| October 6, 2021
By Trevor Mah
Read time: 5 min.
An interesting part about training is that it is just that, “training”. We take the time out of our days to continuously improve in the weight room and learn more about how our bodies respond. But sometimes we forget certain cues, overthink ideas, or simply just wing it at times.
Training advice is abundant and easy to find, but some of course, are not always applicable. Trial and error is usually how people learn (and often times, the hard way), but there are many useful tips to improve and refine your training. Whether you are just starting off or experienced, here are some ways to fine tune your workouts that can really make a difference. While I would say this is applicable most of the time, I will note some exceptions. I do believe that these tips for a better workout, when engrained in each workout, can make these workouts feel better.
As the old saying goes, “you are as strong as your weakest link”. For pulling exercises like rows and pull-downs, this is obvious as your hand slipping out will result in a failed lift. Applying a very tight grip on the bar (or handle) will engage your muscles in your forearms and synergistically allow you to apply greater force with your primary muscles. This means getting your full palm, all fingers, and your thumb involved as much as possible and “squeeze” for dear life. This even applies to pushing exercises such as bench pressing and overhead movements. Even for exercises where you are holding weights (i.e. dumbbell lunges), you will notice that engaging more musculature allows you to perform better. A suboptimal grip sets a poor precedent for the following lift. For many people, this has also helped lifters dial in and focus better before and during their lift. Straps, chalk, and other lifting accessories can help and they certainly do have their place, but even when used you should always apply a strong grip.
Exceptions: Any lift that requires a hook or false grip such as Olympic weightlifting and gymnastic movements. Specialized grips are required to perform their respective movements. Basically, these exceptions come down to intentionally using different grips.
Look with your eyes, not your head. The neck and cervical muscles can be overlooked when it comes to “proper” form. While you may be familiar with keeping a flat back for most exercises, this should also include your neck. Rather than following the idea of “keeping your back flat”, aim to “keep your spine straight” as this would cover your cervical section too. As PT Dr. Kelly Starrett states, your body is one joint, and any deficiency along the way will bleed tension. Sure, your neck probably won’t make or break some of your lifts, but if you want to get the most out of your lifting put some focus on keeping your neck in proper alignment.
Unfortunately, this is quite common and even popular media (and social media) have fitness models with their necks in less than ideal positions just for a good shot. While I have noticed this is getting better with the prevalence of therapist related content, be mindful of glamorous photos versus proper depictions of exercise.
Hamstrings are a crucial part of your posterior chain and your lower body in general for all related lifts. If you are planning to do some serious deadlifts, squats, or lunges, activating your hamstrings as part of your warmup can really help your lifts. Many knee issues can be attributed to lack of hamstring development and use, so a couple light sets of isolated hamstring curls can go a long way. Many lifters notice a difference in their lower body lifts when the hamstrings have a little more blood flow allowing for better control. Hamstrings tend to take a lot of eccentric load (lowering of weights) for squats, lunges, and even leg presses, so they perform their function better and free the joints from taking unnecessary additional pressure. It doesn’t take much to get your hamstrings pumped with blood. Whether you use a machine, Swiss ball, TRX, etc. all you likely need is 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
This is one that will take some time getting used to doing, especially if you actually work hard enough to require heavy breathing (because you do, right?). If you recall from elementary school science class, breathing through your nose naturally filters air going into your lungs through the nasal passages. Who knew that what we learned as kids could apply to us as adults?
Essentially, nasal breathing produces nitric oxide, which improves your lung’s ability to absorb oxygen and is used in many biological processes. While these benefits extend beyond the weight room, this point also shows the disadvantages of mouth breathing including dehydrating oral tissues and increased stress. If you have ever taken yoga, you will notice the importance of breath work in order to control your mind and body.
Furthermore, the benefits from this have been explored thoroughly in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown, and many other publications. These include rhythmic breathing and many other methods to improve your relationships between inhalation and exhalation.
Want to make your circuit workout more difficult? Does your CrossFit WOD not feel challenging enough? Then try only breathing through your nose and what a difference it will make! Conditioning yourself to become more of a nose breather certainly has its benefits, but ultimately do whatever feels best to you during your workout, as that will likely be a mix of nose and mouth breathing.
Exceptions: When performing near maximal lifts where you need to take a large breath for creating intra-abdominal pressure, it’s going to be tricky sucking in that much air in one shot through your nose. While you technically can, it probably won’t feel quite right if you tend to lift very heavy, often.
If your training has gone stagnant, or if you feel like you can improve in some way, try these out. It will take some time to get used to them if you haven’t been doing so already, but once you do it will become a staple of your training approach.
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