Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
We’ve all seen them, the numerous and dedicated gym-goers who lift impressive amounts of weight day in and day out, grunting, straining and grimacing under the stellar tonnage. They stomp around the gym floor as if they were staking their territory and intimidating the perceptively lesser members of the weight lifting food chain. String tank tops and flared arms signal to all others, “This is serious, don’t mess with me!”
To the layman this is a feat of strength, a sight to see. But a more careful and experienced look at some of these wanna-be bodybuilders would detail flaws in form and function such as quarter rep squats and leg presses, butt-off-the-bench presses, shoulder press stopping just above their heads and barbell curls with two spotters!
Sure, it is impressive that those gut-wrenching gurus can even hoist those weights let alone move them, but what are they really trying to accomplish? If you were to judge by their training alone, you would conclude that everyone wants to be an injured power lifter. Their actions scream MORE WEIGHT, NO MATTER WHAT!
A better question to ask: What are your goals when you step through those gym doors? Most reading this would answer: To build a muscular, defined, lean physique. Strength, I am sure, is still an important factor, but not the only factor.
Building muscle and strength while staying lean takes a unique approach – one of form, function and a purposeful plan of action. Building strong and muscular shoulders, a V-tapered torso and functionally strong legs takes dedication to correct execution and a suppressed ego.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more common ailments found in gyms and shed some light on how to remedy these ego-centric ways of lifting.
10 quality (not quantity) fixes for bigger gains
Fix #1 - No more half squats
No more half squats; it’s time to go all the way. Touted as the king of all exercises, the full range barbell back squat is an endlessly effective compound move for the entire lower body and most of the upper body. Activating quads, hams and glutes among other ancillary muscles, squatting with a full range of motion will activate more muscle, increase full-body strength and rev up the metabolism like no other.
If you find yourself shortchanging real gains in muscle and strength, ditch the ego, lighten your load and try squatting lower each training session – below parallel. Really try to sit down into the bottom position and be sure to keep your knees in line with your feet (don’t let them buckle in). You will get more out of a full range of motion with 185 pounds than half reps with 275.
Fix #2: Clean up your bench press
The bench press is a move that normally has a few lousy trends: Those who pick their butt off the bench to decrease the angle of the push, performing the descent too fast and those who consistently load the bar with too much weight as if they were maxing out on every set. Cut down on the weight and slow the move down some. Control the eccentric portion of the move and press the weight up without locking your elbows.
Another great tip (and one that will humble you quickly) is to perform any incline work first before heading to the flat bench. Most trainees are deficient in the upper pec department so prioritizing this area first will force you to use less weight on the flat bench press and focus on form.
Fix #3 - Stop swinging your bicep curls
Yes, there is a technique referred to as the cheat curl – using a slight lean and bump to curl more weight to overload the biceps but most take it to the extreme. If you utilize a spotter and/or use wrist straps to curl, you need to lighten up and do it right. Having a sore back from curls is a signal that something is wrong.
If you want to build impressive biceps (remember that they are a small muscle group) don’t use a weight you would use for bent-over rows or bench presses. Use a moderate weight, pin your elbows to your sides and squeeze up the bar to shoulder level. Extend the bar back down with your midsection tight and under control. Don’t swing.
Fix #4 - Lateral raises: the "dying moth" must die
I like to secretly refer to those who uncontrollably swing up dumbbells during lateral raises as dying moths. This is one of the most abused exercises known to man. Swinging the dumbbells up and back and bumping the weight up with the hips are two of the techniques used to lift too heavy of a weight.
Cut down on the weight significantly and stand with the dumbbells at your sides. Lift the weight up and out to your sides with only a slight bend in the elbows (nothing drastic) and lead the weight up with your pinky fingers. Hold this position throughout the entire motion. Return to your sides with the weight (not the front) and repeat reps without resting at the bottom.
Fix #5 - Six inch leg presses have to go
The leg press is like the squats little brother – always trying hard to impress. I’ve seen some trainees load every 45 pound plate in the gym and then have their training buddy sit on the sled for more resistance. Everyone turns their head in awe and cannot wait to see what comes next. The sled is lifted and then lowered about six inches and then pressed back up. Hmm. Not impressed.
Several things wrong here. First, in order to make the excuse for the short range of motion, the seat is raised too far up. Now you have no room for a good range of motion. Second, and the most obvious, is too much weight! Set the seat in the lowest position, load a moderate amount of weight on the sled and descend down to a point before your glutes roll up off the seat. Pull your pelvis into the seat with your arms to increase the flexibility of your glutes and hams. Slow the motion down as well – this will require more control and focus.
Fix #6 - Add some ROM to your shoulder presses
I’ve seen people raise a beer during a game with more range of motion than I’ve seen on shoulder presses. Whether performed with a barbell or dumbbells, the shoulder press deserves better. Touching the top of your head isn’t really a shoulder press – very few deltoids muscles are actually at work.
Again, lighten your load and utilize a full range of motion. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and lower the barbell below your chin. Press it back up just prior to lockout. If you are using dumbbells, lower the weight just before it touches your shoulders and then press back up.
Fix #7 - Stop turning nosebreakers into a close grip bench press
A lying extension is not a close-grip bench press. Nosebreakers, as they are sometimes fondly referred to, are designed to isolate the triceps with constant tension and moderate weight. Since it puts a significant amount of stress directly on the elbow joint, it can potentially become a high risk for injury.
While lying back on a flat bench raise a barbell with moderate weight overhead. Start with the weight over your forehead and not over your chest. Lower the weight just overhead ending at the top of your head near the bench pad. Extend your arms back up with the weight ending over your forehead once again. Performing this move at this unique angle will keep the stress on the triceps without using too much weight and preventing injury.
Fix #8 - Actually bend over when doing bent over rows
Unless everyone is doing upright rows, barbell bent-over rows should be just that: bent over. Setting your upper body slightly upright (not exactly parallel to the floor) due to balancing the weight is one thing, but to stand straight up and “shrug” the barbell into your waist is a whole other issue.
Bend over at your hips (not your waist) with a moderately loaded barbell. Pull the barbell to your stomach without angling up your torso. Angling up too much will take a massive amount of stress off of your lats and transfer that stress to your shoulders and traps. Swallow your pride and feel the targeted muscles work.
Fix #9 - Thou shalt not bounce your calf raises
The first rule of calf raises is we don’t bounce. The second rule of calf raise is we don’t bounce! Those who blame their genetics for poor calf development are more than likely using pitiful form.
Lower the weight all the way down to feel an intense stretch, pause for a second and then squeeze the weight up. The reason for the pause is to take away any momentum from the stretch in order to lift the weight with the muscle and not from a bounce. Also, if you are going to perform a standing or leg press calf raise, keep your knees rigid but straight. Try not to turn the calf press into a leg press.
Fix #10 - Lighten your leg curl load
Have you ever done set after countless set of leg curls without much to show for it? Well, as there are many other factors at play when it comes to hamstring development, the leg curl does provide significant benefit regarding putting on mass and strengthening the area to help facilitate other lifts such as squats. Lifting of the hips and slinging the weight up are two common culprits of a bad performance.
Can you guess what I am about to say? Yes, lighten your load. Position yourself on the pad and hold your upper body down with your arms. With your hips firmly planted on the pad, lift the pad with your lower legs slowly and squeeze. Instead of digging your knees into the pad, imagine raising your knees with your glutes as you raise the weight. Hold the top position for a count of two and then slowly lower the weight.
Another trick is to prop up on your elbows to force your hips to the pad. Less weight will have to be used, but you will finally start to reap your due rewards.
Maybe the tips for some of you are common sense, but I hope it served to make you take a step back and honestly review what exactly you are doing on some key exercises. Utilizing proper form and technique will not only help prevent injury but will also rev up your gains so you can get closer to your personal goals, faster.