Monday 12 September 2016

6 Exercise Hacks for Superior Results

Are your workouts delivering everything you hoped they would? Are you are investing your valuable time in the weight room AND really getting the best possible return on your investment? In the same amount of time, you could have harder, more effective and safer training sessions by putting yourself into the best possible situations for success. Here are 6 lifting hacks that will take your training to the next level! 

The Background Story
This past Saturday, I had the honor of presenting at the BCFit16 conference. My presentation was called, “Shut-Up and Let Movement Do the Coaching.” The idea behind my session was to encourage trainers to re-think how we coach exercises. When future trainers attend certification courses or go to university, they are taught about functional anatomy and biomechanics. This is essential information to know, but it causes us to naturally try to coaching our clients with cues such as “bend at the hips” and “engage your core”. 

The problem with this method is it doesn’t work as well – especially to those who are not trained in functional anatomy and biomechanics (trust me and learn from my many dumb mistakes). 

Over the past 18 years, there has a been a ton of motor learning research comparing internal vs. external focus. The research has looked at things like skill acquisition, accuracy, movement efficiency, maximum force production, fitness, athletic performance and lifting. The overwhelming majority of the studies found better results when subjects were given an external focus instead of an internal focus. 

To understand the difference between the two, here is an example from one of the studies on the isometric mid-thigh pull (i.e. pulling on an immovable bar at mid-thigh height). The group of subjects where divided into 2 groups: internal and external focus groups. 

The internal focus group was told: “Focus on contracting your leg muscles as hard and as fast as you possibly can.” The external focus group was told: “Focus on pushing the ground as hard and as fast as you possibly can.” The group that received focused externally was able to produce 9% more force. 

I then challenged trainers to use external cueing when coaching their clients and try to create opportunities for them to learn better exercise technique through movement experiences. Is that about as clear as mud? Here are 6 examples from my presentation you can try next time you are at the gym. 

Lifting Hack #1: Paused Front Squats
The problems: many people (myself included) tend to bounce out of the bottom of a squat. We also tend to let our weight and the bar shift forward as we come out of the bottom. 

The solution: do front squats with a 2-3 count pause at the bottom of each rep

The benefits: there is only one way to stay at the bottom of a front squat with a heavy bar on your shoulders – in the proper position. The pause will make sure your chest is up, your elbows are high and the weight is aligned over your mid-foot – just want you want for safe, effective squatting!

Lifting Hack #2: Deadlift Set-Up
The problems: most people deadlift as if they are afraid of the bar. They are way too far away from the bar when they lift and as a result, they start the lift is a bad position. This severely limits how much weight you can lift and puts way more stress on your low back (which is one main reason so many people find deadlifts hurt their low backs).

The solution: move up to the bar until the bar is over your mid foot. Now, without bumping the bar, sit back to get down to the bar (see the video below for details).

The benefits: you will lift more weight with less low back stress.

Lifting Hack #3: Lat Activation 
The problem: training any muscle in your back is tricky because they are harder to see. Many people don’t know how to activate or effectively use their lats when they do pull-ups and rely too much on their arms. As a result, their pull-up performance and back development suffers. 

The solution: set-up a band from the pull-up bar, slip your elbow in and practice using your lats by driving your elbow down. Do 3-4 reps per side, take a short rest and then do a set of pull-ups.

The benefits: this method will let you know what it feels like to use your lats. Also, help you understand how to drive your elbows down while you do a pull-up. 

Lifting Hack #4: Bottom’s Up Press
The problems: many people have poor shoulder stability. This hinders how much weight they can lift. Also, when learning to press, many people fail to keep their elbows under the weight which is essential for proper pressing mechanics. Many people lack the concentrated focus necessary to safe, advanced lifting.  

The solution: try a bottom’s up kettlebell press for a while.

The benefits: When you turn the kettlebell upside down, you quickly realize that you at risk for a concussion. In the interest of self-preservation, you naturally squeeze your hand really hard (this activates your rotator cuff which stabilizes your shoulder). This also forces you to keep your elbow under the weight (where it should be) and intensely focus on what you are doing. 

Lifting Hack #5: Row Patterning
The problems: Many fail to realize the purpose of a row. A row is not to move your hands from point A (arms extended in front of you) to point B (hands at your chest). The purpose of a row is to move your shoulder blades from point A (protracted – rounded) to point B (retracted – squeezed together). 
The solutions: practice the row pattern for 3-4 reps prior to a set of rows. When rowing, try to forget about your hands and focus instead of driving your shoulders back. 
Benefits: this will improve your posture, increase your upper back strength, improve structural balance and increase your upper back size.

Lifting Hack #6: Bottom-Position Bench Press
The problems:  go to any gym and watch a guy bench press and you’ll almost always see him bouncing the bar off his chest. This bounce relies more on the elasticity of passive structures (e.g. ribs, ligaments) as opposed to muscular strength to power the weight up. You will also rarely be impressed with his form. 

The solution: start your bench presses from a dead stop at the bottom.

The benefits: this will be humbling at first, but will lead to much better strength gains with a happier sternum (chest bone). You will also find you are forced to nail down your set-up.

Happy training and let me know what you think of these. As always, I welcome your comments and questions below or on my Facebook page

  • Cook, G. (2015). The Best Functional Exercises in the World. NSCA Conference video:  
  • Ducharme, SW, et al. Standing long jump performance with an external focus of attention is improved as a result of a more effective projection angle. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: 30(1):276-281, January 2016.
  • Halperin, I; Williams, KJ; Martin, DT; Chapman, DW. The Effects of Attentional Focusing Instructions on Force Production During the Isometric Midthigh Pull. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: 30(4): 919-923, April 2016.
  • Porter, Jared M, et al. Adopting an External Focus of Attention Improves Sprinting Performance in Low-Skilled Sprinters. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: 29(4): 947–953, April 2015.
  • Rippetoe, M, & Kilgore, L.  (2007). Starting Strength (2nd Ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: The Aasgaard Company. 
  • Wenning, M. (2015). Sumo Deadlift: The Base for Tactical Strength. NSCA Conference Video:
  • Wulf, G. (2013). Attential focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6:1, 77-104.

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