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10 Versions of the Push-Up

The motivation to write this article comes from a driving force to remind people that often times in life the simple answer is the correct answer. Unfortunately, what seems to happen more often yet, is over complication of simple matters. In the fitness world, novices or the uneducated are guilty of this most of the time. In my opinion this happens for two reasons. One, it just seems too simple to be true and thus something more complicated must be the answer. Two, people just want to feel or look smarter for coming up with a complicated equation to solve a simple solution. These two reasons, even though they are wrong, are the only reasons I can think of for the lack of popularity surrounding the push-up in strength training.

If you are a frequent visitor of this blog you know my thoughts on the importance using the barbell lifts to build strength no matter your goals. However, a close second is body weight exercises and for the purpose of this article specifically the push-up. The push-up has been around since the beginning of time yet most people brush it off when it is referred to as one of best exercises to build upper body strength. I can only assume that this is because most people perceive it as boring and too simple to be so effective. In reality, it still is and always will be, one of the most effective ways of building not only upper body strength but also shoulder stability and health. For these reasons, it is one of the best accessory lifts you can choose to build a bigger bench press or overhead press yet I rarely ever see anyone doing pushups in the commercial gyms I visit. This can also be because pushups are generally very difficult for the untrained individual. Now, I have never not done an exercise because I deemed it boring. Heck I’d watch paint dry if I thought it would give me a bigger bench press. However, I am also not naïve to the fact that some may find the push up boring and I also respect the push-up enough to know that it can be very difficult for some people. So in the following sections I have provided how I teach my clients to progress the push-up and also different variations of the push-up you can try with all being effective in their own way.

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How to Break Through Plateaus

It’s inevitable. You will hit a wall or plateau of sorts on your major lifts. Yes, you can cruise along for a relatively long time adding small amounts of weight each time you perform a lift. The more of a novice you are the longer this period will continue. Enjoy it and take full advantage of “beginner gains”. However, as you become more experienced and your training age increases the jumps in weight will become smaller and smaller until you hit a plateau and your increases start to flat line. At this point, an inexperienced lifter will become frustrated. He or she will continue to try the same weight over and over again until they eke out a rep even if it takes another number of weeks. On the other hand, an experienced lifter will know that this is just part of the game and will strategize and create a game plan of sorts to move past this plateau. In the following sections I have provided some of those strategies along with a few tips for less experienced lifters. Also, note that the major lifts are the bench press, deadlift, squat, and overhead press.

 

Beginners

  • Note: “Beginners” refers to anyone that is relatively inexperienced with the “big” lifts and also inexperienced with following a structured program. You can be a “beginner” even if you have been working out for years.
  • Stick to the 3-5 rule. Perform some combination of 3-5 sets with 3-5 reps.
  • Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program is perfect for this. 5 sets of 5 increasing the weight each week.
  • Start light. Give yourself time to “grease the groove” and become proficient with the technique of the major lifts. Starting light also allows for more improvement for a longer period of time.
  • Small increases in weight. You don’t need to “max” out each week. Increasing the upper body lifts by 5 pounds each week and the lower body lifts by 10 pounds per week is more than enough, if you start light. Increases smaller than this might be even more beneficial.

 

Strategies for More Advanced Lifters

Use Percentages

 

  • Once you have experience with the major lifts and your technique is at least proficient I highly recommend the use of percentages in your program. Are there programs that don’t utilize percentages all the time? Sure, I previously mentioned the Starting Strength program which I love and which also does not use percentages. However, the use of percentages will allow you to have a long term plan and goal.
  • The use of percentages ensures that you are continuing along a path that is sustainable for a longer period of time and it also gives you a clear picture of how much you are improving.
  • Two of my favorite programs that utilize percentages are Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program and Chad Wesley Smith’s Juggernaut program.

 

Same but Different

  • This strategy is probably the most difficult to follow especially if you have an inflated ego which I’m sure is not the case with most young lifters right?
  • It’s tough to follow through with this strategy because it calls for completely ignoring the lift you are trying to improve on for a period of time and doing something a little different instead.
  • It’s called same but different because in this strategy you will ignore the lift you are trying to improve upon and perform a similar exercise instead. For example, instead of performing the flat bench press you will instead program around the incline bench press. Or instead of programming the back squat you perform the front squat for a period of time.
  • This works for two major reasons. One, your mind and body gets a rest from the exercise you have been desperately been trying to improve for a period of time. In my opinion, the mental rest is just as beneficial as the physical one. Two, by working on the same movement just in a slightly different way you are actually working on a portion of the lift that may be lacking and holding you back on your “main” exercise.
  • You don’t necessarily have to do the same but different exercise for an entire training cycle but for a substantial amount of time maybe a month or 6 weeks would suffice.

I have personally done and seen this strategy work wonders in a relatively short period of time.

 

Train Weak Points

  • This is not for beginners because everything is a weak point for you. So do everything and do it often. Do not overthink this part of your programming.
  • Training Weak points will always be a necessary part of your programming.
  • The toughest thing for some people will be realizing what there weak points are. If you are one of the many people unsure what there weak points are try this; think about the accessory exercises, movements, and/or body parts that are your least favorite to execute. Those are most likely your weak points. People avoid doing what they don’t enjoy and most become a weak point.
  • If still unsure what your weak points are sit down and evaluate your program. What is missing or what haven’t you done in a while. Take note of the accessory lifts you are doing when your numbers are increasing but also take note of what you avoided when you hit your plateau.
  • You can also ask other people. Ask your lifting buddy who sees you perform the lift, ask a more experienced lifter for advice, etc.

 

Rest Days

  • Yes, rest days are important and I know it may strange coming from me, heck it feels weird typing this out. However, rest days are very important if you want to gain maximal strength.
  • This article was written to give you advice on increasing maximal strength in your major lifts when you hit a plateau. We weren’t discussing bodybuilding or any other type of training.
  • Your body needs to be as fully recovered as possible when strength is the goal.
  • If you do something the day before that is going to negatively affect your main lift the next day that is counterproductive to what we discussed in this article today.

 

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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

 

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Different Versions of the Triceps Pushdown

Bodybuilding style training is fun. Not only for the results that it produces but because of the variety it allows. Whereas other forms of training require some sort of strict progression in order to progress, bodybuilding not only allows for variation, it is a requirement for success. In order to accomplish their dream physique, bodybuilders not only have to worry about the size of their muscles but equally important is the shape and symmetry of their muscle groups. They accomplish this by attacking the same muscle group from different angles throughout their routine. This is where the variety kicks in. This is a big reason why I enjoy bodybuilding style training, you can do the same exercise over and over again with a slightly different twist each time. Changing the angle of the exercise ensures that you are creating a new stimulation of the muscle fibers which in turns creates well-rounded size and shape. Changing angles can be done a few different ways such as changing your grip, the handle being used, and also your body position. Although different angles can and should be used for every exercise and muscle group I have chosen to discuss the triceps muscle in this article and specifically different ways to execute the triceps pushdown, an exercise that most people are familiar with. P.S. I chose to just number the variations because well, who really has names for each of these?

Variation #1

Can’t play video? Click here: Variation 1 video 1

Can’t play video? Click here: Variation 1 video 2

This variation using two different handles is probably the most common of the ones I will discuss. This is also the more conventional push-down. Meaning elbows tucked to the side, pivoting just at the elbow, squeezing at the bottom, controlled movement on the way up. Neither handle is better than the other. Remember, we want to use as many different handles as possible and if you’re lucky enough to be at a gym that has different kinds of handles try them all at this conventional angle.

Variation #2


Can’t play video? Click here: Variation 2

This variation is unilateral which allows you to focus on one arm at a time. As seen in the above video, no handle is needed as you simply grab the cable. In this variation you are going across your body and then down. I use my opposite hand to stabilize my working arm by placing it in my arm-pit allowing my working arm to rest on it.

Variation #3


Can’t play video? Click here: Variation 3

This variation is unique because the position of your palm will change. Instead of your palm facing the floor like in most pushdown variations in this one your palm will be facing up. You can think of it as simply a reverse grip. Other than the grip, this variation is very closely related to the “conventional” pushdown shown in the first variation. You can pin your elbow to your side and press straight down towards the floor. By changing your grip you will stimulate the triceps in a different way. As with most of these variations you can also change the angle by changing your own body position by standing a different way. Depending how you stand your elbow may not be pinned to your side but as long as you can control the movement you are fine. There have been many professional bodybuilders that have said they have found great success by standing and executing an exercise in the same way they pose on stage. Bottom line, don’t be afraid to try almost anything to create a different stimulus, and if it feels good then you have found success.

Variation #4


Can’t play video? Click here: Variation 4

This variation can be tough to master at first. It is different than the previous ones because you are going to stand a short distance from the cable machine and you are also not in the upright position. Watching the above video will be most helpful for you to understand how to stand but it may help you to think of the position you are in if you have ever done kneeling cable crunches. The position of your torso is very similar except you are standing. You will need to use a rope handle for the exercise. This is a great exercise to target the hard to reach long head of your triceps, the part that runs up towards your armpit. By developing this part of your triceps you will start to create that separation of your delt and triceps that everyone loves. At the top of the movement you should feel an awesome stretch in your triceps, and if you don’t then try and reposition yourself until you do.

 

These are four variations of the triceps pushdown that I like to use quite frequently in my routines. With these four variations you are hitting the triceps in almost every way possible in a pushdown exercise. The great thing about bodybuilding style training is that there are no rules so be sure to constantly look for and experiment new ways to do old things. If it feels good then you are not wrong.

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Implementing a Movement Based Program

One reason I love training athletes is the entirety of the training. When training athletes, there is more to it than putting as much weight as possible on the bar. I am passionate about making sure my programs have as few holes as possible, making it as complete as it can be. Yes, when training athletes getting stronger is obviously an enormous goal, but along with that an effective program should cover many different facets of training.

One of those “holes” that I take pride in covering is restoring natural human movement to my athletes. Yes, as a high school strength and conditioning coach I work specifically with high school athletes by restoring natural human movement patterns, which should be a part of every athletes program no matter their age or skill level. You may ask “If these movements come natural then why must we train them?” The answer is a simple, “If you don’t use it you lose it.”

Even great athletes find most of the natural movements surprisingly difficult at first because they likely haven’t done it in years. Exercises that they are more accustomed to, such as bench pressing and box squatting, will no doubt make them strong as hell, and if that is their sole purpose then great. However, athletes are in the weight room as a way to help them reach their full potential as an athlete on the field, court, etc. Getting strong in lifts like the bench press or box squat is certainly important but those are simply a means to an end and not their sole purpose.

Why is restoring these movement patterns important?

Think of the natural movement patterns in terms of nutrition. Without having any formal education or background in nutrition, most people generally know what is good to eat and what isn’t. I would hope most people can look at an apple and a doughnut and choose which one is better for them. Moving naturally is good “nutrition” for the human body. After all, it is natural for a reason. By restoring movement patterns that should come natural to us we can ensure that the foundation we are building on is as safe and efficient as it can be.

Natural movement creates a healthy foundation for athletes and is important because not everything athletes do is naturally healthy for their bodies. There is nothing natural about running into another human being for three hours a night on a football field or throwing thousands of baseballs on a baseball diamond. These movements are a lot like the doughnuts. They are fun to do but not too healthy for our bodies going forward. An athlete’s life being the way that it is with the doughnuts being necessary we need to make sure we are countering those doughnuts as much as possible by taking in as many apples as possible. Moving naturally would be the apple in this scenario.  

This is where my job as strength and conditioning coach comes in. I include as many natural movements or “apples” in my programming as possible. The idea is to use these natural movements to create a solid foundation on which the athletes can build upon with strength training and other forms of sports performance. Otherwise, if we jump straight into strength training and speed and agility work, along with other aspects of training without building a solid foundation of movement we are simply adding to the problem and bringing more “doughnuts” to the table.

How do I implement a movement based program?
  • Implement natural human movements into the program.
    • Crawling
    • Hanging
    • Rolling
  • Full range or it simply does not count. For example, when we perform pull-ups they are full hang strict pull ups, when we squat we always go full depth.
  • Perform conventional exercises on an unstable surface (I.e. gymnastic rings)
    • Push-ups
    • Inverted rows
    • Pull-ups
  • Include all the planes of movement each workout.
    • Horizontal Press/Vertical Pull
  • Implement unilateral (one side at a time) exercises for every bilateral (both sides at time) exercise we do.

Injuries are bound to happen in sports, its part of the game. What I can say though through my three years as a strength coach at the high school level and a couple more at the collegiate level is that by restoring natural movement patterns I have not only seen a decrease in soft tissue, non-contact injuries, and overuse injuries, but I have also seen improvement in the ways my athletes move in the weight room. Who would have thought that by improving an athlete’s body weight squat and goblet squat their back squat would improve? I just had to throw some sarcasm in their somewhere didn’t I?

Here is a list of natural human movement patterns and examples of how we do them in my program no matter what sport I am training.

Crawling
  • Bear crawl forwards
  • Bear crawl backwards
  • Crab crawl forwards
  • Crab crawl backwards
Benefits:
  • Shoulder stability (Compression)
  • Hip mobility
  • Coordination
  • Movement of synovial fluid
Bear Crawl


Can’t play video? Click here: Bear Crawl

Crab Crawl


Can’t play video? Click here: Crab Crawl
Hanging
  • Dead hangs
  • Knees to elbows (On rings)
  • Flips (On rings)
Benefits:
  • Grip strength
  • Shoulder strength
  • Decompression of axial skeleton
  • Upper body stretch
Knees to Elbows


Can’t play video? Click here: Knee to Elbows

Flips


Can’t play video? Click here: Flips
Rolling
  • Shoulder rolls
  • Front rolls
  • Hollow throws
Benefits:
  • Body awareness
  • Mobility
  • Learning how to fall
Shoulder Rolls


Can’t play video? Click here: Shoulder Rolls

Hollow Throws


Can’t play video? Click here: Hollow Throws
Carrying
Press/Push
  • Vertical Presses
    • Barbell strict press
    • Barbell push press
    • Kettlebell press (unilateral)
    Horizontal Presses
    • Bench press
    • Sled push
    • Push-ups (conventional or rings)
Pull
  • Vertical Pulls
    • Pull-ups/Chin-ups
    • Rope climbs
  • Horizontal Pulls
    • Inverted rows (bar or rings)
    • Single arm inverted rows (unilateral)
    • Sled pulls
Squat
(All Full Depth)
  • Goblet Squat
  • Back Squat
  • Font Squat
  • Zercher
  • Pistol Squat (unilateral)
Hinge
  • Barbell deadlifts
  • Barbell RDL’s
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • One leg RDL’s (unilateral)

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Stop Counting Reps and Sets

Even at an early age I was an analytical person. I needed to know specifics about why I was doing something and what the expected outcome would be. I guess being this way meant that the opposite was also true, because I hated flying by the seat of my pants. I hated not having a plan and could never understand how people could just go by feel, especially when trying to accomplish a goal. So when I began weight training at the high school in the summer before my freshmen year and the coach gave us our workout sheet to record everything we did I was in nerd heaven. We recorded our sets, reps, and the weight we used. Being the nerd that I am, I made notes in the margins about technique, how the weight felt, etc. I loved seeing my improvement from week to week even if it was in small amounts. Luckily for me loving this process is probably the biggest reason I quickly became one of the strongest athletes on the team, even keeping up with kids a couple years older than me. When trying to become stronger, keeping to a strict number of sets and reps and methodically increasing the weight will work wonders. I guess what I am trying to say is that when wanting to get stronger it is always wise to have a plan.

 

Now, I told that story so I could tell this story. As told above, I began weight training as a means to be a better football player. My number one goal was to become stronger and remained my goal until my playing days were over. However, my love for bodybuilding continued to grow as I got older. In the off-season’s I would play around with certain exercises and bodybuilding techniques to see if I could get a specific body part to grow or look better. This experimenting worked and I grew bigger and more developed aesthetically. What I also did was carry over my analytical brain to my bodybuilding training. I kept notebooks upon notebooks of sets, reps, and weights used. I used the same exercises for weeks and even months, afraid to stray off script and ruin any progression I had created. This worked, to an extent. However, I eventually began hitting walls and plateaus, not seeing the improvement in muscle size or shape I was accustomed to. This frustrated me because I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing, or so I thought. I realized something needed to change so my nerd side took over and I began to research and read all the bodybuilding content I could get my hands on. What I realized was that what needed to change was my way of thinking. I had to pretty much do the exact opposite of what I had done when I was training for strength. Bodybuilding is more about feel and less about staying on script. This was an enormous challenge mentally for me. I hated the thought of just going by how I felt and not having a concrete plan. I needed to make a conscience effort to change my way of thinking and it worked! This is what I did:

Changes I Made
  • I stopped counting my reps, instead went to failure more often.
  • I stopped counting all my sets, if a certain exercise felt really good that day I kept doing more and more sets.
  • I stopped writing down my accessory exercises.
  • If an exercise didn’t feel good on a certain day I scratched it and moved on.
  • I switched up the exercises I did more often. Sometimes every workout.
  • I payed more attention to how my muscle felt during the exercise.

 

Now, I don’t want to confuse you. Weight training is about progressive overload. No matter your goals your body needs a reason to change or it simply won’t. You must consistently challenge your body’s limits in order to induce change. There are times to have a concrete plan and record absolutely everything you do. There are also times where you must go by feel and listen to what your body is telling you. In order to help you differentiate when the right time to do either one is I have made a list for each circumstance.

When to Record Weights, Reps, Sets, Etc.
  • When strength is the goal.
  • When you are following a specific program in order to achieve a certain goal.
  • When your goal is a tangible aspect such as a maximal weight or reps performed.
When Not to Record Weights, Reps, Sets, Etc.
  • When training for size and or shape.
  • When executing accessory type exercises.
  • When an exercise feels really good. (Just keep going through sets)
  • When an exercise feels “off”. (Scratch it and move on)

Again, this is just what worked for me. You may find that other tactics work for you but I hope that this gives you some idea of how different ways of thinking can lead to differing results.

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3 Exercises to Improve Bench Press Lockout

In all the years that I have been weight training I can count on one hand the amount of people I have come across in the weight room that wasn’t trying to get a bigger bench press. This is not counting the hamsters running on the elliptical for an hour at a time. Everybody, and I mean everybody, wants a bigger bench press and if you are the one person that doesn’t well then just keep quiet because you are weird anyways. I will always say that the best way to get good at something is to simply do it and do it often. If you want a bigger bench press then you must bench and bench often. However, there are ways to be creative and work on specific parts of the lift. Training specific parts of a lift is a form of weak point training and is how powerlifters train for competitions. Side note, you do not need to be a powerlifter training for a competition to use these techniques. Instead of looking at the bench press as one single lift we break it down into one lift that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are exercises and techniques to target each of these different parts of the lift and in this article I want to focus on the “end” of the lift which we refer to as the top or lockout portion. This is a common part of the lift to get stuck on, myself included. In the bench press the lockout portion of the lift involves a good bit of triceps so these three exercises I am about to discuss will also improve your triceps strength and size. These three exercises are very similar with some slight differences that make each unique but effective at helping you improve the lockout portion of your bench and thus a bigger bench overall.

Pin Press

The pin press is a great exercise for training to maintain tightness in the upper back, especially at the bottom of the lift, something that most lifters struggle with. It also trains explosiveness out of the “hole” or bottom portion of the lift because you are pressing from a dead-stop. However, as stated in the intro, the greatest advantage that I find with the pin press is the benefits of improving the lockout portion of the bench press. By shortening the range of motion of the lift, the pin press allows you to handle heavier weight and overload your shoulders and triceps. This will improve both your shoulder and triceps size and strength which will in turn strengthen your lockout. What separates the pin press from the floor press is that your entire body is still included in the pin press, legs included, something that the floor press does not include in the lift.


Can’t play video? Click here: Pin Press

In the video you will notice that the pins are placed right above my chest. I like placing the pins directly above my chest, not too high above, so that I can also practice staying tight at the bottom of the lift.

Floor Press

The floor press is unique because it takes away the bench. You set the pins at the very bottom of the rack and lay flat on the floor. Usually it puts you in a tough spot to un-rack the weight yourself so you may need a liftoff. Your legs are also lying flat on the floor, this will completely take your legs out of the equation. By taking your legs out of the lift even more emphasis is placed on your triceps. This is the reason this lift is effective at increasing triceps strength and size.


Can’t play video? Click here: Floor Press

In the video I am pausing at the bottom of every rep. The length of the pause can very but I highly recommend pausing to train explosiveness out of the bottom of the lift.

Board Press

The board press is a great exercise for training every possible sticking point of the bench press. You can use a one board press, a two board, three board, and a four board press for training different sticking points throughout the bench press. For the purpose of training the lockout phase of the bench press a three-board press is usually the go-to exercise. This obliviously shortens the range of motion so that you can handle heavier weight. The tough part of this lift is that you usually need two buddies to help you out. One holding the board on your chest and the other to give you a spot. You want to make sure that you keep a normal bar path when executing a board press. Do not change anything you normally do in your conventional bench press.


Can’t play video? Click here: Board Press

There are two ways you can use the board press. One way is like how I did it in the above video, bring the bar into the boards and think about squeezing the bar down into the boards, like you are trying to crack the board. This is a great way to train to squeeze your back, maintaining tightness throughout the lift. The other way is to barely touch the board before pressing it back up. This is effective at training to maintain control throughout the lift.

 

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