Tips and Tricks
In this issue I provided the second installment of Kyle’s workout progress. His workout was designed to be done with minimal equipment in a small space. Here’s how to do the exercises I list, and some tips for increasing their difficulty.
This is the movement to learn first, because a lot of other movements are based on this. Lots of people are afraid of squats because they’ve been told that squats are bad for your knees, bad for your back, bad for your karma, and other ill-informed crap. In fact, the opposite is true. Properly performed, full depth squats done with appropriate loading will improve your knee stability, overall strength, balance, and ability to perform other day-to-day activities. Now, the squat is a difficult movement to perform at first. Usually folks are a little sore after their first day of squatting. But it gets better and the rewards are so significant that it’s worth it.
Always begin with no weight, whether you’re a 300 lb. mountain-o-mansteak or an 82 lb. senior citizen. You can always add weight later. The speed at which you progress through the following steps is up to you and your abilities, but I strongly recommend progressing through them in the proper order. Technique should always come before adding weight.
Step 1. Grab a sturdy railing about waist height. Assume a stance that is approximately shoulder width or slightly wider. Look forward or slightly upward, not downward (although you’ll be tempted to). Using your grip on the railing for balance, sit back and down like you’re sitting into a chair that’s not there. Your upper body will naturally bend forward a bit to keep you balanced; simply allow it to bend from the hips (not from the waist) wherever it wants to go. Think about keeping your shins roughly perpendicular to the floor and your knees roughly behind your toes. Longer legged folks or folks using a narrower stance may find that shins tilt forward a bit; this is fine as long as the butt stays behind the hips and your lower back does not round. To ascend, push through the heels and lift the chest up, making sure that the upper body comes up before the hips (don’t allow the hips to “pop up” too quickly).
At first you will find that you are unable to go very deep without rounding the back. Keep performing the movement and you should eventually be able to go to full depth perfectly. You can also try pausing for a three-count at the bottom of each squat, allowing your body to sink a little bit into it; this will function as an “active stretch” which should improve your range rapidly. If you are having real difficulty with getting to full depth before your back rounds, widen up your stance, and try pointing toes out slightly. This will require some more hip flexibility, but it’s often better for longer-legged people.
Step 2. Time to cut the apron strings! Let go of that railing. Now, perform the movement without hanging on to anything. For balance, hold arms out in front of you. Keep working on proper depth.
Step 3. Grab a broomstick and put it across your back. The bar sits on the “meat shelf” formed by your traps (see last issue), not on your neck. If you find your wrists are bent back too much, try widening your grip. Once the bar is in place, practice the squat movement again, always with a full range of motion (I know, I’m starting to sound like a broken record here).
Step 4. Use a weighted bar instead of the broomstick. Ideally you should try finding a lighter bar than the 45-lb. Olympic bar that most gyms have. A standard bar (which has a 1″ diameter at the end, rather than the 2″ diameter of an Olympic bar) usually weighs around 15-25 lbs, depending on the size and make. If you can’t find a lighter bar, then make sure you can do 20 to 25 perfect unweighted squats before you try the Olympic bar. Being able to do this many unweighted squats before proceeding to weighted squats is a good idea anyway.
To increase the difficulty of squats, you can add reps, add weight, or add volume. For fun, try seeing how many squats you can do in 20 minutes, and each squat workout try to add a few reps! Guaranteed owie, but also guaranteed mass and strength gainer which is great for folks with limited equipment. You can also try sandbag squats. Grab a bag of sand, stick it into a duffel bag, then bear hug it. Squat down while bear hugging the bag. A great full body challenge.
It looks a bit odd, but the front squat is a great exercise for the lower body. It puts a little more of a load on the front of the thighs (quadriceps) than a regular back squat. Many folks who have trouble going to full depth with a regular squat are easily able to do so with a front squat. The advantage to the front squat in this case is that it’s something that can be performed without a power cage. While it can be done in a power cage where you rest the bar on pins, and squat down with the added security of safety bars, it doesn’t have to be. You can simply clean the bar into position (see below for instructions on the clean) and off you go.
In a front squat, the bar sits across the front of your shoulders. What keeps is there is your upper arms held parallel to the floor. To get a sense of how this works, grab a friend and a broomstick (friend optional if you can figure out how to do this yourself). Extend your arms out straight in front of you, palms down, arms parallel to the floor, like a zombie in an old 1950s B-movie. Have your friend lay the broomstick right where the front of your shoulder muscle meets your collarbone. This is the principle behind the front squat: your arms held out and the bar resting on them. Now, keeping upper arms parallel to the floor, fold your arms back at the elbows so that your palms are now facing up. Grasp the bar gently. This here is yer basic clean grip, and it’s how you hold the bar for the front squat. At first this will seem quite complicated and awkward, and many folks will lack the wrist and shoulder flexibility for it. Putting a little weight on the bar will actually help “fold up” the arms a bit better.
Now that you’ve gotten into that position, here’s the fun part! Squat down just as you would do for a regular squat. That means sit back and down, keeping your head looking forward, your butt behind your heels, and shins roughly perpendicular to the floor. You’ll notice that your arms will want to droop downwards. Fight this tendency, and do your best to keep upper arms parallel to floor. You’ll probably find that your lower and mid-back is getting a bit of work here as well. Go as deep as you can without rounding your back, then push through the heels and lead with the elbows to come back up.
Clean pull to shrug on toes
This is an assistance lift for teaching the full clean or the power clean, and it’s much easier for beginners to learn. It’s a great exercise for lower body, upper back, grip, and torso musculature, it teaches balance and coordination, and it also teaches the shrugging upward motion which is fundamental to the clean. Before you learn the clean pull, make sure you understand the basics of a squat.
To perform the clean pull, grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Squat down, using good squat form, until the bar is roughly mid-shin (approximating the height of the bar if you were using an Olympic bar loaded with 45 lb. plates). Then, making sure that back is tight and slightly arched, keeping the bar close and arms relatively relaxed, stand up with the bar. Practice just this movement for a set or two.
Once you get the hang of that, add this: as you stand up with the bar, think about yourself being a puppet with a string coming from the top of your head, and think about that string being pulled upwards. Continue your upward movement by coming up on to your toes and shrugging your shoulders towards your ears (keep arms relaxed). You’ll find it hard at first to keep your balance. Keep working at it. Hold that shrug on toes for a moment, then relax, and lower the bar under control to your starting position.
To clean the bar up to the racked position for the front squat, practice this shrug on toes for several sets. Then, speed up the movement. Pull with moderate speed until you get just above your knees, then shrug the bar up as quickly as possible, flip your elbows under it, and catch it in the racked position. This takes some practice, so you might try working on that elbow flip with a broomstick. You don’t really have to master this, you just have to get good enough to get the bar into position for the front squat.
Stiff-legged deadlift to bent-over row
I like exercises that are little combinations. This one is a one-two punch for training the muscles involved in hip/lower back extension (hamstrings, glutes, lumbar spinal musculature), and the muscles involved in rowing (back, biceps). Ideally this one is done with a wee bit less weight, and more of a focus on perfect execution. If you start to lose the arch in your lower back, finish the set immediately.
Grab a barbell with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Stand with the barbell and take a deep breath, pushing chest up and out. Note how your back position feels after you’ve done that; that is the posture that you should maintain throughout the movement. With that in mind, bend from the hips (not the waist), pushing butt back and bending knees slightly, until your upper body is somewhere just above approximately parallel to the floor and hands somewhere just below knee level (the main thing is to go down as far as you can while maintaining back arch). Keeping back nice and tight, row the bar up to your bellybutton, pulling shoulder blades back as you do so. Lower the bar, then still keeping back tight, extend the hip and stand upright again.
The old army standby. Trains chest, shoulders, and triceps directly, plus you get some torso stabilizing work because of having to hold your body rigid throughout the movement. You can do these either from your knees or from your feet. Aim to eventually be able to do them from your feet. Whichever way you choose, remember to keep your body rigid and straight and upper arms out at roughly right angles to your body. Once you master the basics, try some variations. The more you elevate your feet, the more challenging the exercise gets. Also, as your feet are elevated higher than parallel to the floor, the more the load is shifted to the shoulders. To increase the difficulty of a regular pushup without elevating the feet, wear a knapsack that fits snugly and put something heavy into it (a little bag of sand, a weight plate, a small child).
Weighted ab crunches
You should be doing ab exercises with weight. None of this three zillion crunches crap! The ab crunch is a simple one to learn and it’s easy to increase its difficulty. To do the basic crunch, lie face up on the floor (preferably on a cushy carpet or mat). Rest your feet on a bench or coffee table or helpful love slave so that your hips and knees are both bent approximately ninety degrees. Cradle your head in your hands and make sure you’re looking up at the ceiling throughout (not trying to yank your head forward). You can also use a small towel to hold your head: grab both ends and cradle your noggin in the middle of it. Begin the movement by tilting your pelvis, as if you were trying to sink your bellybutton into the floor. Then slowly curl the ribcage off the floor.
That’s the basic movement. To make it harder, you can add reps (though probably up to 20 is the most I’d have anyone do), slow down the tempo, and add weight. To add weight, you can hold a plate on your chest, use it to cradle your head, or hold it straight-armed in front of you (the farther behind your head you angle your arms, the harder it is). Another fun thing to do, with either a basketball/soccer ball/volleyball or a weighted medicine ball, is to do ball toss crunches with a partner. Have the partner stand at your feet, holding the ball. Crunch up and reach for the ball. The partner should toss you the ball. Un-crunch into the starting position, then quickly rebound back up and at the top of the crunch, throw the ball back to your partner and hold the crunch position until they throw it back to you (partners, don’t be sadistic about this and hold on to the ball). Your upper body and arms should move as one unit as much as possible. In other words, don’t make the swinging of your arms the focus of the movement. Try to keep arms in one position and let the curling and uncurling of your torso provide the up and down motion.
In the next issue: a program and diet for mass gaining!