I’m 35 years old. I’ve had both knees and a shoulder reconstructed. I have a bad hip and herniated disks in my neck. I wrestled year round from the time I was 9 or 10 years old through college, with average genetics at best, so I tried to out work and out train everyone else. I went through my bodybuilding splits, powerlifting phases, and my “do a little bit of everything,” phase. I’ve screwed up tons of people’s training programs in the past.
And I tell you this because it drives home the point that I’ve done literally everything wrong when it comes to training that you could possibly do at some point or another over the last 20 years, and hurt myself more times than I’d like to admit. Unfortunately, I’ve even hurt other people who paid me money and trusted me to train them safely.
The following list is something that I’ve developed over a long time of searching for answers, tinkering with and adopting methods that people smarter than me have been doing for a long time in order to stay healthy, strong, lean, and able to do the things I love to do.
And I keep getting better as the years go on, when most people go the opposite route.
By no means am I a monster, but at 35 I don’t swim with a shirt on, I can surf, work out on the mats with the high school wrestling team that I coach, and lift moderately heavy stuff pain free. The adjustments I’ve made to my own training, and the training programs of my clients and athletes, have everything to do with this, so I want to share it with you, so you can get off the perpetual hamster wheel of ineffective, potentially destructive training, to actually start building some muscle while feeling better than you ever have.
- Keep a neutral grip or 45 degree angle between your upper arms and your torso when pressing. These positions are far better for your shoulder health, and will allow you to recruit the musculature of your chest, back, shoulders, and triceps more effectively than flaring the elbows way out wide, and it’ll be a lot easier to get a full range of motion.
- Use gymnastics rings for chin ups. Similarly, I see people every day struggle to get their chin over the bar when doing pullups or chins, and a lot of the reason is due to their elbows shooting out to the sides, rather than forward. Rings allow for a more natural rotation through the shoulders, keeping them healthy and strong. If you don’t have rings, rotate between neutral and supinated grips, but sprinkle in pullups more sparingly. A quick tip on pullups: try to use a thumbless grip for better shoulder tracking.
- Do more single leg work. Your anatomy doesn’t change, but the requirements of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints do depending on your body position. Utilizing single leg movements like split squats, single leg deadlifts, single leg squats, and reverse lunges will cut the load you use in half, which helps to put less stress on your spine while getting you strong in all areas. This helps to keep you healthy and have a transfer over to real world activities like sports and chasing your kids. No, 1 legged leg presses or extensions don’t count.
- Add in Odd Implement Training From Time to Time. Sandbags, axles, maces, and the like challenge the stabilizing muscles in your body more than an equally dispersed load (that felt weird to type). This leads to more carryover to the stuff you like to do out of the gym, and keeps things exciting and fresh in your training. One of my favorite current movements is a shouldered sandbag split squat.
- Supersets are different from alternating sets. Supersets came from bodybuilding, where you’d do 2 or more exercises back to back with little to no rest. There’s a time and a place for this, but most of your training should consist of alternating sets, where you do a set of something like dumbbell presses, rest a bit, then do a non competing exercise like a squat or row. This allows you do to more work in a training session that straight sets. If you don’t take some rest, your limiting factor turns out to be your heart rate and breathing, which isn’t the point with strength training. I like pairing up presses with hip dominant lifts like trap bar deadlifts, and pulls with squat variations, because both pulling and deadlifts are really taxing on the grip and may compromise what kind of weight you can move. At the end of the day, there’s a million ways you can organize this, just realize that you need some rest between sets to optimize each one, but you probably don’t need 3-5 minutes to scroll Instagram like many people do.
- Walk to the edge of the failure cliff, but don’t go over. Mike Boyle is the first I’ve heard use the term technical failure, where you cut your set when you completed you last perfect rep. Sloppy technique is where people get hurt, so don’t ego lift. A good rule of thumb is that your last rep should look like your first, just maybe a little slower.
- Move the barbell lifts to later in your workout. Traditionally, the thought process has always been to squat, bench, or deadlift first in your workout, as they are the most demanding and require you to be freshest. As you get older and have built an appreciable level of strength on these lifts, it might be a better idea to do a lot of your secondary work first, in order to really warm up the joints, and induce some fatigue, so that you can lower the weight that you put on the bar, which is again a trick to stay healthy and not drive your nervous system into the rocks. You still need to be training to get stronger, but if you squat more in 3 months, you’re still stronger, regardless of when in your workout you did it.
- Have a program, not random workouts. It boggles my mind that people go into a training session without a plan. A program is a planned series of workouts where each builds on the last, and has a clearly defined path. Walking into a gym and doing a little of this and a little of that can get you tired, sore, and pumped, but does it get you better? Not everything has to be written in stone, but have a plan to get better. If you are lost or stuck making progress, you can apply for my distance coaching program where we connect for an assessment over Facetime or Skype, and I design a personalized program for you so you don’t have to think, just execute.
- If you’re relying on pre-workout energy drinks regularly, you should be addressing your sleep, nutrition, and lifestyle habits. If you need to throw down a bunch of chemicals to get woke enough to train, then I’d be willing to bet that you need more (or better) sleep at night, and/or better food choices throughout your day. You’re only going to improve from what you can recover from, and if you’re constantly tricking your body into being able to do more by running on adrenaline, your going to crash and burn eventually. Get your sleep, nutrition, and stress levels on the same page as your training so everything is working together to maximize your gainz.
- Utilize pauses on big lifts to keep form tight and loading down. Much like doing the traditional barbell lifts later in your training session, using pauses on these is a great way to ensure that your form stays tight so you gain more strength and muscle with less weight on the bar. Try 2 second pauses at the bottom of close grip bench presses or front squats or whatever variations you want. Pauses are humbling, but an effective and safe way to keep training like a meathead.