There are a lot of factors to consider when designing your training program.
Which exercises to include, the set and rep ranges, and the order of said exercises are all important components, for sure.
None of those are the primary reason that I see people fall short in seeing results from their training, though.
Of course, if you can’t get your joints into the right positions to do an exercise correctly, at some point, you’re going to have an issue-you’ll compensate until you can’t anymore. This might result in stalled progress, or worse, an injury, so exercise selection is no doubt crucial. You need to pick exercises that fit your body, injury history, and goals.
But there’s more to technique than just making sure you don’t get hurt. There’s an optimal way to perform each exercise, and although there are variances for sure, one thing is certain:
In order to get the most out of an exercise, you need to be active throughout all parts of the movement by creating full body tension. This will put you in the strongest, most stable positions possible to maximize an exercise’s effectiveness.
Take a bench press for example. It’s common to see less experienced lifters allow the weight “push them down,” on the lowering phase, which flattens out the lower back, causes the shoulder blades to flare outwards around the rib cage, the shoulders to jam forward, and the elbows out.
This is a really crummy, tough position to press any substantial weight from, not to mention wrecks your shoulders.
Instead, think about squeezing the bar as hard as you can, actively “rowing” the bar down by pulling your shoulder blades “down into your back pockets,” tucking your elbows a bit, while using your feet to push your hips into the bench.
This is what is meant when you hear, “stay tight.”
The same goes for a squat: instead of dropping down like a bad habit into the bottom, which often causes the back to round and shoulders slump forward, think about driving your big toes into the ground, “screwing your feet into the floor,” and actively pulling yourself down into the hole.
You’ll tighten everything in your body up, and you’ll now be controlling the weight through every inch of the range of motion. Of course, the particular version of squat you use will have some different upper body components (ie: with a back squat you’ll need to pull your shoulder blades down and back, as opposed to a front squat where you’ll want to push your elbows forward and up), but the result you’re looking for is the same: get tight and control the weight on your terms.
So how do you improve your ability to create the tension necessary to move bigger weights to keep getting stronger?
You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe, and you can’t produce maximal force at your extremities if your center mass isn’t braced properly.
Start every exercise with a big breath into your belly, and then squeeze your abs, as if you are preparing to get punched in the gut. Hold this breath as you lower the weight, and as you come to the sticking point, let it out little by little, almost like how you’d slowly take the cap off a soda bottle after it’s been shaken up.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, here’s a quick video of Dr. John Rusin explaining how to brace effectively:
Static core exercises like planks are a great place to get used to bracing properly. Get into a plank, get your breath, and think about squeezing your glutes, zipping your kneecaps up to your hips, and driving your elbows towards your hips. The point isn’t to hold it for as long as possible, but rather to create as much tension as possible:
It all starts with a solid set up. Instead of having haphazardly plopping down on a bench and hoping you end up with a solid set, get into the habit of having a set up routine.
This doesn’t have to be as elaborate as Nomar Garciaparra’s batting ritual, it just means you make sure you cross your t’s and dot your i’s so you know you’re in the right starting position for every single rep of every single set.
This will help you treat every set the same: lighter sets like heavier ones, and heavy weights like light ones.
Here’s a quick bench press set up tutorial that one of my wrestlers gave to one of our new athletes a few weeks back:
If you have your starting position dialed in (which will also be your end position), and you learn how to brace throughout the movement, then all you have to do is execute the actual movement with focus and intent.
Adding pauses at the bottom position of squats and presses works great for learning how to maintain this tension and grooving solid technique:
Try pausing at the bottom of either a press or squat for anywhere from 2-5 seconds for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. This will force you to keep appropriate tension throughout, which will carry over to your technique when the weights get heavier.
On pulling exercises like rows or chin ups, it’s almost like you’re trying to resist the weight moving away from you, as if you were trying to accentuate the eccentric. Otherwise, you’re likely to dive bomb out of the contracted position, rapidly shifting the entire load onto the ligaments and tendons of your shoulders, while probably losing the rigidity of your trunk.
Think about how difficult it is to go from a dead hang on a chin up. Not only is this significantly harder, it’s not ideal to put the stress on the passive structures of your shoulder joint.
When pulling, try to think about driving through your elbows, as if someone has their hands directly behind them. “Elbows to the ribs,” works great for chin ups, and “elbow to the hip,” is a good way to think about rowing.
A simple way to improve on keeping tension during pulling exercises is to use isometric holds at the top of the movement:
Keeping your ribs down, pulling your shoulder blades down and back, and keeping your shoulders from shrugging up into your ears will lead to more successful, stronger pulls and healthier shoulders.
Master your set ups, practice bracing on every rep of every set, and approach each set as a series of single reps. Slow down, and control the bottom positions of every exercise. There’s no room for bouncing, jerking, or momentum.
This is why I tend to program most compound exercises for sets of 5-10 reps. The longer a set goes on, the more difficult it is to keep the appropriate tension, especially when the weights are challenging.
And challenging weights are what lead to building strength and muscle.
Focus on tightening up, keeping the stress on your muscles, and attacking your sets. This will keep you in stronger, more controlled positions.
Stronger positions are going to lead to bigger weights, more reps, and a bigger return on your training investment.