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Build a Stronger, Thicker Back

It has been said that if you want to tell how strong someone is look at their back. There are a couple different reasons for this statement. One is that your back is the base for many different lifts or movements. For example, it probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the bench press, but a big, strong back is an important ingredient to having a strong bench. It lays a strong foundation from which to press. Not to mention having a strong back adds stability to pressing movements. Another reason the back is a good indicator of overall strength and power is that our back acts as the transmission of our body. Our back musculature carries energy (power) through our body and out our limbs. Next time you see someone pretty strong in the gym, take notice how wide and big their back is. The following are a few exercises that will help you build not only a thick back, but a strong one as well.

Deadlift

I am not going to go in detail and tell you which variation of the deadlift you should be doing because in all honesty any version is better than not doing any at all. Which is where most people currently find themselves. Look at anyone who can deadlift a lot of weight and I bet that their traps stick out like mountains. Deadlifts, get good at them and then get strong at them.

Check out my YouTube video detailing how to properly perform the conventional barbell deadlift:


Can’t play video? Click here: How to Deadlift Youtube Video

Suggested Sets 3-5

Suggested Reps 3-5

T-Bar Row

The T-Bar Row is a great exercise to build thickness through the mid back and lat muscles. If you want to build size and thickness you have to move heavy weight and the T-Bar Row provides another exercise that allows you to load up the weight.


Can’t play video? Click here: T-Bar Row

  • Be sure to shift most of your weight onto the back half of your foot to ensure that your lower back is protected.
  • Maintain a rigid, tight back by pulling your shoulders back and pushing your chest out.
  • The angle of your torso can vary. Play around with what feels comfortable for you.
  • You can use lifting straps in order to move more weight without your grip restricting you.

Suggested Sets 4-6

Suggested Reps 8-12

Croc Row

The Croc Row is an exercise that most of you probably haven’t heard before. It’s just a heavy dumbbell row. The point of this row is to move really heavy weight a bunch of times. Those of you that hate worrying about staying strict with your movements will love this exercise because it allows for a big range with little technique. This exercise was invented to build a big upper back and grip strength that will assist in the deadlift. It certainly is tough on your grip and I advise going as long as you can without using straps in order to build that grip strength and then using straps towards the end of your sets in order to raise the weight.


Can’t play video? Click here: Croc Row

  • Set a bench to the preferred height or use a rack or something else to support yourself with your off hand.
  • Start the row by letting your arm hang all the way down. Feel the stretch in your lat.
  • Row the dumbbell with speed and intensity. Act like you are trying to start a lawnmower or leaf blower. It’s a pulling movement.
  • As you reach the top of the row pull your working shoulder blade towards the other shoulder blade of the non-working arm.
  • Let the dumbbell back down until your arm is hanging completely and you feel that stretch in your lat again.
  • Obviously don’t let the dumbbell back down so fast that you hurt yourself but don’t be super strict when lowering it back down either.

Suggested Sets 4-6

Suggested Reps 8-15

Barbell Shrug

Again, to build mass and thickness you must move heavy weight and barbell shrugs are another way to achieve this. In the context of this article I wouldn’t worry about squeezing and holding at the top of the movement or controlling the movement too much. If you can do all that then you aren’t moving heavy enough weight for the purpose of this article. Use straps so that your grip doesn’t hold you back and move as much weight as possible.

Suggested Sets 4-6

Suggested Reps 8-12

Pull Ups

Yep, old fashioned pull-ups are still at the top of my list for building a big, strong back. If there are different grips you can pick from, use them all at some point in your training. Do them weighted, do them for reps, do them every different way you can. Just do them. I wrote a couple articles on how to do a correct pull-up and how to progress pull-ups. If you struggle with pull-ups check out the pull-up progression article because yes they are very difficult but don’t become frustrated with them. Get better at them. 

 

Articles:

Pull-Up Progressions

My Experience with a Pull-Up Program

 

Suggested Sets w/weight 4-6

Suggested Reps w/weight 3-5

Suggested Sets w/out weight 5-8

Suggested Reps w/out weight AMAP (As Many As Possible)

As always, thanks for reading and be sure to support the site by subscribing with your email.

Different Versions of the Dumbbell Bench Press

If I had to guess I would say that the barbell bench press is the very first exercise that most people learn when starting to train with weights. It also doesn’t take long for a beginner to realize how awesome the bench press is and for the question “How much do you bench bro?” to become a regular part of their life.  As it turns out however, if you continue your weight training career past the first couple months of benching every day, you discover that there are a number of other exercises that are just as awesome. However, even as you mature as an athlete, bodybuilder, or powerlifter, yes I’m leaving out CrossFit, the bench press will most likely always hold a special place in your heart. It deserves a special place in our heart because the barbell bench press is or should be one of the major lifts of your program no matter your goals. Like I’ve already discussed in an earlier article (View the Article here: “Become Strong”) the barbell is the most efficient and effective way to build strength and mass and using the barbell bench press as a major lift will yield great results. Now, I talked about the barbell bench press to lay the foundation for what this article is really about; dumbbell bench variations and why they are important.

As I just pointed out, the barbell is the most efficient way to build strength and mass simply because it can be done with the most weight thus the barbell bench press and not dumbbell bench variations should be considered the “major lift” in your program. This is a problem I see with a lot of people in the gym, they misuse the dumbbell bench as a “major” lift and never quite see the strength and mass gains they would with the barbell bench press. This of course is disregarding injury or other outside circumstances. However, the dumbbell bench and its variations are very important accessory work. Dumbbell bench variations are a great tool to work on unilateral strength, stabilization of the shoulder girdle, and strength at different angles among other things. As with most exercises, it’s cool to see how much you can press on the dumbbell bench every once in a while, but by the very definition of accessory work you should stay with high sets and reps when it comes to the dumbbell bench variations and leave the max effort attempts for the barbell bench press. Following are a few different variations of the dumbbell bench press. You should try all of these at some point and switch back and forth between them pretty regularly. These can be done directly after your barbell bench work, on a completely different day, or during a de-load week.

Note: These videos were all filmed using a flat bench but can also be done using an incline bench.

 

Conventional Dumbbell Bench


Can’t play video? Click here: Conventional Dumbbell Bench

 
Alternating Dumbbell Bench


Can’t play video? Click here: Alternating Dumbbell Bench

 
Unilateral Dumbbell Bench


Can’t play video? Click here: Unilateral Dumbbell Bench

 
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Bench


Can’t play video? Click here: Neutral GripDumbbell Bench

 
Reverse Grip Dumbbell Bench


Can’t play video? Click here: Reverse Grip Bench

 

As always, thanks for reading and be sure to support the site by subscribing with your email.

How to Deadlift (Conventional)

First, Respect It

It’s hard to describe, the feeling that runs through my body when I hear someone describe an exercise as dangerous. The weight room is not unlike many situations in life. If you do something carelessly or incorrectly the chances of you becoming injured increase substantially. However, if you use common sense, remain focused, and are aware of certain things, those chances of becoming injured decrease by a large margin. There are no dangerous exercises. Sure, there are exercises that come with more risk if done improperly compared to other exercises, but I don’t believe they should be tagged with the word dangerous. The deadlift is usually the exercise most commonly associated with this “dangerous” stereotype. The squat is a close second but that will come in a later article. Yes, if you deadlift improperly and without care you are probably going to injure yourself, most likely not seriously, but enough to make you think it’s the exercise that is the problem and not you. Well friend, I’m here to tell you it’s not the exercise, it’s you. It’s you and the person trying to teach you the exercise that watched a few deadlift videos on YouTube that is the problem. Lifting heavy weight off the ground is no joke, it’s a grown man, or grown woman, lift. It needs to be respected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a local gym and have seen someone attempting to do a set of deadlifts. They are texting on their phone, walk up to the bar, joking around with their buddies, talking to them, sometimes even laughing all the while grabbing the bar to pick it up, they complete a few painful looking reps, set it back down and walk away saying their back hurts. Respect the deadlift enough to learn how to do it properly and the “dangerous” stereotype will soon be a thing of the past. Here is how to perform a correct conventional deadlift.

The Setup

  1. With the bar on the ground, walk up to it leaving an inch or two between your shins and the bar.
  2. Your feet should be in your power stance. (See notes section below)
  3. “Hinge” down o the bar by shifting your weight on to your heels and pushing your butt back until your shins make contact with the bar. (See notes section for comments on knee placement.)
  4. Maintain a flat back and a “big” chest. (Create a “big” chest by puffing your chest out. Picture the guys that want to act tough walking through high school hallways.)
  5. Grab the bar about an inch outside of your shins. You don’t want your thumbs touching your shins.
  6. Your eyes should be about 6-8 feet in front of you on the ground and remain there the entire time. This keeps your chin and thus your head in a neutral position.

Tips:

  • Your power stance is where you feel you can create the most power from. A good way to find this is to take one step and act like you are going to do a vertical jump. After bringing the second foot forward, as in a jumping movement, look down at your feet and this is going to be your power stance.
  • By “hinging” down to the bar your knees should be “soft” or slightly bent. Definitely not in a locked put position and not as bent as in a squat.
  • I highly advise using the double overhand position when first learning how to deadlift. When you become sufficient with the technique go ahead and try the over-under grip which allows you to lift more weight.

The double overhand Grip

The over-under Grip

Breaking the Bar

When you are in the correct position the last thing I advise you to do is to take a deep breath in at the same time you “break” the bar. Breaking the bar reinforces that your back is engaged, especially your lats, and that your grip is as strong as possible. It also takes the remaining slack out of the bar. Taking the slack out of the bar is important because like our own bodies, the more slack that is involved in the lift the more energy we need to move it. So before moving the weight we want our own body and also the bar to be as tight as possible.

  1. When attempting to “break” the bar, think about bending the bar around your shins.
  2. It may also help to think about holding a stick out in front of you and snapping it in half. (Be sure to watch video below)
  3. You should instantly feel your lats engage and your lifting buddy should visibly see your lats and upper back tighten.
  4. Depending on the type of bar you are using, you may be able to hear and definitely feel the slack leave the bar. It will most likely make a clicking sound when the slack leaves.

Video Here: Breaking The Bar

Stand Up and Lockout

  1. When pulling the weight off the ground be careful not pull or jerk the weight up using your arms.
  2. Think of your arms as just ropes holding the bar as you stand upright.
  3. Instead of jerking the weight up with your arms think about standing up by driving with your legs.
  4. You should feel leg drive, which simply means you feel as though you are pressing the floor with your feet.
  5. Be sure to keep the bar tight to your shins and thighs as you stand up.
  6. You should be standing completely upright in the lockout position.
  7. Your glutes should be tight and your hips “driven” forward.
  8. Be sure not to arch your lower back. Your hips are driven forward but everything from the waist up is in a neutral upright position.

Tips:

  • When returning the bar to the ground simply reverse the process by shifting your weight onto your heels and pushing your butt back.
  • Be sure to maintain the structured back and big chest on the way down.
  • Keep the bar tight to your legs on the way down as well.
  • Your eyes should remain in the same spot on the way down.

Reap the Benefits

There is a definite separation in the gym between those people that deadlift properly and those that do it wrong or not at all. Like I said, it is a grown man or grown woman lift. It isn’t easy by any means but it is worth learning. Once you become stronger in the deadlift you will notice that you feel stronger overall and a good chance even more athletic. Also, you will actually experience less low back pain throughout your daily life because of the improved strength. So, learn it, perfect it, and reap the benefits of the deadlift.

As always, thanks for reading and please let me know if you liked this type of instructional article and be sure to subscribe to the site to stay up to date on future articles.

Check out the video below that puts everything together.

Video Here: Deadlift

Its a Kettlebell, Not CrossFit

It’s a Kettlebell

One of the most underutilized tools in training is the kettlebell. I love using kettlebells in my own training, and it and the barbell are my favorite tools to use with my clients. Over the last decade or so kettlebells have become synonymous with CrossFit. Few things get under my skin as bad as when I show someone a kettlebell and their response is, “oh, CrossFit.” The kettlebell has been around since the 1700s and CrossFit has been around since the year 2000.

Many people see the kettlebell as something CrossFit uses and nothing else. People do not realize the benefits the kettlebell offers to people no matter their reason for training. I use kettlebells when training athletes, people rehabbing injuries, and the general population just looking to get healthier. I hope that this article will shed some light on the benefits of kettlebells and why people with all types of goals should consider adding kettlebell training to their regimen.

Strength

Kettlebells are great way to build strength. With kettlebells, you can become stronger in the squat, pressing, and hinging movements in a variety of ways. This variation allows you to test movements in a way that is hard to do with other tools, including barbells. By testing these movements in different ways, you can find weak points that could be holding you back from making strength gains. For example, you can perform the squat by holding a kettlebell in a goblet position (as pictured below), a single rack position, and a double rack position. Each of these offer different benefits that help improve your squat overall. The same can be said for presses by pressing kettlebells overhead in a strict, push press, or bottoms up position as pictured below.

Lastly, two great exercises for the hip hinge using kettlebells are the deadlift and the swing. Using a kettlebell for the deadlift can be a strength exercise for novice lifters or for rehabbing injuries and is also a great way to teach the hip hinge in a safe manner. The kettlebell swing is a dynamic exercise that offers a lot of different benefits such as flexibility, power, and conditioning. You will read more about the swing in the following paragraphs. What is important to remember is that you can do these movements with very heavy kettlebells. This will obviously make you stronger directly but it will also carry over to heavier barbell lifts. Training with kettlebells enables you to use heavy weight unilaterally, meaning one arm at a time, and this will help with any strength imbalances that may be holding you back.

 

Pictured above is the Goblet Squat (Left) and the Bottoms up Position (Right)

Conditioning

I hate conditioning. It’s no secret to those close to me that I don’t do a lot, if any, conditioning in the traditional sense. You probably won’t see me out jogging around town anytime soon. However, as much as it pains me to say it, I know conditioning is a necessary evil. I try my best to avoid it as much as possible, at least traditional conditioning anyhow. So, I find different ways to implement conditioning into my training. Kettlebells are one of my favorite ways to do this. The previously mentioned kettlebell swings will get you huffing and puffing like few exercises can. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and do twenty-five of them in a row. Then after you catch your breath come back and tell me that didn’t get your heart rate up.

Carries are also a great conditioning tool. I could have put carries in the strength section also. This exercises is exactly how it sounds. You carry heavy weight for either distance or time. This will challenge you in more way than one. Heavy carries will build grip strength, build a bigger upper back, and keep your shoulders healthy, but you may be surprised how out of breath you are when you finally set the weight down. I’d much rather go for a walk carrying kettlebells then go for a run around my neighborhood. In fact, to this day the most humbling feat I’ve ever attempted was carrying two heavy kettlebells through town and back. It took roughly an hour to complete and I was surprised and embarrassed about how exhausted and out of breath I was. Now, before you go telling everyone you know that I said all you have to do is swing and carry a kettlebell and you will be able to run a marathon, conditioning in this section referrers to general conditioning. If you want to be able to run a 5k, you still must go out and run.

Flexibility

The flexibility you can gain from training with kettlebells is probably my favorite reason for using them. The way the kettlebell fits around your hand and rests against your arm in what is called the rack position (as pictured below) allows for freedom of movement that you can’t get with a dumbbell. The kettlebell becomes an extension of your arm, it becomes a part of your body, allowing for natural movement to occur. This freedom of movement that a kettlebell allows is why it is a great tool for improving flexibility. You can move naturally and improve flexibility while performing “strength” movements. For example, by holding the kettlebell in the rack position and pressing it overhead, your shoulder can move freely and naturally as the weight travels overhead. At the top of the movement you can focus on placing your extended arm over your head utilizing its full range of motion instead of the arm being too far forward and sacrificing the end range of movement which is commonly seen. The previously mentioned goblet squat is also a great example as it is an easier and safer way to teach the squat than with the bar. It allows you to practice achieving great depth in the squat, gaining flexibility in your hips. Also, there are many corrective type exercises that are great for rehabbing or preventing injuries. There will be an article coming soon on how to use kettlebells for injury prevention.

Pictured above is the Rack Position

Not CrossFit

The strength, conditioning, and flexibility benefits of kettlebells are priceless. All three are a great reason to include kettlebells into your programs. This article didn’t even go into detail about the corrective exercise benefits or the teaching benefits of kettlebells. Rehab or injury prevention for any type of person could have also been a section in this article and will be an article in the future. I touched a little on the teaching benefits of kettlebells when discussing the deadlift and squat and it really is a great tool for teaching the basic movements in a safe manner. I hope that this article shed some light on the benefits of kettlebells and maybe next time you see one you won’t automatically think CrossFit! Please subscribe to this site and share this article so that I can continue to reach more people.

Sports Performance Training: Don’t Outsmart Yourself

“What are you doing in the gym today? Arms? Shoulders? Chest? You’re not doing legs, right?”  “No, I did legs last month.”

 That is usually the exchange that goes on between two gym buddies when discussing their upcoming workout. Focusing on one or even two muscle groups a day is a great way to achieve mass and an aesthetic look while also giving you a great pump. These are your typical bodybuilding style workouts. As an athlete, however, the training needs to be different to fit different needs. I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of young athletes over the past few years and it can be challenging at times to explain to them why they don’t train in this classic bodybuilding style. Most athletes, especially when they are young, start working out because their older brother or friends are doing it. They learn quickly that bench press and curls look and feel awesome. They soon realize that girls dig arms, and no one cares about training legs. They view every exercise in terms of what singular muscle it is focusing on and sometimes breaking that muscle down into an even smaller portion (i.e. upper chest.)

When training for athletic performance you can’t look at the body in terms of muscles or even individual body parts.  Instead, think about everything being interconnected.  I like to think of the human body as a big computer; a complex system where seemingly unrelated parts have an effect on how well each other performs. An athletic feat is rarely the result of a single muscle or body part and the training should represent this. Instead of thinking in terms of training a certain muscle, start thinking about training a movement.

The four basic movements are a press/push, a pull, a squat, and a hinge. You’ll find that these are not only the movements of training but these four movements comprise the movements athletes use most often to perform. These are compound movements meaning to perform each of them correctly you will use more than one joint. This coincides with athletic performance in which you use multiple joints at the same time. Because compound movements use multiple joints and therefore multiple muscle groups, you can move the most weight with these exercises. The best way to move those large amounts of weights is with a barbell. As I discussed in one of my previous articles, “Become Strong,” the barbell is simply the best tool to increase strength. The four barbell exercises that best represent the basic movements are the bench press, strict press, squat and deadlift.  Bent over row variations and pull ups are the most common exercises representing the pulling movement.

These compound movements with a barbell have benefits besides increased strength that cannot always be seen with an untrained eye. One of the major benefits is increased neuromuscular coordination. Neuromuscular coordination is how our nervous system coordinates with our muscles and is one of the biggest contributors to athletic success. Other benefits include improved balance, core strength, power, speed and so on and so forth. I will write separate articles for each of these benefits, but for now, this article will simply bring awareness to the fact that the body is a system and that system works as one unit in athletic performance.

A good example of the difference between the typical bodybuilding style workouts and training for athletic performance would be to compare dumbbell raises and the strict press. If you are unfamiliar with the strict press, check out part two of the four part series “Exercises You Aren’t Doing but Should” on this site. Okay yes, you will get a great pump in your shoulders doing dumbbell raises and if done regularly you will start to develop boulders for shoulders. No doubt a great exercise for building an aesthetic look. However, this exercise isolates only the deltoid muscle (isolation being the goal of bodybuilding). On the other hand when performing a standing strict press the body acts as a system. Anyone who has ever done this exercise feels this right away. The tight glutes set a base for pressing the weight; the spinal erectors and core muscles brace the back and transfer energy from the lower body to the upper body; the deltoids and upper chest help initiate movement of the barbell and the triceps help lock the barbell out over head. All of this occurring while neuromuscular connections are making sure you don’t fall over. With one exercise you just became stronger and improved neuromuscular efficiency, core strength, balance, and transfer of energy. All of which will improve athletic performance.

I hope that this article shed a light on why athletes need to train a certain way. Yes, I know that it sounds basic of me to tell athletes to lift heavy weight with a barbell, but if you have read any of my previous articles you know that I believe the simplest ways are the best ways. I too can come up with five different balance exercises that will look cool and make me sound really smart and I could distract you with new and shiny pieces of equipment that wobble and are brightly colored. Or, I can save you a bunch of time and energy and have you pick a heavy barbell off the ground and press it over your head. Did you fall over? No? Good, you can thank me for your improved athletic performance later. Please subscribe to this site and share this article so that I can reach more readers who may be interested in these topics. Thanks!

 

Become Strong

blog-3

Recently I asked people to tell me their “Why?” Why do they go to the gym every day? What are they hoping to get from it? One of the most common responses to this question is to get bigger and stronger. Whether you’re an athlete training for a sport, a bodybuilder preparing for a contest or show, or someone simply looking to improve your strength, this post is for you.

Most people don’t like to hear this because it is not a new, sexy thing, but the best and most efficient way of getting stronger is basic barbell lifts. Yes, that’s right, the same barbell lifts that have been around forever are still the best way to build strength. That is the reason they have been around forever.
When people come up to me in the gym and ask how to get stronger or how to get a bigger the first question I ask them is if they are doing the standard barbell lifts like benching, squatting, deadlifting or an overhead press. If not, I immediately tell them to add these four lifts into their program for the next month or so and they will already notice they have gotten stronger.

Yes, there are other great ways to get bigger and stronger but if you are looking for the most bang for your buck, lift a barbell. The barbell is the most efficient way of getting stronger simply because you can lift the most weight with it. The lifts are also compound movements. A compound movement is a movement that involves more than one joint, thus involving more muscles. For example, a squat involves the hip, knee and ankle joints. By involving all these joints, multiple muscle groups including the hamstrings, quadriceps, adductors, spinal erectors, etc. are being used to perform the squat. When someone does an exercise like a leg curl or leg extension they are working around one joint (i.e. the knee in this example) and isolating only one muscle group. I used the squat in this example, but this is true for the other barbell lifts as well.
After explaining the importance of needing the barbell lifts to get strong, a common follow-up question I’m asked is, “how heavy to go?” Heavy is five reps or fewer. I never go over 5 reps if I am doing strength work on the barbell lifts. Strength programs are going to have some version of three to five sets of three to five reps. It is important to perform your strength exercises while you are at your strongest and freshest state. So do the barbell lifts first. A great example that I grew up on is doing a heavy bench first on chest day, a heavy squat first on leg day, etc. Perform the sets at or near full recovery so take between two and three minute rest between sets. This is a common mistake I see so pay attention to your rest periods and don’t rush it! I write all of this with caution because you should be competent with the technique aspect before trying heavy weight.
I won’t delve into the technique aspect of the barbell lifts because each lift will be its own individual article. Those articles will be coming soon so stay tuned!

One of my favorite quotes comes from 8x Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, in which he says “Everyone wants to be strong, but don’t nobody want to lift heavy-ass weights.” To get strong you have to lift heavy. At times, it really is that simple. So I challenge you that if you have the technique down to go and lift heavy and don’t be afraid to feel the strain of heavy weight, learn to love it, because that is how you will become strong.