In the first part of this series, we talked about having the right mindset and mental focus as well as some important habits that need to be in place to take your training to the next level. This time around, I want to share some things about specific exercises that we all do and how to fine-tune those exercises to get the most dramatic results in the least amount of time.
The first thing I want to talk about though, is your foundation or setting up your body for every standing and even seated exercise. If your foundation is less-than-ideal or just flat out wrong, so is everything else you do from that point on. If you master a rock-solid structural foundation, you can then focus on the actual form and execution of the exercise that you’re doing and take that focus and form to higher and higher levels. Without that rock-solid and consistently executed foundation, you will never eventually earn that perfect execution and total muscle stimulation during each exercise.
1. Focus on Your Foundation (or Set Up)
What we’re talking about here is any standing and even seated exercise, which covers a lot of the exercises you can do in any given workout. First of all, you need to make sure that your feet are properly positioned. This means that your feet need to be one with the floor; firmly and evenly planted. Think of your feet being cemented to the floor. If you look around the gym (or maybe even down at your own feet), you’ll see guys who are up on their toes, back on their heels, or balanced more on the outside or inside of their feet with their weight unevenly placed. Your weight needs to be evenly placed on both feet. They also need to be a little wider than shoulder width apart in most cases. Experiment with this foot positioning now that you are conscious of how important it is. Your feet being just an inch to narrow or an inch too wide can make a huge difference in how well you perform the set.
Next are your knees. Your knees should never be locked and rigid. They should be bent enough for buoyancy and flexibility, but firm. Imagine it this way: if someone were to give you a light push, you should be able to maintain your position without having to fight to keep your balance. Your hips should be in a neutral position, not tilted either forward (anterior pelvic tilt) or backward (posterior pelvic tilt). This is a key point for many people because of their everyday less-than-ideal posture so a lot of guys need to focus on proper hip positioning, but it’s essential for stability. Lets’ continue to move upwards. A lot of your strength comes from your lower back, so you want to make sure that your back is arched and that you lock it down nice and tight. Your chest should be up high and your shoulders back. Your head should be facing forward. I know some guys feel more comfortable looking off to the side, but this can be unnecessarily distracting and put your body out of alignment. You also want to have a straight line going from the bottom of your spine to the top of your head, so facing forward is really preferred. Your chin should be up and your eyes facing forward.
You need to do a “mental check off” making sure each of these nine points are positioned correctly before you even begin a set. Make sure you do this for every exercise during every workout—even your warm up sets. Now, I know this will seem tedious at first as you’ll want to just jump in and start pounding out the exercise. You must practice this discipline each and every time until it becomes a habit. Within two or three weeks of consistently setting up this way, the process will transfer into your subconscious mind and you will start executing this positioning without any thought. But you must put in your work first. These things may seem basic, but so many guys develop bad habits in one part of the body or the other when it comes to this foundation. You cannot hone and perfectly execute more advanced techniques unless your foundation is rock solid.
2. Bicep Curls
Biceps curls are deceptively simple. Done correctly, they’re a powerfully effective move. Done incorrectly, they can be a waste of time. Look at two different bodybuilders, one a beginner and the other someone who’s been working out reasonably effectively for years and they may look like they’re doing the same move. However, the more experienced guy may be so much better at form and execution they might as well be doing two completely different exercises. It really can be that different. The results will oftentimes be dramatically different as well.
First, keep your elbows tucked in at all times. Don’t let them flare out from your body at an angle. Your arm should be as parallel to your body as you can make it during the entire move. Your arm should almost be dragging against your body, whether you’re doing a hammer curl, dumbbell curl, or a barbell curl. You also want to make sure you have a wide arc throughout the movement. Keep it really wide—and don’t cut the angle. You will feel much more stimulation of the biceps if you focus on having a wide arc. Make sure you concentrate on keeping that wide arc all the way up (concentric phase)—and all the down (eccentric phase). Here’s another next level tip that many people don’t utilize when doing biceps curls with dumbbells: Keep your palm fully open as long as you can on the way down and open it back up fully as soon as possible on the way up. And, as with every exercise, you want to control the weight on the way down (eccentric phase) and never let gravity do any of the work without a good fight from you. Controlling the weight so it takes twice as long to work its way down as it took you to drive it upwards (concentric phase) is always a good rule of thumb.
3. Back Exercises
A lot of guys say that they don’t feel their back exercises where they should or that they feel them in their biceps rather than their backs. I hear this on my Facebook page quite a bit. There are a number of things you can do to make sure your form and execution dictate the best results when doing back exercises. First, I strongly advocate wrist straps for back exercises. When you are moving a challenging weight for rowing or pulling movements and you are forced to use a tight grip, you will feel the exercise more in your biceps, forearms, and even shoulders more than in your back. Wrist straps help make your hands one with the bar and helps you to get a proper grip. You won’t have to pull it so tightly and can loosen up the tension in your forearms and biceps and put the tension where it belongs – on your back. Now, I understand that some guys will say they want to do it hardcore, they want to improve their grip strength and so on. If you’re getting the right stimulation to your back and great results, that’s fine. But if you’re not feeling and seeing that you’re getting your money’s worth from your back moves, try the wrist straps. You can always work on your forearm directly with exercises that are specifically designed for them in another workout.
Another tip with back exercises is to keep your elbows tucked close in to your torso. When you’re pulling and rowing they should be brushing up against your torso. Never let your arms flare outward. Also, be sure when you’re doing rows, you pull the weight down low enough. I often see guys pulling it down to their sternum or their chest, but to engage the back you should be aiming for the belt buckle level. Be careful, too, not to let it start creeping higher and higher as you get fatigued. As with every exercise, you want to control the weight on the way down and never let gravity do any of the work without a good fight from you.
4. Flat Barbell Bench Press
The key to next level training with the flat barbell bench press is finding the right angle for your arms. The right angle to really engage your chest and feeling that ideal engagement is going to be different for everyone. This is something you will need to focus on and figure out yourself. But you can’t do that if you aren’t aware of just how important this is.
When you place your hands on the bar preparing for the bench press pay attention to your elbows. Are they tucked right against your body or are they flaring out at a wide angle? The answer is probably somewhere between the two. Really focus on your chest and adjust the angle of your arms until you can feel it in your chest. There is no set answer on angle; it will be different for everyone. However, you do have to find that right angle in order to get real results in the chest.
Another next level tip for the flat barbell bench press is that you shouldn’t be moving the bar straight up and down. Now, I know it looks like that’s what the most experienced, accomplished, and knowledgeable guys in the gym are doing but take a closer look. The movement should have a slight “banana shaped” arc to it so the bar is closer to your chin at the top of the movement than it is when you start. You feel the stimulation much more in your chest this way. This should be a very slight arc, maybe an inch or so is all from the bottom to the top of the movement. Practice that and you’ll know you have the arc right when you start feeling it in your chest. Remember to control the weight on the way down.
5. Dumbbell Press for Chest
When you’re doing a dumbbell press for chest, the angle of the bench is extremely important. It should be the slightest angle possible, probably the lowest setting on the bench. I would say the angle should be no more than about 15 degrees. Any more than that and you will feel it in your chest, but your shoulders will be heavily involved too and that diminishes the results you could be getting for your chest. When you’re doing this movement, it should not be straight up and down when viewed from the front or back. You should be moving at a very slight angle so your hands are meeting at the top of the movement. Your hands clasping the dumbbells should be wider at the bottom that they are at the top. I call it an “A-frame” motion. One thing this will do for you is as the weight gets heavier and the dumbbells start to flare outward, concentrating on the “A-frame” slight angle will correct that and help keep your form in line so you don’t end up doing too much (or even dangerous) shoulder work during this chest exercise.
Just as with the Flat Barbell Bench Press, the angle you are driving the dumbbells up and controlling them on the way down (when viewed from the side) should not be straight up and down. It should moved at a slight “banana shaped” arc. In fact, when you try to move it straight up and down, you’ll often be moving the dumbbells forward. Implementing that banana shaped arc will help you feel more stimulation in your chest where you should when performing this exercise. I am going to remind you again to control the weight on the way down and never let gravity do any of the work without a good fight from you. This truly is a next level tip that many people take for granted and incorrectly assume that they are doing it correctly.
6. Incline Barbell Bench Press
With this exercise, you will also want to have no more than a 15 degree angle. Oftentimes, you can’t adjust the bench position of the Incline Barbell Bench. If you need to, scoot up on the bench and maybe even lift your back off of the seat so you can get that angle. You have to think outside the box and do what you have to do to position your body at the correct angle and feel the proper stimulation in your chest. This is another exercise that appears to be a straight up and down movement but often isn’t. If you really watch someone experienced, accomplished, and knowledgeable do these, you will see that they are moving the bar up and forward in that slight “banana arc” I mentioned a couple of times before. That’s how you really get the right feel from this exercise. When you’re doing these, really focus on the slight arc.
When doing this exercise, the bar should just barely miss your raised chin when exploding on the way up. When you bring that bar down, the bar should just barely clear your raised chin. That’s how high up the bar needs to be. If you are shooting to place the bar to the middle of your sternum like you do during a Flat Barbell Bench Press, you are going to incorporate way too much shoulders in this exercise.
7. Dumbbell Press for Shoulders
When you’re doing the dumbbell press for shoulders, you need to consciously keep your arms and the dumbbells way back (when viewed from the side) and fight to keep them from moving forward. You can’t just focus on moving the weight from Point A to Point B. Because of the weight, your arms and the dumbbells will naturally push forward on the way up. If you focus on counteracting that by lifting up and back you will really start to feel that challenge to your shoulders. This is also where that nice, tight, raided, then locked down lower back I mentioned earlier comes into play. You also want to keep the dumbbells as close as possible to your center of gravity. Don’t let them start angling outward as they get heavy (when viewed from the front or back). If your goal is to push them straight up, you’re probably actually angling outward without realizing it. Combat this by using a tight A-frame angle (wider at the bottom and more narrow at the top). Also, whether you’re doing dumbbell presses or military presses, here’s a grip technique that can make a huge difference for you. As you grab that bar and push up, all of the grip pressure should be focused between the center of your palm and inward toward your thumb. You should almost be able to lift your pinkie and index finger off of the bar. Traditional thinking has you putting the grip pressure evenly throughout your hand. Try this and you will feel it more in your shoulders.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people struggle with squats and that’s okay. We all have certain exercises that we dread or avoid. Squats seem to be that exercise for a lot of people. I know. The “Squat Zealots” (as I call them) who insist you are less-of-a man if your “ass doesn’t hit the grass” when you squat can be quite intimidating.
The best advice I can give you is to treat squats like any other exercise. You’re just there to stimulate your legs and help them grow. If you make too much of a production out of the exercise and worry too much about them, you will never feel comfortable enough to continually work on improving your Squats. If you don’t do squats as well as you do some of the other exercises, it’s no big deal. More importantly, try not to get bogged down in criticizing or worrying about what other people think. You don’t have to throw five plates on each side to build your quads. Just focus on doing the squat correctly and with the weight you can handle and you will improve.
These are some next level tips I wanted to share with you on specific exercises. Training with the right mindset, form, and proper weight will get you to the next level. Make these steps a daily practice and you will see what I’m talking about.
In the next and final segment of this series, Expert Tips For Next Level Training: Part 3, we will be focusing more on mindset, which is a crucial part of your success.