Want to get stronger? Try these 3 brutally effective variations on lifting classics.

longleverplankThe interesting thing about strength training is that when it’s all said and done, there really aren’t that many movements you need to learn to reach your goals, whether that’s getting stronger, leaner, gaining more muscle, or all of the above. If you can check off the following boxes, you’re in good shape to get cracking with some good work at the gym:

-Squatting movements (like a goblet squat)
-Hinging movements (deadlifts, exercises that emphasize movement from your hips)
-Pushing movements (pushups, bench pressing, overhead pressing, etc.)
-Pulling movements (chin-ups and rows come to mind).
-Core stabilization and rotational power development (planks, chops, crunches, twists, etc.)
-Power movements – to build explosiveness and improve overall strength (think oly lifts, jump squats, plyometrics)

If we focused on improving just one move from each category, we could make quite a bit of progress for quite some time. But that’d get pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that variations on exercises require our bodies to move, build strength and stability, and function better in slightly different ways. That’s where we spice things up with twists on the basics that we’ve come to know and love.

Sometimes we progress a movement because one becomes too easy. I’m going to show you one today. We often also use a variation of a staple to work our muscles differently, to get past a “sticking point” or even to work around an injury. Or sometimes just because it’s fun to change stuff up. Fun is important too, yeah? Read on for ideas:

Progress Your Plank
Once you can hold a plank pretty easily, you’re ready to move up in the world-o-planks. Congrats, it’s time to make them hard again. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve been messing around with long lever planks and even 1 legged long lever planks. They’re tough!

Here’s a demo:

How to do it:
Start by getting into the plank position and walking your feet back so that your elbows are in front of your shoulders instead of in a traditional plank, where you have them stacked under them. Brace those abs like you’re going to get sucker punched and hold there. Try starting with 3 sets of 10-20 seconds and tell me how much you love them.

A Squat You’ll Love-Hate
I think that every beginner would do well to begin with a simple body weight box squat to groove that sitting down and back movement that’s critical for the squat. From there, the sky’s the limit: goblet squats are a good next step, but another overlooked squat that works well not only for beginners but squat pros is the underrated Zercher Squat.

A Zercher squat may feel easier on the lower back than a barbell back squat; it also lets you get low (to the window, to the wall). It requires you to stay pretty upright, a good reminder for those who are new to squatting.

I put them to use for a client who is rehabbing her shoulder and can’t comfortably get into a back squat position. Zerchers feel great to her. Sometimes an injury allows us to discover a brand new way to get strong. Cue the silver lining, eh? 


And for those of us who have been squatting for a long while, it’s a great variation to play with to get some extra fun and glute gains on leg day. Oh, and they’re harder to load up than they look. Good grief.

Demo here:

How to do it:
You’re going to cradle that bar in the crook of your elbows. I really like a squat sponge for these, because they’re way more comfortable with the pad. If you don’t have one, try crossing your arms a bit around the bar to feel more secure. Some people deadlift them up from the floor but it seems a heck of a lot easier to me to just start with the bar in a rack at an appropriate height. Get under it a bit, lift it into your arms and walk it out a few steps.

Make Your Barbell Bench Press More Badass
It’s a smart idea to spend training cycles using slight variations of the “big players”: you know, the squat, deadlift, and bench press for starters. The bench press is a staple of the gym (and favorite bro lift of all time). Using variations like pausing at the chest, 1.5 reps, and using dumbbells instead of a barbell will make your bench press stronger over time.

I’m working on the eccentric bench press again this month after a short hiatus from barbell bench press. Holy hell it felt hard this week. Eccentrics will do a lot of muscle damage, which is actually a good thing. They’ll make you muy strong and force you to learn to control the bar better.

Check it:

How to do an eccentric bench press:

I sort of forgot I was doing an eccentric on the first rep. Heh. Progress, not perfection, right?

You’re going to try to lower the bar very, very slowly – take a full 4 seconds. You’ll notice that it’s toughest down near the bottom of the movement. That’s where you’re going to need to control it even more. Lower the weight on these: they’re brutal.

So you want to try these out in a workout?

Of course. So let’s do one today. On Instagram I shared a bonus: a lower body conditioning circuit you can use to give the Zercher squat and long lever plank a whirl. Check that out for butt feels and sweat-inducing fun. You can also put them into a classic full-body strength workout, like the one below.

1. Zercher Squat 4 x 6

2a. Eccentric barbell (or dumbbell) bench press 3 x 6
2b.Band pull aparts 3 x 12

3a. Barbell RDL with 4 second eccentric 3 x 8 (yup, another eccentric variation!)
3b. Chest supported row with a pause at the top 3 x 8

4a. Incline dumbbell bench press 3 x 10
4b. Long lever plank 3 x :15 seconds

Now go flex, and remember to never stop experimenting with movement, both within the gym and outside it. 

Want to get in on more tutorials to make you a lean machine? I share my insider info for fitness and nutrition with my newsletter every week. Join for free and I’ll send my e-book, Fat Loss on a Budget, right into your inbox. 



Single leg Romanian deadlifts to make you awesome sauce.

single leg RDLIt happens every so often, and it may happen even more often if my coach reads this: I get single leg Romanian deadlifts put into my program. I used to cringe when I saw Bulgarian split squats, but I have made my peace with the Bulgarians and their exercises. I actually enjoy them now.


But the Romanians… oh, you Eastern bloc countries, with your strength prowess. You make me work harder. And you make me better, which is why I continue to do the Romanian deadlift as well as a variation, the single leg Romanian deadlift. But they’re still tough.

The single leg Romanian deadlift in particular gives me a run for my money every time I work on it. My old hip injury might shed light on that: this exercise demands (and builds) hip stability like crazy. It also builds strength and stability through the entire posterior chain. That’s your backside, FYI. You know, your butt, hamstrings, and to a lesser extent, your back. It also requires your abs to help you maintain core control. Those are all good things to improve: so every time I begin doing single leg RDLs again, I remember that I should probably be doing more of them.

Here’s the lowdown on the single leg deadlift: what it is, how to do it, and when to use it in your workouts. Read on:

Basics first: what’s a single leg deadlift?  
A single leg deadlift is a basic hinging movement that requires mastering strength, balance, flexibility, and overall control of your body. That’s a lot, isn’t it? For this reason, I like to have beginners start by just using their own bodyweight to practice.

Deadlifts in nature: I’m mostly thinking “omg it’s so hot. Why am I wearing pants?”

Why to use them:
Single leg Romanian deadlifts build strength in the butt and hamstrings, though I don’t use them as a main strength move in workouts. For building brute strength and muscle mass, I still rely on the “big” players like squats, conventional and sumo deadlifts, as well as hip thrusts and 2-legged Romanian deadlifts. The lack of stability one on leg makes it tough to add a huge amount of weight to the single leg variation – but that’s exactly why you should do these as an accessory exercise.

They do a bang up job of building single leg stability, core control, flexibility, and still give you extra volume to work your muscles. I also use them in metabolic conditioning.

When to do them:
I put them near the end of strength workouts, typically with 3 sets of 8-12 per leg.  I also like doing the movement slowly with just my bodyweight as a glute activator.

How to do one:
You’ll start by thinking about your hips shifting back as you elevate one leg while your torso shifts forward.

Tips for getting off to a great start:

  • If you think about bending forward instead of reaching your leg back, you’re more likely to round your back and you’ll never get that beautiful hip hinge you’re aiming for. Instead, think of your body as a teeter totter and your working leg as the axis. If you focus mostly on making that elevated leg really long, you’ll have an easier time getting the movement down.
  • People move farther down than they need to: work on getting that lifting leg elevated toward the sky instead of worrying about your working arm reaching the floor. You want a big stretch on the back of your planted leg.
  • Locking the knee: it’s no bueno. Instead, think about keeping your knee just a little “soft”.
  • Try to keep your hips as square with the ground as you can. While doing this movement, it’s easy for the hip on your lifting leg to open up too much.
  • Gaze at the floor about 10 feet in front of you – if you crane your neck up to see yourself in the mirror, it tends to throw off your back alignment and makes it tougher to get down into the position.

Balance bonus – if you have a tough time holding your footing, a few things may help you out:
1. Don’t be afraid to lightly drag your foot for a few moments as you extend it behind you. This gives you a little extra contact time with the ground that goes a long way in helping you learn to balance.

2. When you begin the movement, lightly brace your abs and try to maintain stiffness through your torso. A more active core makes it easier to stabilize your body.

3. If you have squishy shoes, consider taking them off and doing this exercise barefooted – or put on a very flat, stiff-soled shoe like some Chucks.

4. One balancing trick that really helps me is digging my big toe of my working leg into the floor. It also seems to help me avoid opening up at my hip too much.

Once you’ve mastered the basic move, load ‘er up. Give one of these variations a try:

  1. Hold one or two kettlebells:

    I like the challenge of holding only one kettlebell, as it makes for feeling a bit more of an unbalanced load and makes me think about my core stability more. Grip it hard. I picked up this trick from Tony Gentilcore, who explains that a tight grip gets your rotator cuff firing and puts your shoulder into a better position as you move. Your shoulder will be less likely to creep forward.

  1. Barbell single leg deadlift:

    Sometimes I don’t have access to heavy enough kettlebells or dumbbells to do my deadlifts. So a barbell variation does the job.

    3. Landmine single leg deadlift:

    I had this crazy fantasy that the landmine variation would rock my world because  the bar would be less annoying to hold onto than a heavy dumbbell. While a big dumbbell or kettlebell is less stable than a barbell, try holding onto the end of an Olympic bar with a small hand: it’s a huge grip challenge! My grip strength is only slightly above grandma level, so I’ll be doing more of these.

If you don’t have a slick landmine holder set up in your gym, just do what people have been doing for eons: shove it into a corner of the room or into the corner of a rack like I did. Some people like to use the center hole of a 45 pound plate too.

Other ideas for your single leg deadlifting pleasure:
1. 1.5 rep single leg Romanian deadlifts –
move to the bottom of your pattern, come up partway, back to the bottom, then all the way back up. That’s one rep. 
2. Eccentric single leg Romanian deadlifts –
take a full 4 seconds to lower yourself down into the bottom of your position. 
3. Combo moves for metcon –
try doing a rep of a single leg deadlift and then following it with a lunge. Do all your reps on one side, and then switch. Your legs and heart will be talking to you. 

What’s your favorite way to do single leg RDLs? Leave a comment below and share! 

Psst – if you want workouts to use the moves I talked about, I share them on the regular with my insider newsletter subscribers. Sign up for free below – I’ll hook you up with a copy of Fat Loss on a Budget too. 


Stop Burning Calories.

Photo credit: Sara via Flickr

Photo credit: Sara via Flickr

Stop burning calories.

Ok, so maybe I’m being dramatic.  I want you to burn calories, because that means you’re moving your body and doing physical work. But when we look at our workouts primarily as opportunities to burn calories, it’s usually for a few reasons that may actually get in the way of your progress toward worthwhile goals. 

1. You think about burning calories so that you can “earn back your food”. First of all, you can easily eat back the calories you burned in less than a minute depending on what you choose to eat. Especially when we use tracking tools like Myfitnesspal or treadmill computers, we often overestimate how many calories we’re actually burning and then end up overeating. 

photo credit: dogs.about.com

photo credit: dogs.about.com

2. It sets you up to have a bad relationship with exercise, if you’re just working out to get to eat more. Someone once remarked “you’re not a dog dancing for treats.” That really stuck with me. We may exercise to change our bodies – it might be the shape of them, or how they function, or how exercise makes us feel emotionally. Those are all great reasons to hit the gym. And yes, calorie expenditure is a bonus effect because we really can eat more food and maintain or lose weight more easily when we’re active. Yet if we begin to feel guilty about eating unless we’ve done a killer workout, it can become less pleasurable to work out. 

3. Some of the activities that will improve your body composition goals the most aren’t actually the ones that burn the most calories during your workout. Yeah, running moderately for an hour will burn a bunch of calories while you’re running. But after you stop, your body doesn’t take long to get back to its starting point. By contrast, when you lift weights, you will burn relatively few calories while you’re actually lifting, but because you’re using so many big muscle groups and doing really intense work, your body has to work harder afterwards to pay back the oxygen debt you created.


This effect is called EPOC, or exercise post oxygen consumption. What it means for you is that your metabolism will be revved up more for several hours after you do a strength workout or do an intense metabolic session. And yes, your body will burn some extra calories from that.

You may miss out on other benefits of exercise.

I’d also say that while easy walks may not burn a lot of calories, they do tremendous things for your overall health and stress level. Walking is an extremely underrated recovery tool for those who often do intense exercise. Yet I used to ignore walking because I thought it was a waste of time. Go walk it out. 

4. Still thinking about burning calories? Packing on more muscle means your body is burning more calories all the time to fuel that muscle. That’s another win for lifting if you’re trying to change your physique while getting to eat a bit more food.

So all in all, what I’m saying is this: lift weights because it’s great for your metabolism, your bones, your overall health, and will make you feel and look like a badass. Do cardio-based activities because they’re good for your body too. But don’t work out only because you burn calories to earn your supper. Does anyone say supper anymore? Let’s bring that back.

And finally, if you’re trying to lose body fat, start with your nutrition. If that’s not on point, no amount of exercise is going to overcome it.

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