Category Archives: Ben Bruno
Here’s what you need to know…
The quickest way to build bigger legs is with high-rep squats. But I’m not talking high reps with light weights. I’m talking high reps where you start to question your sanity halfway through the set, yet somehow manage to override the intense burn and gut it out.
There’s something extremely gratifying about pushing your limits and seeing what the hell you’re made of, not to mention it’s a great way to pack on a whole bunch of muscle in a hurry.
What I don’t like about traditional high-rep back squats is the inevitable, near-debilitating lower back pump that accompanies them. Anyone that’s gone to hell and back on a high-rep set of squats can relate to what I’m talking about. Moreover, any time you push your limits, form tends to get ugly fast.
That’s why I prefer front squats in general to back squats. For one, front squats are a better quad exercise than back squats because most people – either due to anthropometry, mobility restrictions, and/or technique preference – tend to turn back squats into a more hip dominant exercise. Considering most people squat for quad development, front squats make more sense.
Moreover, front squats offer an inherent safety check. If your form gets too shoddy you’ll just dump the bar, whereas with back squats you can continue to grind out ugly rep after ugly rep until either your mind or your lower back gives out, whichever comes first.
Trouble is, front squats don’t usually lend themselves to higher reps because holding the bar becomes an issue, so you can’t grind out reps the way you can with back squats. With that in mind, here are four front squat finishers to blast your quads to new growth.
1. Front Squat 21’s
Any bro worth his salt has done 21’s with biceps curls. These are the same thing, only with front squats.
• Start by doing 7 reps from the bottom position to about halfway up.
• Next, without racking the bar, do 7 reps from the top to about halfway down. (You know, how most guys do their regular squats.)
• Finish up with 7 full front squats. That’s one set.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
You’ll need to use a lighter weight than you’d otherwise be able to use for regular front squats, especially if you do them after your heavier work as a finisher. Because of that, holding the bar shouldn’t be as much of an issue.
Wussies need not apply.
2. Front Squat/Back Combo
This is a new spin on the classic 20-rep squat that combines front squats and back squats.
Pick a weight that you think you can front squat for 8-10 reps. Start by doing as many front squats as you can before racking the bar briefly to get into position for back squats. However many reps you got on the front squats, you must make up the remaining difference with back squats to hit 20 total reps.
So if you got 8 reps on the front squats, you’d need to grind out 12 back squats. Or if you got 10 front squats, you’d have to do 10 back squats. The weight will be less than what you’d use for a 20-rep back squat, but they’re just as brutal and you’ll feel them more in your quads without the agonizing lower back pump.
With heavy back squats, the lower back tends to be the limiting factor and the squats tend to deteriorate into more of a good morning. But when you’ve already smoked your legs with the front squats, it’s easier to keep good form and you feel the squats more where you want to feel it and less where you don’t.
3. Front Squat Countdown
This combines higher rep work with strategically placed isometric holds for complete quad annihilation.
Start by doing 6 full front squats followed by a six-second isometric hold in the bottom position, at or slightly above parallel. Then, without racking the bar, do 5 reps followed by a five-second hold: then four, then three, then two, then one. In total, it comes out to 21 reps and 21 grueling seconds of holds that feel like an eternity.
It won’t take a whole lot of weight to have your legs begging for mercy. If this seems like too much at first, start at 5 reps and work down. I’ve also had good luck with some of my clients using goblet squats, which are still brutal in their own right but are much more manageable.
4. Rest-Pause Front Squats
Rest-pause training can mean several different things depending on who you ask, but the style I’m referring to is taken from Dante Trudel’s training program. In that context, a rest-pause set is essentially three mini-sets, each separated by 10-15 deep breaths that end up taking about 20-25 seconds.
Start by picking a weight that you can get for 8-10 reps, rest 20-25 seconds and rep it out again, this time shooting for 3-5 reps. Rest 20-25 seconds and rep it out a third time, this time shooting for 2-4 reps. Aim for 14-20 total reps.
I prefer slightly higher rep ranges, but for those of you that struggle to support the bar with higher reps, the lower end of the rep range will be fine.
Some coaches don’t recommend rest-pausing squat and deadlift variations for safety reasons, but the self-limiting nature of front squats helps ensure that your form stays in check. It ends up being a great way to grind out some more reps than you’d be able to do in one continuous straight set because you don’t have to worry about supporting the bar for so long.
Here’s what you need to know…
A good warm-up can help to reduce injuries, but we need to keep perspective – for lifting, the warm-up shouldn’t be an entire workout unto itself. Between foam rolling, activation work, stretching, dynamic warming-up, and whatever else is new and cool this week, it could take you well over a half-hour before you even touch a weight if you tried to incorporate them all.
Part of the problem comes when lifters get their warm-up recommendations from physical therapists or strength coaches who work with athletes. When you’re injured, you obviously need to place a greater onus on warming up and doing corrective work. Same goes if you’re warming up to sprint, cut, jump, or play sports.
But if you’re a healthy guy just looking to bench, squat, or knock out some chin-ups, that stuff is overkill. With that in mind, here are the main things to focus on.
1. Warm-Up Sets
It never ceases to amaze me when I see a guy go through an elaborate 30-minute warm-up doing every trendy drill under the sun, only to jump right into the lifting session by going straight into his first working set.
Let’s say Justin foam rolls every inch of his body and does a long dynamic warm-up complete with activation work, but then jumps straight to his first working set of squats with 315 on the bar. (Or more likely, his first set at 185 pounds, because strong lifters don’t warm-up this way.)
Now along comes Hugo, who walks straight from his car to the rack and starts squatting with the goal to do his first working set with 315. He begins by warming up with just the bar for two sets of 10-15 reps, doing the reps slow and purposeful, pausing in the bottom position to stretch his hips. He then does 95 pounds for 8, 135 for 5, 185 for 5, 225 for 3, 255 for 1, and then 285 for 1, all with great form and focusing on being explosive out of the hole.
My money is on Hugo incurring fewer squatting injuries than Justin, and his squatting performance will also be far better.
I’m not saying that all you should do is warm-up sets. I’m saying that warm-up sets are by far the most important part of the warm-up and are the only real “must” when gearing up to handle heavy weights.
There are several objectives for warm-up sets:
• Increase core temperature and tissue temperature (i.e., warm up).
• Lift-specific mobility work.
• Form rehearsal. This is why it’s important to treat your warm-up sets seriously and practice solid technique.
• Acclimate yourself to the weight without creating excessive fatigue. That’s why I recommend doing fewer reps as you work up in weight.
• Get your mind right. This is the time to stop thinking about whatever else you have going on in your life and start focusing on the task at hand.
2. Increasing Tissue Temperature
You should strive to have a light sweat going by the time you start handling heavier weights. This won’t be much of an issue if you live in a warmer climate and your warm-up sets may be all you need, but if you live in a colder climate you’ll want to get moving around a bit before starting your lifting session.
This could mean doing some light cardio, calisthenics, or dynamic mobility drills. Wearing layers is also a great way to expedite the warm-up process in colder weather. This portion of the warm-up should take between zero and 6 minutes.
3. Static Stretching
The new trend is to recommend a dynamic warm-up in place of static stretching, but for lifters I still recommend static stretching for reasons I outline here. To be even clearer, I recommend short-duration static stretching, holding each stretch for 10-20 seconds.
Some people use “the research” to suggest that static stretching decreases subsequent performance, but if you look closely at the existing research and use a little bit of common sense, you’ll see that these fears are largely overblown and misguided, especially if you’re using short duration stretches and waiting at least a couple minutes between stretching and handling heavy weight.
Another knock on static stretching is that it’s largely ineffective for increasing long-term flexibility. I don’t agree, but regardless, it’s completely irrelevant to the discussion of stretching pre-workout.
All we’re looking to do pre-workout is increase short-term range of motion to be able to get into better positions on our strength training exercises, and static stretching definitely helps with that.
Full range of motion strength training with good form is still the best way to increase mobility, but I also know that most guys – especially heavily muscled lifters – are unable to do full range of motion strength training without stretching first, especially when they’re tight and sore from previous lifting sessions.
While a general stretching routine focusing on the major muscle groups is good, lift-specific stretching is even better pre-workout. For example, if you’re squatting or deadlifting, spend 20 seconds in the bottom of the squat pushing your knees out with your elbows. Or if you’re doing Bulgarian split squats, get in the bottom position and hold it for 15-20 seconds on each side to loosen up before your first set.
Start with a few general stretches, paying particular attention to areas where you’re particularly tight, and finish with a stretch specific to your first exercise of the workout. All told, the stretching portion of your warm-up should take between 2-8 minutes depending on how much you need and what exercises you have planned for that day.
4. Foam Rolling
Recent research suggests that foam rolling can help improve range of motion without impeding strength, making it a good choice pre-workout. That said, I put much more stock in what I experience in the gym with my clients and my own training.
In that context, the verdict seems largely personal. Most seem to love foam rolling and report feeling much better and more limber afterwards. For these folks, I absolutely recommend foam rolling.
On the other hand, others don’t seem to notice that much of a difference and could just as easily do without it. For these folks, I’d say it isn’t as important. If forced to choose between foam rolling or stretching, I’d choose stretching because you can stretch in positions that closely mimic – or in some cases replicate exactly – the positions you’ll need to achieve during your strength work. However, there’s certainly no reason why you can’t (or shouldn’t) do both.
Foam rolling should take around 3-5 minutes. Some research suggests that you get best results from rolling an area for at least 10 seconds, so 10-20 seconds is a good rule of thumb. You don’t need to go crazy, but don’t rush it either. If you foam roll, do it before static stretching.
5. Dynamic Warm-Up
Dynamic warm-ups are the new thing and are purported to be much more effective than “old school” warm-up routines. However, I’m not sold when it comes to lifters.
I’m a big fan of dynamic warm-ups for athletes warming up to sprint, cut, jump, and play sports, but besides increasing core temperature, most dynamic warm-up drills don’t have much application for lifters just looking to crush weight. Remember, the warm-up should be specific to the activity.
Most lifters are tight and need to focus on increasing mobility before their lifting session to be able to achieve the proper positions. If you watch people go through a dynamic warm-up, they typically just go through the motions exhibiting their current mobility levels rather than improving their mobility. Translation: Tight guys do the drills poorly and limber guys do them well.
If you want to do a dynamic warm-up to increase core temperature, that’s fine, but don’t let it replace stretching, which I like to think of as static mobility work.
6. Activation Work
Activation work is a catchy term that refers to doing a bunch of low-level exercises like band walks and bodyweight glute bridges before the lifting session. These exercises have value for more novice lifters – I often use them with older clients – but once you achieve decent strength levels, you quickly graduate beyond them.
There’s certainly no harm in doing them, but I’d relegate them to the “waste of time” category for stronger and more advanced lifters.
Warm It Up!
I’m not against a long warm-up if you have the time or have some specific issue that needs extra attention, but for most people with tight schedules, a 10-15 minute warm-up is plenty, provided you don’t dawdle and you spend your time focusing on the right things.
It’s very, very important to warm up, but keep it quick so the majority of your training time can be spent, well, training.
Here’s what you need to know…
Squats are one of my absolute favorite exercises. Unfortunately, as much as I love squats, my knees and back don’t. If I’m not careful they can really do a number on me. I could nix squats altogether in favor of more single-leg work, but squats are too valuable to ditch entirely, plus I just enjoy doing them.
If you have a similar love-hate relationship with squats, here are some ways to make the lift more user-friendly.
1. Switch to Front Squats
Most lifters who train for general strength and physique goals are better off doing front squats than back squats. For starters, it’s easier to squat to an appropriate depth with front squats than back squats, so more people can do it well.
Moreover, front squats are a lot easier on the body. You’re forced to keep a more upright posture and there’s a built-in safety mechanism that prohibits you from breaking form too much – you’ll dump the bar before it’s able to get too ugly. You’re also using less weight, and any time you can get a comparable training effect with lighter loads, you’re doing your body a favor in the long run.
Lastly, front squats do a better job of targeting the quads, which is why most people squat to begin with. Unless you have a good “squatters build” (i.e., short and stocky), back squats generally end up looking like a good morning and in turn target the posterior chain to a greater degree.
The biggest knock with front squats is that it can be difficult at first to hold the bar, especially if you don’t have the flexibility to use a clean grip. If that’s the case, try using straps or the cross-arm grip and you should be all set.
2. Shoot for About Parallel
Aim to squat to parallel or maybe slightly below. For most lifters this means you need to squat deeper because most people squat abysmally high. Quarter squats are just an ego exercise; they allow you to handle more weight than you deserve to be lifting. Any time you mix ego and heavy-ass weights, bad things happen.
Some bodybuilders argue that quarter squats are better for targeting the quads, but usually that’s their way of trying to justify squatting high because they don’t have the mobility to squat deep. There’s research supporting the idea that full squats are better than partial squats for leg development, and if you need empiric evidence, just watch footage of guys sporting the hugest quads on the planet squat – Ronnie Coleman, Tom Platz, Olympic lifters, etc. They all get down there.
That said, there’s such a thing as “too low,” especially for those with lower back and knee issues. It’s cool on the internet to preach rock bottom or ass-to-grass squats, but going to that extreme range can be problematic for those with prior knee issues. The last few inches from parallel to rock bottom is where the pelvis tucks under for most lifters, putting the lower back at risk.
I used to squat rock bottom, so I’m not just some guy bashing something I can’t do. I’ve recently switched to at or just below parallel for my heavy work and my joints feel much better for it.
You’re also not giving up much from a muscle-building and performance standpoint by going to just under parallel as opposed to rock bottom. Of course, this is largely a moot point since most people fall in the high squatting camp, but it’s worth mentioning for the few “ass to ankles” squatters out there.
3. Control the Eccentric
When people talk about squats and knee pain, it’s usually the knees coming over the toes. I’m not too concerned with the knees coming over the toes – provided it’s not excessive – but I’m a lot more concerned with dive-bombing the eccentric and bouncing out of the bottom. One study showed that bouncing increases shear force on the knee by 33%, which jibes with my experience.
For folks with knee issues, I highly recommend controlling the eccentric portion of the squat rather than dive bombing to prevent bouncing. You don’t necessarily have to pause in the bottom position, but I suggest it. This will also ensure that you’re relying on the muscles to lift the weight rather than using momentum.
4. Get Wider
Some people advocate a really wide stance squat where you break at the hips and push your butt back while trying to keep the shins as vertical as possible. This will indeed take stress off the knees, but it’ll also puts more stress on the lower back, and it also makes for a shitty quad stimulus.
Others advocate a really close stance squat with an upright torso to smoke the quads and take stress off the lower back, but this forces you into a knee-break squat where the knees shoot forward excessively. I’m not worried if the knees come out over the toes to some extent, but a pure knee break squat is a bad idea for long-term knee health.
Instead, I recommend taking a moderate stance just outside shoulder-width and breaking from both the hips and knees at the same time. This will allow for a good torso position and still smoke the quads without putting quite so much stress on the knees. Personally, just moving my stance out a few inches has made a world of difference for my knees.
5. Squat to a Box or Pins
The primary reason for squatting to a box or the pins in a safety rack is to serve as a depth gauge. For high squatters, it forces you to go all the way down. For ass-to-grass squatters, it stops you from going too low. Squatting to a box or pins also encourages you to control the eccentric so you aren’t bouncing your ass off the box or bouncing the bar off the pins.
Whether you use a box or pins is largely a matter of personal preference and what you have available. Both work well, but remember that if you’re using a box, you’re just using it as a depth gauge, not rocking back onto the box like you would for a powerlifting-type box squat.
6. Use Chains
Chains are typically thought of as a powerlifting tool to help overload the lockout, but they’re also a great way to take some stress off the lower back and knees in the bottom position while still allowing you to move big weights.
7. Stick to Moderate Reps
Those with joint issues will do best spending the majority of their training time in the 6-12 rep range. Going much below that is flirting with danger, and doing super high reps can often lead to some gnarly form breakdown.
The good news is that 6-12 range is great for hypertrophy, so it’s not like you’re resigning yourself to a lifetime of being a skinny little bitch. Getting strong in moderate rep ranges is the best way to get jacked.
8. Squat at the End of the Workout
Squatting at the end of the workout ensures you’re sufficiently warmed up, and it also means you’ll have to lighten the load, which takes stress off the joints and makes it easier to maintain good form.
Most of the time with heavy front squats, the limiting factor is how much weight you can hold, not how much weight your legs can handle. With heavy back squats, the lower back is often the limiting factor, not the legs. If you pre-exhaust the legs prior to squatting, the legs become the limiting factor, which is what you want.
The Ultimate User-Friendly Squat?
Putting it altogether, my favorite user-friendly squat variation is the chain front squat to a box.
As a reference point, I’m using a 12-inch box, which puts me right around parallel. Taller lifters may be able to get away with using a slightly higher box, but don’t get carried away and start rationalizing that your 18-inch box puts you at parallel, because unless your name is Shaq or Dwight Howard, it probably doesn’t.
If you’re gym doesn’t have low enough boxes, you can also do chain front squats to the pins, like so:
The key here is to control the eccentric to avoid bouncing the bar off the pins, so think about resting it on the pins as quietly as possible.
Of course, if you don’t have chains, you can also just use straight weight. In that case I like to bump the rep range up a bit because I find my knees tolerate it better.
Now contrast that to how I used to squat with a closer stance while going all the way down. I no longer advocate that most squat this deep, especially if you have knee issues. If you turn the volume up on your computer and listen closely, you can actually hear my knees cracking!
I’m no doctor, but common sense tells me that can’t be good long term, even if it doesn’t cause pain in the short term.
You don’t necessarily have to apply all the tips here. For example, if you prefer back squats to front squats, that’s fine. Same goes if you prefer free squats to squatting to a box or pins. Putting some of these tips into practice though will definitely help your squatting in the long run.
Here’s what you need to know…
It’s time to add some painful new back development tools to your toolbox. Here are my favorite new twists on the chin-up and row.
1. “Fly Away” Ring Chins
Ring chin-ups are easier on the elbows and shoulders while allowing you to supinate your hands throughout the pull, making for a huge contraction in your upper back.
To up the ante on ring chins, try “fly away” ring chins. Pull yourself up normally, making sure to pull all the way to your sternum, but flare your elbows out to the sides and pull them back on the eccentric, almost as if you’re doing a front double biceps pose and trying to pull the rings apart.
Fly-Away Ring Chins
2. Sternum “Plank” Chin-ups
Sternum Plank Chin-ups
I love Gironda sternum chin-ups, but they can be problematic for some.
Sternum plank chin-ups may be a better option. They smoke the upper back in a similar fashion, but they’re a lot more “user-friendly.”
For one, they’re safer because you aren’t asking your body to bend backwards excessively. They’re also easier, so more people will be able to do them. Granted, they still aren’t easy by any means and should definitely be considered a more advanced variation, but once you can comfortably do 10+ regular chin-ups with good form, they should be well within your grasp.
Lean way back as you pull yourself up, just as you would with a regular sternum chin-up, but rather than arch your back excessively, keep your entire body as straight as a board the whole time. Pull until your lower chest touches the bar and lower back down under control. The more you lean back, the harder it is.
As an added bonus, they double as one hell of a core exercise if you do them correctly.
3. Slow Tempo Chin-ups
I almost never advocate using an intentionally slow concentric. Chin-ups – and on rare occasions glute-ham raises, if I’m feeling particularly masochistic – are really the only exceptions.
I may subconsciously like slower tempo chin-ups just because they’re the complete antithesis to the kipping pull-up craze, which I don’t like. I much prefer strict chin-ups for back development purposes.
In any case, slow tempo chin-ups can be a good choice for people who are already strong on chin-ups and want to work their back while giving their joints a little break. I don’t do them often, but they’re a great occasional substitute on those days when your elbows might not be feeling quite up to snuff.
You don’t have to go overboard and do crazy long concentrics, but just slow it down a little bit on both the eccentric and concentric – maybe 3-5 seconds or so on each.
Slow Tempo Chin-ups
If you’ve never tried these before, you’ll be surprised how much harder it feels just slowing it down a little. You’ll also be surprised how much they torch your back and arms.
4. Side-to-Side Chin-ups
Side-to-side chin-ups are a good way to increase the difficulty of regular chin-ups and add in a unilateral component in a way that’s nowhere near as a challenging as a true one-arm chin-up.
Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip with either a pronated or supinated grip. From there, pull yourself up at an angle towards one hand, lower back down under control, and then pull yourself up to the other side in the same fashion.
The wider your grip, the more you’ll bias one side over the other and the harder it’ll be, so start with your hands closer together and move your grip out as you improve.
5. Split-Stance Rack Rows
As someone with a history of lower back issues, I’m not a fan of traditional barbell rows because they put undue stress on the lower back, and the sizeable risk just doesn’t outweigh the reward when there are so many other options to choose from.
Not to mention, you hardly ever see them done well and the “row” usually deteriorates into something that resembles a monkey humping a football.
Dead-stop rows (otherwise known as Pendlay rows) are better because the pause helps to keep the set under control and minimize cheating, but most people can’t lower the bar all the way down to the floor without rounding their lower back, again making it a risky choice.
To make barbell rows more lower-back friendly, try split stance rack rows. Set the bar up in a power rack at a point where you can bend over and still keep a flat back, which will be somewhere between mid-shin and knee level.
Next, address the bar with a split stance with the feet spaced about a foot apart, choosing whichever grip you like best. From there, row just like you would a regular barbell row, resetting the bar on the pins after each rep.
I like these better than regular barbell rows for a few reasons:
Split Stance Rack Rows
- Rowing from the pins lets you work in a range of motion that you can do safely.
- Using a split stance helps take a lot of stress off the lower back by allowing you to post up on the front leg (you should feel this in your glutes). You’ll find it’s much harder to round your back in a split stance than a symmetrical stance because the front leg serves almost like a safety brake, so it helps ensure that you maintain good alignment.
- The split stance discourages you from cheating too much because it’s harder to get leg drive, making for a stricter row that you’ll feel more in the upper back and less in the lower back, which is what we’re going for.
These also work great if you have the Dead-Squat™ Bar because you can take a wider stance without the bar hitting your front leg, and you can pull back farther at the top because you don’t have to worry about the bar hitting your chest, making for a huge contraction.
It also allows for a semi-supinated grip, which I love because it hits the lats in much the same way as an underhand barbell row without the undue stress on the wrists that you get from a straight bar.
Here it is in action:
Split Stance Rack Rows (Dead Squat Bar)
With both of these exercises, alternate which leg you place forward each set.
6. Split-Stance “Scrape the Rack” Rows
Split Stance “Scrape the Rack” Rows
This is similar to the Dead Squat exercise above, only this time set up with the bar flush against the rails of the power rack and keep it pressed against the rack the whole time. You won’t be able to handle as much weight, but it feels great and takes even more stress off the lower back.
Unfortunately, these don’t really work with the straight bar because the front leg gets in the way.
7. Supported Meadows Rows
These are Meadows Rows with a lower back friendly twist. I like John’s exercise a lot, but given my history of lower back issues, I feel better having the bench for support.
To do them, put a barbell in a landmine unit (or securely in a corner if you don’t have a landmine) perpendicular to a bench and row just as you would with a regular dumbbell row. Once you’ve finished with one arm, leave the bar right where it is and just turn around on the same side of the bench and do the other arm.
I recommend using straps when you go heavy or else your grip will greatly limit the amount of weight you can handle.
8. Band-Resisted Trap Bar Rows
Dead Squat Bar Band-Resisted Rows
In a previous article about trap bar deadlifts, I showed a simple way to add band resistance by looping a band around the sleeves of the bar and standing on top of it.
This method also works really well for rows with the trap bar and/or Dead-Squat™ Bar.
Remember that the purpose of the bands for rows is different than it is for things like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses. For those exercises, bands mimic the strength curve, so they provide less tension at the bottom portion of the rep where you’re weakest, and provide incrementally more tension throughout the rep as your gain a greater mechanical advantage.
For band-resisted rows, though, the tension is actually greatest where you’re the weakest, at lockout. This doesn’t do you a whole lot of favors as far as strength is concerned (so plan to use less weight than you would for a regular row), but it makes for one hell of a contraction and fries your upper back and lats.
To maximize the effect of the bands, try holding each rep for a second at the top.
9. Wide Grip “Elbows Out” Inverted Rows
Wide Grip “Elbows Out” Inverted Rows
These are inverted rows performed with the hands set wider than normal and your elbows flared out instead of tucking them in close to your sides as you would with a regular inverted rows.
If you’ve ever done a wide grip, elbows out barbell row, it’s very similar to that, only without the lower back stress. You’ll feel it differently than a regular inverted row, too. While it works more-or-less the same muscles, there’s proportionally more stress on the rear delts, so if that’s something you’re looking for, it’s a great choice.
You don’t need suspension straps to do them, but they enhance the exercise greatly because they allow you to use a neutral grip. I actually prefer somewhere between a neutral and pronated grip, but the point is that the straps allow you to pick the hand position that’s most comfortable for you rather than being locked into a fixed hand position.
To keep the straps from sliding inward, hang them from either side of a power rack rather than hanging them together from the front.
If you don’t have straps, just grab the bar with a wider grip.
These are quite a bit harder than regular inverted rows, so you’ll probably want to start with your feet on the floor and progress to elevating them on a bench as you get used to the movement.
10. Inverted “X” Rows
Inverted “X” Rows
You want to start with the straps set far apart from each other, so if you’re doing them in the power rack, hang the straps from the sides. From there, grab the right strap with the left hand and the left strap with the right hand and row as normal.
These feel quite different from regular inverted rows, in a good way. With a regular inverted row you’re pulling straight up, whereas here you’re pulling up and out to counteract the straps trying to pull your arms inward. This pulling action makes for an awesome contraction, especially if you try to hold each rep at the top for a second.
These are definitely harder than regular inverted rows, so keep that in mind and make sure you’ve mastered the necessary progressions before trying them.
Now Go Buy Some Bigger Shirts
Try some of these exercises and enjoy the upper back growth that comes along with them. Just don’t get mad at me if your shirts start splitting at the seams and you’re forced to buy new ones.
Writing articles can be funny sometimes. There are times I’ll address a topic that gets me all jazzed up but fails to get much of a response from readers. Other times I’ll write something that I think is solid and helpful but not necessarily thrilling, and it’ll be a huge hit.
Such was the case with my “hit” article, Not Your Average B.S. Core Training. I thought it was a good article and I shared some fun and innovative core stability exercises, but to be honest, I almost didn’t even write the article because – let’s be real here – core stability isn’t very sexy or exciting.
It’s important no doubt, but it’s boring. Heavy lifting excites me. Brutal workouts excite me. Core stability? Not so much.
As important as it is to include for performance, injury prevention, and aesthetic reasons, I still look for any excuse I can to skip working core, and honestly, I often do.
So at first I was really surprised that my core stability article was such a hit. After I thought about it, though, it made perfect sense. I think a lot of people are in the same boat as me regarding core stability work – they acknowledge its value on some level but find it really boring, and most of the traditional core stability exercises are just too easy except to those who work out three times a week with soup cans.
With that in mind, here are some more challenging (dare I say fun?) core exercises to add to your arsenal.
1. Band-Resisted “Anti” Rollouts
Ab wheel rollouts are a great exercise to train the anterior core – one of my favorites – but they’ll quickly become easy for stronger lifters. Unless you want to bang out sets of 30+ reps, you’ll need to make them harder.
You can do this a number of different ways, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.
One way to go is to progress to standing rollouts starting from the feet rather than the knees. However, standing rollouts are simply too hard for most and I’ve seen several people hurt themselves trying to build up to them, so I’ve since looked elsewhere.
Another way to make standard ab wheel rollouts tougher is to add weight with weighted vests or putting plates on your back. I’ve done this a lot with good success, but I find that it quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns where adding more weight changes your leverages in such a way that makes it difficult to maintain good form and increases the demands on the shoulders more than the core.
So while I’m not against adding a little bit of additional weight, I no longer advocate adding a ton of additional load because it detracts from the intended goal of the exercise, which is to hone in on the core.
For that reason, I really like band-resisted rollouts. They offer a significant additional challenge over just using your bodyweight without changing your leverages or interfering with your ability to move freely.
Plus, they offer accommodating resistance – so they’re easier at the point of full extension where you’re weakest, and they also take stress off the shoulders in their most vulnerable position.
Band-resisted rollouts are usually done facing the band straight-on so the resistance is primarily front-back in the capital plane. While that’s certainly fine and a great exercise in its own right, I’ve found that setting up at a 45-degree angle to the band but still performing them just as you normally would (moving straight back and forth) creates a unique challenge.
You’re still ostensibly moving purely in the sagittal plane, yet you now have to resist getting pulled sideways by the band too, which forces you to stabilize in the frontal and transverse planes to resist rotation and lateral flexion, thereby working the rotary and lateral core along with the anterior core.
I thus call them “anti” rollouts because they train anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion all at the same time.
Here’s what they look like in action.
These are a lot harder than they look, trust me. The band will have a tendency to pull you towards the anchor point, especially as you reach the point of full extension, so it’s important that you’re sure to move out and back in a straight line.
If you don’t have a buddy or training partner to keep you honest, it’s helpful to put something straight next to you to serve as a guide so you don’t veer off course. You can easily increase or decrease the difficulty simply by setting up farther away or closer to the anchor point of the band. The farther back or the farther off to the side, the harder it is and vice versa.
2. Single-Leg Slideouts/Rollouts
Another way to make rollout variations harder is to decrease the base of support by doing them one leg at a time.
This is nice because it substantially increases the difficulty for the core without making it harder for the upper body. It also introduces an anti-rotational component to the exercise so you’re challenging the rotary core along with the already great anterior core work that you get from regular rollouts.
You can do these with an ab wheel, a barbell, or sliders as I demonstrate in the video below:
Interestingly, with regular rollouts, I find that the ab wheel is the easiest followed by the sliders and the barbell. However, with single-leg rollouts (or slideouts), the ab wheel is actually harder because it has a tendency to tip on you because the hands are so close together, whereas you can spread them out wider with the sliders and barbell, making for a more stable base.
That’s just something to keep in mind when trying them out.
3. Single-Leg Sliding Pushup Reach
To progress the previous exercise a step further, you can try going to a one leg sliding push-up reach.
Start in push-up position with your hands on a pair of sliders. One arm performs a push-up while you slide the other arm straight out in front of you as far as you can. Whichever arm you reach out, lift up the opposite foot.
Since I’m sure that explanation did nothing but confuse you, I’ll just show you what it looks like:
You can do all the reps on one side before switching sides, or do them in alternating fashion as I’m doing in the video.
In the past I’ve done the sliding push-up reach with both feet on the floor and progressed it by adding a weighted vest, but that seems to challenge the push-up portion of the exercise much more than the core aspect, whereas decreasing the base of support by switching to one leg jacks up the core demand without increasing the upper body demand. So as always, the best exercise choice really depends on your goal.
If doing it from push-up position is too hard, you can also do them from the knees.
4. Walking Push-up Slides
Here’s a core exercise that will also crank up your heart rate, making it a great “finisher” for an upper body workout.
Perform a push-up slide as normal, but rather than return to the starting position on each rep, walk your feet forward until your hands are even and continue in that fashion for as long as you can handle, or as long as the space in your gym will allow.
Just a few sets will have you huffing and puffing and have your core and upper body burning and begging for mercy.
Most finishers and conditioning work crush the lower body: sleds, sprints, bikes, etc. That’s fine, unless you’re trying to give your legs a rest, in which case you’ve got a problem.
Apart from battling ropes and upper body complexes, there aren’t as many good finishers for the core and upper body that don’t tax the legs. This exercise fits that bill nicely.
Since a lot of dudes (myself included) don’t particularly like either core work or conditioning, it’s also a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
I won’t say it’s quick and painless, but at least it’s quick.
5. Half-Kneeling Landmine Lateral Raises
I shared a new lateral raise variation I’ve been doing with the landmine in a recent article. They feel awesome on the shoulders, and I’ve received a lot of good feedback from people that have tried them out and really liked them.
If you do them from the half-kneeling position, you can still blast the shoulders, but it also doubles as a heck of a core exercise, while also giving you a fantastic hip flexor stretch to boot. That’s some serious bang for your buck.
From a core standpoint it’s very similar to the increasingly popular half-kneeling lift exercise, only you get the added benefit of crushing your shoulders at the same time.
Some factions in the fitness community scoff at the notion of doing isolation work like lateral raises because it’s not “functional,” or is somehow deemed to be vain. That’s dumb, but if that’s the case, this exercise would be a good way to get around that problem because you fry your delts to your heart’s content under the guise of a “functional” core and hip stability exercise.
Interestingly, I’ve found I can handle just as much weight in the half-kneeling position than I can handle standing, so you aren’t giving up anything from a shoulder-building perspective.
You can do them from a true half-kneeling position with your back knee on the floor or raise the knee slightly like I’m doing in the video, turning it into more of an iso-lunge and making it harder on the glutes and hip stabilizers. Your choice.
6. Sliding Pushup Reach/Flys (Bottom Position)
These are the same as the regular sliding push-up reach, only you stay in the bottom position of the push-up for the entire set.
Doing them in this fashion increases the demands on the upper body quite a bit, but still challenges the core a lot through anti-extension and anti-rotation.
To increase the rotary stability demands further and also put more stress on the pecs, try reaching the arms straight out to the sides instead of reaching straight out. This is also a great progression to build to sliding chest flys, one of my absolute favorite chest builders.
7. Ring Push-up Reach
All the push-up reach variations I’ve shown thus far have involved sliders. If you don’t have sliders, or don’t have a good surface to use the sliders, you can also use rings.
Here’s an example of the regular push-up reach:
From here, you can progress on to all the same variations that I’ve demonstrated with the sliders.
If you have both options available to you, I much prefer the sliders because they just feel better, but the rings are still a good option and will work similarly.
They’re more or less equal in terms of difficulty, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem switching from one to the other, and you could certainly use both for more variation.
8. Long-Lever Plank Shoulder Taps
Each of the exercises I’ve shared in this article (and the previous article) require the use of an ab wheel, sliders, rings, a landmine, or some other piece of specialized equipment.
What do you do if you don’t have any of those goodies? Or what if you’re on the road traveling and don’t have access to a gym?
Fear not, I’ve still got you covered.
Long-lever plank shoulder taps are a brutal core exercise that requires nothing more than your bodyweight.
Regular shoulder taps are where you get into push-up position and alternate touching each hand to the opposite shoulder while focusing on keeping your torso and hips steady.
That’s a great exercise as it is, but it may not be very challenging for more advanced lifters. To make it substantially harder, try walking your feet back into a longer lever plank before doing the shoulder taps.
The same rules apply for these as for the regular push-up taps – do each rep slowly and deliberately and make sure you aren’t arching your back and/or swiveling your hips and shoulders as you reach across your body.
The farther you walk back, the farther you extend the lever and thus the harder the exercise becomes.
Start with the regular version in standard push-up position and slowly work your way back over time, progressing only to the point you can maintain good control of your core and keep good form.
9. Long Lever Plank Flutters
This one is very similar to the long-lever shoulder taps (albeit a bit harder), only you keep both your hands on the ground and instead alternate picking up your feet one at a time, almost like you’re doing a freestyle swimming kick – hence why I call them ‘flutters’.
Just as with the previous exercise, you want to keep steady and avoid arching your back. To that end, don’t lift your legs up too high, and make sure you’re squeezing your glutes and having them do the work to lift your leg rather than extending from the lumbar spine.
If you’re doing these correctly your glutes should be on fire by the end of the set. If you feel it more in your lower back, you’re not doing it right, or you may need to shorten the lever and make it easier by walking back in a bit.
Again, start in a standard push-up position and work your way back over time as you become more proficient.
If you’ve been skimping on your core work, try some of these exercises for yourself. I think you’ll quickly start rethinking just how boring and wussy core stability training really is. And who knows? You may actually start to enjoy it.
Just don’t go trying them all at once or else your abs will feel like they’ve been brutalized. You’ve been warned.
Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, my Mom starts asking me what I want for Christmas. When I was younger I’d rattle off a list a mile long, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten progressively quieter because I’m not much of a “stuff” guy.
So that leaves her to guess, which means I usually get a new pair of winter boots that I end up returning, or 12 pairs of socks. Sound familiar?
One Christmas, though, about six years ago, she asked me what I wanted just as I was perusing the Elitefts Christmas sale. As I scanned the various goodies, a pair of blast straps caught my eye. Mind you, this was before suspension training was all the rage and well before you could sign up for full-body “TRX classes” in commercial gyms.
At the time I didn’t know much about suspension training and thought it looked pretty lame, but I figured it’d at least be a good way to supercharge push-ups, so I asked for them.
Had it been my own money I definitely would’ve passed but hey, kick-ass push-ups beats getting another ugly sweater.
It proved to be a good investment because I still have those blast straps today and have since expanded my suspension training arsenal well beyond just push-ups. I don’t see them as a “be all end all” by any means, but I definitely like them a lot for certain exercises, particularly for the upper body.
Just to be clear, when I say blast straps, I’m referring to all suspension training systems: blast straps, rings, TRX, jungle gym, etc.
With that in mind, here are my favorite blast strap exercises to build the upper body.
I’ll start with push-ups because it’s the first exercise I ever used the blast straps for and they’ve been a staple exercise in my program ever since.
It was really a love-at-first-try type of thing. I always love a good challenge, and the blast straps definitely provide that. The first few times I tried them I was shaking and could only muster a few reps, but after a little bit of practice, my stability improved rapidly to where I could start to crank them out more easily. Once I got better at them, it quickly became one of my favorite upper body exercises, and still is today.
The one problem I’ve continually had, though, with both push-ups and dips on the blast straps is that when the blast straps are set up at just outside shoulder width (i.e., the way most people do them), they tend to chafe my triceps. Wearing long sleeves helps, but who wants to wear long sleeves when it’s hot in the gym?
As I got stronger and started to load the exercises more, the chafing got worse, to the point that after every time I did the exercise I’d have people asking me, “What happened to your arms?” because there were massive red marks, similar to a rug burn.
A little chafing certainly isn’t enough to stop doing a good exercise though, just like you wouldn’t stop deadlifting because it can bruise your shins or stop front squatting because it can hurt to hold the bar – at least I hope you wouldn’t.
I guess when you’re in love, you’re willing to put up with a little pain and bullshit.
The chafing started to bug me though, so as a way to eliminate it, I started hanging the blast straps wider. I do all my blast strap work in a power rack, so rather than hang them straight down from the pull-up bar on the front just outside the shoulders, I hung them from the sides of the rack.
What a difference that small tweak makes! Not only did that eliminate the chafing, it also enhanced the exercise significantly from a chest-building perspective because it forces you to actively squeeze your pecs like crazy throughout the set to keep your hands in tight to your body.
The key is not to allow the wider ring position to alter your arm position, so you still want to keep your elbows tucked in close to your body.
Keep in mind though that the wider the blast straps are, the harder the exercise becomes, so start at shoulder width and move out gradually over time as you feel more comfortable.
You may want to elevate your feet slightly as well to account for the straps being raised off the floor. Other than that, perform them just as you would a normal push-up.
I alternate between doing them weighted in the beginning of a workout and unweighted at the end for a massive pump that also doubles as a good core exercise, killing two birds with one stone.
If you’ve got push-ups down and are one of the masochistic types looking for a way to punish your pecs even more, flyes might be something to consider. They’re not for everyone – especially people with shoulder issues – but if your shoulders can handle them, you’d be hard pressed to find an exercise that fries the pecs like ring flyes do.
Just like with push-ups, you can make them harder by setting the blast straps wider.
Be warned though, regular ring flyes with the blast straps at shoulder-width are tough enough as it is, but setting the blast straps wider makes them downright brutal. As a point of reference, several months ago I could do regular flyes with my feet elevated and a 50-pound weighted vest for sets of 8-10, but couldn’t even do one full rep with the blast straps wider unless I did them from my knees – and even that was a struggle.
With practice I can now do 6-8 unweighted wide flyes with my feet on the floor when I’m fresh, but if it’s at the end of the workout, I can’t even do one. So if I do them at the end, I’ll do them on my knees, which is still an awesome finisher.
Like blast strap flyes, dips are one of those “off-limits” exercises for people with shoulder issues, but if you can handle regular dips okay, using the blast straps makes them that much better. And in fact, a lot people that have problems with parallel bar dips find they can do them on the blast straps pain-free.
However, prepare to be humbled the first time you try them because it’s a whole different ballgame than regular dips. When I first tried them I could do regular dips with four plates for reps so I’d figured it’d be a breeze.
I made a complete fool of myself and couldn’t even do one rep. After about an hour of practice I could knock out a whooping 3 reps while shaking so badly it probably looked like I was being electrocuted. And that’s with no weight. Talk about embarrassing.
Looking back, though, I don’t feel too badly because every one of my buddies that tries to work in when I’m doing them now goes through the same humiliating experience, so I think it’s just part of the process.
Swallow your pride and stick with it because after a few times of getting acclimated to the blast straps, it gets much easier and your performance will shoot right back up. At this point, my weighted blast strap dips are almost as strong as my bar dips, and when I rep out I’m within 4-5 reps. Not only that, but they just feel much better on the blast straps, meaning they feel safer and seem to work the chest more.
Just as with blast strap push-ups, start with the blast straps set just outside shoulder-width so your triceps can press against them for support. As you improve, try moving the blast straps wider to increase the difficulty (and chest stimulation) and eliminate chafing of the upper arms.
To keep constant tension on the chest, stop an inch or two short of locking your arms out at the top. This may seem like it’s cheating, but with the blast straps set wide it actually makes it quite a bit harder.
Wide Grip Chins
I’ve allows loved the way wide grip chin-ups (or pull-ups) feel in my lats, but when I do them on the bar they usually really piss off my shoulders and wrists. I know many people have had a similar experience, and I’ve also heard complaints that using a wide grip really bugs some peoples’ elbows.
So usually I just avoid them and use a shoulder-width grip – that is, until I started using the blast straps.
Using the blast straps allows for a more natural rotation of the arms, so it feels much cleaner. I just wish I’d started doing these sooner.
Here’s what they look like:
Beyond being more joint-friendly, setting the blast straps up wider than your wingspan makes it a lot harder – the blast straps will want to go out so you have to squeeze hard to counteract that force and keep them on the right path, which makes for a huge contraction in the lats.
The set-up is really easy. If you have blast straps, just set them up on either side of a power rack. If you have a TRX, just throw it over the top of the rack.
You’ll probably need to bend your legs, but that’s no big deal.
Keep in mind that they’re a lot harder than regular chins – especially if you’re strict on the form – so don’t expect to hit your usual numbers, but expect your lats to be fried more than normal.
You’ve been warned.
I may’ve bought the blast straps primarily for push-ups, but I’ve gotten the most use out of them for inverted rows, which has become my favorite rowing exercise – meaning I like them more than barbell rows, dumbbell rows, t-bar rows, cable rows, etc.
I like them so much because it’s an awesome way to overload the upper back without stressing the lower back. This is obviously appealing for people like me with lower back issues, but it’s also valuable even for healthy folks because it allows you to keep your lower back fresh for your heavy lower body exercises like deadlifts and squats.
Even a healthy lower back can only handle so much abuse, so why not save it for the exercises that are inherently lower back intensive rather than use it up on upper body exercises? Especially since you can overload the upper back just as much in an inverted row as you can in a free weight row.
If you think that last sentence is malarkey, you probably haven’t done inverted rows the way I do them. I’ve done more than my fair of heavy-ass free weight rows (and still do) and I’ll say unequivocally that inverted rows can be made every bit as hard as anything else I’ve ever tried.
My favorite variations include:
Weighted: either with weighted vests or putting plates on your abs
1.5 reps: row up, come halfway down, row back up again, and come all the way down
Wide inverted rows: set the blast straps wider, as I’ve described for the chest exercises
Decline rows: elevate the feet higher than the head
Row/reverse fly combo: one arm performs a row while the other arm extends straight out the side
One-arm inverted rows: using one ring only
I have video demonstrations of all these variations on my You Tube page.
So as you can see, there are tons of effective ways to do this exercise. I usually do some variation of inverted rows twice a week, which alone has made buying the blast straps worth it.
3-Way Shoulder Finisher
All the chest and back exercises I’ve shared also work the shoulders quite a bit so you really don’t needanything else – but if you want something to work them more directly, here’s a quick three exercise finisher that I like to use at the end of upper body workouts when I’m looking to fry my shoulders, particularly the posterior delts.
The three exercises are reverse flyes, external rotations, and face pulls, done in that order. They’re ordered from hardest to easiest and are done in succession as a mechanical drop-set, so don’t rest in between exercises.
Here’s what it looks like in action. I usually do 6-10 reps of each exercise, but I’ll just show three reps of each for the sake of brevity:
While this is a high rep finisher, it’s still important to keep good form and do each rep deliberately as opposed to just pumping them out. Trust me, you’ll still get a huge pump.
1-2 sets (meaning 1-2 drop-sets) is all you’ll need.
I don’t do curls often (as evidenced by my puny arms), but when I do, these are on my short list of go-to’s.
Set-up just as you would for an inverted row with a pronated or neutral grip and your feet on the floor, but rather than row to your sides, curl your hands to your forehead while supinating your wrists. Be sure to keep your body straight by squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs.
I could pull something out of my you-know-what and say I like them because they also double as a good core exercise to give you more bang for your buck and make them more “functional,” whatever that means.
But that’s not why I like them. I don’t do curls to be “functional” in the athletic sense – I do curls to get bigger biceps. And if bigger biceps is the goal, it doesn’t get more functional than curls.
Barbell curls tend to piss off my wrists and forearms, but using the blast straps allows for a more natural range of motion, much like dumbbells, which is not only more joint-friendly but also lends itself to a hell of a contraction.
Most importantly though, it’s an excuse to do curls in the squat rack.
Bodyweight Triceps Extensions
Bodyweight triceps extensions are a great exercise no matter how you do them, however, doing them on the blast straps is better than using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine because it increases the range of motion. It does so by allowing you to extend your arms further out in front of your body (since you don’t have to worry about your head hitting the bar), thereby increasing the stretch on the long head of the triceps.
The blast straps also allow you to rotate your hands naturally through the rep, taking stress off the elbows and makes for a stronger contraction in the triceps.
The lower you are to the floor, the harder it is. Start as low as you can go for 6-8 reps and then walk your feet up gradually and keep knocking the reps out for a brutal extended set, similar to the idea of a drop-set but not exactly (you’re actually going upwards).
Keep your body as straight as possible and it doubles as a core exercise, or you can pike your butt up a bit towards the end of the set to get a few more reps in to really smoke the triceps.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you can use the blast straps for, but it’s certainly enough to get you started and give you a great upper body workout.
I wouldn’t recommend using blast straps-only for upper body, but I think you could probably build a great physique doing so if you were so inclined and got really good at using them, as evidenced by gymnasts with their rings.
To me though, they’re just a tool in the toolbox that I sprinkle in here and there with my other strength training.
But when you consider they cost my mom around 50-60 bucks six years ago, I’d say they’ve been well worth the small investment. Thanks Mom!
I left it out because honestly, I don’t like core training all that much. I find most traditional core exercises to be painstakingly boring, and as such, I look for any excuse I can to skip it. And I often do.
However, as much as I might not enjoy core training, it does have tremendous value in terms of aesthetics, performance, and injury prevention, and I’ve noticed much better results when I’ve been consistent with including it as opposed to when I’ve left it out – my abs stand out more, my lifts are stronger, and my back feels better.
So I think some core work is a good idea for the aforementioned reasons, but I also think that once you’ve developed a good base of strength, most basic core exercises are simply too easy and become a waste of time.
A good rule of thumb is if it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything, you probably aren’t. With that in mind, here are some exercises to crank your core training up a notch.
In the past year or so, bodysaws have supplanted ab wheel rollouts as my favorite core exercise.
They’re very similar to rollouts in that the goal of both exercises is to resist extension of the lumbar spine (i.e., avoid arching your back too much), but I like bodysaws more for a few reasons:
- I feel them more in my abs.
- They don’t fatigue the shoulders like rollouts can, so they’re easier to pair with upper body exercises.
- They’re more user-friendly for people with preexisting shoulder injuries and/or poor shoulder mobility.
- Some people I work with complain of back pain from rollouts, but I’ve found that most people can keep much better form with bodysaws and thus tolerate them better.
To do them, start by getting in plank position with your feet on something slippery such as Valslides, a slideboard, furniture sliders, a paper plate, a TRX, etc. From there, maintain that body position and push back and forth on your arms, like this:
Go back only as far as you can handle while still maintaining your original spine position. If you start to arch excessively and/or feel them in your lower back, you’ve gone too far. They’re a lot tougher than they look, so it probably won’t take much range of motion to feel them working.
Once you’ve got that down and it feels easy, you can progress to doing them on one leg at a time, or if you want to get really frisky, doing them with straight arms starting from the bottom of a push-up position, which extends the lever arm and makes them pretty brutal.
Don’t jump into this version too fast, though, because you don’t want to hurt yourself.
Like rollouts, these also work the shoulders a lot, so keep that in mind when putting them into your program. For example, I wouldn’t pair them with a pressing exercise.
Similarly, if you have a pre-existing shoulder injury or lack good shoulder mobility, I’d probably just stick to the regular version on your elbows.
Plank Walks / Plank Sled Drags
This is a great “bang for your buck” exercise that kills a bunch of birds with one stone.
Think of it as a moving plank, literally. Start in plank position with your forearms on the ground and your feet on a pair of sliders, and crawl forward while trying to keep your torso and hips as still as possible. To do this successfully, you really have to brace your core and squeeze your glutes the entire time.
When that’s no longer difficult, start in push-up position and propel yourself forward with your arms straight, again keeping the rest of your body still. You’ll find out quickly that this really works the shoulders, triceps, and even the chest to some degree.
If you still need to make it harder, add load. I’ve found that wearing a weighted vest can lead to wrist and elbow pain, so it’s better to drag the weight behind you, either by putting your feet on a weight plate, or if you’re really masochistic, dragging a weighted sled.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
These will also jack your heart rate up, making them a great finishing exercise for the end of an upper body workout.
The obvious drawback to this one is that it requires both space and specialized equipment, which not everyone has. If you do though, definitely give these a try.
I mentioned before that I like ab wheel rollouts. Fallouts are essentially the same as rollouts, only using suspension straps instead of an ab wheel.
The nice thing about fallouts is they can be easily regressed and progressed depending on your current level.
Start by doing them standing on your feet. The shorter you set the straps, the easier it’ll be; conversely, the longer the straps, the harder it’ll be. Start with the straps at about waist height and lengthen them as you improve.
Where you stand in relation to the anchor point will also affect the difficulty significantly. Standing in front of the anchor point will make it easier, while walking back underneath the anchor point will make it harder.
The next step is to try them starting from push-up position. These suck, in an awesome way.
You can also elevate your feet, but that’s more than I can really handle.
Sliding Push-up Reach
With this exercise, one arm performs a push-up while the other slides out straight ahead like a rollout (or I guess slideout would be a more fitting).
You can also do these using rings, but I tend to prefer sliders.
Rollouts and push-ups both typically focus more on anterior core stability, but the unilateral element of this exercise challenges rotary core stability as well.
I go back and forth about whether I think this is more of a push-up progression or a rollout progression, but it can really be either depending on your goals and how you implement it in your program.
You could use it in place of a pressing exercise (i.e., dumbbell presses, push-ups, etc.) for some additional core work, or you could substitute for another core exercise for extra pressing work. I tend to do the latter, but either way is fine. It’s a sweet exercise no matter how you classify it.
Don’t worry if you can’t extend out all the way – just go as far as you can while maintaining control of your core.
This is similar to the exercise above, only here the arm not performing the push-up goes straight out to the side as opposed to straight ahead (similar to a fly motion), which increases the chest involvement and places even more of an emphasis on rotary core stability.
Not only is this a terrific exercise on its own, it also serves as a great progression when you’re building towards being able to do full sliding flyes, which I think is one of the best chest exercises going (and is also a great core exercise in its own right).
Deep Squat Landmine
I’m terribly uncreative when it comes to naming exercises, so this one is just what it says, a landmine done in the bottom of a deep squat.
I like this one because it addresses two things I (and most people) need to work on but dread doing: core stability and hip mobility. To combine them both into one exercise is a huge win in my book.
The normal standing landmine is already a great exercise to work the rotary and lateral core, but doing it in the bottom of the squat increases the stability demands even further while also building stability in the pelvis and serving as one hell of a hip and groin stretch to boot.
I’m a big fan of the basic squat stretch where you just chill in the bottom of the squat and push your knees out, and I also like doing it with a light weight in the goblet hold to enhance the stretch even more. In this exercise, the bar functions similarly to promote a deeper stretch, but once you start moving your arms you must reflexively stabilize your hips and core to keep from shifting or swaying.
While these may look easy enough, they’re actually very difficult, so be sure you’ve mastered regular landmines before trying them, and when you do, only move your arms as far as you can before you start to lose stability.
Trust me, you’ll know exactly when you reach that point. It’s very hard to cheat on this one, so when you’re done, you’re done, which keeps you honest and keeps you from hurting yourself.
If you don’t have a specific device to anchor the barbell, simply put the barbell in a corner. Just be sure the walls aren’t sheetrock; I’ve learned that lesson the hard way, and it ends with a hole in the wall.
Bodyweight Overhead Pallof Press
While the exercises thus far have focused more on the anterior and rotary core, this one focuses more on the lateral core with the goal being to resist lateral flexion.
Set a suspension strap at above waist height and face sideways. Lean out so your body is somewhere between a 60-75 degree angle to the floor, and press your arms straight overhead.
You might think at first that with such little body lean the exercise can’t possibly be challenging enough, but a little lean goes a long way.
Once you feel comfortable, you can make it harder by leaning out farther and/or walking your feet further underneath the anchor point.
To progress it even further and add an anti-rotational component, start by pressing straight ahead first until your arms are fully extended and then going right to the overhead position. I call this the “Anti Press” because it forces you to resist motion in all three planes, training anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion, and ant-extension simultaneously.
I picked these up from Chad Waterbury, and I really like them as a replacement to standing ab wheel rollouts.
Standing ab wheel rollouts just aren’t optimum for most people, so I don’t recommend them as a general rule. It’s not that I don’t think they’re a good exercise, it’s more that I think it actually might be too good of an ab exercise for some.
I love kneeling ab wheel rollouts, but the transition to standing is just too hard for most, and I’ve seen several people tweak their abs trying to do so.
If you’re someone that can do them well, then I’m certainly not going to tell you to stop, but for those that can’t, I suggest that once you’re comfortable with kneeling ab wheel rollouts you progress to a different exercise, such as those that I’ve mentioned already or even standing hand walkouts, which are safer.
The eccentric portion of hand walkouts is much slower and more controlled than using an ab wheel, so you’ll be less inclined to tweak something. It’s also self-limiting in the sense that you can only really walk out as far as your core can control, so you aren’t going to find yourself out beyond your level of capability.
Since these don’t require any equipment, it’s a great option for when you can’t make it to the gym. You can also do them from the knees if the standing version is too difficult.
Look, core training will never be as sexy and fun as deadlifts, squats, presses, and basically anything else you can do in the gym, but it’s still worth doing. If you’ve been skipping your core work out of sheer boredom or just need to spice things up, hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas to pique your interest and take your ab training to the next level.
For most trainees, “back day” typically includes at least one variation of the row. This pleases the strength coach in me as it shows at least some consideration of balanced programming. However, the meathead in me is often dismayed by the gross lack of effort put forth into these rows.
Doesn’t anyone watch Pumping Iron anymore? That scene of Arnold and Franco banging out heavy-ass sets of T-bar rows just weeks before the Mr. Olympia? When it comes to back training those guys absolutely brought it, and there’s a lot to be learned from that.
But what about lighter, controlled rowing variations? Are they even worth doing?
Good question. To that end, there are really two main reasons to do rows:
This not only looks badass, it also helps provide a stable foundation for other compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and presses, thereby allowing you to lift more weight and in turn build more muscle all over.
This part isn’t nearly as sexy, but it’s still extremely important in terms of improving posture and warding off shoulder problems so that we can continue to train hard and remain injury-free.
So even if all you care about is point number 1, point number 2 should still be important to you because you can’t build serious muscle if you’re laid up with a shoulder injury. On the bright side, improving your posture will also go a long way towards making your chest appear bigger, so it’s not entirely unsexy.
While rows can certainly help with both these goals, training for size and training for optimal shoulder health and function aren’t the same. They aren’t mutually exclusive either, and there’s definitely some overlap, but different goals require different strategies.
The prescription for building a thick upper back via rows is pretty straightforward:
- Row big weights
- Eat big
- Row slightly bigger weights
- Rinse and repeat
Going back to point number 1, from a size perspective, good technique doesn’t appear to matter much. Often guys with the biggest backs, like the aforementioned Arnold and Franco, will sling massive weights with technique that would make the form police pull out their ticket books and have the YouTube warriors coming out of their parents’ basements in droves to cast stones.
That being said, it’s one thing if you’re trying to build elite level size and strength, in which case you may need to take some chances and push the limits. But for those who lead normal lives and want to balance getting bigger and stronger with staying healthy and pain-free, I strongly advocate using controlled form.
Bear in mind that I’m not coming at this from some holier-than-thou pedestal. I’ve conjured up my inner Franco and done more than my fair share of fugly rowing – if you even want to call it that – with heavy weights, and while I definitely packed on some muscle doing that, I’ve also hurt myself too.
The thing is, I’m hoping you can avoid my mistakes.
Look, you still need to focus on building strength and handling progressively heavier weights over time to pack on any appreciable amount of muscle, but your rows should always look like, well, rows – not a monkey humping a football.
For point number two, when the goal is improving posture and balancing out the shoulder girdle, form becomes of paramount importance. Bench pressing (and its variations) promotes scapular protraction and shoulder internal rotation, so to offset that we need to employ exercises that focus on scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation.
Rowing helps promote scapular retraction in theory, but you have to be meticulous with the form, and that can be hard to do when the weight gets really heavy.
Bottom line is some rowing variations lend themselves better to heavier loading while others are more “feel” movements. Both are important, and both have value. If all you did was heavy rowing all the time, you’d probably be pretty muscular, but you’d also be more susceptible to injury.
Conversely, if all you did was lighter “feel” exercises, you might be more injury-resistant, but you probably wouldn’t have much meat on your upper back.
The key, like with most things in life, is to strike a balance to give you the best of both worlds.
You’re likely familiar with the mass-building rowing staples – barbell rows, T-bar rows, heavy dumbbell rows, etc. – so I’ll use this article to share some more feel-type rowing movements that don’t necessarily lend themselves to crazy poundages, but will still pay big dividends in your training program. None of these exercises require any specialized machines either, so they should be doable for most of you.
Don’t get me wrong, these exercises will still undoubtedly build muscle, so don’t think of it as boring prehabby-type stuff and just half-ass it and go through the motions. You should still be pushing hard and looking to add weight and/or reps over time, but only as long as it still looks good and you feel the right muscles – namely the lower traps, middle traps, and rhomboids – doing the work.
On that note, think about keeping your shoulders “down and back” and pulling with your elbows, not your hands, and avoid shrugging your shoulders up as you row. It also really helps to pause each rep at the point of contraction and really focus on squeezing the mid-back to ensure that you’re using the intended muscles and not just relying on momentum.
Without further ado, here are the exercises.
1. Batwing Rows
I first learned about batwings from Dan John. It’s essentially an isometric chest-supported dumbbell row where you focus on retracting your scapula and pulling your elbows back as hard as you can.
Batwing rows are similar, except one arm does an isometric hold while the other rows. It also helps to do them on an incline bench to allow your arms to extend fully during the rows without touching the floor.
Do each rep slowly and deliberately with a full range of motion and an exaggerated contraction. If you’re doing them correctly, you should feel a huge burn in your upper back.
Remember that you have to do both sides, so err on the light side at first as far as weight is concerned and make sure you’re nowhere near failure after the first arm because it catches up to you quickly. As a point of reference, if you’re using 40-50 pound dumbbells, you’re doing very well for yourself. Start around 20-30 pounders and go from there.
As an added bonus, this also functions as a nice core exercise too, as you have to brace to keep from rotating on the bench.
2. Chest Supported Row/Reverse Fly Combo
Lame name, I know. I’m not good with thinking up cool names for exercises, so if you’ve got something better, I’m open to suggestions.
This is a great exercise though, so frankly, I don’t care what it’s called.
Lie face down on an incline bench with dumbbells in each hand, just like with the batwing row. From there, row up, straighten your arms out to the sides and slowly lower down to the starting position in a reverse fly motion.
Here’s what it looks like in action.
From a muscle-building standpoint, this exercise gives you the benefits of rowing for the upper back while also allowing you to overload the rear delts with more weight than you’d otherwise be able to use if you just did reverse flies on their own.
From a shoulder health standpoint, it kills two birds with one stone, allowing you to work the scapular retractors and shoulder external rotators in one movement.
That’s a win-win.
3. Decline Inverted Rows
Inverted rows with suspension straps are not only an awesome back builder, they’re also great from a shoulder health standpoint because they target both scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation at once.
The shoulders are free to move through a natural range of motion as the hands move from pronated (palms down) to supinated (palms up), which introduces an external rotation component while you perform a closed-chain row.
If that wasn’t enough bang for your buck, it’s also one hell of a core exercise.
A typical progression would be to start with your feet on the floor, move to elevating your feet on a standard weight bench, and then start adding external load.
If you’re to the point of adding weight though, you might also want to try elevating your feet on a higher box to make it harder and change the angle of the pull.
When you elevate your feet on a standard weight bench, your body starts parallel to the floor when the arms are full extended, but as you row up, the head comes up higher than the feet.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I often do them that way myself, but one potential drawback is that there’s a strong tendency to cheat, especially when you’re trying to push yourself. The main problems I see are trying to create momentum by attempting to hump the ceiling, excessive shoulder shrugging, and poking the head way forward, which makes it nearly impossible to achieve full scapular retraction.
Elevating the feet higher seems to help take care of these issues and makes it easier to keep good form – provided you’re strong enough to do them, of course. You’ll end up pulling a little lower into your body than a typical inverted row too, which encourages keeping the shoulders down and does a better job of hitting the mid back.
Elevate the feet high enough so that your torso is parallel to the floor (or even at a slight decline) at the topof the rep as opposed to the bottom. Obviously the higher the box, the harder it is. Don’t go too high, though, as it will reduce the range of motion. A typical bench is usually between 16-18 inches, and even going to a 24-inch box makes a huge difference, as you can see in this video.
If you’re currently at a stage where you’re adding weight to inverted rows but still don’t feel that you’re getting much out them, or if you’re ignoring inverted rows altogether because you think you’re beyond them, give these a shot.
4. Dumbbell Rows (1.5 Reps)
Dumbbell rows are a great exercise, but stronger lifters will often find that their gyms don’t have big enough dumbbells to accommodate them. If that’s the case, you’ve got a few options.
- Do a shitload of reps with the heaviest dumbbell available, a’la Kroc Rows.
- MacGyver a barbell and do one-arm T-bar rows to get a similar training effect with more loading potential. (See left.)
- Make a lighter weight harder by using “1.5 reps”
All three of these choices could work in the right scenario, but since this article is focusing on lower weight “feel” type movements, I’ll focus on the “1.5” rep technique.
Row up, pause, come halfway down, row back up, pause again, and come all the way down. That’s one rep.
Confused? This video should help.
It won’t take much weight for these to be extremely challenging – especially if you refrain from using body English – and the “1.5” rep technique means more work for the scapular retractors. Try pulling lower into your body (just to the side of your belly button) to help reinforce the idea of keeping the shoulders down and back.
If you’re strict and don’t allow your torso to rotate, it’s also a great core exercise.
5. Seated Barbell Band Rows
I actually came across this one almost by accident. One of my online personal training clients was looking for an exercise to mimic seated cable rows, but he didn’t have a cable machine or a specialized rowing handle in his home gym. With that in mind, I thought about it and went to the gym to mess around a little bit and try to figure something out, and this is what I came up with: seated barbell band rows.
I’m glad that happened because I really like this exercise, and even though I have a cable station, I’ve been doing them this way.
I like them for a couple of reasons:
- The bands offer accommodating resistance, so it’s harder at the point of contraction. While this doesn’t mimic the strength curve very well, it makes for one heck of a contraction and really forces you to accelerate through the row.
- Using a barbell forces you to keep your lats contracted throughout the set to keep the bar from tipping. You’ll have to try it to see what I mean, but the bar wants to wiggle around on you, so to keep that from happening, you have to brace your lats and core. It’s hard to describe, but the feeling is very different from using a specialized rowing handle.
- With a regular seated cable row, your feet are usually placed in front of you. This isn’t a problem necessarily, but it often leads to rounding at the lumbar spine on the eccentric phase if you aren’t careful or don’t have good hamstring flexibility. With this version, it’s much easier to keep a neutral spine.
- Because the barbell is heavier than a normal seated row handle, it works the shoulders quite a bit too. Think of doing an isometric front raise while you row.
- When you use a traditional close-grip “V” handle like most people when doing cable rows, it usually leads to internal rotation of the shoulder as you row into your stomach. With a wider grip, you can keep that from happening as much.
As far as the form goes, it’s almost identical to a regular seated cable row. I like to hold the barbell using a thumbless “false” grip because that helps me engage my back more and reinforces pulling through my elbows by literally making the hands function merely as hooks, but that’s just personal preference.
I realize this looks like a pretty wussy exercise, but I urge you to try it before rushing to judgment. It’s actually much tougher than you might think. To progress it, you can use a thicker band and/or move farther away from the anchor point. You can also add small weights to the end of the barbell, but don’t crazy as it’s not meant to be a shoulder exercise.
Pulling It All Together
Certainly, don’t abandon your basic heavy rows – and if you’re not doing them already, please start – but try adding some of these exercises into the mix to balance things out.
You could do them at the end of your workouts after your heavier upper body work to pull everything together (pun totally intended) or on separate days when you’re looking to build additional volume to correct imbalances you’ve already developed without stressing your body too much.
How you choose to implement them is up to you and will depend on the type of program you’re following, but just make sure you do some of this stuff to give you the optimal blend of upper back size and shoulder health to ensure you keep crushing it for the long haul.
Several years back, T Nation contributor Chad Waterbury wrote a cool article about what he believed to be the best exercises for each major muscle group. I really liked the idea because I’m always interested in how different coaches think, so I thought I’d take a stab at it myself.
However, a small catch – I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ubiquitous “best” exercise, so instead I’ll simply share my favorites for each group.
Narrowing it down to one exercise though is like trying to pick the hottest girl out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are just so many good choices. In the end it boils down to basically my opinion, but I’ll also share the why behind my choices to give you a look into my rationale.
I’ve also shared a couple runner-ups in case you can’t do one due to injury, equipment limitations, etc.
When it comes to back development, I could’ve picked any heavy deadlift variation and felt good about my choice – but since I had to narrow it down to one, I chose the snatch grip rack pull from mid-shin height.
The wider grip puts significantly more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts, while pulling from the pins with the bar elevated a few inches off the floor allows for heavier loading.
I’m generally a huge proponent of full range of motion lifting and usually advocate increasing the range of motion before increasing the load; however, I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons:
To that end, a snatch grip deadlift from the floor is really more like a conventional deadlift from a deficit, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, most people just don’t have the requisite hip mobility to do it safely without rounding their lower back something awful.
If you can, more power to you, but if I’m making a general recommendation for the majority, then elevating the bar a couple inches is a much better and safer option.
Deadlift variations aside, my runner-ups for back are chin-ups and inverted rows.
The overwhelming majority of my chest work comes from heavy pressing and push-ups, but if I had to single out the best exercise for chest development, it’d be ring flyes.
I thought long and hard about a good rationale. Sure, I could talk about how the scapulae is free to move, compared to where it’s pinned down during bench press variations, or the fact that it doubles as a hell of a core exercise, but we’re talking more about chest development here.
To that, I’d just ask that you try them for yourself – because I think after just one shot you’ll realize exactly where I’m coming from. These will fry your pecs like no other.
It’s a very advanced exercise though, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation or you’ll end up hurting and/or embarrassing yourself. Before you even attempt ring flyes, you should be able to do at least 25 ring push-ups first.
From there, begin with bent-arm flyes with your arms bent to approximately 90 degrees. That may seem easy, but it’s actually a big jump, so you may want to start on your knees. Don’t laugh; I’m dead serious.
Once you can manage those, progress to full flyes, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect the shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
The video below shows all three variations in reverse order: full flyes, bent-arm flyes, and push-ups. Each of these exercises is great in its own right, so take your time and don’t rush the progression. Once you can knock out full flyes though, this makes for one hell of a mechanical drop-set.
If you don’t have access to rings, you can do something similar using Valslides or furniture sliders. These may be even harder due to the increased friction.
My runner-ups for chest are low incline dumbbell presses (both single and double arm) and weighted push-ups.
Let me preface this one by saying that I don’t do a whole lot of curls, and I have the results – or lack thereof – to show for it. Let’s just say that if I started selling tickets to the gun show, my water pistols would draw a smaller crowd than a WNBA game.
It’s not that I’m anti-curls by any means, it’s just that I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with chin-ups and find that when I try to add curls into the mix on top of all the chin-ups I do, my elbows quickly start to hate me.
That brings up an interesting point, though. Many people will tout chin-ups as the best biceps exercise going and tell you curls are a waste of time. To that I’d respectfully disagree. About two and a half years ago I ditched curls altogether and went on a steady diet consisting of approximately a shitload of chin-ups each week.
My lats grew a ton, as did my forearms, but my biceps stayed about the same size.
I’d even argue that if you’re feeling chin-ups a ton in your biceps, you probably aren’t doing them right. My goal is to feel them almost entirely in my upper back and lats – of course the biceps will be working, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a superior biceps exercise when done correctly.
Moral of the story: if you want big biceps, do curls. The majority of your workout should obviously be based around heavy compound movements (such as chin-ups, for example), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tacking on a few sets of curls afterwards.
What type of curls you choose is up to you. In my mind, they’re all basically the same. I like barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, and hammer curls.
As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of doing tons of direct arm work. It’s not that I’m opposed to it or think it’s detrimental by any means, I just don’t enjoy doing it very much so I look for any excuse I can to skip it. Just being honest.
With that in mind, I generally let all the heavy pressing I’m doing for chest and shoulders take care of the triceps as well, but if I’m looking to really smoke the triceps, my number one go-to exercise is bodyweight triceps extensions using suspension straps.
I like this exercise because it also serves as a great anti-extension core exercise, and since I’m also not a big fan of doing tons of core work either, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If you don’t have suspension straps, it’s not the end of the world and you can get a similar training effect using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine. However, the straps add a nice dimension to the exercise if you’ve got them.
When using a bar, the range of motion is limited because you’re forced to bring your forehead to the bar, much like traditional skullcrushers. With the straps though, you can extend your arms out further away from your body, which increases the demand on the core while also enhancing the stretch on the long head of the triceps and taking stress off the elbows.
It also allows you to rotate your hands as you move through the rep, which I find feels better on the elbows and increases the contraction in the triceps.
Be sure to keep your body straight and avoid piking at the hips. While this is ostensibly a triceps exercise, from a core standpoint, it should feel similar to an ab wheel rollout.
This one also lends itself very well to burnout sets at the end of the workout. Start with the straps adjusted lower and step forward as you start to fatigue. You’ll probably be cursing my name after that.
My runner-ups for triceps are close-grip bench presses and chain bench presses.
I love the overhead press and think it’s the best exercise going for building big shoulders, but it can be tricky for folks with shoulder and/or lower back issues.
If the overhead press doesn’t bother you, definitely do that.
If it does, the staggered stance landmine press can be a great joint-friendly alternative since it allows you to press on an angle and use a neutral grip.
I also really like this band pullapart variation that I picked up from Joe Defranco. It’s much harder than it looks, so don’t knock it until you try it.
This one was a toss-up between Bulgarian split squats and front squats, but in the end, Bulgarian split squats get the nod.
I know this won’t sit well with some of you – and I myself would’ve considered it blasphemy a few years ago before I really tried them – but the more I do them and use them with my athletes, the more I’m convinced that it’s a better way to load the legs for most people.
We’re consistently seeing athletes do Bulgarian split squats with 70-90% of the loads they can front squat, and sometimes more. Here’s a video of a college hockey player doing Bulgarian split squats with 235 pounds for 5 reps like it’s an empty bar.
As a point of reference, he back squats 300 for 5. I think it’s clear the legs are getting more loading in the Bulgarian split squat.
Furthermore, with the front squat, the limiting factor is usually the upper back, whereas with Bulgarian split squats you’re able to hone in more directly on the legs. What’s more, since you aren’t loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, meaning you can do them more frequently, which could potentially lead to greater gains.
The big caveat is that you have to take the time up front to get good at Bulgarian split squats before they’re a viable size and strength builder, but that’s true of any exercise. Truth be told, most people get good at Bulgarian split squats much faster than they become good squatters.
If you have a good build for squatting and can squat well, it’s an absolutely phenomenal quad exercise, but if you aren’t built for it, well, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. It’s easier to target the quads in a Bulgarian split squat regardless of your anthropometry, making it a good choice when I have to choose one exercise to fit everyone.
I’m often asked if I think you could build absolutely massive quads using Bulgarian split squats; the kind of size you see from elite bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. I’m honestly not sure because I’ve never known anyone to do it, so at this point it’s mere conjecture.
My hunch though is that huge guys may not do as well with it – at least initially – because they tend to struggle more with balance and coordination, so the transition may take longer and it may not end up being the best choice. Again, I’m not sure though because I don’t know many huge guys that use them.
As for Olympic lifters, I think their massive legs are more a result of their loading parameters than their exercise selection. If they did Bulgarian split squats extremely heavy on a daily basis like they do their squats, I bet their legs would be just as big, if not bigger.
For the average-sized guy reading this article though, I think Bulgarian split squats are an awesome choice for building up the quads. Even if you think I’m completely off base, at least give them an honest try before calling for my head. I think you might be singing a different tune once you do.
My runner-ups are front squats and reverse sled drags.
While quads were my toughest choice, hamstrings may be my easiest. It’s hard to argue against RDLs.
The biggest drawback of RDLs is that they can be tough on the lower back. If that’s the case, try doing them with a trap bar, or if that’s not possible, from a dead stop in the power rack.
You can also try doing them for higher reps at the end of your workout so you don’t need as much weight, which even with lighter loads serves as one hell of a brutal finishing exercise.
I make no bones about it; glutes are my favorite body part. As such, I feel they warrant their own section.
You may feel the glutes get more than enough work from your quad and hamstring exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that if you aren’t doing specific glute exercises like bridges and hip thrusts, you’re leaving a lot on the table as far as glute development is concerned.
My personal favorite is single-leg barbell hip thrusts.
I like the single-leg version because even though the loads pale in comparison to what you can handle in the bilateral version, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them, all without feeling any stress in the lower back.
Moreover, because the loads are lighter, it’s more comfortable on the hips and you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading such a heavy bar.
The bodyweight-only version is a great exercise in its own right, so start there and add weight slowly as you improve.
My runner-up is the single-leg shoulder and foot elevated hip lift. It can be tricky to add weight to these, so if you’re looking for a way to make them tougher, try using “1.5” reps, like this:
If these two exercises don’t have your booty begging for mercy, I don’t know what to tell you.
I’ve never been able to crack the code to get my calves to grow much. I’ve tried a slew of different exercises and techniques, but to no avail.
I think the next thing I’ll try is getting some new parents.
(Don’t worry mom, I’m totally kidding.)
Seriously though, don’t go to a guy with puny calves for advice on how to get huge calves.
That rules me out.
And I’m Done
These are some of my favorites. Give some of them a try if you aren’t already and see how you like them.
I believe in rotating exercises from time to time though, so I’m always on the market for new choices to keep in the ol’ toolbox. So I now turn it over to you. What are some of your favorites?
As much as a beastly set of quads can really set you apart from the chest and arms crowd, training the quads hard and heavy can be problematic. Many of the best quad exercises put a lot of stress on the knees, hence their “knee dominant” classification.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’ve got healthy knees, but if you don’t, well, your quest to build tree trunks for quads will be an uphill battle.
You essentially have three choices:
Option 1: Ignore your knee pain and train through it. Better yet, just get some knee wraps and wrap em’ up as tight as possible. Buy your ibuprofen in bulk from Costco. You won’t feel a thing. Woot!
I’m kidding. Having gone this route many times before, I can tell you it’s a losing proposition. Never train through pain. It may seem cool at the time, and some of your lifting buddies might say you’re “hardcore,” but when you’re hobbling around and struggling to go up and down stairs, it’s not so cool.
Option 2: Stop training your quads altogether and resign yourself to a lifetime of sweatpants and chicken legs. I mean, let’s be honest, by the time someone of the opposite sex sees your quads, you should have already sealed the deal.
Again, I’m kidding.
Option 3: Get creative and find ways to blast your quads without hurting your knees.
That sounds best to me, so let’s roll with that. Here are some exercises to help.
1. Landmine Reverse Lunges
Landmine reverse lunges are a great knee-friendly alternative to regular lunges, or even regular reverse lunges.
Start by putting one end of a barbell in the landmine unit and holding the other end in your left hand, 1-2 inches in front of your thigh. Keeping your chest up, take a big step back with your left leg while simultaneously reaching your left arm slightly forward.
In the bottom position, your left hand should be approximately in line with your right shin. From there, push through the heel of the right foot and return to the start position.
Repeat with your other leg.
It should look like this:
The barbell functions as a counterbalance, allowing you to take a much bigger step back than what would normally be possible with traditional loading methods, thereby encouraging you to maintain a completely vertical tibia, which in turn helps take stress off the knee joint.
If you try keeping a vertical shin in a standard lunge or reverse lunge using standard loading methods, it’s extremely difficult to execute. Using the landmine, it’s no problem at all.
Moreover, this variation provides offset contralateral loading, which increases glute recruitment and helps to build hip, core, and pelvic stability while also developing grip strength (since you’re forced to hold the thick part of the barbell).
I don’t recommend loading the bar up with too much weight because it can be tricky to handle heavy loads so far out in front of your body, and you don’t want to risk a lower back injury. This is a tough exercise to begin with so you probably won’t need a lot of external resistance anyway, but if you do, try adding a weighted vest.
2. Valslide Landmine Reverse Lunges
To make landmine reverse lunges even more knee-friendly, try adding in Valslides or a slideboard for the reverse lunges.
Do the reps in a slow and controlled fashion and focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the working leg as you slide back as far as you can go, all without losing your balance or having your chest collapse forward.
When you reach the bottom position, think about pulling through the glute of the front leg rather than pushing with the quad. Don’t worry, your quads will still get plenty of work.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
If you watch the video, you’ll notice that the shin of the front leg hardly moves at all during the set and the tibia stays completely vertical throughout. Being that our goal is to deload the knee, that’s a good thing.
If you continue watching, you’ll also notice that I’m able to slide way back; much farther back than you can step in a regular reverse lunge and even a little farther back than you can go in a landmine reverse lunge without the slide pad.
Along with making for one hell of a hip flexor stretch, this encourages a posterior weight shift to take pressure off the knee of the front working leg. Better still, it also limits knee flexion in the rear leg, which again is great for folks suffering from knee pain – sometimes the rear leg experiences pain during lunges when forced to bend excessively and absorb the impact of stepping backwards.
3. Rear Foot (Slightly) Elevated Split Squats
Rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS), a.k.a. Bulgarian split squats, are one of my absolute favorite exercises for building the quads. That said, they aren’t always tolerated well by those suffering from knee pain.
Sometimes the pain is in the front leg, which can usually be cleared up by taking a longer stride and focusing on keeping as much of a vertical tibia as possible.
Interestingly enough, most complaints of knee pain during this exercise are usually related to pain in the rear leg. If that’s the case, the issue can often be ameliorated simply by not elevating the rear leg quite so high.
Most of the time you’ll see RFESS done using a standard weight bench, which depending on the manufacturer is typically somewhere between 17-19 inches. While that height is fine for most people, those experiencing knee pain in the rear leg should try using a 9-12 inch box instead and see if that helps.
Make sure to plantarflex the rear ankle and set up “laces down” on the box to avoid pushing through your toes. Do the reps in a slow and controlled fashion and focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the front foot, like so:
With the shorter box you can clearly see that knee flexion of the rear leg is dramatically reduced as compared to doing them on a full-sized bench. In that regard, it’s very similar to doing a regular split squat with the back leg on the floor.
I like split squats too as a teaching tool, but I don’t like loading them heavy because there’s a strong tendency to cheat and use the back leg too much as the weights get heavier.
I’d much prefer to progress to a RFESS with laces down and just limit the height of the box if need be, focusing on keeping the majority of the weight on the front leg.
Make sure you’re stretching and foam rolling your quads and hip flexors too, as that should also help a lot. In time you should be able to go back to using a full size bench, but until you can do so completely pain-free, don’t push it.
4. Eccentric One-Leg Squats
I’d always thought of eccentric single-leg squats as an effective learning progression to work towards full single-leg squats (which it is), but I learned from Mike Boyle that it can also be a fantastic alternative exercise for individuals dealing with knee pain. After trying it out extensively, I think it works well in both scenarios.
To do them, simply lower down to a parallel box on one leg and come back up on two legs:
The key here is to control the eccentric portion of the rep and not just free-fall down to the box. If you’re unable to control it, raise the height of the box until you can and then slowly increase the depth over time.
If you’re new to single-leg squats and just can’t seem to get the hang of them, try doing these to a standard bench using 5-pound dumbbells in your hands to serve as a counterbalance.
[Insert Pic Ben Single Leg]
Once you can do five reps with 4-5 second eccentrics, you should be all set to do full single-leg squats.
If you’re more advanced and can already do single-leg squats but find they irritate your knees, the eccentric-only version may allow you to do them pain-free. Using a box allows you to sit back farther and keep a more vertical tibia than doing them without the box.
I’m using a front squat grip in the video above because I’ve done these for a long time and have progressed quite a bit in weight, but I recommend starting by holding 5-10 pound dumbbells in your hands and raising them straight-out to shoulder level as you descend. Having your arms out in front helps tremendously with balance so do it that way first until you’re completely comfortable and need to add more load.
You know those people that say a deadlift is just a squat with the weight in your hands and cue you to get your butt way down low before you pull? As someone who loves to deadlift – and deadlift heavy – that advice always used to annoy me because it’s clearly not the best way to pull heavy weights.
I also think it can be dangerous to pull in this manner because almost every time I see someone set up for a near-maximal deadlift with their hips too low, they almost invariably shoot up before the bar breaks the floor and the person ends up rounding his lower back something awful.
So if your goal is to move as much weight as possible, a low hip position isn’t the best way to go.
But this article isn’t about the best way to deadlift as much weight as possible. We’re talking about working the quads here, and if that’s the goal, a lower hip position deadlift where you try to visualize squatting the weight up can be a pretty damn good exercise that’s much more knee-friendly than squatting.
Start by getting your butt down and your chest up with your weight on your heels. As you break the bar off the floor, it’s imperative that the hips and shoulders stay in sync in order to protect your back and keep the stress on your legs.
You’re going to have to drop the weights significantly to do this correctly. I’d even start with 30-40% of what you think you can deadlift normally as you adjust to the new technique. It’s important to be strict with these, both for the health of your back, and to make sure the stress stays on the quads.
I know that seems extremely light, but if you’re doing it right, your quads will feel it. You don’t have to stay super light forever and your numbers should climb quickly, but don’t add weight at the expense of form. The devil is in the details with these.
From time to time I also like to do them from a slight deficit to increase the range of motion. If doing so causes you knee pain, or you don’t have the requisite mobility to get that low with a flat back, avoid pulling from a deficit and just pull from the floor.
My favorite stance is what I’d call “semi-sumo” with my feet slightly wider than shoulder width. If you remove the bar from the equation and just look at the movement, this really looks more like a parallel squat.
You can also pull conventional, but I think the low hip conventional deadlift can be a bit riskier on the lower back, and I don’t feel it quite as much in my quads. Interestingly, I actually pull weight more conventional style than I do sumo, but sumo just feels better. If you choose to pull conventional, be extra careful not to let the hips shoot up as you initiate the pull.
If you’re lucky enough to have a trap bar at your gym, that’s another option too. I like the trap bar a lot, but I find that when my knees are bothering me it can be problematic, so keep that in mind.
Experiment with all the different variations and find what you like best.
6. Reverse Sled Drags
Reverse sled drags have been my biggest staple quad exercise for the past eight months and I’ve managed to add some muscle to my legs, despite not doing a ton of other heavy “quad” work. I’m certainly not advocating ditching all heavy lifting in favor of sled drags, but I do think it’s a great way to finish your lower body workouts, or even as a standalone on days when your knees just aren’t up for the task.
I’m not talking about taking a leisurely stroll at the end of the workout, though. In order for the sled drags to be a viable way to build muscle, you’ve got to push them (or pull them, rather) hard, just like you would any strength exercise. If you aren’t hating life while you’re pulling, you ain’t doing it right.
I’m hesitant to give specific recommendations on how to implement sled work because so much of it depends on the surface you’re pulling on and the space you have available.
As a point of reference, I’ve pulled up to 1,100 pounds on one indoor turf surface I use. On another outdoor turf surface, I top out around 650 pounds, and when I pull on rubber I struggle with 300 pounds. Don’t worry about the amount of weight you use – just worry about increasing that number over time.
Distance will vary depending on your space limitations. If possible, start with heavy drags of about 25-30 yards each. Start with four trips and gradually work up to 6-8 trips.
If that’s not specific enough for you, here’s a good general rule: go as heavy as you think you can go – plus a little bit – for as far as you think you can go (plus a little bit).
I’m not saying to get reckless, and you obviously need to exercise a certain degree of caution, but too many people wuss out at the slightest sign of a quad burn. Sorry, there’s no way to get around that – but the cool thing about sleds is that while they burn like hell while you’re doing them, they won’t leave you too sore the next day, so remind yourself of that while you’re pulling.
You need to push past your comfort zone to get results, but that goes for just about anything worth doing in life.
If knee pain has kept you from training your quads like you know you should, or the current exercises you’re doing are making your knees bark at the moon, give some of this stuff a shot and see how it goes.
And it should go without saying, but if any exercise hurts, stop doing it. Don’t try to be a hero.
Lastly, these exercises aren’t just for those of us with bad knees, nor do you have to wait until you have bad knees to start doing knee-friendly training. Even if your knees are feeling good at the moment, it might still be wise to sprinkle some of these exercises into your program to give your knees a little break so they stay healthy for the long haul.
It may require a little bit of imagination to find exercises that don’t hurt, but one way or another, almost anyone can build a set of wheels they can be proud of if you’re willing to put in the work.
Remember, friends don’t let friends skip leg day.