The 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.
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.
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.
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