Glute Activation and Training: Revised

Property of zee boyfriend.

Property of zee boyfriend.

2013: The year dedicated to bigger, stronger, better glutes.

Admittedly, in the past I hadn’t given enough thought to my glute training.

Shameful.

Within the past year or so however, I’ve become rather glute-obsessed. I’ve been dedicating lots of research into ways of activating and firing the glutes properly so that not only can I lift heavy weights more efficiently and improve my athleticism, but I can aid in the development of my glutes as well.

Throughout the years, my glutes have gone through various phases. I went from no bum at all, to kind of having a bum, to not so much bum again (after my figure competition), to HUGE (like, in every which direction), and finally down to medium-sized, though more lifted, rounded, and better proportioned. Though I have no issues with very large badonkadonks, I like to make sure that in whatever size bum my body is carrying, it is shapely in all the right ways, and functional.

Example of progress: The following picture on the left was taken in April 2009, just 6 months before I joined my first gym. The picture on the right was taken today, after 3 consistent years in the gym.Picture 006

Left picture: 116 lbs. Non-functional, weak, not-so-existent glutes

Right picture: 129 lbs. Functional, strong, better-developed glutes.

The thing that made the biggest difference for me was properly warming up the glutes by performing glute activation exercises before my lower body training sessions. By doing this, I made sure that in all my lower body movements, my glutes were being incorporated as much as possible. I thank Bret Contreras. He’s kind of like a glute god, that I pray to daily. Kidding. Kinda.

Before I paid proper attention to this stuff, I couldn’t really feel my glutes working as much in my movements. I forgot what it was like for my ass to be sore. I saw this as a problem, because I wanted to feel them working in movements. They are the largest muscle group after all, and if you’re a powerlifter or just someone who wants to get stronger, having your glutes fire properly in things like the squat and deadlift (even the bench) will make a huge difference. Not to mention, it’ll whip them into shape. Win/win!

Now, I feel my glutes working with everything I do. So I’d like to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the past year or so, to help you achieve similar results with your training.

In fact, I felt like demonstrating some movements myself to save on some surfing time, since it can be annoying trying to find some of the movements in pictures and I’m not sure how much everybody likes having their picture posted on random websites. (Then again, this is the interwebs)

Bear with me though, I only had my phone on me so the pictures are not going to be professional quality or anything. Just appreciate my willingness to take photos in a very awkward fashion.

Also, my dog dragged her toys/blanket out of her crate. She seems to like doing that as soon as I start trying to take pictures. She needs to learn some manners.

ACTIVATION EXERCISE #1: Glute Bridges

You will start in this position:

IMG_0860

And from there, by squeezing your glutes, not your lower back, raise your hips up from the floor, contracting your glutes and hamstrings hard:

Oh look, a blanket magically appeared...

Oh look, a blanket magically appeared…

REVISED GLUTE BRIDGE:

Alternatively, you could do single-leg glute bridges to isolate each side more.

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ACTIVATION EXERCISE #2:  Single-Leg Glute Lifts

I don’t even know if that’s the right name for these things, but it’s what I like to call them.

In fact, I don’t even know if these fall under the classification of glute activation. However, I’ve been including them in with my little routines with pretty good results, so I’d say they work. Though, you do need to make sure that you are really only lifting with the glutes and not the low back, or swinging, or rounding, etc.

This would be the starting position. Take note that at my leg is fully extended, and my toe is slightly behind my bent leg, but my hips remain squared:

IMG_0882

Weeeeeeee

Weeeeeeee

Alternatively, you can get on your elbows rather than your palms. I find it’s easier to tell when you are using too much back from a position on your elbows.

ACTIVATION EXERCISE #3: Bent-Leg Glute Raises

While these are similar to the last exercise, they’re not the same.

Hips remain squared, and it is a straight up and down movement. The movement comes from contracting your glutes to raise your leg, with no swinging or fast motions, and no rounding or hyperextending of the back.

Keep your stomach tight, and really squeeze the glutes at the top, and also while lowering. These can be done resting on your palms, or on your elbows.

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ACTIVATION EXERCISE #4: “Hanging” Glute Bridges

Once again…no idea if these are called that but I’ll leave it that way for now.

You’re basically performing a glute bridge, but with your shoulders and upper back up on a bench, as well as your feet resting on another bench in front of you (or couch and coffee table, if you’re fancy like me).

You’ll raise your hips up once again, by squeezing your glutes and making sure the abs stay tight and the back is not hyperextending or doing the movement for you. You will bring your hips to a full lock-out position at the top.

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ACTIVATION EXERCISE #5: Lying Hip Abduction

I thought I would forget about these when I put aside my pilates days. But it appears I have reverted back to them for warm-ups.

Though I am up on my elbow for these for the sake of taking a picture, it’s preferable that you are lying on your arm or propping only your head on your palm. (Hence, “lying” hip abduction)

IMG_0899

Doopdeedoo

Doopdeedoo

That’s basically it. Nothing fancy.

Of course, there are so many different things that you could do to activate your glutes. Some of my other favorites involved banded work. But anyway I think that these are some pretty good basic movements that you can do along with your hip mobility drills to really help you fire your glutes properly with your training.

Some other movements worth mentioning:

  • X-band walks
  • Side clams
  • Fire Hydrants

As for stretching the glutes, I’ve also demonstrated some of my favorite movements. I can’t tell you enough how difficult it is to perform exercises while taking pictures at the same time without a regular camera. But these are basic start-up positions.

#1: Leg Crossover

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In this movement, you could either keep the non-stretched leg straight or bent. I prefer it bent, but this will depend on your own flexibility and comfort. The main thing is that the leg that is crossed over is getting a very good stretch. You will want to bring in your knee as close as you can to your body, while rotating your upper body in the opposite direction.

#2: Bent-Leg Hamstring Stretch Part 1IMG_0911

So of course, with this stretch you’ll want to reach down, grab your toes and bring your upper body down as close as your can to your hamstring to feel a good stretch.

#3: Bent-Leg Hamstring Stretch Part 2

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Keeping your toe pointed, and hips squared, grab hold of your calf or ankle, and bring your upper body down as close as you can to your leg. If that isn’t possible, you could place both hands on the upper leg and simple push down lightly on the straight leg.

#4: Seated Glute Stretch

Starting position:

IMG_0918

From here, keeping your back straight and your abs tight, lean forward towards your bent leg. Stop when you feel a good stretch in the glutes.

TRAINING THE GLUTES

I made a post awhile back about glute training, but since then have made some serious changes as to what I include in my training to target the glutes more efficiently.

Exercise #1: Hip Thrusts

The KING of glute exercises. Bar none.

Example:

Exercise #2: High Step-Ups

Exercise #3: Box Squats

Glutes respond very well to high AND low repetition workouts. A direct note from Bret Contreras to me when discussing this topic:

“There are no rules set in stone, except that whatever rep range you do you need to feel the glutes working maximally. Some days 3 x 5, some days pyramids, some days 2 x 20, etc.”

So make sure you add in that variety with your sets and rep ranges when training your glutes, and remember that glute training is about not only lifting heavy, but also lightening the load from time to time and adding a couple more reps in. And of course, whether you are doing 3 reps or 20, you need to feel your glutes contracting hard in every rep. If you are not concentrating and creating that mind-muscle connection when training your glutes, you will be limiting how much you can really develop them.

Anyway, kind of short and sweet. Hopefully you can add in some of this stuff with your regular training, and if all of this is nothing new to you, perhaps it could be a refresher or a reminder to start doing them again.

Here’s to creating better glutes!

Squatting: Your Questions Answered

Doug_Hepburn_Squat

Hello world. I apologize this took so long to put together. It’s been a crazy week.

Originally I had written this and was in the process of getting ready to post it, but hadn’t saved my document. So I suffered the consequences and had to re-write it all, which admittedly I procrastinated on just a little…kind of like when you work for awhile on a project and have finally gotten it finished, you don’t really want to start all over again from scratch, if you catch my drift.

But anyway, I really wanted to do a follow-up post for my last Squatting 101 article. As I was thinking of different things to write about, I thought it might be a better idea to ask the readers what THEY would like to know about squats, and have their specific questions answered. I thought it might be a little more thorough, and I’m sure I’ll be back to follow up this post with anything else I missed in the future as well.

Enjoy, and hopefully you can benefit from the answers as well.

Q: Low bar or high bar?

A: This is ultimately a personal choice. Do I have a preference? Certainly. I will almost always choose a low bar position over a high bar. However, there is always a mid-bar position which is right in between both high and low bar, and I find it works well for most people. There is no shoulder/wrist pain complaints like a regular low bar placement might give, and you can still get the power that you would out of a low bar position, just that it will help you to stay a little more upright and you will have less of a forward lean.

All I can say is experiment with both. Low bar is uncomfortable at first, but once you get used to it you will be able to squat much higher weights, which is why it is a favorite amongst powerlifters. Eventually you will find your groove, just keep on trying different things and seeing what feels the most stable.

Q: What do you think about squatting with Smith Machine? Is it better to do it with dumbbells when you don’t have barbell available?

A: Forget Smith Machine squats. They have no place in a program, regardless of what you train for. The only thing I might use the Smith machine for is the occasional incline work for chest, but even then I haven’t used it in almost a year.

If there is no barbell available, then perform heavy single-leg work. Bulgarian split squats are excellent. Walking lunges are also great.

Q: Can you tell me about mobility/stretching specific to reaching proper depth on the squat? And some ideas for recovery as well.

A: Prior to squatting, ALWAYS begin with mobility work. I’m going to post a good video below for some hip mobility drills.

Other ones you can do are hip swings. You hold onto the bar or squat rack, and swing your leg high from front to back, for about 15 reps then switch sides. You want to keep the leg nice an loose and really open up and warm up the hip joints.

A good dynamic stretch prior to squatting would be to get into your squat stance, and then squat down as low as you can. From the position, use your elbows to force your knees out and get a good stretch in the groin area. Hold for a few seconds, raise the hips, and then come back down.

As for recovery, I love foam rolling lightly before training for a few minutes, and then again a couple of times per week. Pay special attention to your IT band, piriformis, hip flexors, and sartorius. These get the most wear and tear.

Sitting in the sauna for a few minutes is nice and relaxing too. You can also take contrast showers. They’re a bitch, but they feel great after. And of course, don’t neglect stretching after your lower body sessions.

Q: What are some stretches to help drop your ass straight down? I’m having hip issues maybe where the crease of the hips doesn’t like to go below the knees!

A: I haven’t personally seen you attempt to squat, so it’s hard to say what the issue is here. Most likely just tightness in the hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings. Tight calves and ankles are also common issues. Make sure that you are doing mobility work before every lower body session, and stretching often.

Here are some good stretches for you to do a couple of times a week to increases flexibility and mobility:

 

Q: What are some deep squatting techniques?

A: Again, if you are having trouble reaching depth there could be a ton of issues at hand here. Perhaps you’re leaning too far forward, or coming onto the quads/knees rather than sitting back properly. The best way to tell is to take a video of yourself and see what’s going on. Are you sitting back properly, or dropping straight down? Do certain muscles feel tight when you are attempting to squat low, or does your lower back round?

Refer to the stretches and mobility work posted above, and keep in mind that the closer your stance is when squatting, the easier it is to reach depth. I’d suggest starting with a closer stance while building up, and then eventually determining a stance that is most comfortable with your leverages once you have gained some more flexibility. Remember to keep the toes pointed out, and to sit your ass back rather than straight down.

Q: What are some proper warm-up techniques?

A: Refer back to my videos posted about mobility work. Walking lunges and high knees in place are also excellent.

Q: I want to know how to progress- auxiliary exercises, and when to add more weight, and how much. For example, I’ve done a top set of 115×5 twice in two weeks, I feel like I should progress to more weight, but I’m scared. 115 is so hard, and I’m honestly never sure I’ll make the last 2 reps. And any tips for managing the fear?

A: I hate to be a parrot or to sound cliché. But “just do it”, is all I can say when it comes to overcoming fear. You have to find YOUR zone. That means blocking out everything going on around you, not thinking about the weight on the bar or how hard it is. Just connecting with your mind, telling yourself that you are going to do it, and just doing it. There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s when you’re afraid that you’re encouraging accidents!!

Of course, always make sure your form is on point, because there could be many reasons why you haven’t been progressing with the weight. But I have a feeling that you are holding yourself back from adding weight because you’re scared it’s going to be hard. And so what if it is? Just push it.

What I can suggest is moving it up to 120 and going for a set of 5. Even when it feels hard, you have to keep going. Unless something begins to hurt or starts feeling REALLY out of whack, then there is no reason to stop. Video your set to make sure you are reaching proper depth and that your form is okay. Depending on how the video turns out, you can then make an educated decision on whether to stay with that weight for awhile, or move it up.

Sometimes, all that is going on is our mind telling ourselves that we’re tired and that it’s hard, etc. The body is never tired if the mind is not tired!!

Q: When you don’t want or can’t squat very heavy-what about higher rep squatting for definition?

A: This makes not a lot of sense. Definition comes with more muscle and a lower body fat percentage. You have to overload the muscle if you want it to grow. And that means lifting heavy weights, and really pushing yourself. Especially with larger movements, keep the reps somewhat lower. I’d say if muscle gain was your only concern, still keep it to around 8 reps max. I do like doing some “widowmaker” sets from time to time, which is your 10RM done for 20 reps, but beyond that I believe that the optimal rep range for squats would be between 5 and 8. And those sets should still be hard to complete.

 

Q: I had a torn meniscus and I wonder if I should not be squatting because of it. But I love squats so that would be a drag.

A: This is a tricky question. I’m not a physician, so keep that in mind. How long ago did the injury occur? If it has been awhile and if you have been squatting without pain or discomfort so far, I should say you’re safe.

What I can suggest is to invest in a pair of knee sleeves, and start out very light (if you haven’t been squatting). If you’re going to squat make sure that you are definitely going below parallel, since anything parallel or above will put a lot of unneeded stress on your joints. The main thing you’ll want to watch is your form, and that you are keeping your knees out at ALL times during the squat, and not letting them cave or shoot forward.

I know a lot of people who have squatted when they had previously torn something in the knee. I wouldn’t suggest doing any kind of running though.

Q: How do you “feel” depth without using visual cues? And how do you breathe for a set of five?

A: Good questions!! “Feeling” depth took me a little while too. What I found helped was to do bodyweight squats to the right depth, and memorize the way you felt in that position. NEVER look at yourself in the mirror while squatting to check for depth. You have to take consistent videos and have people watch from the side to see where your hip crease is. Eventually with enough practice, you will get to that perfect depth. When in doubt, go lower.

As for breathing, you’ll want to think of it like this: when your car runs out of gas and you have to push it, what is your natural instinct before heaving? You take a big breath, hold it, and give it all you got. You have to do the same for each rep of squats. At the top, take a big breath and hold it. You may let out a little bit of air on the way up if you wish (this helps relieve some pressure so you don’t faint or anything, especially when wearing a belt), but never exhale all the way before you get to the top. After you lock-out, pause for a second, take another breath, and repeat.

Q: Could you touch a little bit on Front squats with clean grip techniques?

A: Certainly.

Front squats done properly with a clean grip require a good amount of shoulder and wrist flexibility. To prepare for front squats, do some shoulder mobility work and very light, short stretches for your shoulders and your chest. Shoulder rotations/dislocations are excellent prior to front squats.

You’ll want to keep stretching your wrists as well, either with your hand or the barbell. It will take some time before your muscles and especially tendons are used to being in this position, and it may hurt at first but you will get used to it.

With front squats, you want to make sure that the bar is resting on your DELTOIDS at all time. Not your wrists. You should work on your flexibility enough that you can get your elbows high enough to support the bar on your front deltoids rather than your wrists. You want to have the bar up high enough that it is nearly (but not actually) choking you.

Your fingers are there only to keep the bar in place. You are not doing any kind of supporting with your wrists, only stability.

This is an example of proper front squat form:

 

This is what NOT to do, and is an example of poor flexibility and technique:

 

Once you’ve un-racked the bar and allowed it to settle, take two steps back into a much closer than regular squat stance. Turn your toes out more (this is to help you get deeper, keep your knees out, and also get your hips through at the top).

Keep in mind that a front squat is NOT a back squat. NEVER sit back into a front squat. You want to sit straight down, and keep your knees out on the way up and down. Really force them out hard to make sure you are opening up the hips. When you rise, rise with your chest and elbows first. Your elbows must stay up at all times, otherwise the bar will roll and you will tip forward.

 

Q: I want to low bar squat but feel like I can’t get my arms into the right position. Maybe it’s a flexibility issue? Curious about different way(s) to properly position the bar.

A: As I mentioned earlier, the three different ways you can position the bar on your back is high bar, mid-bar, and low bar. You will have to experiment. Without knowing how you squat, it’s hard to say what the problem is. But with pretty much any squat, you will want to get your elbows under the bar as much as possible, and “bend the bar” over your back, so to speak. Elbows should not be flared up in the back (especially on the way up), and you should not try to purposely flare them.

Keep your grip relatively close, and work on shoulder flexibility. Especially if you are squatting low bar, this is important.

Q: I’m wondering about half squats for glute targeting. Also, I only have access to dumbbells. Any variations on ways to use them for squatting?

A: What I think of when I think “half squat”, is squatting down only to about parallel or slightly above. If this is the case, forget about it. If you want to do a half squat from a dead start those can be useful (i.e. barbell resting on bars and you training only the lockout position) though I can’t say they work wonders for the glutes.

If you want to do something good for your glutes, try some straight-leg deadlifts and hip thrusts. However, doing half squats will only put stress on your knee joints.

You can do a lot of great single-leg work with dumbbells. Think Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and step-ups.

Q: How do I explain to the guy at the gym that having your elbows pointing directly down at the floor so you get ‘push’ from your arms is wrong…? Or is it just a different method?

A:  Actually, this is one case where the guy at your gym was absolutely correct. Elbows should be pointed towards the floor, as I mentioned a few times in questions above. Flaring the elbows is unstable and will only cause the bar to roll and your chest to fall. Keeping the elbows underneath helps raise your chest and makes sure it stays raised.

Q: Should I squat with belt? Without? When if ok?

A: You can if you’d like. I always suggest going up as high as you can without a belt, and then using the belt only for heavier sets. Just keep in mind that you need to be stabilizing by pushing your abdominals out onto the belt to protect your lower back.

Q: I just want a simple routine to follow for focusing on building MASS that covers basics like how many reps/sets/and days a week are ideal. I know some of that depends on frequency and intensity, but you are a female who has achieved good results so I’d like to hear which method got you there.

A: The tricky thing about leg training is that every single person is going to get results with different methods. I know some women who built their legs just by running track and lifting only moderately heavy weights occasionally. And then I have known women who could only build their legs with higher repetitions and so forth.

What worked for me was an increase in frequency as well as intensity. When I talk about intensity, I am referring to weight percentages, not just how hard I’m working. The most reps for my larger lifts (aside from when I ran Smolov) was about 5. I also added in assistance work which never really went over 10 reps. Mostly 6-8. So I was training legs 2x per week with high volume and high intensity. However, I’ve found that certain muscles (such as the glutes) respond to a variety of different intensities as well as reps. So some days I will train it from 4-6, and other days I will do 10+ reps, and so on.

Seeing as I don’t have the means to assess your own individual needs, what I can give you is a basic idea of how to switch things up and put on some muscle (providing your diet is also set to achieve the same goal)

1)            Train legs 2x per week. Glutes can be trained 2-3x per week.

2)            Have a quad dominant and a hamstring dominant day.

3)            Keep your volume and intensity up (but slowly build the volume over a period of time)

4)            Train HEAVY.

5)            Keep most larger compound exercises between 5-6 reps, and everything else from 6-10 reps, drop sets, and widow-maker sets (10RM done for 20 reps) occasionally.

6)            Keep working sets between 3 and 5.

7)            Train 4x per week (upper/lower splits work well for most)

Remember: experimentation is KEY. You must try different things to see what really works for you. But this is a good base to build pretty much anyone off of.

Q: How do you get past your fear or putting more weight on the bar… I find that the heavier I squat the more I psyche myself out by thinking about how much weight that is. I try not to but I still do!!

A: There is no one way to get over it. But what I can say is that your mindset is crucial to the outcome! You have got to just block out whatever is on your mind. Don’t even look at the weight on the bar. The moment you start over-thinking it is when you get anxious, over-psyched, and you end up missing the lift.

Eventually, you have to look at every increment as easy stuff. You cannot be scared of the weight. You can either control the weight how you want, or let the weight control you. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how bad you want it. You want something really bad, you’ll do whatever it takes to get it. You have to get under the bar and not just lift the weight, but OWN it. That’s how we get stronger.

 

Q: Do you have some tips on the ‘drive up’? My form on the way down is apparently pretty good, but I’m told I don’t ‘drive up with my hams’ enough. The problem is when I start focusing that I do the whole thing too fast and then the squat is generally just messy.

A: Perfect sense, actually. Unfortunately, there is no easy way around this. You have to start focusing on it, otherwise the squat will continue to get messier and progress will stall. You don’t want to raise your hips too fast, otherwise your chest will drop. But at the same time you want to make sure that you are really squeezing the glutes and hamstrings to help power up the weight out of the hole. Glute activation prior to squatting is a must.

Mark Rippetoe was a fan of the eyes down, hips driving up first way of squatting, but I have never been a fan and have always found that to be inefficient. One thing that really helped me to activate my glutes and hamstrings in the squat and also learn how to power through to the top with the hips is to do wide-stance box squats, sitting back to the point where your knees are parallel to your shins, so that it debilitates your quads and puts them at a big disadvantage.

Now, these should not replace your regular squats, only add as a supplement.

The tendency is to rock forward off the box, which is how you know you are using more of your quads than your hamstrings and glutes. You want to power off with your glutes and hamstrings to bring you back to a standing position. This can even be done at home with just your bodyweight.

Here’s some good examples:

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I hope that clears things up for those who asked the questions as well as some of you wondering similar things. :) If you have any other questions feel free to drop me a comment.

So, You Want To Get Strong? – Part II

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.

CARDIO/CONDITIONING:

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.

Yes, 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:

“Are You Sabotaging Your Gains with the Wrong Rep Range?”

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.

 

FORM:

We could all learn a thing or two from a baby's squat form!

We could all learn a thing or two from a baby’s squat form!

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.

DIET:

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.

SUPPLEMENTATION:

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)

Optional supplements:

  • Pre-workout drinks
  • BCAA
  • L-Carnitine

PATIENCE:

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.

Happy training!!

So, You Wanna Get Strong? – Part 1

Daniel Remulla. Badass.

“Where do I start?” is a commonly shared question for a lot of beginning strength trainees. I asked it myself at one point. It can get a little overwhelming, especially if you’re the kind of person who becomes intimidated by the idea of lifting heavy weights right off the bat. Hard to know where to begin.

That is why I decided I’d put something together for those who would like to get more involved with strength training/powerlifting, and need to get their basics covered. This will be the first part of a 2-3 part series dedicated specifically to beginners. It’ll be broken down according to priority.

The first section being…

STEP ONE: ADJUST YOUR MENTALITY

Before understanding anything else about strength training, you must first understand the mental aspect.

I myself started out by watching people squat and deadlift large amounts of weight and thinking “Psh, I can do that!” I remember boasting to my friend that I could squat 225 no problem. I had barely begun weight training at this point but was pretty convinced it was no difficult feat. Needless to say, I was put in my place very fast and I learned that nothing is going to come that easily to me. However, regardless of my initial pride, it was that attitude that got me as far as I am today. It ignited some sort of spark, and since then I’ve always wanted to keep getting stronger. And here I am, 2.5 years later, nearly at a 300 lb. squat; and yet, first hitting that 225 was the biggest mental milestone for me ever. Because it was what made me realize that although I may not be capable of doing something at the time I said I would do it, with enough training anything is possible for me. It was at that point that I really realized that hard work can pay off. Now I can look at a 350 lb. squat and think to myself, “Psh…I can do that!” and hey…someday I will!

I think that if you can adopt that sort of mindset that anything is possible, it will get you much further in your strength goals (and anywhere in life, for that matter). You have to be determined to lift the weight, and you have to know that you are capable of doing it with enough training. Doesn’t matter how old you are, what you weigh, if you’re male or female, if you had an injury at one point or not, etc. All of that is irrelevant. You can and will get stronger if you are determined to. And more than 80% of lifting is mental anyway. That being said, if you’re not in the right place mentally, chances are you won’t be training to your fullest capacity, nor will you be reaching your full potential.

(If she can do it, you can too ^^)

So above all else, make sure that you approach strength training with the right attitude. Don’t approach the idea in fear or uneasiness. Go all the way! Even if you’re starting out very light, don’t worry about other people around you and what they’re doing. Do the best that you can do. It’s  a lot more than 90% of people in the gym are doing right now.

 

STEP TWO: PROGRAM PICKING

Generally speaking, cookie cutter is something you should stay away from especially when it comes to diet and if you are a more advanced athlete. But cookie cutter programs, believe it or not, can work well for those who are just starting out. Seeing as you are a beginner, you want to stay away from programs that focus solely on percentages. This means you can scratch the idea of 5/3/1, as in my opinion it’s not that great of a program and there are much better options to choose from. I am much more partial to programs such as Madcows, Starting Strength, WS4SB (Westside For Skinny Bastards), and Stronglifts.

 

MADCOWS INFO:

http://www.wackyhq.com/madcow5x5/geocities/5x5_Program/Linear_5x5.htm

http://www.vicjg.com/aspx/madcowint.aspx

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/Bill_Starr_5x5

STARTING STRENGTH:

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/The_Starting_Strength_Novice/Beginner_Programs

WESTSIDE FOR SKINNY BASTARDS:

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/Westside_for_Skinny_Bastards

STRONGLIFTS:

http://stronglifts.com/stronglifts-5×5-beginner-strength-training-program/

And remember, these are cookie cutter programs (namely the 5×5 templates), but they really do work. Try to follow the program exactly for the best results. It’s when you tamper too much with these kinds of programs that things get messy. Follow it because it was designed for progress, period.

The biggest piece of advice I have to give before starting any program is to START LIGHT. Don’t assume your max is something when it isn’t. Even if you start out the first 2 weeks lifting very light, almost all of these are linear progression programs, which means that every week you are going to be progressing and adding more weight to the bar. So it’s better to start out light and slow then to start out too heavy and risk stalling too early and having to reset. That’s no fun at all!

I have never seen anyone who did not progress with one of the following programs, so give everything a read and see which one would better suit you and your goals.

The second best piece of advice is to STICK TO THE FUCKING PROGRAM. So many people are “program hoppers” and they jump around  from one to the other on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. You will need to stick with these for awhile before deciding that you can move onto something different. In the beginning you get things which we like to call “noob gains”. It’s that point in your training where you can keep excelling every workout, and get stronger on a linear basis without anything plateauing too drastically.

After awhile once you are past that point, you will need to get on a template (or make your own) that is adjustable, which you can constantly tweak depending on your weaknesses and what areas you need to bring up. As a beginner though, you don’t need to be concerned with specialization or anything like that. You just need to get a solid strength base going and you can think about the other stuff later.

It’s kind of like with fat loss. In the beginning things may be linear, but as you get down to those last stubborn pounds, it takes a lot more manipulation and tricks to get your body to lose that fat. Same with strength gain, and when you get to that point, you’re fighting for those extra 10 lbs. on your squat/deadlift. Whereas awhile ago when you first started, you probably would have put it on in the first week or two!

 

STEP THREE: UNDERSTANDING MAX EFFORT

The biggest difference between an advanced strength trainee and a novice trainee, is their ability to exert maximal output on a given exercise.

An advanced athlete has learned to fire his muscles properly in a movement, and has learned how to incorporate strength from every area to work together and heave the weight. Everything works together as a unit because it has been trained to do so. A novice trainee however, has not yet learned how to use all of his muscles correctly and have them fire at the same time to generate proper force for the movement. What happens then is that the body compensates and tends to shift the load onto areas of the body that are strongest to try and muscle the weight up, rather than everything working together with equal effort. So while the advanced athlete can go for a max effort squat attempt and give at least 95% of his true max, chances are a novice trainee is only using 70-75% of his or her maximal effort. This is partially mental, and partially physical. It is not always that the trainee is not strong enough to move the weight. A lot of it is that he or she has not yet learned proper form and/or mental strength, and hasn’t yet learned to make the body work together as a unit.

So as an example, if your max bench press is 135 BEFORE you learned proper technique and before you learned how to work your muscles correctly, it’s probable that your true max is quite a lot higher, you just needed to learn how to correctly perform the exercise.

On the other hand, things could swing the other direction and you could be cheating so heavily on the movement that you are lifting a lot more (body swing bicep curls anyone?), and when you learn better technique you are a lot weaker than you thought. That is when you take some humility lessons, lighten up, and do it right.

Another note regarding max effort: most novice trainees don’t know what it actually feels like to give maximal effort. One reason being their CNS is not yet properly conditioned to take on that sort of load. Another thing that could prevent a novice from using maximal effort on an attempt is their mental approach.

Believe it or not, one of the hardest things to develop is mental strength. A weak mind equates a weak body. A strong mind delivers a strong body. If you don’t believe it now, you better start believing it soon, because it’s what is going to get you the furthest, and it’s what is going to help you reach your highest potential with training.

 

MORE ON MENTAL TRAINING…

I very highly recommend the book “Striking Thoughts” by Bruce Lee. This book has been the single best thing to ever come into my life regarding mental focus and thought power. Who better to learn from than the king himself? Bruce Lee still is, and always will be one of the most amazing athletes to ever grace the earth, in my opinion. And I have to say that his musings have helped me through pretty much everything.

I’ll close that thought off with an excerpt from his book regarding athletes and thought power:

The attitude “that you can win if you want it badly enough” means that the will to win is constant and no amount of punishment, no amount of effort, or no condition is too “tough” to take in order to win. Such an attitude can be developed only if winning is closely tied to the practitioner’s ideals and dreams. Experience shows that an athlete who forces himself to the limit can keep going as long as necessary. It means that ordinary effort will not top or release the tremendous store or reserve power latent in the human body. Extraordinary effort, highly emotionalized conditions, or a true determination to win at all costs will release this extra energy. Therefore an athlete is actually as tired as he feels, and if he is determined to win he can keep on almost indefinitely in order to achieve his objective.

 

Get the book. Do it. Seriously.

And remember guys, the world is your oyster. Anything is possible. You just have to believe it.

Will have the follow-up for this post on here shortly – Stay tuned and train hard! :D