by Ben Bruno T-Nation
I have a random mind. Maintaining focus on any given task can be a real challenge for me, much to the chagrin of many of my old teachers. My plan for this article was to examine several of my favorite training tips that you can implement today in your own training, but my ADD-saddled brain would have nothing of it.
Two ideas became three, then four, then five, and so on. I finally put a cap on the damn thing at nine, which is fitting, as this is my ninth article for T NATION to date.
See? There is a method to my madness.
1. Strong Side First with Unilateral Exercises
One of the many benefits of unilateral training is that it helps even out imbalances between limbs. Conventional wisdom says to do the weaker limb first to avoid exacerbating the imbalance, and then match that number of reps with the strong limb.
I’ve never been a fan of this method. While it may help create balance, it’s selling the strong limb short since you aren’t working it to its capacity.
Instead, try doing the strong limb first and then force yourself to match it on the weak side. You obviously won’t be able to do it all in one continuous set, so do as many as you can with good form, pause for 10 seconds and take a few deep breaths, then continue on until you match the reps you got on the strong side – plus an extra 1-2 for good measure.
So a typical set might look like this:
Right side – 10 reps
Left side – 7 reps, pause for 10 seconds, 4 reps.
This provides the best of both worlds because you can even out imbalances while continuing to get the strong limb stronger.
2. Learn the Hip Hinge
The importance of developing a technically sound hip hinge can’t be overstated. You’ll need it if you want to get strong on deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, Olympic lifts, kettlebell swings; basically all the moneymakers for the posterior chain.
It will also go a long way in keeping you injury-free on those exercises. If you can’t hinge properly at the hips, you’ll often compensate by rounding at the lower back, a recipe for hobbling through the office like the accounting Quasimodo.
It’s a simple movement pattern, yet many lifters just can’t seem to get it right, which is a big reason why so many get hurt.
Starting with your knees slightly bent, think about pushing your butt back as far you can without further bending your knees, all while keeping your back neutral or slightly arched. Dan John does a great job explaining it in this article. Look it over.
Still not quite getting it? Try this cue: Imagine yourself trying to take a no-handed morning piss with a boner. Voila, you just did a hip hinge. (Ladies, you should try this too, if for nothing else than to see what your man has to contend with.)
Now go do that in the gym. Just make sure to put some pants on first.
3. No Matter Your Goal, Do Pull-ups
Barring certain injuries, I think pull-ups should be a staple in almost every lifter’s program.
There’s much to be gained from getting good at them. There’s no better exercise for building the lats, which play a huge role in virtually every major lift. Try benching big weights, or front squatting, or deadlifting with weak lats. Not gonna happen.
During a mass-gaining phase, pull-ups will not only build huge amounts of muscle, they’ll also help keep you in check to avoid excessive fat gain. While pull-ups are definitely easier the lighter you are, if you’re gaining good weight, your pull-up performance shouldn’t suffer too much. If it does, there’s a good chance you’re getting fat.
Likewise, pull-ups act as a great incentive during a fat loss program because the leaner you get, the better you’ll be at them.
Make it a goal to be able to do at least 10-12 clean reps with your own bodyweight.
4. Do Upper Back Work Every Workout
This is an extension of number 3.
I’ve never looked at a person and thought, “Wow, that guy needs to lay off the upper back work.” I’d go so far as to say that I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as too much upper back work. We could all probably use more.
Strengthening the upper back will help offset all the horizontal pressing (i.e. bench press) and slouching we do on a regular basis, which will go a long way in improving posture and warding off shoulder injuries.
If you don’t care about that and just want to look better and lift more weight, you should still pay attention. Improving your posture will instantly make your chest look bigger. Fact is, if I were given a week to bring up the appearance of your chest, the first thing I’d probably do would be attack your upper back. It’s that profound.
The upper back is also often the weak link in many other key exercises. If you’ve ever struggled with your deadlift form (especially the lockout) or had trouble holding the bar for front squats, you know exactly what I mean. Strengthen the upper back and your other lifts often immediately skyrocket.
So what should you do?
The upper back can handle a tremendous workload, and in my experience, responds best to a higher frequency. The key is choosing the right exercises and modulating intensity and volume. As mentioned earlier, pull-ups are fantastic, but I’d limit them to twice a week at most to avoid shoulder and elbow issues.
On the other training days (2-3 days a week), I’d opt for horizontal pulls that don’t stress the lower back, since the lower back is much slower to recover and gets slammed during most lower body training.
Good choices include inverted rows, dumbbell rows, chest-supported rows, band pull-aparts, Batwings, and face pulls. If you have suspension straps, one of my personal favorites is inverted face pulls.
Three sets of 8-12 reps should be sufficient. Don’t worry so much about the weight, and don’t go overboard to the point where it starts to affect the rest of your workouts. Focus on doing the movements correctly and using the right muscles to do the work. This leads me right into my next point.
5. Learn Proper Form/Video Yourself
The best thing I ever did for my lifting career was to get a logbook. Luckily, I did that pretty much right from the start, saving me years of wheel spinning.
The next best thing I did was to get a video camera. My only regret is not getting it sooner.
I never had a coach or a trainer to show me the ropes when I was first starting out. I learned by reading and watching other people in the gym and then trying to mimic what they were doing. Trouble is, most gym goers have their heads firmly lodged up their rectums when it comes to training, so it was really a case of the blind leading the blind.
I was well intentioned, but misguided. I never missed workouts, ever, and I worked my ass off every time I stepped foot in the gym. I knew the key to success was progressive resistance, so I fought tooth and nail to beat the logbook, and I did most of the time. I paid attention to the little details, like sets, reps, and rest periods.
What I neglected, however, was good form. It’s not that I didn’t care about it, it’s that I didn’t really know better. I honestly thought my form was good – that is, until I watched myself. That was a rude awakening. You name it, I was doing it wrong. The harder I pushed, the more my form deteriorated.
I had to drop the weights way down and start over from scratch. Talk about humbling. You never realize how much harder a full squat is than a quarter squat until the first time you have to strip it from 365 to 135.
Learn from my mistakes and nail down good form from the start. If you’ve let it slide, suck it up, lighten the load, and take the time to get it right. Until you do, nothing else matters. Fancy programming is useless if you can’t execute the exercises correctly.
If you’re fortunate enough to have competent lifters in your gym, ask for help. If you’re like I was and have to go at it alone, invest in a camera and film yourself on all the major movements. With websites like this one, you can get solid form critique in a matter of minutes.
You don’t need anything expensive either. I’ve used the same little digital camera for five years and it’s been fine. Trust me, besides your two-dollar logbook, it’ll be the best money you ever spend.
6. Hammer Your Weak Points
It’s human nature to gravitate towards the things we do best and avoid the things we suck at. In the gym, this often manifests with us prioritizing our strengths and neglecting our weaknesses.
While it may be normal human behavior, it doesn’t make it right. This is a recipe for creating imbalances, which sets us up for stagnation and/or injury. I say “us” because I’m guilty of it too, and it’s something I consciously have to work on.
Now I’m certainly not advocating that you give all parts of your training equal priority, and there will always be some things that are more important to you than others. I’m suggesting that you look for the glaring weaknesses and attack them head-on, even if you don’t see the immediate benefit.
For example, I went through a phase where I stopped doing any specific core training. I justified it to myself by saying that “abs are made in the kitchen” and “the core gets enough work from heavy compound exercises,” but really I was just being lazy and didn’t like doing it.
I was fine for a while, but over time, some of my lifts began to stall and my back started to bother me. Eventually I broke down and decided to add some core stabilization work back into the mix. Within a few weeks, my front squat went up and my back pain went away. Funny how that works.
The takeaway point is, don’t just do what you like.
I’ll bet that you know exactly what your biggest weak point is. Maybe it’s your core strength, upper back, glutes, hamstrings, mobility, whatever. Now it’s just a matter of taking action and making a conscious effort to improve it.
That may mean putting it first in the workout to ensure that you give it full attention, or it may mean devoting an entire extra day each week specifically to that weak point. Just get it done. No excuses.
7. Walking Lunges 2.0
Walking lunges are one of my favorite single-leg exercises. It’s also very advanced, so before you try to tackle it, I suggest you take some time to master split squats, Bulgarian split squats and regular lunges first.
You’ll often see walking lunges loaded either by holding dumbbells at the sides or with a barbell on the back. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with either method, I rarely see it done correctly.
Instead, I see a big tendency to lean way forward, sometimes to the point of falling over. I don’t mind a slight forward lean when it’s being performed unloaded (forward lean has been shown to increase glute activation,) but when you add heavy weights into the mix, it’s putting the lower back in a precarious position. Part of the problem is simply going too heavy, but the placement of the weights exacerbates the issue.
Enter the front-loaded version.
Start by holding a dumbbell in the goblet position until you run out of weight before progressing to using a barbell with a front squat grip.
I like this style of loading better for a few reasons:
It forces you to stay upright, putting less stress on the spine and more stress on the quads, where we want it.<
There’s a built-in protection mechanism against your own ego. It keeps you honest because you’ll need to go much lighter than you would if you were to hold dumbbells at your sides or put a bar on your back, and you can’t cheat or else you’ll drop the weight.
Loading the weight anteriorly provides an added core stability benefit as you must fight to resist flexion, giving you more bang for your buck.
Just make sure to start conservatively and follow the progression I laid out above to avoid being riddled with DOMS. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
8. Don’t Skimp on Mobility Work
Mobility work is to training as vegetables are to diet.
We may not enjoy eating vegetables, but we do so anyway because they’re good for us. We know that protein acts as the building blocks for muscle, but if we just ate meat and nothing else we might be off the charts on the Awesomeness Scale, but we’d be leaving a lot on the table nutritionally. Veggies provide fiber and nutrients and help us feel good, so while they may not contribute directly to building muscle, they certainly assist indirectly.
The same goes for mobility work. It’s certainly not as sexy and fun as weight training, but it’s still vitally important. It likely won’t contribute directly to gaining muscle (I’ve yet to see a jacked yogi, nor would I ever particularly care to), but it can augment the muscle-building process by helping us feel better, move better, and recover better.
We aren’t necessarily looking to reach Gumby status, but a certain level of flexibility and mobility is essential to train hard and avoid injury. I could sit here all day chewing up bandwidth preaching about how you must squat to at least parallel and give you all the great cues and drills to do so, but if you’re locked up in the hips and ankles, none of that stuff will matter.
As much as it might suck (trust me, I don’t like it either), make it a priority. In the beginning, it’ll take a lot of work. I’ve found that, just like with veggies, the key is consistency. I’d rather see you spend 15 minutes a day, every day of the week, than 30 minutes 2-3 times a week.
I recommend doing a bit before and during your workouts, and then spend a good 10-15 minutes of devoted stretching at night at home before you go to bed. I find doing it at night helps me to relax and alleviate some of the soreness caused by lifting, and I can do it in front of the TV so it’s not so boring.
Do it while you watch Jersey Shore and stretch every time Ronnie and Sam fight or Snooki says something moronic. You’ll be cured in no time. You’ll also be significantly stupider, but at least you’ll be more flexible.
This article is a good starting point for some stretches to do, and here are some quick and easy active mobility drills to try.
The good news though is that once you develop good mobility, it doesn’t take much to maintain it if you consistently train through a full range of motion. Until you reach that point though, make this stuff your best friend.
9. Believe in Yourself
Nothing pisses me off more in the gym than someone asking me for a spot and then saying, “I’m not sure I can get this.”
My response is always the same, “Come get me when you’re sure.”
I don’t say this to be a dick or because I’m lazy and don’t want to spot them, I say it because to be successful, you absolutely must believe in yourself. If you go into a set thinking you aren’t going to get it, chances are you won’t. You should be fully committed and have a distinct (and realistic) goal in mind, and there should be no doubt in your mind that you can pull it off. If you aren’t confident, you shouldn’t even be trying it.
I’m a big believer in positive self-talk (note the “self” part of self-talk; nobody wants to hear you tooting your own horn). I’m not talking about some fruity feel-good thing. I’m talking about getting in the zone where you’re in attack mode and nothing can stop you. Whenever I step up to take a weight, I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to dominate it. That’s not to say I always do, but getting in the right mindset at least gives me a fighting chance.
End of Randomness
I warned you this was going to be random. Some of it may be new to you, while some may simply serve as a reminder of what you already knew but may not be putting into practice. Either way, I hope you can glean a few useful tips to take your training up a notch.