Tag Archives: Gym

Don’t Underestimate Joint Mobility When Building Strength

When it comes to desired traits in fitness, raw strength and speed often overshadow mobility, or how well your joints move. Maybe you just don’t think you’re that “bend-y.” Fortunately, it’s a process that contributes to strength, and everyone can work on it.

Mobility is different from flexibility, and in general, having good range of motion lets you exercise and perform everyday movements (like getting off the couch or reaching behind something to plug it in) better. Mobility exercises, then, let you actively improve your strength, control of your body, and range of motion all at the same time. This video from Calisthenic Movements explains that if your joints move only in a small range, you are basically limiting the development of strength and muscle from your exercises. If you were ever to “accidentally” move beyond your limited range, you could hurt yourself, and no one wants that.

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If you want to work mobility exercises into your routine, incorporate them into your pre-workout warm-up, or do a few simple drills on your rest day. To start, check out this awesome one for hip mobility (great for runners too!).

How Important Is Mobility? | Calisthenic Movement

Do Pre-Workout Supplements Actually Help?

Do Pre-Workout Supplements Actually Help?

Pre-workout supplements make big promises to boost your performance, and with those promises come high price tags. You supposedly get a burst of energy, fatigue less easily, and increase blood flow, all to help you get more out of your workout. The thing is, these supplements are really just powerful stimulants.

Pre-workout supplements are pretty popular, and you can find them from pretty much any company that also sells protein powders. Optimum Nutrition, MusclePharm, and Cellucor are just a few of the major players. They typically come in powdered form, are meant to be mixed with water, and taste like a flavored sports drink—which makes sense because they’re loaded with artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, and other ingredients that we’ll get to shortly.

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Within 20-30 minutes of drinking one, you start to feel something, like it’s “kicked in,” and you’re ready for your workout. It’s a blessing, but also a curse.

It’s Mostly the Caffeine That “Works”

Most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine. And lots of it.

Caffeine is commonly used by athletes, especially those in endurance sports, to improve their exercise performance. It helps you focus more and feel less fatigue—exactly the claims the supplement labels make! So, in reality, when you feel like you’re ready to take on the entire weight room, you can thank the caffeine for that, not the supplement.

The pre-workouts I’ve tried from Optimum Nutrition, JYM, and Kaged Muscle contain between 175 milligrams (Optimum Nutrition) and 300 milligrams of caffeine per serving (Kaged Muscle). For real-world context, a single can of Red Bull has 80 milligrams of caffeine and a cup of coffee is close to 100 milligrams.

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While some of the research shows promising lifting benefits with high doses of caffeine (like this study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise), the caffeine dose is typically tailored to the individual—about 6 to 9 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight. That’s 409-612 milligrams for a 150-pound person, for example.

Unfortunately, these supplements too often provide an enormous hit of caffeine, without letting you dose an appropriate amount for yourself. Plus, you get a bunch of other fluff. If you’re looking for that extra performance edge from caffeine, you’re better off getting it from other sources, like coffee or caffeine pills, where you can control the dosage yourself.

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The Useful Ingredients Aren’t Always in Effective Doses

At their core, all pre-workout supplement formulas are similar. They contain a blend of science-sounding compounds that claim to increase blood flow to muscles, boost energy production, and more quickly clear out metabolites that would otherwise fatigue your muscles faster.

Typically, you’ll find creatine, arginine, beta-alanine, carnitine, citrulline, to name a few. All of these are also found in the body, and supplementation with a few of them actually do have proven benefits—in the proper doses and with consistent intake. Here are a few well-researched ingredients with notable benefits, and ones you should look out for when considering a supplement:

Creatine

Standard Effective Dose: 5 grams

Creatine is stored in your muscles and used as an extra energy source when you work them. During bursts of intense activity like weightlifting, you quickly deplete a form of energy called ATP. When you supplement with creatine, you increase the available creatine in your muscles so that it can regenerate ATP stores faster and help you work out harder.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition wrote in a position paper that creatine is a safe, effective, and ethical way for an athlete to improve strength and power and gain more muscle. A review of over 80 studies on creatine in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also noted clear strength benefits for weightlifters, as well as positive effects on muscle building.

Two things to note: There are different forms of creatine, but creatine monohydrate is the most well-studied; and the benefits of creatine don’t happen immediately. It takes time for your muscles to be “loaded” with creatine, though you can get benefits faster by taking higher amounts. For more details on that, check out this article on Examine.com.

Beta-Alanine

Standard Effective Dose: 2.4 grams

Most studies on beta-alanine, such as this one International Journal of Sports Medicine, show that it helps people squeeze out a few more reps when training in the higher rep range (like between 8 and 15 reps). A review of the literature in the journal Amino Acids suggested that beta-alanine improved performance in moderately intense activities that lasted between 60-240 seconds. That means this isn’t likely to help with, say, a 1-rep max bench press.

The explanation here is that beta-alanine turns into carnosine in the body. As you ”feel that burn” from hard exercise, carnosine is released to buffer the increase in lactate (an acid) and help you continue exercising a bit longer.

When you take beta-alanine or any pre-workout supplement containing more than 2 grams of it, you’ll feel a bizarre, tingly sensation, usually in your hands and face. Don’t worry, it’s a harmless and common effect called paresthesia.

Nitrate

Standard Effective Dose: 0.5 grams

Nitrates are found in green leafy and tuber vegetables, such as in spinach and beet roots, and in the stuff that’s used to cure ham. You typically supplement with beet juice and eating leafy greens, and in pre-workout supplements, the ingredient is beet extract. When you take in nitrates, they get broken down in the body into nitrite and converted into nitric oxide during hard activity where you have a hard time getting enough oxygen.

The more nitrates, the more available nitric oxide there is. This aids exercise since nitric oxide widens blood vessels, increasing blood flow, and seems to help you work harder, longer. One study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that three days of supplementing with nitrates (through beet juice) reduced the amount of oxygen needed to perform exercise at moderate intensity, in addition to helping subjects last longer during really intense, near-maximal exercise.

Another reason pre-workout supplements love to emphasize nitric oxide is that you tend to feel like your muscles are bigger than they really are (known as “the pump” in fitness circles) from the increased blood flow.

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While pre-workout supplements usually include these ingredients (and many others), the actual labels on bottles are often obfuscated by a company’s proprietary blend, or a signature “secret” blend that hides the exact amounts of listed ingredients. So, it’s not uncommon for supplement companies to under-dose on the good stuff, like beta-alanine.

Labdoor, an independent supplement testing lab, took 46 of the most popular pre-workout supplements and analyzed the contents to check against the bottles’ labels and ingredient claims. They found that only two—Legion Pulse and Optimum Nutrition Platinum Pre-workout—out of 46 actually contained effective doses and were true to their labels (full disclosure, the site makes money through affiliate links). That said, I am not endorsing those two products: having accurate labels is just the ethical thing to do.

This Industry Is Rife With Safety Concerns

The FDA regulates supplements in general, but their oversight has been lax and often limited by resources. That alone is a huge safety concern, and as I touched on earlier, you never know exactly what is in the bottle of any supplement you buy. And sometimes that can lead to real harm.

In 2011 and 2012, several cases of pre-workout supplement-related deaths were linked to a product called Jack3d, which at the time still contained a powerful stimulant called 1,3-dimethylamylamine, or DMAA. DMAA is structurally similar to amphetamine, and since early 2000s, has been marketed as a natural weight loss aid.

For a time even after the controversy started, Jack3d continued to be marketed as “safe and effective.” It took an additional two years and dozens upon dozens of adverse case reports for Jack3d to be recalled by the FDA and for the supplement manufacturer to agree to stop making it with DMAA. You can still buy Jack3d, but the current formula doesn’t include DMAA.

Disappointingly, products with DMAA are still available in the marketplace. While the FDA is doing what it can to remove dietary supplements with DMAA, you can be more vigilant by looking closely at the label. DMAA goes by other names: geranamine, dimethylamylamine, methylhexanamine, and many more. You can find the full list here.

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Aside from regulatory concerns, there are potential unpleasant side effects of taking pre-workout supplements. I’ve experienced some unfortunate gastrointestinal issues when I took Pre-JYM and Cellucor’s C4. Friends and former colleagues have told me pre-workout supplements in general give them trouble sleeping at night, concentrating during the day, and headaches.


If the whole point is to work out harder and more intensely, you can do the same by taking caffeine by itself. Coffee is my personal go-to (and it’s dang tasty). As far as I’m concerned, the only people who possibly need pre-workout supplements are fitness models who lack energy from a long dieting period. If you’re after those claims of getting stronger and performing better, try looking into the individual ingredients, such as creatine and beta-alanine, and taking them separately, where you can moderate the dose to your needs and fitness goals.

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In general, pre-workout supplements can “work” because they may change the way you feel, mostly thanks to our friend caffeine. The kicker is, neither caffeine nor pre-workout supplements will automatically make anyone stronger, bigger, or faster. You still need to be willing to work your ass off when you exercise.

Illustration by: Sam Woolley.

The Exercise You Need to Go From “Skinny Fat” to Fit

If you have a slender frame, but still have a gut and flab in certain areas of the body, you might consider yourself “skinny fat.” There’s nothing bad or unhealthy about being shaped that way, but if you feel the desire to change it, here’s how.

A “skinny fat” person is best described as someone who weighs very little, but still has a high amount of body fat. If you identify as “skinny fat,” and want to look more fit, this video from the PictureFit YouTube Channel explains the types of workouts necessary to lower body fat and increase muscle. In short, it’s all about resistance training. Diets and cardio can help, but if you’re only doing those things, you’ll hit a plateau. What you need is to increase your muscle mass to offset the fat to muscle mass percentage and add much-needed definition to your frame. Fat burning from consistent resistance training can also be enhanced with a well thought out diet and by keeping your protein intake high. This is something I’ve been struggling with myself for the past few years, and lifting weights has been a huge help.

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Skinny Fat Explained – How to Go From Skinny Fat to Fit | YouTube

More Reasons You Need to Wash Your Hands After Working Out At the Gym

More Reasons You Need to Wash Your Hands After Working Out At the Gym

Skin infections like MRSA and other illnesses can easily spread in gym and locker room settings. You probably already know to wash up after hitting the gym, but pay special attention to washing your hands. It’s no fun to come down with something avoidable during your pursuit of health.

Who knows what the dude that finished using your go-to treadmill or favorite bench without wiping it down might have left behind. Skin diseases among athletes are extremely common, according to this 2010 position statement issued by the National Athletic Trainer’s Association. Some of the most common skin infections, including athlete’s foot, herpes simplex, impetigo, and the more serious MRSA, a certain strain of hard-to-treat staph bacteria are all often found in gym settings.

Minimize your chances of bringing something home by washing your hands with soap and water after your workout. If you hit the locker room showers after, use your own soap and towels too.

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A squirt or two of the hand-sanitizer won’t cut it either (but if there’s really no other option, make sure it’s at least 60% alcohol). Also, avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most gyms will also have a sort of disinfectant spray, which could help slow the spread of germs, but one study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine finds that they’re not always effective. It might give a little peace of mind, but that doesn’t excuse you from not scrubbing up and properly laundering your clothes after.

It’s not like you need to work out in a bubble or avoid the gym altogether though. This is just a friendly PSA to be aware and wash your hands after using gym equipment before you head out for that post-workout grub. It’s simply good hygiene.

National Athletic Trainer’s Association Position Statement: Skin Diseases | National Athletic Trainer’s Association via The Nation’s Health

Image by CherryPoint.

When Weightlifting Belts Are Necessary, and When They’re for Show

When Weightlifting Belts Are Necessary, and When They're for Show

Weightlifting belts can be fantastic and boost your performance, but they’re very commonly misunderstood, and often misused. Let’s break down what weightlifting belts do and when you’ll really benefit from wearing one.

You’ve probably seen someone wearing a thick weightlifting belt in the gym and wondered if it helps him lift better, or even more safely. The latter is actually the common perception, and according to this study found in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning a majority of surveyed belt wearers use one because they think it’ll help prevent injuries. It’s unclear whether this holds up in practice, since there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed studies specifically looking at weightlifting belts and injury events in the gym.

However, we can take the hint from studies in manual labor settings, like this one in JAMA, where wearing a back-supporting belt while lifting heavy objects on the job didn’t seem to reduce incidences of back injuries or lower back pain. In short, don’t put on a belt thinking it’s going to protect you from bad ideas in the gym. That’s not exactly what a weightlifting belt is for anyway.

The Belt Supports Your Abs, Not Your Back

In reality, a weightlifting belt primarily supports your abs, not (directly for) your back. It sounds backwards, but here’s why: The belt acts like a second set of abs to prepare your entire body to lift heavy loads, something we similarly discussed when we talked about “breathing” and lifting here. The short version is that to brace yourself for those super heavy lifts you’d take a deep belly breath and hold it, a method of “breathing” called the Valsalva maneuver.

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The Valsalva maneuver helps create intra-abdominal pressure that cushions and supports your spine. And that’s where a weightlifting belt bestows its powers. With a lifting belt, you do your deep belly breath into the belt, which pushes back against your abs. This amplify the effects of that intra-abdominal pressure, and in turn, helps protect your back and lets it handle the stress of heavier loads even better. This study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise confirms that the resulting pressure is greater and builds faster than it would without a belt.

The belt increases your lifting efficiency so you could bang out a little more weight than you would without one. Of course, that is assuming you know how to properly lift and have fine technique in the first place. In the end, you lift a tad more weight and get more stability where you need it (your trunk and torso).

But—and here’s a big but—wearing a belt by itself won’t automatically level up your strength and lifting ability. There’s a learning curve to wearing it and lifting with it on (just like there’s a learning curve to being able to properly apply intra-abdominal pressure and lift). Sure, some can reap the benefits right away, but it’ll take most a while before things will click.

When You Really Benefit From a Weightlifting Belt

Quite simply, it all comes down to your performance goals. If you’re serious about lifting heavier and getting stronger, then wear a belt, plain and simple. If you regularly squat and deadlift very close to your maximum weight or want to break through a plateau, try wearing a belt.

When you throw on a belt and use it properly, the skies part, birds sing, and your deadlifts or squats (or both) get a noticeable boost. Greg Nuckols of Strengtheory writes in this excellent analysis of weightlifting belts that well-trained belt users can generally move 5-15% more weight for the same sets and reps, be able to squeeze in an extra couple reps at the same weight, or lift the same weight for the same number of reps with less effort. That’s pretty significant!

We can take this to suggest that over time training with a belt will likely get you stronger than training without a belt. This makes sense in the context of being able to do more overall “work” (i.e. lifting more weight and banging out more reps) and continuously push your body to improve, a process called progressive overload. In the long-term, you can gain more muscle size and strength.

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When You Don’t Need a Belt at All

Really, as far as gaining strength and performance in the gym are concerned, it’s hard to argue against not wearing a belt, but there are a few big red flags to wave here. You probably want to avoid using a belt if:

  • You have high blood pressure: If you have health conditions like uncontrolled high-blood pressure or conditions that can be exacerbated by intra-abdominal pressure (like a hernia), you should not be wearing a belt (or even using the Valsalva), period. We’ve discussed this in our breathing article as well, but this warning goes double here since a belt will raise both intra-abdominal pressure and blood pressure further.
  • You can’t lift heavy weight with good technique: Belts don’t magically undo bad form. It’s always a good idea to refine your lifting technique with heavier weights before you wear a belt. If your form sucks to begin with, wearing a belt is only going to reinforce poor technique.
  • You don’t know how to stabilize your body without a belt: Without bracing your core, there’s a good chance you’re not properly stabilizing your body for heavy loads. Even if you seem to lift okay with a belt on, you may end up using the belt as a crutch and could increase your chance of injury if you ever try to lift the same without it.
  • You don’t squat, deadlift, or do much overhead pressing: No, you don’t need to wear a belt for bicep curls.

Above all, check your ego at the door. You don’t want wearing a big belt around your waist at the gym to give you grandiose visions of superhuman ability. You’ll end up hurting yourself.

Even When You Wear One, You Should Only Wear the Belt Sometimes

A weightlifting belt is not a fashion statement; it’s a training tool. So you don’t need to rely on the belt for every. Single. Exercise.

Most lifters prefer using a belt for squats and deadlifts, where a little extra support can keep the spine from buckling during these power lifts. That means experienced lifters throw the belt on for near-maximum efforts, and take it off for regular training and warm-ups. Just so we’re clear, “near-maximum” is a weight that is 80% or more of your maximum lift. The exact percentage is often arbitrary, so wear it when you think you really need the extra support on big lifts. That said, knowing when you need to wear it and when you don’t comes with experience, and can also depend on your training style (high volume versus low volume, for example).

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For all other times when you’re not squatting or deadlifting a cosmic amount of weight, you don’t need to be wearing it. In fact, if you can wear it all the time, you’re likely not wearing it right. Belts should feel snug enough that they’ll sit in same place, but not so tight that you’re cutting off circulation. You should still be able to take a full breath when it’s strapped on.


Not every gym-goer will need (or want) a weightlifting belt. It’s useful, but not a requirement. Just keep in mind when they benefit you and when they don’t, and use them accordingly. They’re tools—not championship belts to show off in the gym.

Illustration by Sam Woolley.

The Right Way to Breathe For More Powerful Weightlifting

The Right Way to Breathe For More Powerful Weightlifting

In the weight room, the two most important things to consider are safety and how much you can lift. For some people, it’s one or the other, but with the right breathing techniques, you will be able to lift more weight effectively and do it without hurting yourself. Here’s how.

How You Breathe When You Lift Matters (But Now How You Think)

In sports like swimming or running, it makes sense that breathing is critical. We need a certain rhythm to shunt oxygen into our muscles and keep up the pace. On the other hand, weightlifting doesn’t technically require oxygen, but that doesn’t stop fitness coaches from telling us to breathe properly. Here we’re told to breathe in on the eccentric, or the easier part of the lift, and then out on the concentric, or effort-based part of the lift.

The logic is that exhaling on the concentric gives us a little boost in power, but as this study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes, there’s no real advantage to exhaling over inhaling on the concentric portion. Plus, trying to remember that pattern may be more trouble than it’s worth, says Dr. Stuart McGill, Director of the Spinal Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, in this paper:

…breathing in and out should occur continuously, and not be trained to a specific exertion effort – this helps to maintain constant abdominal muscle activation and ensure spine stability during all possible situations (of course the opposite is true for maximal effort competitive lifting where a valsalva manoeuvre with the breathe [sic] held is necessary – but performance training is not the emphasis here).

Basically, when you’re not lifting a crazy amount of weight, just remember to breathe normally. In those other high-performance cases, McGill suggests the Valsalva maneuver, which is essentially “breathing out” without actually exhaling, like taking a breath and then holding it while you bear down. It’s also a great way to relieve ear pain when flying or changing altitude.

Watch advanced weightlifters hoist an astounding amount of weight, and you may notice their faces sometimes grimace and glow beet red with the sheer effort of the performance. This is the Valsalva maneuver in action. They’re strategically holding their breath to create control and stability throughout their body, especially around their spine and core. You may already do this, too, like when you strain from the effort of lifting something heavy and forget to breathe, or even when you hold in a sneeze.

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In other words, the real goal with “breathing” in weightlifting is to stabilize your spine and core. Specifically stability for when you want to put a lot of weight up over your head, or onto your body, and not bend like a slinky. When you suck air into and expand your belly (as opposed to breathing into your chest) and hold it, you are generating intra-abdominal pressure, a sort of internal cushion. This pressure mechanically cushions the spine and increases tension throughout your body to prepare it for heavy loads.

This is also what people mean by the jargon-y phrase “bracing your core.” I’ve mentioned it in our previous articles on deadlifting and squats because, especially for those exercises, it’s important to keep a tense torso. It’s not useful only for deadlifts and squats either. When it comes to safety and weightlifting, bracing your core is as important as good form for any exercise.

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Bracing Your Core Makes a Difference in How Much You Can Lift

The video above from Omar Isuf and featuring Cody Lefever, both of whom I frequently go to for questions about weightlifting (and burritos), demonstrates the difference between lifting with and without a braced core. At about the five-minute mark, Cody shows you how to breathe into your belly instead of into your chest. To learn this, he suggests lying down on the floor and placing one hand over your chest and the other over your belly, and slowly get the hang of breathing by contracting your diaphragm.

When I first tried implementing this breathing into my own lifting, I had trouble making sure I was breathing this way but also focusing on still lifting the weight with good form. I got a better handle on it over time, and now I do it without much thinking, but it definitely felt like I was awkwardly trying to multitask at first. Be sure to practice this breathing from the floor first and gradually applying it to different non-strenuous activities, like sitting and standing, before you move onto heavy weights.

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So, how does this work in the weight room? Imagine yourself doing squats: You’re standing with a heavy barbell on your back and are just preparing for the first rep of your set. Right before you descend, take a deep breath to fill your belly, then drop down. You should hold your breath throughout the descent, and feel the pressure and tension within your abdominal area, even as you start to come back up.

The next part is figuring out when to exhale. If you exhale too soon, you may lose the stability and boost in power from intra-abdominal pressure. Most coaches say that you should hold your breath until you work past the most difficult part of your lift and forcefully exhale to finish strongly. Others say to hold your breath throughout the lift to take full advantage of the pressure. Go with whichever feels more comfortable for you and allows you to perform the rep well, but I personally exhale past my sticking point because I already do so instinctively.

The more important thing to remember is to take in another belly breath before you start the next rep. Treat every rep as an individual cycle: set up, breathe, hold, exhale, and repeat.

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The Valsalva Maneuver May Not Be For Everyone

The caveat here is that using the Valsalva maneuver with heavier weights may spike your blood pressure even more than lifting weights normally already does. So, I asked Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a bariatric (weight loss) physician based in Virginia and who also lifts weights, whether we should be concerned. He told me that in healthy individuals the changes are acute (short-lasting), and the long-term effects of weightlifting (i.e. better quality of life, improved posture and confidence, long-term decrease in blood pressure, and better overall health) generally outweigh the known risks.

In essence, if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or conditions that might be made worse by an increase in blood pressure or intra-abdominal pressure (a hernia, for example), you may want to avoid using the Valsalva maneuver; or lifting really, really heavy altogether, as even a brief Valsalva is unavoidable. If you’re just not sure, check with your physician.

Remember, the Valsalva maneuver is generally used for those super-heavy loads, when the most reps you’ll be doing is between one and three. You know, those power lifts where you’re really pushing your limit. For other normal lifting efforts, just concentrate on breathing in and breathing out naturally.

All in all, learning to brace your core is an important part of lifting heavier weights, but it doesn’t mean you can ignore all the risks associated with lifting heavy weights. As always, be smart and learn to weigh the risk and rewards of what you do in the weight room.

Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.

Try “Micro Changes” in the Gym For Big Results

Try "Micro Changes" in the Gym For Big Results

If you’ve been benching the same weight for months and feel like you’re still not ready to move up, you might be tempted to ditch the exercise entirely and do something different. Instead, all you may need is to make a small adjustment—like a change in your grip or stance. You never know when a “micro change” could make all the difference to get things going again.

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The usual prescription for fitness plateaus—the point where you’re not getting any better despite your previous gains—is to add more reps or more weight, change the rep scheme entirely, rest more, or generally do something a bit more dramatic. But according to Eric Bach, an online strength coach based in Colorado, sometimes the tiniest, simplest adjustments, like changing your grip, the width of your grip, your stance, or your foot position during something like a big, compound lift could push you over that plateau.

One possibility these micro changes work is that your body is uniquely shaped—from the length of your arms and legs to the width of your torso in relation to these limbs, and more. Those significantly influence how comfortable you will find certain positions to be during an exercise and how efficiently you will be able to perform the exercise without injury. Basically, there’s no “one true way” for everyone to exercise (although there are generally accepted guidelines).

Anecdotally, changing the width of my grip in my pull-up worked like magic. Until someone pointed out that my pull-up grip was fairly wide, I struggled to do one. Very shortly after, I tried again with a narrower grip and busted out like two (and a half) pull-ups. Those were the first full pull-ups I’d ever done in my life (of course, I’d been continuously doing upper body work, too!).

So, try a different foot position when you squat. You’ll likely be told to keep your toes pointed forward, but for some people it’s more comfortable and safer to have them pointed out. Or, try a mixed grip (one hand over and one hand under) when you deadlift to get a better handle on the bar. These itty-bitty adjustments can have a huge impact if you’re struggling at a specific level, or breaking to more reps or higher weight.

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Try “micro progressions” | Eric Bach’s Twitter

Image by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet.


Stephanie Lee is a nomadic writer with a Sriracha problem. Visit her blog at http://fitngeeky.tv/ for her lighter takes on fitness and shenanigans. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Why Squats Are the Best Strength-Building Exercise for Your Legs

Why Squats Are the Best Strength-Building Exercise for Your Legs

The story around squats is confusing. Some say “squat every day” while others warn “squats are bad for your knees!” The truth is in the middle—squats are amazing for building lower body strength, but at the same time they can cause problems for the uninitiated. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the barbell back squat, and why it’s worth your attention.

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Why Squats Should Be Part of Your Workout Program

Technically, you already squat every day.

Every time you get up from a seated position, you’re effectively doing a squat. You probably feel your thighs bear the brunt of the work, though they’re not the only muscles that rise to the occasion (heh). Aside from working the muscles in your thighs, butt, and hips, the barbell back squat also targets your core and back muscles, helping improve your posture, and carve a nicer looking backside, to boot. It’s also really energy-intensive and burns a whole lotta calories.

And while strong legs look nice in shorts and help us do everyday stuff with more ease, we could all appreciate them even more in our later years, as Greg Nuckols, writer and strength coach at Strengtheory, points out. We sat down with him to talk about squats, and he notes:

Strong legs and hips, particularly, are crucially important for healthy aging. You can live independently longer, perform activities of daily living without as much strain, and muscle and strength are both strong predictors of longevity.

We all know it becomes tougher to get up from a chair, toilet, or bed as we get older, but it’s never too late to start benefitting from building lower body strength or getting into strength training in general. A fairly recent study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning found that heavy squats (under supervision) can help postmenopausal women suffering from osteopenia or osteoporosis improve bone mineral density in their spine and neck, in addition to boosting their strength.

Squats Are Not Going to Kill Your Knees

If someone tells you to avoid squatting because “it’s bad for your knees,” this person probably doesn’t know—excuse the pun—squat about squats.

Don’t just take my word for it. A review article in Sports Medicine determined that the stresses of squatting to various depths, even the really low ones, don’t reach the point where they could cause harm to the ligaments in your knees (they’re pretty sturdy like that, after all). In fact, the authors observed that the more you squat (with good form), the more your cartilage tissue can adapt and strengthen to handle the weight, just like your muscles do. The caveat here is that if you already have a history of knee issues, squats could aggravate your injury.

Otherwise, if you’ve got good technique and have healthy knees, squats can actually make your knees stronger and more injury-proof, as supported by the findings in this paper published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

So, it’s not the squats themselves that hurt your knees; it’s how you squat that’s probably hurting your knees.

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When you do a back squat, the weight should be placed relatively evenly between the hips and knees (and their surrounding muscles), though note that the knees bend a lot more than they do in a deadlift. The important thing is that your knees will hurt if you’re making them do most of the work, or if you’re shifting your weight dangerously toward your toes. The saying goes: “Don’t let your knees go past your toes.” To that, Nuckols says:

Normally, people don’t really pay attention to how far forward their knees travel; they tend to balance the forces in the squat between their knees and hips pretty evenly. However, when you tell people to not allow their knees to track forward, or if you artificially restrict forward knee travel, a lot of the load is shifted to the back and hips, away from the quads, making it a less well-rounded movement for overall lower body development.

For the most part, your knees should track over your first or second toe. Having them track a shade further in or out isn’t the end of the world, but excessive knee valgus [caving in of the knees] should be avoided, especially if there’s pain that goes along with it.

Here’s an example of good squat form.

Basically, all great back squats share a few commonalities: they force the hips back, as if you’re sitting in a chair, yet they keep the chest up and facing forward to keep the spine from flexing (or else you’ll increase your risk of spinal disc injuries); and the knees don’t cave inward. Often, the cue is to spread your knees out and wide in the lowering portion of the movement (although a small “twitch” coming up as shown here is generally okay as long as it doesn’t hurt you, says Nuckols). Plus, your feet, especially your heels, stay planted on the ground, and your core stays tight (here’s a video to teach you how to “brace” your core) throughout the lift.

How to Get Started Doing Squats

The above video by YouTuber Omar Isuf is helpful for familiarizing yourself with squatting techniques, but I recommend not adding weight until you can ace a bodyweight squat. “I believe that everyone should be able to comfortably hold a deep bodyweight squat position,” says Cody Lefever, a competitive powerlifter and the man behind a popular training structure called GZCL.

After all, bodyweight squats are a fantastic starting point to train your nervous system to groove the squat pattern and get used to the movement. Keep in mind, though, that a nice-looking bodyweight squat doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be able to replicate perfect form when there’s a bunch of weight on your back. That’ll take practice, too.

Additionally, Lefever suggests:

Train that [squat] movement through goblet squats and work on both mobility and strength with single-leg work. Things like back-step lunges and Bulgarian split squats are great, as they address balance and coordination as well.

People often have a hard time staying balanced, but after working on goblet squats and the back-step lunge for a few weeks an improvement usually shows. If it is awkward reaching depth with just the bar, then focus on your warm-up routine.

On the other hand, if traditional barbell back squatting causes you pain or you’re not comfortable with them, there are multiple squat variations that can be just as effective for building legs, such as the front squat, goblet squats, and lunges. In fact, this paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that front squats were just as effective for hitting the involved muscle groups as back squats, although keep in mind that front squats have their own learning curve.

Either way, you’ll need to take the time and effort to ease into these squat exercises.

No Need to Squat Super Deep to Reap the Benefits

The debates on the internet over how deep someone should squat can fill entire volumes of encyclopedias, but the gist is that deep-squatting (or squatting “ass to grass”, as some people lovingly call it) isn’t for everyone.

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Deep ass-to-grass squatting does have a few more pronounced benefits. The deeper you squat, the more effectively you work the muscles involved and the greater the improvements in strength, this study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research explains. And as we already pointed out from the knee analysis study earlier, deeper squats don’t increase the risk of injury to your knees either.

But just because deeper squats are safe and demonstrably more effective at building leg strength, not everyone can (or should) squat ass-to-grass. Whether you do or not will largely depend on your history of injury, how your body is built, and your training goal, since different squats can work on different things. For example, partial squats (lowering yourself just a little) can be great for getting some serious power behind a jump, or for helping more advanced lifters work past difficult points in their squat. “The only people who need to squat that deep with weights are Olympic-level weightlifters,” says Lefever.

If you’re keen on squatting deeper, the good news is that you can learn to squat deeper with practice. One way is by doing goblet squats, which gives most people an easier time to “get to depth” since the weight is in the front of the body and changes the mechanics a bit. Once you’re comfortable with that, you can move onto the more challenging front squats. “By prioritizing range of motion and control of the lift more than the load on the bar until [they] master the movement, most people can squat deep if they’re willing to invest the time and effort,” Nuckols said.

Additional Tips to Improve Your Squat and Boost Your Strength

To be able to perform squats comfortably and effectively, you’ll first need decent flexibility in your hips, ankles, and upper back to help you get into the squat position with a barbell on your back (or in front of you if you’re doing front squats). Beyond that, here are other crucial tips to keep in mind:

  • Squat first: You want to avoid being fatigued when you squat, or else you could increase your risk of injury and/or have an unproductive squat workout. If the day’s workout calls for squats, you should do them first.
  • Always be safe: If you’re squatting alone, make sure you can bail out of a bad lift when you need to. One way to help you do that is to set up the safety bars (adjustable bars that run perpendicular to the barbell on either side of you) to an appropriate height (usually above the barbell’s lowest point). So, if you’re having trouble driving back up, you can tilt your back slightly more upright and roll the barbell onto the safety bars instead. (Omar Isuf teaches you some “bail out” techniques in this video.)
  • Strengthen your core: A strong core helps keep you stable and lift more weight safely. While some people argue that squats are an amazing core exercise, they’re not enough. Core exercises, like bird dogs, pallof presses, or “stir the pot”, should be done separately and in addition to squatting.
  • Keep your torso tight: You need to make sure your torso, or core, is engaged before starting the squat. “While I’m squatting, I’m just thinking about bracing my abs and torso as hard as I can,” said Lefever. Here’s where a weightlifting belt can be helpful to create the abdominal pressure for your core to “brace against” in a heavy squat, to protect your spine, and to let you lift a bit more weight. There’s no evidence that wearing a belt makes your core weak either. For more information, Nuckols has a great article on the matter.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together: Imagine squeezing your shoulder blades together to keep your upper back and traps stable. It helps to keep your elbows pointed down and towards your butt, not just pointing them backwards.
  • Ditch the foam pad: Some people like to keep a foam pad cushioned between the bar and their traps, but the pad doesn’t let you properly rest the bar where it’s most comfortable for you.
  • Focus on moving fast: Speed is integral. It keeps the movement fluid and gets you past trouble spots. If you find yourself struggling, keep your chest up and imagine relentlessly driving through your heels and pushing your traps into the bar.
  • Adjust your grip: Most people would do well by having a wider grip to keep the bar steady, but feel free to play around a little bit. The more important thing is to have your wrists in a neutral position.
  • Try weightlifting shoes: Weightlifting shoes provide feet and ankle stability during a squat, and they can help you squat a little deeper because of the raised heel, too. Shoes are a pricey investment, though, so make sure you really, really like squatting.
  • There’s no one way to back squat: We’ll all squat a bit differently due to the way each of our bodies is built. These differences in anatomy will mean that a comfortable and safe squat may look differently for you than it does for me, including how deep you squat, how wide your stance is, where your hands are, or how far forward you lean.

As with deadlifts, squats are highly technical and highly individual. Of course, the most important thing to remember is to avoid going heavier than you can safely handle. And don’t fret if you can’t squat to a certain depth. Keep yourself mobile and keep working on it. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the squat, and I’ve finally just broken into the 200s (90 kilos) myself after nearly a year!

Illustration by Sam Woolley.


Stephanie Lee is a nomadic writer with a Sriracha problem. Visit her blog at http://fitngeeky.tv/ for her lighter takes on fitness and shenanigans. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How to Work Out When the Gym Is Crowded

How to Work Out When the Gym Is Crowded

It’s the least wonderful time of the year to get a peaceful workout. Throngs of eager exercisers will fill the nation’s gyms this week to work on their resolutions. Whether you’re one of the newbies or just a regular trying to get your scheduled sweat on, here’s how to deal with, or ditch, the crowds.

Find Out (and Avoid) Popular Times

Every gym has a predictable pattern of busy and slow times. Monday evenings are usually popular, for example, with people losing their after-work workout mojo as the week drags on.

The exact pattern will depend on your gym’s hours, location, and clientele, but thankfully Google has it all figured out for us. Take a look at the popular times for your gym in Google Maps, and schedule your workout accordingly.

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If Google doesn’t have data for your gym, you can check out similar gyms nearby—or do the old fashioned thing and ask staff when the slow times tend to be. If your gym offers classes, ask which ones are less popular, and consider trying one of those for a change.

Shuffling your schedule can even be good for you. Planning your workouts is a great way to be sure to fit them into your life, and now is the perfect time to create a new schedule, or re-evaluate the one you already have. Who knows, you may switch to lunch break sessions to avoid crowds and then find that you enjoy the new time.

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Claim Your Equipment, But Be Nice and Share

Making it to the gym is just step one. Then you have to actually get your hands on those weights—or your feet on that treadmill.

If there are signup sheets for the cardio machines, make a beeline for them as soon as you arrive so you can claim your time slot and then use the wait time as productively as possible: change your shoes if you haven’t yet, or start warming up in another part of the gym.

If there aren’t official signups, you’ll have to use a little more strategy to snag the equipment you want. Find a place where you can keep an eye on the hard-to-get station while still getting in another part of your workout. For example, if the squat cage is popular, drag a mat up next to it and do your push-ups and planks (or plank alternatives) while you’re waiting. The second the cage is free, you can jump up and claim it. The same strategy works for cardio machines. You can do intervals on that exercise bike with the wobbly handlebars while you wait for a treadmill. Cardio is cardio, and if you’re crunched for time it pays to be flexible.

Since you’re working so hard to claim your equipment, think carefully about which equipment that is. If you pick something that’s only good for one exercise, you’ll be back on the prowl a few minutes later. With a few rounds of this, your quick workout becomes a frustrating time sink.

My preferred approach might be controversial, but here it is. If you have a station that’s good for multiple exercises, you can get through a good chunk of your workout in a short time. For example, a cable machine can be used for a ton of different exercises, so that’s a good one to snag. You can even bring over a set of dumbbells so you have even more options without leaving that spot. Some people might look at this as hogging equipment, but I’d argue it’s just efficient—which ultimately gets you out of people’s way sooner.

Time management is essential to not being a jerk about this. Even if you could do a 45-minute workout in the same spot, you shouldn’t. Instead, keep this part of your workout fast and furious: while one set of muscles is resting, you can do a different exercise that works another body part. This is called a superset, and can really make time fly.

When others are clearly waiting, though, it’s polite to communicate and share. If you and another gym rat have your eye on the same equipment, you can both use it. Just say the magic words: Mind if I work in?

Here’s how this works. On most weight lifting machines, you’ll do a set of exercises, then rest for a minute or so before doing your next set. While you’re resting, your newfound friend can be working, and vice versa. This works for any station where you can switch back and forth quickly. A pull up bar: yes. A barbell loaded with 300 pounds for you that has to change to 100 for him: not so much.

Work Out at Home

If this all sounds exhausting, you have other options. Nobody says your workout has to happen at the gym! This is a great time for a temporary change of scenery.

If you have a home gym, you’re off to a great start. Or if you’ve always been meaning to put one together, now’s the time. There are also tons of options for workouts that use your body and not much else. To name just a few:

These aren’t just sorry second-best workouts: it’s possible to still gain strength outside of the gym. High-intensity intervals, challenging moves, and quality movements are key to creating a kickass workout.

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Take It Outside

Time to expand your horizons even more: you don’t need to be in a gym or a house. There are lots of great outdoor opportunities for staying fit. They may veer away from your usual training plan, but the crowds will only really be bad for a few weeks—might as well enjoy a change of pace.

If the weather is cold where you are, try classic winter sports like ice skating and skiing. Even if you’re nowhere near a ski slope, it may be possible to find cross country skis to rent, which you can use on the same trails that you ran or biked or hiked on in sunnier weather.

Snow shoveling is also a great workout. Basically, you’re doing hundreds of deadlifts, and you’re knocking a chore off your to-do list at the same time. Be careful to use good form, of course.

You can also do your usual warm weather sports, although depending on local weather you might have to dress a little warmer. Running, for example, is very doable in the cold. You can also do strength workouts at a playground, or take up a new sport, indoor or outdoor.

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No matter how crowded the gym is, it’s possible to get your sweat on in a million different ways. And who knows, you might like one of these alternative options enough to make it your new favorite workout.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.



Vitals is a blog from Lifehacker all about health and fitness. Follow us on Twitter here.

Terry Crews’ Fitness Secret: Treat the Gym Like a Spa

Terry Crews' Fitness Secret: Treat the Gym Like a Spa

Actor Terry Crews has a simple mantra on how you can stick to the habit of going to the gym: treat it like a spa. You can even go and not work out, if you don’t feel like it. But just go.

In an AMA on Reddit, Crews laid out why he makes it a point to go to the gym no matter what, even if he isn’t going to exercise:

It has to feel good. I tell people this a lot – go to the gym, and just sit there, and read a magazine, and then go home. And do this every day. Go to the gym, don’t even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the work out. Because it doesn’t matter what you do. You can have fun — but as long as you’re having fun, you continue to do it.

If you hire a trainer and push yourself too hard out of the gate, you may not feel like coming back. Instead, he slowly worked his way up to two hours of daily workouts, and he did that by enjoying his time at the gym.

Starting the habit is the most important part. After that, you can focus your willpower on pushing yourself.

It has to feel good. | Reddit

Photo from Old Spice.