In weightlifting, there are hundreds of different ways to workout. There are countless exercises that can provide similar benefits to each other. Why are you dealing with something that’s uncomfortable when there is another way?
Almost every workout program you see on the internet emphasizes the “Big-4” exercises.
- Bench Press
- Military press
These are also a few of the most complex exercises to nail perfect form. If done incorrectly, they can lead to muscle imbalances and injuries. For both beginner and “advanced” lifters, if you are not mindful of your body, it might be hard to catch the minor imperfections that are causing pain in your body.
In this article, I would like to discuss the big four lifts and give a new perspective for how to nail the same muscle groups. If you sense a problem, either fix it with another knowledgeable opinion or learn how to adjust to your own body type.
While these compound exercises should be the foundation of most workouts, time and time again people screw them up. Our egos make us chase that PR by adding more and more weight without ever stopping to understand whether we have done it correctly.
As lifters and athletes, getting sore is something we’ve learned to love because we associate soreness with a productive workout. But it’s also something we hate because soreness can hinder our training. If we are continually sore going into workouts, our gains will suffer. Recovery is where muscle growth happens, not the act of lifting weights.
Advanced or novice, the proper form is too important to not periodically reevaluate. Don’t be like me. I dealt with pain for way too long.
The beautiful thing is that you have options. There are other variations of these exercises that provide similar benefits that may work better for you. A pain-free version perhaps?
If you are like me, the flat bench press bothers your shoulder. Every time you go to do a set, you feel off. Like your left arm is pushing harder than your right or one of your shoulders feel out of place. For me, every time I do the flat bench I notice an annoyance in my shoulder.
Although I am getting decent chest simulation, I believe that my shoulders are sorer than my pecs a day later. The realization that I am not getting the proper chest stimulation which reduces some of the benefits to performing the exercise.
For the longest time, I accepted this fact. I thought it was normal to have a slight annoyance. No pain no gain, right brah? Wrong! One of the best things you can do is understand the difference between pain and muscle exertion from the exercise.
While the flat bench press might be a staple in almost every workout, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you. There is no sense in forcing it and beating yourself up to get the proper form. You might not have that time and you want to make every minute in the weight room count.
First, find out if you are doing it correctly by asking someone who knows what they are doing to evaluate your form. Trust but verify on your own through instructional guideline.
If you don’t have luck on the flat bench and you still want to use the barbell, try benching with a slight incline or decline. This can greatly reduce the stress on your elbows and shoulders. Additionally, playing around with your grip may contribute to a better lift as well. And did I mention the incline barbell press is a major shoulder workout too?
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If you can’t get it right, stop forcing it. If time and time again you go into the bench press and something feels off, it’s time to check your ego at the door and realize that until you fix the root of the problem (which can be a number of different things) the barbell bench press might not be right for you.
Even when you “fix” it is still might give you trouble. If you are pain-free, are you getting the proper muscle stimulation? Without it, it may not be providing as much value as you think.
Try finding other exercises to replace the nasty bench press. Like dumbbells. Try these great dumbbell pressing variations that help to stimulate muscle growth without adding more weight.
The squat is one of the most basic movements the human body can perform. It provides incredible benefits if done properly and everyone can benefit from doing it. However, it is not as simple as adding some weight, getting under the bar, and banging some reps out. As the form nazi, I’m here to bang on your door and tell you to check your form first.
Like the bench press, if your form is not spot on you are going to be more prone to injuries. The complexity of the back squat is one that many take for granted without questioning whether or not they are even doing it right.
Instead of thinking about barbell squats first, nail the proper form before you even step up to the plates. Evaluate your squat and learn the proper mechanics without weight. Are you doing it correctly? Are you completely pain-free? Sure you are.
First, try squatting down without any weight or barbell at all. What does this look like? If you are not able to maintain a tight position as you go down and stimulate your legs, a weighted barbell squat will only cause pain. Do you feel stimulation in your quads and hamstrings or is all of the pressure on your knees?
The fact is, most people in the weight room have no idea how to properly squat. Don’t be like old Kyle. Do your homework and figure out what the hell you are doing before you hurt yourself.
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For me, the standard back squat is not something I enjoy doing. While it can be one of the only exercises you need, there are other variations of the squat that provide incredible benefits such as the goblet squat or front squat. Especially if you are looking solid gains with mobility/flexibility along with it.
Ask any expert and they will tell you that the barbell deadlift one of the best exercises around. Whether you want to build muscle, burn fat, increase athleticism, or strength gains, it is the one staple exercise in every pull workout routine. Due to the recruitment of a large number of muscles, it has the ability to improve posture and lead to strength gains in other lifts.
But you guessed it. Like many others this major lift is another so many get wrong.
There are 3 things to keep in mind that should be considered and be person specific. These are:
- Foot and hand positions
- Optimal height to pull from
- Proper hip hinge
In a nutshell, this picture provides you with damn near everything you need to know about the proper mechanics. Remember, it’s all in the hips. Ease the tension, baby! (RIP Chubs)
Source: Aasgaard company
To get this one right, take a look at one of the simplest guides you will ever find to nailing the proper mechanics.
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Again, I’ll be that cliché guy in movies with a pair of glasses telling you, “Well, technically, you’re doing it wrong.” While there are many different variations to do, one of my favorites is to change the bar itself. Deadlifting with a trap bar or hexagonal bar is a great way to reduce tension on your spine since you step within it rather than behind it.
Studies show that similar levels of peak force, velocity, and power were produced with the trap bar compared to the straight bar across a range of submaximal loads.
Whether you’re a beginner, advanced, or just someone trying to train around an injury, the trap bar deadlift can be a great substitute.
Some other great ones would be:
- Kettlebell swings (find more of these incredible workouts)
- Landmine deadlift
- Dumbbell deadlift
- Partial/top half deadlift
- Romanian deadlift (great for hamstrings)
If you ever feel pain or that the deadlift isn’t quite right, try to nail the perfect form with a less complicated exercise before you move onto to something more complex such as the deadlift.
Another exercise that provides incredible benefits for overall muscle development. Chalk this one up as another one that gets butchered time and time again. What makes awesome and bad at the same time is that so many muscles are activating in this exercise. But if your form is wrong, then GTFO.
Core strength is of paramount importance if you want to press big. Since the lift is performed standing, you need to actively control your legs and your spine. People with weak core strength will try to turn the press into a standing incline press by hyper-extending their low back.
The right form as outlined by expert coach Paul Carter is:
- Using a thumb less grip (thumb not wrapped around) on overhead to reduce tension on the shoulders and wrists.
- Start with a shoulder-width grip. When setting up just below chin level, rotate your hands back towards your delts. If your thumb grazes the outside of them, you’ve got it right.
- Contract your glutes, abs, and quads when you press. The more tension you have throughout the body, the stronger you’ll be.
- Activate the biceps on the eccentric portion of the press. When you lower the bar, think about doing a sort of hammer curl towards your face/ears.
Keeping your shoulders down and back will improve your stability in all pressing patterns as scapula position is key in upper body training. You never want to shrug up or let the shoulders come forward when pressing.
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The standing military press is a great muscle builder but a lot of people can’t do it without pain in the shoulders or elbows. There is a better alternative helps with the proper form and that can build equal muscle mass.
It’s called the “scrape the rack” technique. This variation allows you to provide more stability to your shoulder joint which helps activate more of your muscles in your upper body muscles.
By forcing the barbell up against the side of the rack as you press overhead, the friction that is generated between the bar and the rack increases dynamic stability of the shoulder joints.
The key is to accelerate the bar up the rack and drive it not only directly up, but into the rack as hard as you can to increase the frictional force. The more friction you can generate, the more stable your shoulders will be.
Check out this video for a demonstration.
Better yet, if you are dealing with any shoulder pain whatsoever, this shoulder exercise guide will be the only thing you will ever need for the rest of your life to train around it.
- Know your body – If you are feeling any annoyance in pain, get it checked out immediately. You do not want to get down the weightlifting road and realize that this entire time you have developed a muscle imbalance that will take a long time to fix.
- Get a second opinion – Even if you have been lifting for a while, it’s important to have someone knowledgeable to check your form to ensure you performing these complex lifts correctly.
- Muscle stimulation – If you can’t get the muscle activation from some of the major lifts (or have pain), it is a sign that you have bodily imbalances. Find out what these are and fix them ASAP.
- Try different variations – The “big-4” take a toll on the body. If you are not careful, you are going to be sore a shit and might wind up with nagging injuries. Find other lifts to serve in place or serve as a change of pace.
Never quit and always adapt. We all hate running. Lift properly instead.
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