Tag Archives: Bodypart

Best Chest Routine for Beginning Bodybuilders

7207-train6Q: I’m 17 years old and a bodybuilding beginner. How do I build a really big chest?

A: Use training methods appropriate for you, recuperate properly, be highly dedicated, work on building a big physique overall, and your chest should develop in line with your overall physique.

As you’re young, I also recommend that you add the breathing pullover to your workouts. You don‘t have anything to lose, but you may benefit greatly. It isn’t systemically demanding, so it won’t mar your recovery ability.

Some bodybuilders are opposed to the possibility of increasing chest size through rib cage enlargement and claim that chest girth can be increased only by muscle growth. Still, many people appear to have increased their rib cage size. I’m one of them. I faithfully used the breathing pullover twice weekly for a couple of years when I was a teenager.

Although some middle-aged bodybuilders claim to have modestly increased the size of their rib cages by doing breathing pullovers, the possibility of rib cage enlargement is much greater with youngsters.

The breathing pullover is usually performed immediately after an exercise that gets you heavily winded—like high-rep squats or deadlifts—but you can do the rib cage work whenever you want to and without having done any exercise before it. You may even find that you can’t do the pullover properly if you’re heavily winded. If you want to specialize on enlarging your rib cage, you may want to do a set or two of rib cage work every day for a few months.

Go easy at the beginning, especially if you’re not performing the breathing pullover when winded from a very demanding exercise. The exaggerated breathing may make you feel dizzy unless you work into it over a few weeks. Your chest may get very sore, too, if you don’t work into the rib cage stretching gradually.

Here’s how to do breathing pullovers: Use no more than 10 pounds to begin with—a short and unloaded bar, a pair of small dumbbells, a single dumbbell or a barbell plate. (Note: Do not use a pullover machine.) After a few months you may increase to 15 pounds and later on to 20 pounds if you’re a large man, but no more. Don’t use progressive resistance. Using heavy weights will defeat the pullover’s purpose and risk harm to your shoulders.

Hold the resistance and lie lengthwise on a bench. You may want to eep your feet on the bench to prevent excessive back arching and stretching of your abdominal wall. Hold the resistance above your upper chest, with straight elbows. Take a shoulder-width grip or closer if you’re using a single dumbbell or a weight plate. Keep your elbows locked throughout, slowly lower the resistance, and inhale deeply.

Don’t inhale in one gulp but in a steady stream. Spread your ribs as much as possible. Lower your arms until they are parallel or only slightly below parallel to the floor, no farther. At the bottom position take an extra gulp of air. Pause for a second, and then return to the starting position as you exhale. Repeat for at least 15 slow reps. Focus on stretching your rib cage.

Try doing the pullovers with your head just off the end of the bench. That may produce a better effect on your rib cage.

If keeping your elbows completely straight irritates them, maintain a slight bend. Keep it to a minimum, however, or you’ll reduce the potential expansion of your rib cage.

Elbow irritation may come from using more weight than I have recommended or from not introducing the exercise into your program carefully enough. Elbow irritation may also come from using a straight bar, whereas a parallel grip on a weight plate or dumbbell(s) may be safe.

—Stuart McRobert


Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1: How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse (800) 447-0008 or www

Tips For Getting Awesome Abs

7207-train3Everybody wants etched abs. But to score your core takes more than a few sets of crunches at the end of your workout.

The two functions of the rectus abdominis are to curl your torso toward your pelvis and curl your hips toward your torso. That mean the bare minimum ab workout should be some type of leg raise/hip curl combo and a full-range crunch.

By full range, I mean that your lower back needs to arch. Flat-on-the-floor crunches don’t allow your rectus abdominis to prestretch, which limits the results of the exercise. You can either do crunches on a bench press bench, with your upper back hanging off the end, do crunches on the floor with a rolled towel or firm pillow under your lower back or use an Ab Bench, a machine with a rounded back pad (see page 93).

What about planks, the popular exercise that has you down in a pushup position but supporting your weight on your forearms instead of your hands? Those are great as a finisher, affecting stabilization and your transverse abdominis, the muscle that wraps your midsection, acting as a girdle. Training that muscle can help keep your waist smaller and tighter. But you need dynamic action too.

—Steve Holman


Monster Traps with Hybrid Cable-Dumbbell Shrugs

7207-train8A big, thick set of traps shows that you’re a serious trainer—even more so than big arms, which can hide under clothing. Massive traps are on display pretty much 24/7. So if normal shrugs have let you down when it comes to building traps, I’ve got an exercise for you.

This is a hybrid version of the standard dumbbell shrug—and by hybrid I mean you’ll be combining two forms of resistance into one movement to better match the strength curve and fiber alignment of the target muscle, the trapezius.

To perform this exercise, you essentially do a normal standing dumbbell shrug, which exerts tension directly against gravity, while holding dumbbells that are attached to the two low pulleys, which are exerting outward and diagonal force.

To see why this is so effective, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of the trap muscles.

The fibers of the traps run in multiple directions in a fanlike pattern. The upper traps, which are what we’re targeting with the standard shrug, run diagonally upward (though never completely vertical). When you’re doing a standard up-and-down shrug movement, you’re only involving the fibers that can elevate the scapulae—the shoulder blades—in a straight up-and-down pattern. You’re also working the levator scapula muscles, whose sole purpose is to elevate the shoulder blades.

Now, when you add the lateral-resistance component of the two low pulleys, given the more diagonal arrangement of fibers in the traps, you’ll see how that additional pull is more in line with the direction of the upper-trapezius fibers. When you combine the heavy load of the dumbbells with the lateral pull of the cables, you get massive tension on more of the “meat” of the trapezius muscles—and that means serious trapezius growth.

Here’s how to do hybrid cable-dumbbell shrugs:

First, you’ll need a way to attach the low pulley to either your arms or your dumbbells. Fortunately, that’s very easy to do. My preferred method is to use two ankle harnesses attached to the low pulleys. Keep them buckled loosely so you can slide your hands in and out easily.

If you don’t have ankle harnesses, you can also loop the cable itself around the handle and clip it back onto itself. Keep that shifted toward the back of the dumbbell. It does make it a bit awkward, which is the reason that I like the ankle harnesses. At least it’s another option.

In addition, if you don’t have low pulleys, you can do this with bands hitched out to the sides and get a similar effect.

So get your dumbbells set in the center of the pulleys. I’m using a couple of 105-pounders and 100 pounds on each of the weight stacks. (Note: When you’re using heavier dumbbells, you need to match them with heavier weight on the cables. Otherwise the downward force of the dumbbell weight will overmatch the lateral force of the cables, and you won’t get the same effect.)

Now get your hands through the harnesses. Stand in the center and grab your dumbbells, getting into position for a regular shrug.

Next, with an explosive movement, shrug your shoulders as high as you can, and hold at the top for a maximum contraction.

You will feel this up into your neck as you never have before with shrugs. The direct lateral resistance on the traps targets fibers that simply don’t get worked during regular shrugs due to the vertical line of pull.

When you add lateral resistance with the cables, you’re also going to get continuous tension on those fibers, which is a further stimulator of growth.

So you’re:


1) Hitting more fibers.

2) Working them in a lateral line of pull, which is more in line with their direction of pull.

3) Maintaining continuous tension.


This is a killer combination that will give you monster trap growth.

—Nick Nilsson


Editor’s note: To get a copy of Nick’s Muscle Explosion—28 Days to Maximum Mass, visit his Web site, www.28DayMuscleExplosion.com.


Building Strong Lumbars

7207-mind1Last month it was all about the almost-straight-legged deadlift, my all-time-favorite lumbar exercise after good mornings. I covered the reasons for including good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts in every fitness program; however, there are two more exercises for the lower back that should be a part of every program: hyperextensions and reverse hypers.

I consider them to be auxiliary movements, yet I believe that they are extremely valuable for young athletes who are striving to improve their strength so they can become more proficient in their chosen sports and also for those who want to maintain a high level of lower-back fitness, regardless of age.

One of the main reasons that I like hyperextensions and reverse hypers is that you can do them just about anywhere and they do not require any special equipment. Long before I ever saw a hyperextension bench and 50 years prior to the well-engineered reverse hyper machines, competitive weightlifters and bodybuilders were doing these exercises on a regular basis. It just took a bit of imagination.

The hypers required a partner. In just about every YMCA weight room there was a leg extension machine. If not, a massage table served the same purpose. You would lie across the leg extension machine or table, facedown, so that your upper body was extended out over the side. Then a training mate would hold tightly to your ankles while you knocked out a set of hypers.

Reverse hypers could be done solo. You’d just grip the sides of the leg extension machine or table, let your lower body hang off the end and proceed to do a set of reverse hypers, lifting your legs up and back.

With a bit of thought, anyone can figure out how to do one or the other of these exercises in a motel or at home. When I’m visiting friends, I use the kitchen counter to do reverse hypers or a narrow table that allows me to grip the sides. I place a towel on the surface.

I currently do hyperextensions in my apartment by padding a small table and hooking my h   eels under the open space under my desk. That works just as well as having a bench designed for that purpose.

Of course, having a hyperextension bench or a well-designed reverse-hyper machine is more expedient. Still, it’s good to know that you can work your lumbars rather thoroughly even when you’re on the road.

Both exercises can be done with added resistance. For hypers wrap a 10- or 25-pound plate in a towel, and hold it firmly behind your head. More advanced strength athletes can do them with an Olympic bar. That was one of the favorite exercises of the foreign athletes at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City, and I watched some handle 220 pounds for as many as 20 reps.

I recommend that you do both types of hypers with no added resistance until your form is absolutely perfect and the number of reps you perform is quite high—as in 50 plus. While they are very simple and easy to learn, there is technique involved. I’ll start with the back hypers.

You need to position your body on the padded area in such a way that you are able to do a full-range motion. By that I mean you should be able to go low enough for your head to touch the floor. Or if the bench is high, until your torso is completely vertical.

The second form point: The full-range motion must be smooth and controlled. That is the main reason I don’t want beginners to add any resistance. Whenever a weight is fixed behind the head and the reps start getting really tough, there is always a tendency to twist and turn to make those final reps. Don’t let that happen.

Twisting, even if it’s very slight, puts a great deal of stress on the lumbars, and it’s not positive stress. Keep in mind that you can sustain an injury with a light weight just as you can with a heavy poundage if your form is sloppy. So you must do each and every rep precisely.

The biggest form mistake that most people make on hypers is that they come up much too high. Women especially are flexible enough that they can arch their backs until their upper bodies are almost vertical. That is a mistake—similar to bridging on the bench press and lying back while doing overhead presses. The back is not designed to lean back, and it’s potentially harmful to the lumbars. Bring your upper body only to parallel on hyperextensions. You’ll get the same results without any risk whatsoever.

The same idea applies to reverse hypers as well. Just lift your legs until your lower body is parallel to the floor.

I encourage all of my athletes to do either of these movements prior to every workout. They fit nicely with an ab exercise to warm up the entire midsection, and the athletes begin their workouts in a higher state of preparation. I even have them do a set of hypers or reverse hypers on the day they’re scheduled to do good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Again, it helps prepare the lower back for the work ahead.

How many reps? The obvious answer is that it depends on your current strength level. I start everyone at 20 reps on both exercises; then I have them steadily increase reps. Some can add five reps a week for a couple of months, while others have to proceed more slowly. I encourage them to do the same number of reps on both exercises if possible. Keep in mind that you want the final few reps to be demanding. In order to make the lower back stronger, you must push it, not pamper it.

Where is the limit? I can’t answer that, but I can relate a story about one athlete who went to the extreme. At Johns Hopkins, John Saxe of Fair Haven, New Jersey, and I had a contest to see who could do the most hypers. John was one of my favorite athletes and was in fantastic shape. He was a three-sport athlete and an Academic All-American. He was captain of the tennis team and a defensive standout in football, and he competed in two National Collegiate Olympic Weightlifting Championships.

We kept running up the reps week after week until we got to 150. He came in for the next workout all fired up and knocked out 175. I conceded. You may be thinking, “Yeah, but he was one of those gifted athletes.” Not so. Had that been the case, he would have been competing at the D-I level and not D-III. What success he achieved in academics, strength training and sports was due to his perseverance and willingness to do the hard work. Genetics played, at best, a small role in his accomplishments.

Keeping your lower back strong is a lifelong venture. Continue to give your lumbars priority in your training, and you will be able to avoid the lower-back problems that plague about 90 percent of the adult population. A strong set of lumbars allows you to participate in a great many physical activities, which in turn lets you experience a higher quality of life.

I’ll close with a truism: No one has ever gone to the doctor to complain that his lumbars were too strong. —Bill Starr


Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www


Building Strong Lumbars

7206-mind1Last month I stated the many reasons that it’s so important for every strength athlete to have a strong set of lumbars—and then I went over various form points for good mornings. I consider them to be the very best exercise for building and maintaining the lower back. Now I want to cover the specifics of another exercise that will strengthen the lumbars—the almost-straight-legged deadlift. It’s an excellent substitute for good mornings and is perfect for those who are unable to do good mornings for whatever reason.

While conventional deadlifts do work the muscles of the lower back, the almost-straight-legged deadlift is more beneficial because it hits the lumbars more directly. The exercise is also excellent for anyone who wants to improve his or her hamstring strength. Keep in mind that any exercise that works the lumbars will also strengthen the hams. It’s a terrific two-for-one deal.

I’ve been advocating the benefits of the straight-legged deadlift—also called the stiff-legged deadlift—for many years. I have also been on a lifetime quest to alter those names. No one should be lifting a weight off of the floor with knees locked. In fact, no exercise that involves the lower back should ever be done with the knees completely locked. It’s too stressful to the hamstrings and is not at all necessary. Instead, you should bend your knees slightly and keep them that way throughout the exercise. A slight bending of the knees relieves the stress on the hamstrings yet still works the target muscles safely. Hence, the name I prefer to use is the almost-straight-legged deadlift.

Also, it is not necessary to stand on a bench or block of wood while doing this exercise. I know that many athletes do it—to get a fuller range of motion and so activate more muscle fibers—but you can accomplish that without standing on anything at all. The reason I don’t like standing on a bench, in particular, is that when you use heavy poundages, a great deal of balance is required and the movement can be risky. I have seen quite a few expensive bars damaged in that manner. Plus, having to deal with balance is much harder than doing the exercise on a solid base.

You can reach optimum results by standing on the floor or a lifting platform. Just use smaller plates. For most trainees the 25-pound plates serve the purpose, and others find that 10-pounders work even better. The smaller plates give you a full range of motion, so you focus fully on technique rather than balancing the weights.

I use the almost-straight-legged deadlifts in my athletes’ programs as a change from good mornings. I alternate the two lower-back exercises weekly. If athletes cannot do good mornings, usually due to some injury, I have them do almost straight-legged deadlifts every week.

Whenever I have them start off with 25-pound plates, they quickly inform me that they can do a lot more than that. I tell them to be patient. I want them to hone their form from the onset, and the lighter weights will enable them do that. Then I have them add two more 25s on each subsequent set: 145, 195, 245 and, finally, 295 for the fifth and final set. At that point they’re no longer complaining about the smaller plates, since those last couple of sets are very demanding.

The technique on the almost-straight-legged deadlift is easy to learn, yet it’s critical that you do each and every rep perfectly. As with any other exercise, the more precisely you do it, the greater the results. That means paying very close attention to every rep from start to finish and not just banging out the sets to get them over with.

Use straps on these. Although you will not need them for the first few sets, they will be most useful when you get to the heavier poundages. Straps will help you concentrate on the exercise itself rather than have to deal with gripping the bar firmly. By the way, a standard bar is equally as effective as an Olympic bar on this exercise.

A clean grip is best, although I have known some athletes who like a slightly wider grip. If possible, start from the finish position—standing erect with the bar tucked against your thighs. Take a shoulder-width stance with your feet planted solidly into the floor and your arms straight. Take the bar off the bottom rung of a staircase rack or a power rack at midthigh.

Now bend your knees slightly and keep that same degree of bend throughout the up-and-down movement. As the weight gets heavy, there is a tendency to increase the bend at the knees, and the movement ends up looking like a conventional deadlift. So once you set your knees, keep them in that same position for the entire set.

The bar needs to be tucked in close to your body, and it must stay that way all the way down to the floor and back to the finish. At the very bottom of the movement the bar will be touching your shins; then it will climb up directly over your knees and on up your thighs until you are erect. Some prefer not to come fully erect on any of the reps but the last one. Whichever you feel is working you more, do that method.

The position of your head is important. Some like to look down, and others like to look forward or upward. All of those are okay just so long as your head is not locked in a rigid position. The head should be allowed to float free and be relaxed. The best way to accomplish that is to look straight ahead and not lock your head in an exaggerated up or down position.

I mentioned that I have guidelines for how much should be used on the good mornings. I also have them for this lift. I recommend doing five sets of eight and the amount of weight on the final set should be 75 percent of your best squat. That means anyone who squats 405 for three or five reps needs to be using 300 for eight on the almost-straight-legged deadlift. That will keep the lumbars in proportion to hip and leg strength.

Since that is a considerable amount of weight to lift correctly, it will take some time to achieve that goal, but most trainees are able to do it in just a month or so. From then on it’s not that difficult to keep your numbers in line with the 75 percent ratio.

Here are the most important form points for the heavier sets: Do each rep deliberately and smoothly, like a piston moving up and down, and don’t lower your hips when the weights get taxing. The bend in your knees must stay the same throughout all the sets, including the heavier ones.

There is no reason to rush. Take your time and concentrate on mastering the technique as you slowly but consistently add weight. An increase of 10 pounds every two weeks—or even every month—will gradually add up.

About half of the athletes I start on almost-stiff-legged deadlifts come back to me at their next workout and tell me their hamstrings got sorer than their lumbars. That’s a good thing, as it indicates that their hamstrings were lagging behind, strengthwise. Anytime you can identify a weak area, it’s a big plus—especially when it’s clear that there is an exercise that will help make the weaker area stronger.

Again, I need to stress that combining good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts in a program will bring greater lumbar strength than a steady diet of the latter. Next time I’ll go over some other useful exercises of an auxiliary nature as well as other disciplines that will benefit your lumbars.

—Bill Starr


Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www


Uni-angular Tri-sets for Bigger Arms

7206-smart1Q: I’d like to try a training cycle to bring up my arms, which are lagging behind my other bodyparts. I’ve been training for two years. Can you give me some ideas?

A: Try a five-day cycle in which your arm workout falls on the first or second day. The program would look like this:

Day 1: arms; day 2: legs; day 3: rest; day 4: chest and back; day 5: rest

The next cycle would change to this:

Day 1: legs; day 2: arms; day 3: rest; day 4: chest and back; day 5: rest

Repeat that sequence twice (so you will have trained arms six times), and then change programs. To continue the workout for a longer period would result in a case of diminishing returns, and you’d make little or no progress.

A great training system you could start with is uni-angular tri-sets, which I learned from the late Don Ross, a bodybuilder and bodybuilding writer. Many bodybuilders who had the best arms in the 1970s, such as Ehrling Wahlgren and Larry Scott, used this method. Most of you know Larry Scott as a two-time Mr. Olympia winner. Wahlgren placed fifth in the NABBA Mr. Universe in 1971 and ’73; he had tremendous arms and was also extremely strong, having done 780 pounds in the reverse deadlift.

Tri-sets are effective because they extend the stimulus to a wider pool of motor units along with increasing the total time under tension—TUT—for the associated muscle fibers. In a tri-set you perform three different exercises performed in the same plane for the same muscle group in a superset format, with no rest between exercises. For uni-angular tri-sets you simply add a 10-second rest between exercises, which makes a world of difference in the results.

Hypertrophy depends largely on how much weight you can lift for how long—load x TUT. If you move immediately from one exercise to another, the reduced loads produce a suboptimal training effect. Adding a 10-second rest after the first and second exercises in a tri-set makes it possible to use significantly greater loads than if you took no rest, which in turn increases muscle tension. Here’s an example of a uni-angular tri-set workout for the arms:


A1) Lying dumbbell extensions, 3/0/1/0 tempo, 3 x 6-8

Rest 10 seconds

A2) Lying EZ-curl-bar extensions, 2/0/1/0 tempo, 3 x 6-8

Rest 10 seconds

A3) Lying EZ-curl-bar extensions to chin, 2/0/1/0 tempo, 3 x 12-15

Rest 120 seconds

B1) Standing, narrow-reverse-grip EZ-curl-bar curls, 3/2/1/0 tempo, 3 x 5-7

Rest 10 seconds

B2) Standing, middle-reverse-grip EZ-curl-bar curls, 3/0/2/0 tempo, 3 x 3-5,

Rest 10 seconds

B3) Midline hammer curls, 2/0/2/0 tempo, 3 x 5-7

Rest 120 seconds


Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.com.   IM


Outrigger One-Arm Bench Pushups

7206-train8Everybody loves pushups. They’re a classic upper-body exercise; however, the main drawback comes as you get stronger on them—your bodyweight will limit how much resistance you can put on your pecs (unless you have a means of adding external resistance, of course).

This pushup variation is going to fix your “limited-resistance” problem and enable you to place major tension on your pecs, using just your bodyweight, through a simple change in body position.

One of the first things often done to increase resistance on pushups is to switch to one-arm pushups. That, unfortunately, brings a new problem—in order to perform one-arm pushups, you have to set your hand under the center of your torso for balance, which turns the pushup into a triceps-focused exercise.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we’re looking for maximum chest work here. That’s where the “outrigger” position comes into play.

To do this, you’ll need a bench, a chair or even just stairs—basically anything you can set your other hand on that’s about a foot and a half off the ground. Set one hand flat on the bench, like an outrigger on a canoe, elbow slightly bent. Set your other hand on the floor a short distance from the bench in a classic-pushup arm position. Keep your body stiff and straight.

Lower yourself as you would in a regular pushup, keeping tension in the nonworking side. Because the nonworking arm acts as an outrigger, you’ll be able to keep a wider hand and arm position on the working side, which keeps the focus on the pec, right where you want it, and not on the triceps.

You will dramatically increase the tension on the working pec over what you get from a normal one-arm pushup because the majority of your bodyweight load will be on it.

And here’s the secondary benefit: the stretch. The nonworking, outrigger pec gets a powerful stretch at the bottom of every rep, stretching under isometric tension because it is stabilizing the torso.

Do as many reps as you can on one side (if you can get 20-plus reps of regular pushups, you’ll probably hit about five to eight reps of these); then switch positions and work the other side.

I recommend alternating your starting sides from set to set; e.g., start with your left arm on the first set and your right arm on the second set.

This exercise is a great way to add chest mass with bodyweight training. The ability to place more resistance on one side at a time with a pushup and not have it all go to the triceps is the key. It’s a powerful option for building mass in the gym, your home gym or even when training on the road.

—Nick Nilsson


Editor’s note: To get a copy of Nick’s Muscle Explosion—28 Days to Maximum Mass, visit his Web site, www.28DayMuscle


Building Strong Lumbars with Good Mornings

7205-mind2 The lower back is the universal joint of the power plant. If you don’t have strong lumbars, the power generated by the hips and legs cannot be transferred upward into the back and shoulder girdle. Nor can it be sent downward through the lower back. Athletes who are serious about getting stronger understand the importance of working their lumbars hard and heavy.

Strong lumbars are essential if you want to squat and pull heavy weights. Improving hip and leg strength is directly related to lumbar strength. When athletes hit a sticking point on squats, it’s often due to a relative weakness in the lower back. While their form is good and they put in the time squatting, their squat stays stagnant. That’s because their lumbars aren’t up to the task. When the lumbars aren’t strong enough, they can’t hold the proper positioning and technique suffers. Plus, they can’t generate the necessary power to grind the bar up to the finish.

The same idea holds true for heavy pulling exercises, especially explosive movements such as the snatch and clean. It is the lumbars that are primarily responsible for elevating the bar through the middle range. When it lags through the middle, there will not be a snappy finish. In addition, when the lumbars are proportionately weak, the lower back will round under heavy poundages, causing the bar to move out of the correct line of pull.

The fact that strong lumbars play a key role in squatting and heavy pulling exercises is fairly obvious, but most trainees overlook their role in all types of overhead lifts. The ability to lock out and hold a maximum-effort snatch, jerk and press is directly dependent on the strength of the lumbars. When they’re weak, the upper body will collapse, and the lift will not be made successfully.

Another good reason to make certain that your lumbars stay strong throughout your lifetime is that the lower part of the back is most frequently the one that causes problems. That’s true for the general population, where eight out of 10 adults experience some sort of back pain and 70 percent of those are lower-back issues. Well-conditioned athletes have much less trouble with their lumbars, yet that area still gets injured, mainly because its strength is not maintained in proportion to the rest of the body, and the weakest-link principle steps in and says hello.

There are many exercises that anyone can do to increase lumbar strength. They require very little in the way of equipment and can be done alone—without any assistance. That’s the good part. The flip side is that any exercise specifically for the lower back has to be worked very hard. Merely teasing the lumbars with light weights just doesn’t feed the bulldog—which means those exercises are not much fun to do. In fact, they are typically the most hated movements in any strength program, but there is a truism in strength training: Those who are willing to do the tough exercises will become the strongest athletes.

The two best primary exercises for the lower back are good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Good mornings are often called “tomorrow mornings” and for good reason: When you push them to the limit, as you should, your lower back will report in the next morning. If your back doesn’t complain, you didn’t work the good mornings hard enough. Plain and simple.

Be forewarned. There is absolutely no way to make a good morning workout easy—unless you stay with light weights, and that just doesn’t get the desired results. I frankly admit that I do not like them, but I do like the results, and so I do them every week. They have a positive influence on all of my exercises and keep my lower back from aching in a bad way. I know that when athletes are dedicated to getting considerably stronger, they don’t mind doing the demanding exercises. They welcome them.

There are several ways to do good mornings: with a flat back, with a rounded back and while seated on a bench. If, when you attempt to do a good morning with your back rounded, you experience a sharp pain and it’s not from the exertion itself, switch to the flat-back version. Both forms will give you results when you work them hard enough. The seated version is much less demanding, and I only recommend it for trainees who are unable to do standing good mornings due to some injury. I do, however, insert them into all athletes’ programs periodically to build some variety into the lower-back routine.

To perform a standing good morning, take the bar off the rack and make sure that it’s locked tightly down into your traps. That’s one of the most important points. Should the bar move around, even slightly, it will cause pain in your neck and lower back. That will be more irritating than doing the exercise itself. Shrug your traps and pull the bar down into the muscle, keeping it locked there.

Step back, set your feet a bit closer than shoulder width, and turn your toes in slightly. Never have your knees completely locked when you work your lower back. It places far too much stress on the hamstrings and can result in a pulled muscle. Push your feet down into the floor. That helps tighten your hips, legs and back, and it helps you control the bar better. Now bend forward, making sure that your hips stay locked in the exact same position throughout the movement.

Try to place your chest on your thighs. You may not be able to do it right away, but with repetition you will. I’ve had athletes who could look back between their legs at the bottom of a good morning. Maintain a smooth, controlled movement as you bend forward and recover. No herky-jerky. You will also find that when you go lower, you will get a sort of recoil out of the bottom, which helps. Reset, and do the next rep.

For the seated version brace your feet firmly when you sit on the bench. Try to touch your chin to the bench. These are much easier than standing good mornings, so you can handle more weight. Unless you can’t do standing good mornings, use the seated version only occasionally. Harder is always more productive than easier in strength training.

I like to alter the sets and reps every other week. Week 1: five sets of eight; week 2: four sets of 10. While there’s very little difference between the two workouts, for some reason the body responds to the slight change in a positive manner. When you do eights, use five more pounds than when you do 10s.

Here’s my rule of thumb for how much weight you should use on this exercise. Your eventual goal should be to handle 50 percent of your best squat for eight reps. So, if you are squatting 400 pounds, your last set of good mornings will be 200 pounds. While that may seem like a lot of weight, it isn’t. If you include good mornings in your program from the very beginning, it will not be difficult for you to maintain that ratio as your squat gets stronger.

Next month I’ll go over the form points for what I consider the second-best exercise for strengthening the lower back—the almost-stiff-legged deadlift.

—Bill Starr


Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www


Strength Training for Muscle Mass

7205-smart1Q: I’ve been bodybuilding for nearly a year. For the past few months I’ve been doing sets of eight to 10 reps on three exercises each for chest and back training, but my progress has stagnated and I’m getting frustrated. Should I increase to 12 to 15 reps, or go down to six to eight?

A: You have the right idea—when a specific repetition bracket is not working, try a different one. Both 12 to 15 and six to eight reps will provide variety, but since you’ve hit a slump, how about going even lower with three to five reps?

The lower reps will develop the fast-twitch, type 2b muscle fibers, which display the greatest power production and low-level resistance to fatigue. One of the benefits of low-rep training is that when you come off a cycle of low reps, you will be able to use heavier weights. That creates more muscle tension, which in turn leads to a greater growth response.

Here is a lower-rep chest and back workout designed to activate those type 2b muscle fibers.

A1) 45 degree incline-bench presses with chains, 4/0/X/0 tempo, 5 x 3-5

Rest 120 seconds

A2) Thick-bar pullups (medium pronated grip), 4/0/X/0, 5 x 3-5

Rest 120 seconds

B1) V-bar chest dips, 4/0/X/0, 5 x 3-5

Rest 120 seconds

B2) T-bar rows (medium neutral grip), 4/0/X/0, 5 x 3-5

Rest 120 seconds


Let’s break that down.

You perform this workout twice a week for four weeks, for a total of eight training sessions. Make sure there are at least two days of rest between workouts; suggested workout days could be Monday and Thursday or Monday and Friday. That will give you more complete recovery between sessions, which is necessary due to the intensity (i.e., how much weight you lift) of the workout.

You superset exercises A1 with A2 and B1 with B2. Specifically, you pair a horizontal pressing exercise with a vertical pulling exercise and a vertical pressing exercise with a horizontal pulling exercise. That combination works well because you’re stimulating the muscles from a greater variety of angles.

You perform the incline-bench press with chains, which slows down the lift— as the chains lift off the floor, the weight on the bar gets heavier to match. In effect, the resistance curve of the exercise matches the strength curve of the muscles. Even though you are pressing the weight off your chest as fast as you can (X tempo), the increased resistance at the top of the movement will cause the bar to move more slowly.

You perform the pullups with a thick bar. If your gym doesn’t have a thick chinup bar, you can use a pair of Fat Gripz™, which are nonslip, dense foam-type devices that attach to narrow chinup bars to convert them into thick bars. To give you an idea of how effective thick-bar training is for pullups, let me tell you about the experience of a female judo athlete who could perform five -pullups. I put athletic tape around the bar and had her perform 5×5 pullups twice a week. Prior to each workout I would wrap another piece of tape around the bar, making it thicker. At the end of five weeks, when she returned to using the regular grip, she could do five pullups with 45 pounds attached to her waist. She went on to win the United States Open in her sport.

For the chest dips I like the V-bar apparatus because it accommodates a greater variety of body types. As your dipping strength increases, you will need to increase resistance by one of these three methods: have a training partner pull down on your ankles, hold a dumbbell between your ankles or use a chin/dip belt (although the belts used by mountain climbers will also work). Holding a dumbbell securely is more difficult to coordinate than using a belt, and eventually the weights you will use on this exercise will become too heavy to hold in that manner.

For the T-bar rows I would prefer that you use an apparatus that has a chest pad. I don’t generally recommend bent-over barbell rows from a standing position because you’ll expend too much neural drive in firing the erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings while trying to maintain good posture.

Give this workout a try, and then start to look into longer-term planning of your workouts to help you achieve your goals faster.


Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.com.   IM


Serious Size: Rep Range

7205-nat1Q: During a bulking stage, what rep range should I use for squats in order to put some serious size on my legs? Should I go heavy for six to eight reps or heavy for eight to 12?

A: The legs were designed to carry us around all of our lives, so they are accustomed to withstanding a heavy workload. They can take a lot of punishment, so they need to be trained very heavy and with both high and low reps.

Squatting with heavy weights is one of the best methods of building more mass in your legs. Doing a full squat with good form will work your quadriceps—as well as your hips, glutes and hamstrings—harder than any other exercise. Newcomers to weight training will be exhausted from doing a full squat movement even if they are using light weights.

When you build up your strength on the full squat, you are also building more mass in your legs. I used to do at least five sets of squats, increasing the weight on each successive set and using 12, 10, eight, six, six reps. My goal was to get stronger on those last two heavy sets of six.

Eventually, I built up my strength to where I was doing five or six reps with 500 pounds on the squat. The goal is to build up your strength so you can squat more weight in the six-to-eight range. Consider how much bigger your legs will be when you can squat 400 pounds for six to eight reps instead of 200?

Tom Platz, who had enormous thighs, alternated heavy weights for low reps with higher reps and a lighter weight on squats. He felt that his legs improved to their biggest and best shape ever with that approach.

One week Tom would go very heavy for only five reps, using as much as 600 pounds on squats. At the next workout he would drastically reduce the weight but push himself to do as many reps as possible. He would do 20 reps with 400 pounds or 50 reps with 300 pounds. Tom even squatted 225 pounds for 10 minutes straight at one workout!

If you are new to training, I recommend that you focus on building up your strength on the squat. Spend a few years getting stronger on this primary exercise for the legs, and then you can start doing higher reps with less weight. But be sure to put in the legwork (so to speak) first, and build up the basic strength and muscle mass you need before you take it to the next level.


Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a three-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia.com. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.comIM