By Lee Boyce
We’ve all been there.
You lace up your Chuck Taylors with the world in front of you, ready to get the pump of your life when you enter the gym. You want your lats to resemble wings of a majestic eagle…
...And you leave the gym looking resembling the very same small, charred sparrow you entered as.
It isn’t uncommon to have a workout or two where you’re just “not feeling it” per se, but problems may arise where results are concerned when this happens more than just a couple of times. Less the spandex suit and cape, I’ve come to save the day. I decided to use points from all over the map and break them up by body region for a comprehensive “listicle” of eight of my favourite tactics to get the most out of your workouts – especially if you’re having an off day.
Tip 1: Pressing muscles need scapular stability.
In most cases, the limiting factor in many upper body pushing exercises is the rotator cuff. When experiencing pain or instability during say, an incline bench press, lifters may attempt to solve the issue by focusing on the site of the pain. They will start doing rotational exercises with dumbbells or cables. It helps to remember, however, that all 4 rotator cuff muscles actually originate on the scapula. That said, the scapular retractors will be trained more effectively through, well, scapular retractions. The goal should be to get the scapulae as close together as possible when pressing, and fill the surrounding muscles with as much blood so that their range of motion gets limited. This will cut off any unwanted movement from the shoulder during the presses, and stabilize the joint to bear load. It could be as simple as doing a light set of rows or reverse flies between sets, just to restore vital tightness in preparation for the next set. You’ll definitely notice a difference in your pressing strength when you do.
Tip 2: The muscles of the back are highly composed of slow twitch muscle fibres.
Knowing this, the way we train our backs shouldn’t be quite the same as the way we train our chest or shoulders. The powerful fast twitch fibres which generally dominate these regions respond very well in terms of strength and size to low repetition training. All the postural muscles of the back are “designed” to maintain mild contractions for the greater part of the day, granted you’re a guy with good posture. These thoughts in mind, try training the back for a little more muscular endurance. From personal experience, and from experience with my clients, I’ve noticed the most strength and size increases from higher-rep back training (12 reps minimum) for most exercises. Of course, for the huge movements like deadlifts and weighted pullups, this rule doesn’t as strictly apply. But for less compound movements, especially any rowing variations, it’s a great choice to try lifting moderately heavy weight for high reps. If you still don’t get the picture, here’s a video of the infamous Matt Kroc doing 1 arm dumbbell rows with a 200lb dumbbell for 25 reps.
Tip 3: Height matters.
If you’re anything like me, you’re definitely not built for putting on size. Not to say you’re currently taking training advice from a 98 pound weakling – I’ve definitely Jonesed my way into at least some form of appreciable muscle. Here’s the point to take home. If you’re a taller guy with long extremities, the impressive physique can be harder to come by based on the huge surface area any new muscle has to cover. Taken further, the way guys like us perform exercises may not be exactly the way our vertically challenged counterparts will – especially where range of motion is concerned. Take the lat pulldown or pullups. A long humerus (upper arm bone) will mean the lats will reach full contraction with it being slightly further away from the body than a shorter lever. This would translate into what appears to be an “incomplete” range of motion; the chest may not make it all the way to the bar, or vice versa. However, in this way an insufficient back pump will be avoided since your biceps, traps, and pec minor don’t have the chance to “kick in” to the lift to muscle the remaining few inches through.
If you’re a long armed guy with really messed up shoulders like I mentioned above, it may be wise to cut your range of motion in your bench press and incline bench press by 2 to 3 inches from the bottom, preferably favouring the pin press as the new main pressing movement. This small modification can make a world of difference as it adjusts elbow position and doesn’t bring a pair of bum shoulders into impingement territory.
Tip 4: Take the focus away from your quads.
In many situations, lifters may think the emphasis is towards one muscle group when the truth is, the muscle being “avoided” is just as involved as it’s always been. A good example comes with split stance training. One legged exercises (lunging, split squats and the like) are known to raise glute activity. But if you have tight quads, or a pre-existing muscle imbalance, chances are they’ll take on a great percentage of the movement anyway, and make that muscle imbalance only become worse over time. The truth is, the quads are involved in basically any compound lower body movement there is – and that’s whether we like it or not. Think of exercises that virtually disallow the quads from working like rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts, GHRs and reverse hypers. Even when performing stationary lunges, a good idea would be to lunge backwards (so the glute and hamstrings have to recruit first to step behind you, rather than the quads and hips recruiting frist to step in front of you). Performing these from a deficit proves itself more deadly still.
In my humble opinion, some type of squats are the most important lower body exercise, so they should be a solid part of your program. And that brings me to my next point.
Tip 5: Static stretch your antagonists!
In the case of many compound movements, we can optimize what muscles fire by taking other ones out of the equation. Squats are a perfect example. Since the quads can do so much in a squat, we already learned that an imbalance can hinder glute development and training. A simple trick to incorporate right before a set of squats would be to static stretch the quads immediately before your next set. Performing static stretches between sets of exercise actually dulls the neurological involvement of that muscle. In short, a muscle that’s been stretched will be temporarily “weakened”. Take advantage of this strategy! Doing this will make the glutes and hamstrings come in to take on the load that the quads now forfeit, and can lead to a much more posterior chain – friendly squat.
This tactic also works well for upper body movements like rows, pull ups and standing presses. In these exercises, often times tight pecs get in the way of optimizing the activation of the target muscles. Pre-set static stretches to the pecs can go a long way.
Tip 6: Don’t forget about your fascia.
This is probably my favourite tip of all, because it takes into account the most commonly neglected component to training. Not only are things like foam rolling and stretching important to optimize your muscles’ firing capacity and general health, but the overall tissue quality of muscle, fascia, and connective tissue can make or break your performance in the weight room. Remember that your large muscles are covered by fascia – a ‘plastic wrap’ style thin sheath that can cover multiple muscles per segment. Use this to your advantage to unlock tight links. Take a golf ball to the bottom of your feet and release the plantar fascia, and you will see an instant improvement in your calf flexibility. In many cases with clients I’ve worked with, I’ve seen this even result in more hamstring flexibility, and relief to Achilles pain. All of a sudden, squats get 10 percent deeper, and a desirable deadlift start position is achieved, without the back rounding due to tight hams.
Here’s another thought - fascia can be instrumental in adding stability too. Squatting heavy? Think about pulling the bar down your back with your lats. Squeezing the lats downwards creates fascial tension that runs from the lat, through the thoracolumbar junction, and across to the opposite glute. Do this while squatting and you’ll immediately feel “locked in”, so to speak. That sends a cue like “take a deep breath in” to the crypt any day of the week.
Tip 7: The core works best when trained for dynamic stability.
We have probably heard by this point that the abs are best trained when they have to hold a stable contraction. I won’t fully disagree with this either. Plank and bridge variations are a perfect examples of this. Here’s the one hitch though. It’s one thing to be able to hold a plank for 3 minutes, and quite another to have reason to do so. The hitch with isometric exercise (like holding a plank) is that it doesn’t encourage oxygen flow – via blood – to the muscles being trained. So holding positions for ages without movement in hopes of receiving a training effect becomes redundant. Dynamic stability should be the name of the game. Adding a simple movement to a basic plank, such as load shifting, serves as a much better alternative. Paloff presses are also prime examples of exercises that apply the same principle. Even though the body remains stationary, the added movement of the extremities will enforce proper firing patterns through the abs and low back.
Tip 8: Training low abs? Remember to lift slowly.
Most lower ab exercises involve some kind of a leg raise, or movement to bring the thigh towards the torso. The problem there is that you’re fighting a battle against your hip flexors. Often times, people’s hips will enter the lift and fatigue from overcompensation. The reason low abs get the short end of the stick in these exercises is a continuation of tip 2. Hips are jam packed with fast twitch muscle fibres. Take a look at sprinters’ hip flexors the next time you get a chance – they’re proportionally huge! In exercises like hanging leg raises, if we shoot our legs up at light speed, the hips will fire first – every time. Low abs will get hit, but probably about 20 percent of how much they should get hit in an exercise like that. The rule to take home is to start and maintain a very slow paced contraction through these movements so that the hips don’t get activated as easily.
Hopefully this list wasn’t too “Men’s Health”. There are dozens more ideas that I thought of but eliminated when writing this. The moral of the story? Training smart doesn’t always just boil down to “having correct technique” in exercises. That’s all fine and proper, but if your body’s out of whack, even the finest of technique can leave muscles unresponsive. That means measures need to be taken to modify programs, and take steps for you, the individual, to get the best workouts you can. In the long run, it only means more muscle.
Lee Boyce is sought after by clients and athletes in Toronto, Ontario as a strength coach. His “weak-links” approach to training has given him a template as a regular contributor to magazines like TNation, Musclemag, and he’s been featured in Men’s Health. When he’s not writing articles, he’s keeping busy at a leading medical clinic, where he works with clients for preventive care.
You can catch more of what Lee has to say about training on his website www.leeboycetraining.com, or follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.