Archive for October, 2012

Hey man, how much do you bench?

If I was paid a pound every time I was asked this question, I’d be pretty rich by now.  For whatever reason, how much you can lift on the traditional barbell bench press seems to be the exercise that people use to measure how strong anyone that lifts weights is. It goes without saying that the bench press is an excellent compound exercise to build a strong and thick chest as well as develop the triceps and shoulders. However, to use it as the sole bench mark for how strong you are is a bit misleading. There is no point in being able to bench press 150kg for 20 reps but not be able to squat or deadlift even half that much. To be truly strong, you need to develop a good strength foundation in all the big lifts.  A strong bench press is only one part of the equation.

Yeah I agree, but I still want to bench press heavy weight!

Most guys, including me, want to be able to bench press heavy weights. I’ve always lagged behind in pressing movements such as the bench press and shoulder press despite making good gains in deadlifts and squats. So I set myself the goal of improving both my bench press and shoulder press. I’m not looking to be able to bench press 140kg for 10 reps over night, but have opted to make small increments over the next year in the hope that these small increments will accumulate into some impressive pressing this time next year. As well as making small increments to the weight, I’ve started to include some assistance exercises into my routine to help strengthen the supporting muscles such as the triceps and lats. By adding in some assistance work I’ve definitely noticed an improvement to my pressing exercises over the last four weeks, especially the standing overhead barbell press.

Blast your bench press with these assistance movements

1)      Advance range of motion push ups

2)      Pull ups

3)      Plyometric Push ups

4)      Recline Rows

5)      Dips

6)      Bodyweight tricep extension

7)      Partner handwalking

Some of the exercises above are a bit difficult to describe and are best illustrated with a video. The link below is actually the video where I first came across the body weight tricep extensions. These are tough but really great for building tricep strength which, in turn, has helped me improved my bench press and shoulder press.

In addition to the video above, it’s also worth checking out the Diesel Strength and Conditioning website as there is comprehensive guide on bench press technique as well tips on how to improve overall strength.

http://www.dieselsc.com/how-to-bench-press/

As always, make sure you warm up properly before attempting any of these exercises and don’t attempt them if you carrying any injuries!

A lot people would love to build muscle and burn fat at the same time. The problem that most but the genetically gifted few have, is that the surplus calories needed for muscle gain often leads to an increase in some unwanted fat. Or, on the other hand if you cut down calories too much and perform endless cardio in order to lose fat, you end up stalling muscle gains and in a lot of cases even lose muscle. One answer to this common conundrum is to add some high intensity conditioning work to your training program. Not only will this help you build muscle and burn fat, but it will also improve your power and strength, isn’t as boring as pounding away on a treadmill and doesn’t take as long!

Anyone that has had to help someone push a broken down car will testify that it’s a full body activity and after just a short distance of pushing,  it leaves the legs feeling pumped, the lungs burning and heart beating like crazy.  This is precisely what you need to be build muscle and burn fat. So why not use car pushing as a training tool to help reach your fitness goals.

I’ve started to include car pushing and sprint sessions into my workouts and have really started to notice an improvement in my overall strength and conditioning. I’ve even got a few extra guys from the gym interested and it’s starting to become quite competitive!

All you need is a car, someone you control the steering and brakes, and an open space! I use a piece of tarmac that runs adjacent to the 100 meter section of the local athletics track so it’s easy to mark out the distances. I’m currently using an Audi A4 estate, or ‘wagon’, if you’re reading in the USA.  It weighs about 1350kg but the aim is to eventually work our way up to something bigger! 

This is the routine I follow. I try to do it on a separate day to lifting weights but sometimes I just do shortened version immediately after a weights session.

Warning: The workout below is an example of what I do to help build muscle and burn fat and is for information only. Keep in mind that it is a really intense workout so if you want to try it out please ensure the following:

1) Do NOT do this workout if you have any medical conditions or injuries that could be adversly impacted by this workout.

2) DO consult a doctor prior to trying this workout.

3) Make sure you find a suitable and safe place to do the workout. It should on a quiet piece of tarmac and or field and shouldn’t be where there is other traffic. Ideally is should be on private land and you should have the landowners permission to use it. Make sure there isn’t any danger of a person, animal or property getting damaged!

4) Make sure the person controlling the car while you are pushing is able to do so and has a drivers licence.

5) After each length of pushing, you may need to start the car to prevent the brakes from ceasing up.

The Routine

1)      Warm up by going for a gentle jog for about 5 minutes or whatever works best for you

2)      Mark out your chosen distance. I use 50-60 meters.

3)      Start pushing the car, driving hard with your legs and aim to build up as much speed as you can. Keep driving right through to the finishing point.

4)      Once you get to the finishing point immediately walk round to the front of the car and push it back to the starting point. The push back to the start doesn’t need to be flat out but the aim is to push it all the way back without stopping

5)      By now you’lll be feeling shattered! So take a few minutes rest and repeat steps 3 and 4 till you have done it a total of 5 times.

6)      Once the car pushing is done, loosen up and then do three 50 meter sprints. These need to be flat out.

7)      By now your legs will be pumped and you lungs will be burning. It’s now time to go for brisk walk for about 10 minutes to warm down.  That’s it! It doesn’t take long but is really effective.

When you first start, you may not feel up to doing some sprints after the car pushing. Don’t worry about it and just build up to it. Feel free to change things up a bit. I’m thinking of adding some farmers walks into the routine and turning it into kind of a mini strong man medley!

So why not give car pushing a go. Get some friends to join in and turn it into a little competition. Start pushing cars and one thing is for sure, you’ll never worry about running out of petrol again!

You’ve probably cottoned on to the fact that I feel really strongly training legs. If you use the analogy of building a house, you wouldn’t have weak foundations with solid brick on top. If you did, the whole thing would come crashing down. The body is the same. Your legs are your foundations so they need to be strong. I’ve been doing a new workout for legs for the last few weeks and it really seems to be working so I thought I’d share it with you guys.

For the last few years I’ve been training alone and have become pretty used to being able to stay motivated and push myself hard. However, I recently started training with an old friend. This is the guy who originally introduced me to weight lifting. Over the last few weeks, the one thing that has become painfully clear, and I mean really painfully clear is that I’ve been training well within in my comfort zone for the last few years. I wouldn’t say I’ve just been going through the motions but I probably haven’t gotten as strong as I possibly could have. Having someone to train with has reintroduced the element of healthy competition and increased motivation. This in turn has helped to crank up the intensity levels of the workouts.

It’s not just me that’s noticing the increased intensity either! The other day, a guy came up to me in the gym and asked, “Are you going to compete?” I was a bit bemused, because I don’t look like a pro bodybuilder or strongman but I assume he meant one of those two things. When I asked why he thought I was competing (in whatever he thought it was) he simply said “because you’ve got a coach”. I found this  amusing but I can see how a training partner giving simple instructions and motivation during a set can look like he’s coach!

Anyway, on to the new leg routine. In the few years that we haven’t trained together, we’ve both developed different approaches to building leg muscle and strength. I tend to favour barbell squats, Bulgarian split squats, and walking lunges for the core exercises. I tend not to use any of the machines such as leg extension. My friend on the other hand, due to an injury a long time ago prefers to avoid heavy squats and prefers more of a bodybuilding routine utilising the pre-exhaustion theory and sticks to the leg press machine. We decided that in order to train together, we would follow his routine for muscle hypertrophy (muscle size growth) one week and my routine strength based routine the next. At first I was sceptical, but having run the program for few weeks, I’m starting to feel the benefits of changing things up a little bit.

A quick word on pre-exhaustion

This is a strength training method that was popularised by bodybuilder Mike Mentzer. The object of any exercise is to reach failure, often times during heavy compound movements like Bench press, your tricep and shoulder muscles may burn out BEFORE the larger chest muscles. This means that you are not quite able to take your chest to complete failure as you are limited by the strength of your Tris/shoulders. So, the idea of pre exhausting is to perform an isolation exercise for the large muscle right before performing the compound movement. What this does is to exhaust the large muscle (the chest) and then when you do the compound movement such as the bench press, it gives the smaller muscles a better opportunity to help your chest reach complete failure. The amount of weight you can lift on the compound movement following pre exhaustion will be lower but failure is much more likely to be achieved and failure is what increases muscle mass and strength.

So, here are the basic two leg routines that we alternate each week.

Leg Routine 1:

Warm up = Cycle or cross trainer for 5 – 10 minutes

Barbell squat = 5 sets (2 warm ups and 3 all out working sets) 5 = 10 reps

Leg press / Walking lunges / Bulgarian split squat = 2 heavy sets of 10 – 15 reps (Just select one of the above exercises)

Romanian deadlift = 3 sets x 10 reps

Standing calf raises = 3 – 5 sets. As many reps as possible on each set.

Abdominal superset: Weighted decline sit ups x 20 reps – Lying leg raises x 2- reps – Hanging leg or knew raises x 20 reps

Leg Routine 2:

Warm up = Cycle or cross trainer for 5 – 10 minutes

Deadlifts = 5 sets (2 warm ups and 3 working sets) 5-6 reps

Superset x 3 sets

Leg extension machine 12 reps + Leg press x 10+ reps.

Standing calf raises = 1 drop set till failure

Abdominal superset: Weighted decline sit ups x 20 reps – Lying leg raises x 2- reps – Hanging leg or knew raises x 20 reps

Note: Every rep on the superset must be performed in a controlled and slow fashion. Really ensure that you pause at the top of every rep for the leg extension. Your quads should be burning by the time to get to the leg press machine. The aim on the leg press is to go as heavy as you can safely manage.

The two routines above don’t look like much on paper, but trust me, you’ll really be gassing at the end and your legs will feel pumped if you push yourself. Give them a go and let me know what you think.

One final note, as always, is to make sure your form is perfect on every exercise. If your form isn’t perfect then lower the weight to that which you can do perfectly.

Whenever I get asked about a good exercise for the back, the first one I always suggest is the pull up. This is one of my favourite ‘go to’ exercises. Pull ups are great because, not only do they help you develop a muscular, strong and V-shaped back but they also hit your rear deltoids, blast your biceps and help your forearm and grip strength. They’re also brilliant because, providing you have a decent pull up bar, you don’t even need to go to the gym.

However, despite how awesome pull ups are for building upper body muscle and strength, I very rarely see people include them in their workouts. Now, if you are seriously heavy you’d be forgiven for using the excuse that your body weight is too much for you to lift. But even then, I don’t think body weight is really an excuse that most people should use. I’ve seen Olympic hammer throwers crank out 10 plus pull ups with added weights hanging around their waist. These are guys whose bodyweight alone is around 120kgs!

A lot of people obsess about how much they can bench press or bicep curl but many neglect the need to develop a strong back. A lot of guys will just do a few sets of half baked lat pull downs with a weight that is a fraction of their body weight. This isn’t going to help to build a strong back and arms.

But I can’t do pull ups, you say?

More often than not, when I suggest doing pull ups to build the back, the responses I get are “but pull ups are hard” or “I can’t do any pull ups” or “I can only do 3 pull ups”. Well, so what if they are hard or you can’t currently do any. That’s all the more reason to do them! Think about it, if you can’t do any now, but in a few weeks or even months have worked up to being able to do 10 or even more bodyweight or weighted pull ups, you’ll be much stronger and will have a strong muscular back and arms to show for it!

How to increase the number of pull ups you can

I’m pretty sure most of you know what a pull up is but just for clarity, I’m talking about the kind where you hang off a bar and pull your self up so that your chin is above the bar and your chest almost touches the bar. Use complete range of motion i.e. a complete rep is one where you start with your arms straight at the bottom postion and pull your self up so that your chin is above the bar and then back down again. The best way to increase the amount of pull ups you can do, and the technique I used is to do the following:

1)      Set your self a target such as 20 reps

2)      Start your first set and do as many pull ups as you can

3)      Rest for a minute

4)      Let’s say you performed 3 reps on the first set. You have 17 reps to go

5)      Continue to do more sets of pull ups until you have completed a total of 20 reps. Note down how many sets it took you to do 20 reps and how many reps in each set. For example you may do 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1 which is 10 sets.

6)      The next time you perform pull ups, your target is to do the 20 reps in less sets than last time. You also want try and do more reps in the first few sets. So you might do 7, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1. As you can see, while the sets have remained the same, you managed 7 reps in the first set so it’s still an improvement

7)      Keep doing this at least twice a week until you can 20 reps in 2 sets of 10 reps or even better. Once you get to that point you can start thinking about using a belt to add weight for increased difficulty.

Band assisted pull ups

If you currently can’t do any pull ups and have really tried to do one, I mean really tried, then you can start by doing band assisted pull ups. These are a bit difficult to describe and are best illustrated by the video below. That isn’t me in the video by the way, its just one that I found on YouTube and demonstrates assisted pull ups well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TindOf7zyXM

No more excuses

So now you have no excuse not to do pull ups. Include them in your workout and say hello to a bigger and stronger back coupled with bigger biceps, forearms and improved grip strength.