palm during the set. As the bar digs in to the palms, the wrists tend to bend back. The best example I can give of this is an amazing lifter who went by the internet name "Blenderate". Blenderate wowed the internet lifting community with his amazing heavy high rep squatting. Unfortunately, he had to give up the sport of powerlifting due to spine and elbow issues. I hate to make assumptions, as I do not know what kind of prior injuries may have led to these issues. However, I would be surprised if his thumb and elbow positioning during his squats did not contribute to his elbow problems:

As you can see, his thumbs are wrapped and his elbows are low. Sure, this is only one (admittedly speculative) example. However, the rationale for thumbs on top and elbows up is difficult to counter. If you choose to ignore this advice and continue to use the positioning that you have always used, I can't stop you. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Training tricks, yo.
There you have it, four lifting tricks for instantly improved lifting safety and performance. I always like learning new lifting tricks, so leave any that you have in the comments section below. Lastly, I want to extend a big thanks to all of my readers. Hundreds of lifters from all around the world have been checking out Strength Musings, and I want to thank all of you for reading (especially with my sometimes excessively long posts). There is much, much more awesome content to come, so stay tuned! 

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