Tag Archives: lifting

Old school lifting techniques to build maximum muscle (with maximum fun).

titanicfunnybodybuildingBeing strong is empowering: exhilarating, even, much like Rose must have felt out there on the bow of the Titanic. Before it met its demise of course.

Getting strong makes you feel more confident and capable – for everything that life tosses your way, including sinking ships (probably). 

But I also like to look like I lift. Maybe I’m becoming a vain old lady. But I don’t care. Seeing my muscles get bigger and stronger is a reminder of all my hard work. Plus people don’t always realize an important truth: you can’t train only in that low rep, heavy range all year long.

First of all, it can be really hard on your body to train hard and heavy 100% of the time.
Second, it becomes really boring to do the same training regimen all the time. 

And finally… at a certain point, you need to grow your muscle. That means less of the big heavy stuff and more of the higher rep, lighter movements. You want hypertrophy – that’s muscle growth – to happen.

That’s how I’ve been working during the last few months. My own coach, Jordan Syatt, has been introducing me to all sorts of hypertrophy work. And I’ve shocked myself with just how much fun I’m having in the gym. My joints feel great. I’m building muscle and getting stronger. 

Like so many others who do hypertrophy training, I’ve been using several “old school” gym classics. The ones that bodybuilders have been using since back in the day, when Arnold and Lou Ferrigno went head to head to compete in Mr. Olympia. You can watch that play out in the movie Pumping Iron. It’s fantastic. It’ll get you pumped too.

pumpingiron

Which brings me to these muscle pumping tricks you should try. There are scores of techniques that bodybuilders use to maximize things that will help you sculpt lean and mean muscle.

Why do they work? Because they play on some of the big mechanisms that allow muscle growth to happen: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Those three ideas are big enough that they deserve their own article.

But in short:

1. You need to be doing movements that maximize your time under tension. You’ll still include heavy enough lifting to exert large amounts of force.

2. You’ll do work that gets “the pump” – blood flowing into your muscle cells, will help your muscles grow.

3. Fatiguing your muscle fibers is a must. You wear them down – break them down, actually. And in repairing that damage you’ll grow them.

These techniques were used by lifters long before we even understood many of those principles that explain why lifters used them with success.

Serious lifters have tinkered and toiled with all sorts of  training variables. It’s key to remember that not everyone will respond the same way to them. But there are many tried and true ways of building muscle that may help you get over humps, maximize your effort, and invigorate your time at the gym.

Give these a try as you move through your training year: 

Pre-fatigue sets
I’ve been doing them before my main lift of the day. This seemed crazy to me at first. Why would I want to wear myself out on purpose?

When you’re building muscle, your goal isn’t to PR your bench press total. It’s to build your muscles that help you bench press. Pre fatigue sets help you break down muscle tissue more effectively when you work on that big lift. They also help me connect my mind to my muscle as I prepare to do the big work. This allows you to work your muscles even better during your lift.

How to do them:
Before one of your heavy “big” lifts: like a bench press or a squat, use an isolation movement at a fairly light weight first. Before I bench press heavy sets of 6 reps, I might do 2-3 sets of something to target my pecs: like the squeeze press or a pec fly. It lets me both fatigue my pecs and also get a good feel for those muscles, which helps me hammer them better during my main work. Try 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.

 
Rest-pause sets
If you want to maximize intensity and fatigue, a rest pause set can do the job. It also lets you squeeze in some more reps, giving you the opportunity to spend more time stimulating your muscles over the span of a set.  These work especially well in slightly lower rep ranges. And they work great for not only building muscle but building strength. Particularly with moves that you feel limited to doing for only a few reps because they’re really difficult.

I used rest-pause training to get more quality reps done in my chin ups when I could only do a few at a time.

How to do them
:
Complete your reps for your set. Let’s take lat pulldowns for 8 reps.

After you perform your set, wait 10-15 seconds.

Do your lat pulldowns again for as many reps as you can do.

Wait another 10-15 seconds. Then do it again.

You can add another mini set to your one big rest-pause set. Wait a few minutes, and then do 1-2 more rounds.

Drop sets are not comfortable. But you'll love them anyway.

Drop sets are not comfortable. But you’ll love them anyway.

Drop sets
The Arnold called these “strip sets”. And no, you’re not stripping, though that would be quite something at the gym. But this technique allows you to fatigue your muscles like crazy, which is key to growth.

How to do them:
Use these as an accessory lift during your session. Start with a weight you can lift for 6-10 reps. Do as many reps as you can, then lower your weight. Either take plates off your barbell, grab lighter dumbbells, lower the weight on the cable stack… you get the idea.

Now immediately complete as many reps as you can at this lighter weight – which is usually 25%-30% lighter than what you chose the first time. It will be hellishly hard.

But wait, there’s more: lower the weight again. And maybe even one more time, for funsies. Do that. Now rest a few minutes, and do it all again.

Try 3 sets of drop sets the next time you frolic at the gym. I’m doing them this month with hammer curls and triceps press downs.

Eccentric sets
Create more time under tension to build more muscle. Eccentric sets slow down your movement during the eccentric, or lengthening muscle contraction. They also force you to maintain better control, which translates to better technique and bigger gainz.

How to do them:
Pick any move that you want to improve or focus on for more muscle building. I’ve used them on the lowering phase of a lying hamstring curl; the lowering portion of a pushup; the second phase of a lat-pulldown as I control the rise of the bar to its starting position. And an eccentric squat is a particularly brutal way to build strength and control by taking a full 4 to 5 seconds to lower yourself into the bottom position.

Keep the reps on the lower side for these, as you’ll already be spending more time on each rep. Anywhere from 5-10 reps is a sweet spot.

firegirl

AMRAP
Training coach Bridget Schmitt of Guns and Poses Fitness is also a figure pro and powerlifter who loves (and loves to hate) AMRAP sets. AMRAP means “as many reps as possible” and it’s a tool for not only building strength and muscle: it allows her to test her limits. 

“I like to be competitive with myself every time I lift. Mentally I have to push everything else aside when I AMRAP”.

How to do it:
Schmitt doesn’t always use AMRAP in her training, but when she does, she uses them after completing a few working sets. On her final two sets she pushes herself to take them to their limits – AMRAP. 

Finishers – the final burn. 
Want to make sure you REALLY fatigue and burn out a muscle group? Try a sweeping, final flourish using light weight and a ton of reps.

Jenny Leonard, aka “JennyB”, a nutrition/wellness coach with Guns and Poses, also competes as a bikini competitor in bodybuilding. She finds that many popular hypertrophy techniques like drop sets don’t work as well for building her physique. But she loves high rep finishers for building her glutes. Jenny uses banded hip thrusts, glute bridges, monster and lateral band walks, and body weight frog pumps to set her glutes on fire – and help them grow.

How to do it:
Pick a move to tack on to the end of your main strength work. I’ve been doing 1 set of 50 bent rear delt raises at the end of my upper body workouts. For glute work, I often do 2-3 sets of banded hip thrusts in an AMRAP, or create a mini finisher circuit of several moves that all target one muscle group. 

If using additional weight, choose a load that is light enough to make these hard but completable. You may have to pause for a few seconds during the work, but try to keep it going with little to no rest.

Century sets
Fit pro Tanner Baze shared one of his favorite variations for a final flourish: century sets. Perform them alone, or better yet, with a partner.

How to do them:
You complete 100 reps with light weight, and then your partner does the same. I imagined that you’d do this only one time, but gym crazies may actually do a few of these. The partner will definitely help keep you going because you may want to quit the gym about halfway in.

weight-rack

Run the Rack
Tanner also reminded me of another of Arnold’s favorite moves: running the rack. This is another workout finisher that turns that brutal, fatiguing work you do into a game of sorts.

How to do it:
Choose a dumbbell exercise for your last move of the day. Pick up some dumbbells that are heavy enough that you will only be able to do around 6 reps. Complete those reps, then put them back and immediately grab a pair that are 5 pounds lighter. Complete another 5-6 reps. Keep “running the rack” down until you hit a weight that is so light that you can easily do more than 6 reps.

All of these moves have the ability to boost your muscle building mojo. Many of them will feel hellishly hard. But your mind will stay engaged and I’m willing to bet you’ll have fun.

For the long haul, enjoying what you do and staying present during your workouts is going to help you make just as much progress as following a solid program. Stay present, work hard, and enjoy the process. Then go flex.

Want to talk workouts, healthy eats, and how to build a body that feels and looks fiiiiiine? Sign up below to get my emails delivered right into your inbox. I’ll send you Fat Loss on a Budget plus other fit goodness on the regular. 

 

 

Four things you can do to build your bod today.

Photo credit: Crossfit Constancy. How great is this tank?

What do you do when you hit a new personal fitness record? I usually have the urge to yell across the gym. GUYS. GUYS! DID YOU SEE THAT? HUH? Instead, I just wander around with a dorky grin. But inside my head I’m shouting.

Sometimes progress feels nonexistent because it creeps along so slowly. That’s gym life. It’s part of the process that you learn to embrace.

But when you are on a roll, run with it. It’s been that way for me lately. And it’s not dumb luck. My body is revealing more muscular definition. I know I’m building muscle because I’m consistently lifting heavier stuff from week to week. Woot woot.

There are a few reasons why. And best of all, these tactics can work for you too. If you’d like to work on your physique or improve your performance, read on. 

amazing

amazing

Eat enough food to support building muscle. But not too much. 

Back in the days of old school bodybuilding, lifters did things a little differently. They wore Zubaz, which is a tragedy. To put on muscle, they knew they had to eat more than while trying to lose fat. Plus plenty of protein.

Getting adequate calories and optimal nutrition does make a big impact on transforming your body. But those lifters ate way more than they needed to. As a result, they gained unnecessary fat. You can eat in a very slight surplus to help fuel those “gainz” while still looking lean. Win/win. 

Lift in a variety of rep ranges.
Some people split workout types into “strength” or “hypertrophy”. That last word roughly means “growing muscle”.

You can build a ton of strength and power if you lift very heavy weight for a small number of reps – around 5 or less. And doing moderate to high rep ranges are key for growing your muscles.

But incorporating all kinds of rep ranges into lifting workouts will build strength and sculpt muscle effectively at the same time. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive kinds of sessions or training phases. Those two goals feed each other. Here’s why: 

Building Muscle
Women often worry about packing on more muscle. No, you won’t get bulky. Not that there’s anything wrong with bulk. If it’s not your thing, that’s cool too. But building muscle is what “toning” and “sculpting” really mean.

That added muscle won’t turn you into the Arnold. But it will allow you to lift heavier stuff over time and keep getting stronger.

Heavy Heavy
And doing some work in a very low rep range will help you get better at recruiting your muscle fibers to do really intense work. 

That means you can more effectively do those higher rep sets. And build dat ass. Or biceps or whatever. 

There are plenty of ways to go about mixing stuff up. Using a combo platter in a single workout is one fun and effective way to get the benefits of those ranges.

uncomfortable

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
If you want to become stronger and more athletic, you have to learn a new skill. You’ll need practice. Many of us know what it feels like to feel tired or have become accustomed to the sweaty rush of a tough cardio class. If you’re new to lifting, the feel of a really heavy dumbbell row may seem not quite right. 

It might feel like it’s so heavy you shouldn’t be lifting it. But if you can do it with good technique for the appropriate number of reps, keep that up. You’re awesome. Don’t let the rep number tell you to stop. 

Stop when you feel like you might only have one more rep in you. And for lighter exercises done for higher reps, you’re usually fine taking your sets completely to failure. Meaning “I can’t do even one more”. 

deadlifty

 

Effort feels different for a super heavy deadlift than it should for high rep accessory work.
I trained to improve my big lifts for powerlifting for the better part of last year. I could grind out a few really hard, heavy reps. But I’ve shifted my focus to a little bit of heavy strength work and more higher rep work to build muscle.

And so I had to learn a new kind of effort. Part of that is getting in tune with how the reps feel as you’re doing them. Ever hear of “the pump”?

When you do isolation movements like biceps curls you may notice a swollen, tight feeling if you really zero in on maintaining a constant tension as you lift. That’s da pump. Your blood rushes into your muscles and in the end, helps them repair and become bigger. 

Want to try out these ideas? Take this lower body session for a spin: 

1. Barbell hip thrust 4 x 5. (These should feel heavy.) 

2a. Barbell front squat or 2 DB/KB front rack squat 4 x 8
2b. Stiff leg dumbbell deadlift 4 x 12 (slow down enough to feel those hammies stretch)

3a. Forward lunge 3 x 10/leg 
3b. Cable rope pull through 3 x 15 
3c. Plank with weight transfer :20 to :30 

Work hard. Smash the heavy stuff. Feel some pumping, burning goodness on the light stuff. And then shout about your victories, either loud and proud or to yourself. 

Want more? There will be plenty in my upcoming holiday muscle building program. One for brand spankin’ new beginners. One three day plan with full body workouts. And my favorite, a four day routine with lower and upper body splits. I’ll have the details soon in my newsletter. Not signed up yet? Check out the form below. 

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? 

silverlining

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. 

 

 

99% Of Women Skip This Exercise – Are You Missing Out On Its Big Benefits?

the bench press

“So how much do you bench?

If you’re a guy who’s into fitness, this is the entry-level question for the bro club; a dude handshake, if you will. But if you’re a woman, you’ve probably never been asked that: mostly because not very many women do the barbell bench press.

However, the dynamic seems to be shifting as more and more women fall in love with how classic strength training moves make them look and feel: powerful, toned, and badass.

Still, the bench press might not be high on your list of priorities: many female clients come to me wanting to shed belly fat, get a juicier looking butt, or even shape up their arms. Yet not a single one has approached me asking for “a firm chest”. But here’s the thing – getting a stronger chest and shoulders via exercises like the bench press will help you accomplish a few different things that I think you’ll appreciate.

Benefits like these:

    • You will be able to more easily lift heavy objects. That’s pretty useful for life.

 

    • It will help you build a more balanced, strong, lean-looking physique.

 

    • By incorporating chest exercises into your overall training, you’ll ensure that you have a balanced routine that prevents injury.

 

    • You’ll burn a ton of calories – the bench press is more of a full body lift than you’d think. Your back, abs, and legs also activate – and that gives you a lot of “bang for your buck” if fat loss is a goal.

 

    • Better posture. You’ll look great just standin’ around and your body will feel good too.

 

  • You’ll feel powerful. The bench press is way more fun than pushups. It just is. Because science.

Here is what getting a strong chest via the bench press will NOT do:

  • Take away your boobs (losing some boobage usually comes from weight loss, not strength training.) You may notice a bit more cleavage though as you develop muscles.
  • Make you look masculine. Nope, not happening. Women just don’t produce the amount of testosterone that men do, and that minimizes the “bulking” effect. It takes a ridiculous amount of effort to become a very muscle-bound looking woman. So if that’s not your jam, you can rest easy.

So you want to bench now, right?

Well, the bench press is easy… and not easy. Yeah, you read that right. It’s easy in that to actually do the movement as you typically seen it done in the gym, it’s pretty straightforward. Let’s tackle the basics first:

Barbell Bench Press – The Easy Part
BENCH PRESS HOW TO

  1. Get a bar set up on the bench press rack. Once you’re strong enough to handle plates, you will add those too.
  2. Lay down on the bench with your eyes lining up under the bar. Put your feet on the ground, or if you’re a shorty, slide some plates beneath your feet.
  3. Grasp the bar at a comfortable width – this takes some time and experimentation to find a good grip width. If you go too narrow, you’ll turn the move into a triceps exercise. If you go too wide, you might wreck your shoulders and actually make the lift harder than it needs to be.
  4. Unrack the bar. Control it as you aim it down to just below your bra line, letting it barely tap your chest. Then push the bar back up. Your elbows shouldn’t be tucked in, nor should they flare way out as you push back up.

Oh, one more thing – keep your butt on the bench the entire time please. Thank you very much.

And you just did one rep. Not so hard, right? It just takes a little practice.

 

The Not-So-Easy Part
Performing an optimal bench press for the sport of powerlifting takes the movement to a new level. If you never plan to compete you don’t have to get too wound up about mastering the finer points of the bench press. Yet, you might want to consider borrowing some of their “secrets” for your own workouts. Here’s why:

A powerlifting-focused bench press technique takes time and patience to improve. There’s no way around that. But even if you don’t plan to become a powerlifter, I find that many of the strategies that powerlifters use in their bench press will help give you a safer, more stable base to work from. You’ll be able to leverage some more weight this way and you’ll also engage more muscles while you work by borrowing some of those powerlifting tricks.

With powerlifting techniques, you’ll work on skills like driving with your legs, engaging your back muscles, keeping your chest as high as possible, and you will even learn to breathe more effectively.

That’s a lot going on, I know.

Bench_FB_Preview_1

If you read my email newsletter about the squat this week, you’ll remember that Jennifer Blake and Jen Sinkler have a free video e-course happening right now. The series is a helpful resource for getting you better at performing the big lifts of powerlifting. Today, they have a bench video to share with you. There’s no way that I can go into all the finer points of making your bench press rock in one post, but they do it for you in their video, “6 Ways to Healthier Shoulders And a Stronger Bench Press”. You can learn more by getting it here.

FYI – again, you definitely DON’T have to be a powerlifter to get something out of these videos.

Jennifer also shares tips for keeping your shoulders healthy while bench pressing – something I can’t emphasize heavily enough. I wrecked my own shoulder by benching without good advice years ago. I wish I’d had this instruction back then. Thankfully, you can learn and develop good habits right off the bat.

Also you’ll get chances to win prizes- some seriously good stuff to be won just from signing up for the free course. Yay for prizes!

Giveaway_652

If you watch it, leave a comment and let me know your favorite take away from their lesson. I love talking about bench pressing. (As if you couldn’t tell!)

Happy Lifting!

Amy

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