In my last post, we covered attitude adjustment, understanding of max effort, and programs. Moving on, we have the next steps I feel that everyone needs to take when first beginning weight training. A lot of this can also be used as reminders for those of us intermediate or advanced lifters that need an extra nudge in some areas.
STRETCHING, WARM-UPS, FOAM ROLLING, AND MOBILITY WORK:
Never, NEVER neglect any of these. Why?
Because if not, you will end up developing over-tight muscles which can lead to tears and other injuries, and you will also develop scar tissue, which can inhibit pain-free movement and overall mobility.
Mobility work is one of the most important things you can do for musculoskeletal health. It’ll help loosen and warm up your muscles, joints, and ligaments before training, or if done at any other time of the day can help support recovery and free movement, as well as flexibility. Trying to train without properly warming up is detrimental and is one of the easiest ways to injure yourself. It’s very easy to neglect warm-ups or to forget them, so you must make a conscious effort from the beginning to make mobility work, flexibility work, and foam rolling a habit in your training regimen. It’s just as important for getting stronger as eating and sleeping.
The areas that need the most flexibility/mobility work would be the hip flexors and the shoulders. I think that regardless of whether you’re training upper body or lower body, both hip and shoulder mobility drills should be done as part of a warm-up. Shoulder discomfort can be developed by squatting without properly warming up the upper body as well. And tight hips are extremely uncomfortable to bench with.
Some of the best hip mobility drills you can do are demonstrated in the video below:
A great shoulder mobility movement that I do before any training session are shoulder “dislocations”, or rotations:
For the shoulder movement, you can use a towel, band, or plastic bar. Begin with arms very wide apart, and keep the elbows locked. Attempt to bring it all the way around (like in the video). When you reach your limit, which would be when you can’t go any further without serious discomfort or moving your elbows, hold the position for a few seconds and return to the starting position. Do several of these rotations, and you’ll notice you can go a little further back every time. The point is to not do a static stretch, but to do short dynamic stretches to warm up the shoulders. The goal here being to eventually be able to rotate completely from back to front without discomfort. Once you can do it from a wide hand position, move your hands in a little more each time. By the time you can do complete rotations with hands only shoulder-width apart, you basically have perfect shoulder flexibility.
Hip mobility work is essential for improving your squat and deadlift. It’ll allow you to get lower in squats and prevent hip pain and injury. Do hip mobility drills every time you are about to begin a lower body training session. No static stretching though.
As for flexibility work, I am a strong believer that flexibility is conductive to a well-rounded athlete. Neglect stretching, and not only do your muscles get too tight, you will not be able to develop your muscles and mobility as well as you could if you stretched regularly. Making it a habit and sticking to your stretch sessions is only a few minutes sacrificed for a lifetime of save and effective lifting. Your hamstrings especially are very tight, and by not stretching the fascia you are limiting growth in your hamstrings. Also a lot of strains, tears, and aches can be prevented if proper stretching was made a priority.
I would say that full stretching sessions should be a part of any training program, and done from 2-3x per week. And that doesn’t mean two or three stretches held for 20 seconds each. I mean all-out stretch sessions, where the stretch is held for a minute or more. Lower body stretching is the priority, especially if you plan on doing a lot of squats and deadlifts. Calves, hamstrings, quads, hips, glutes, ankles, and the groin area all need to be stretched on a regular basis.
Foam rolling will help roll out kinks you may have in your muscles, and will help prevent scar tissue from developing, as well as breaking down existing scar tissue. It’ll loosen up the muscles, since as stated, tight muscles can promote injury. It’s basically a soft tissue massage that you can do yourself. You’ll notice less aches and pains and better recovery once you start making foam rolling a priority as well.
A pain-free body is a happy, strong, and healthy body.
Conditioning is another important part of any training program. Other than helping with recovery, circulation, and cardiovascular health, conditioning will help you perform better and improve your workload capacity. If you are trying to gain weight, keep the conditioning sessions a little less frequent, but still included once a week or so. Those who aren’t trying to gain weight can afford and extra session in their schedule.
Some of the best conditioning workouts are done with a prowler, sled, tire, or sledge hammer. If you don’t have access to any of these, you could also do bodyweight drills, skipping, light barbell complexes, sprints, or kettlebell work. Keep the sessions short but intense.
CHOOSING ACCESSORY WORK:
When it comes to choosing exercises to help assist your main lifts (squat/bench/deadlift), you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck. You don’t want to overdo the accessory movements, but you also don’t want to skimp out either because they’re going to have a large influence on getting you stronger.
Depending on the program you’re on, it’ll call for more or less accessory movements. For a fresh beginner on a 5×5 program, keep it simple and aim for movements such as hyperextensions, front squats, straight-leg deadlifts, close-grip bench press, incline press, seated rows, DB shoulder press, glute-ham raises, one-arm DB rows, and curls.
I have a love/hate relationship with these. Even though I feel tool-ish standing around curling, you should never exclude them from any strength program. They’re important in developing and maintaining strength in your biceps and from preventing tears. I’ve seen WAY too many people neglect proper bicep training because they feel as though they don’t need it since they’re “not a bodybuilder”. The moment you neglect training a body part, you either get weaker or you get injured…or both.
The exercises stated are good movements regardless of what program you’re on. If you’re doing something more along the lines of WSB4SB, you have more freedom to add in different exercises such as leg curls, lunges, box squats, flat presses, pulldowns, etc.
And what I mean by getting the biggest bang for you buck, is choosing movements that are tried and true to get you stronger and assist your main lifts in a big way. The smaller accessory exercises can be saved for when you are on a more advanced program when you need to think about specialization. For now, focus on less is more, and just put in your whole effort when performing these movements. You don’t need much more for now.
You never want to waste your time with exercises that aren’t conductive to your goals. You might really like leg extensions, but they’re not really going to get you strong.
TRAINING DIFFERENT BODY PARTS (REPS, SETS, etc.):
Understand that this section is a personal opinion, and keep in mind that different things will work differently for different people. Based on my own observations of myself and others, this is what I have found to be most effective, so take it as you will. Note that these are not meant to be recommendations for size gain, but solely for strength purposes. However, that doesn’t mean one cannot gain size/muscle using these recommendations if their nutrition is on point.
Remember never to train to failure on accessory movements. You want the weight to be heavy, but you also want there to be a rep or two left in the tank by the time you put down the weights. Higher reps have their time and place, but I think for most movements, the best strength gains are going to happen when training in the 5-8 rep range. Keep in mind this is regarding accessory movements only, so that excludes your main movements. Even 3-4 reps for certain movements can also be beneficial for strength gain, and can be used for some heavier sets, just not over-done. You don’t want to burn yourself out by trying to max-out on accessory work, but you don’t want to go too light either. Keeping the reps mostly between 5 and 8 will allow you to use a heavy enough weight that you can get stronger off of, but not so heavy that you’re working until failure, breaking down form, and sacrificing performance from your main movements. For those of you who do want to have hypertrophy in addition to strength gain, these rep ranges still work well providing your nutrition is on point as well.
Working sets can range from 2-4. I don’t suggest going too much beyond that, unless you are on a particularly high volume program. You can see plenty of results off of this kind of set range.
Also, here’s a great article by Jason Ferruggia regarding rep ranges:
Tip: Kai Greene once mentioned in a video that while he is performing a movement and he wants to focus on a particular body part, he consciously thinks about lifting with THAT particular muscle. It’s called a “mind-to-muscle connection”. And believe it or not, this really works. You’ll notice a hell of a difference when you start to really think about moving the weight with the muscle you are concentrating on, rather than just thinking about the movement itself and nothing else. You’ll be able tou activate and incorporate that muscle/group a lot more if you concentrate enough on it.
It’s best to establish good habits from the very beginning. When I first started my programs, I wasn’t focusing on my form or technique. That actually set me back pretty far when I got to working with a coach that had higher standards for my technique than I had initially set for myself. So I could have actually been a lot farther along than I am now, had I known what I know now back then.
At the same time, I was extremely stubborn back then, so even when I was being corrected, I didn’t take the advice to heart as much as I should have. It’s crucial that in the beginning you take constructive criticism from others when warranted. Many times other more experienced people see things that you may not see, and it’s not that they’re trying to be hard on you, it’s that they’re trying to help you improve.
My best piece of advice is to acquire a camera, and video yourself as much as you need to in the beginning. Then, get it critiqued by someone who knows what to look for and who can spot out weaknesses and how to fix them. The lift will always feel different than it looks, so it’s important to know how the lift feels AND how it looks. How else can you fix your form if you don’t know what you need to fix?
I had written two posts on deadlift form and squat form which can be beneficial to read. One thing that really helped me was to go over certain steps quickly in my head before performing the lift so that I could remember. You don’t want the movement to be robotic, but you also don’t want to just let everything out and have the movement go to shit because you stopped focusing on keeping your form tight. It really is crucial for developing overall strength and preventing injuries. If you don’t get injured right away from poor lifting form, that doesn’t mean what you’re doing doesn’t need to be changed, it means that you are lucky enough to have not gotten injured…yet. But just because you’re new to training, doesn’t make you invincible. Take precautions and do things right from the start, and you will have much less to correct down the road.
You can’t build a house without bricks. You also can’t build a body without calories. this doesn’t mean that because you are on a strength program is it a free-for-all (unless you are deathly thin and really want to put on some weight). It means that you eat for performance. If you have physique-specific goals as well, just keep it simple. If you need to gain some weight, eat a little more. If you need to lose some, eat a little less. If you’re a good weight, eat at maintenance but perhaps switch up your macros slightly so that it is performance-driven nutrition. You might even experience a recomp this way. The important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not going to build strength and muscle off of a big calorie deficit.
I say that if you are not very overweight, save the fat loss for a little later, OR keep a very small deficit. Another option would be to lose the fat first, and begin the program after you have taken a few weeks off from dieting and are back to maintenance calories. Prioritize a goal before moving on to the next one, as it is very difficult to achieve two things at once and get the most out of both.
Protein is a big staple, of course, but there is no reason to eat over 1.5g per lb. of bodyweight in my opinion. Higher carbs on training days can be beneficial, with lower carbs on conditioning/off days. You’ll want to play around with your carb levels to see what works best for you, but most people like cycling carbs. Keep fats in your diet always, as they’re very important for maintaining healthy hormone levels.
While I don’t believe sports and health supplements are necessarily ESSENTIAL, I feel as though 95% of people don’t get all the nutrients they need from their diet already, so supplementation can be very beneficial.
What I would consider staple supplements would be:
- Fish oil (important for reducing inflammation, lubricating the joints, promoting insulin sensitivity, and improving cognitive function)
- Multi Vitamin (provides all the daily nutrients that you need for proper overall health and performance; will improve energy levels)
- Creatine (great for improving recovery, muscle endurance, and strength)
- Pre-workout drinks
Results don’t always happen over night. Everything takes work, and you’ll have days where things feel heavy and off. Just don’t give up! Stick to the program and keep your goal in mind, always. It’s a journey, not a race, and if you try to rush bodily changes your body is going to fight against you. It’s just like trying to lose weight. You have to expect that it’s not all black and white, and you will need a lot of experimenting, trial and error, and time to find exactly what works for you.
Above all, keep a good outlook with your training. A positive attitude is a winning attitude, and in the end, the most successful person is the one who believes in himself enough to keep pushing despite difficulties he faces. And believe me, you will face them. Just be stronger than whatever life throws at you and you will come out on the other side triumphant rather than defeated.