By Dan John
Everybody knows that certain things are “good for you.” In fact, I am usually amazed at the lists that people can spout off in just a moment or two without really thinking about it. Like my quick list:
- Don’t smoke
- Wear a seatbelt
- Floss daily
- Eat veggies
- Get eight hours of sleep.
This is not a bad list and, to be honest, follow that short set of five and you will do well to insure a healthy life. Those of us who lift weights usually have a short list of movements that are “good for you.” Yet, whenever I enter “FastFitness 24/7 Spa and Supplement Superstore,” most of the guys are doing Bench Presses, Curls and Lat Pulldowns. Yet, if I sit around with strength coaches, fitness professionals or people that bring fear to the heart of mere mortals, they rarely do those three movements.
So, what are the “Big Five” that most people recommend? You won’t like the list:
- Good Morning
- Bent Over Row
Why am I sure you won’t like this list? Simply, because I never see the average gym rat doing any of these movements! Or, and this can simply be sad…if I do see people “squatting” in most gyms, frankly, my dear, those aren’t squats! These movements require a bit of introduction for the body and need usually a few days of orientation to get right. But, wait, what’s that last one?
Planks? Yes, Planks. Recently, at a workshop, a guy kept asking me about lunges. “Do your athletes do lunges?” No. “Do you do lunges?” No. Finally, he asked the real questions: “Why don’t you guys (strength coaches) hate lunges? Okay, he had me. Like planks, lunges are “one of those exercises.” You know, the kind that Jane Fonda does. The kind of exercise that you see the manic aerobics instructors screaming “go for the burn” and “feels good, alright” doing with a roomful of mirrors and a disco ball. Then, in the quite of the night, you try them and fail. And the last thing we want to do in a gym is to, one, look like an idiot, and, two, perform poorly looking like an idiot. Planks are the worst kind of exercise…they are miserable and just don’t look that hard!
So, let’s make a goal: one, let’s not look like idiots, and, two, let’s perform these lifts well.
Let’s start with the bane of most lifters life in the gym: squats. Years ago at a clinic, a young man told me “squats hurt my knees.” I asked him to demonstrate a squat. I said simply, “Squats don’t hurt your knees, what YOU are doing hurts your knees.” Squats can do more for total mass and body strength than probably all other lifts combined. Doing them wrong can do more damage than probably all the other moves, too.
Let’s start simple. Find a place where no one is watching and squat down. At the “bottom,” the deepest you can go, push your knees out with your elbows. Relax…and go a bit deeper. Your feet should be flat on the floor. For the bulk of the population, this small movement…driving your knees out with your elbows will simplify squatting forever.
Next, try this little drill: I have the athlete stand arms length from a door knob. Grab the handle with both hands and get your chest “up.” Up? I have the athlete imagine being on a California beach when a swimsuit model walks by. Immediately, the athlete puffs up the chest which tightens the lower back and locks the whole upper body. The lats naturally spread a bit and the shoulders come back “a little.” Now, lower yourself down. What people discover at this moment is a basic physiological fact: the legs are NOT stuck like stilts under the torso. Rather, the torso is slung between the legs. As you go down, leaning back with arms straight, you will discover one of the true keys of lifting: you squat “between your legs.” You do not fold and unfold like an accordion; you sink between your legs. Don’t just sit and read this: do it!
Now, you are ready to learn the single best lifting movement of all time: the Goblet Squat. Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it against your chest. With a kbell, hold the horns, but with a dumbbell just hold it vertical by the one end…like you are holding a Goblet against your chest. (You see…Goblet Squats). Now with the weight cradled against your chest, squat down with the goal of having your elbows (pointed down because you are cradling the bell) slide past the inside of your knees. It is okay to have the elbows push the knees out as you descend.
There is the million dollar key to learning movements in the gym….let the BODY teach the body what to do. Listen to this: try to stay out of it! Thinking through a movement often leads to problems…let the elbows glide down by touching the inner knees and good things will happen. The more an athlete thinks, the more the athlete can find ways to screw things up. Don’t believe me? Shoot a one and one with three seconds to go down by two points…get back to me later when you decided “thinking” was a good idea.
I’m not sure I should tell you this, but I think Goblet Squats is all the squatting that most people need. If the bar hurts you in Back Squats (I won’t comment), your wrists hurt in Front Squat (swallowing my tongue here) and the aerobics instructor has banned you from using the step boxes for your one legged variations, try the Goblet Squat. Seriously, once you grab a bell over 100 pounds and do a few sets of ten in the GS, you might wonder how the toilet got so low the next morning.
Let’s just keep that dumbbell at hand for just a minute. The biggest problem I see with most people’s Deadlift is that they simply have forgotten how to pick things up off the floor. I have been told to “not use my back” when picking things up. That’s like saying “don’t use your tongue” when talking. You know…you can do it…but it is just not very efficient.
Stand tall and hold the one end of the dumbbell again…this time, though, hold it at arm’s length pointing straight down to the ground. The bell should be slung right between your legs. These are called “Potato Sack Squats” and it is a great reminder of how to Deadlift. Imagine picking up a Potato Sack from the floor…you want to get down and get your arms around it. Let the bell descend to a point between your feet. Keep your head up and chest proud and simply lower the bell touch and return.
Now, why don’t you Deadlift like that? It’s the Deadlift…the world’s simplest lift! Well, grandma’s voice is probably in your head yelling “don’t use your back.” To move on, step on two boxes or even thick 45 pound plates. Descend down again and touch the ground between the two boxes. That is as far as you will probably ever need to go.
Now, always make sure when you Deadlift to use 45 pound plates…or plates that leave the bar at the same height as a 45. I have my young athletes do a set of ten Potato Sack Squats, then step over to the bar and try to get the same feel of descending to the bar. After that, it is pretty simple. A couple of key hints:
- Keep the weight on the heels. To test this, slide ten pound plates under your toes until the balls of your feet are on the plates. It is going to stress your hammies and gastrocs (hey, free stretch!) but push the ground away through your heels. I insist on teaching my athletes to “Push your heels to China.” It seems the Chinese National Coach is now teaching his athletes to push their heels back to me. I am worried about deforming the earth.
- Use the standard “opposite hands” grip from Day One in the Deadlift. I do suggest, though, that you switch your grip often until you find which way allows the most weight.
- Your arms are steel rods in the Deadlift. Lock ‘em out and leave ‘em.
- Keep your head up. Many of my athletes upped their Deadlift in one workout by having the chin lead to the ceiling. When ten people tell me something worked in one day…I believe them.
Most people who do the Good Morning doom themselves to a lifetime of bad mornings. A few months ago at the after party of a strength clinic…imagine something like the after party of a big movie opening, but eliminate free food, free booze, and good looking guys…a buddy asked me about Good Mornings. According to the story, I said: “I can do Good Mornings, you can do Good Mornings, but that fat dude over there in his overflowing sweatshirt and fanny pack, he can’t do Good Mornings.”
So, what’s the big deal? You toss a barbell on your back and lean forward. Besides the chiropractor industry applauding, what’s so wrong with this picture? First, know what we are trying to do here: I teach GMs as a hamstring move, not a lower back builder. Why? It’s simple, really, I want my athletes to walk next week. So, before you begin…two things.
First, stand up and place your hands in the “V” that is formed where your torso meets your legs. You know what I am talking about…
Simply push your hands into the V and push up butt back as your hands “disappear” into the folds. That is the movement of a Good Morning. Yes, keep your head up, shoulder blades pinched back, and hold a big chest, but the movement is simply “increasing the V.” If you do it right…even with no weight…you will feel the hamstrings stretching. This is good.
I strongly suggest learning the movement with a broomstick first. A nice little adjustment is to stand with your back against the wall and push your butt BACK into the wall. Then, scoot out a few inches and push back again. Keep moving away until you literally can’t touch the wall any more. THAT is the position that I recommend you go into on the Good Morning.
Do not make this a Yoga exercise. There is no need, beyond my need to laugh at you, for you to fall on your face. Don’t make this a stretching contest and try to go as deep forward as possible. Make it a lift. Surprise me with you ability to do it right.
Bent Over Rows
Stop right there. Yes, I know. I know that some guy named Arnold once said that Pullups are the greatest exercise for the lats, but you need Rows for thickness. I know. I know.
Here is an idea…let’s do them right.
Before you go any further with Rows, I want you to do a few sets of “Bat Wings.” Yes, I invented them…just after I invented the internet. Lay face down on a standard bench with two dumbbells on the floor. Now, here is where it gets confusing…I don’t care at all about your range of movement. I only want you to pull about the last four issues of flexion. If you were doing pushups, it would be from the floor to about four inches off the ground. All I want you to do is squeeze those bells as high as you can and cram your shoulder blades together. You can’t jump, bounce, swing, hop or do any of that crazy stuff that most guys rowing do. Do a bunch of sets of five.
The next day, that really cramped feeling muscle in your upper back is called the Rhomboids. Oh, and you’re welcome. You see, the development of the Rhomboids will save your shoulders, make you stand taller and lead you to a life of wisdom and wealth. Maybe.
Oh, why Bat Wings? It sorta kinda looks like Bat Wings at the top of the squeeze. If you look carefully…from the side. Sorta.
Now, back to Bent Over Rows: one of the things missing from those guys with twelve plates on the side doing wide grip bouncing leap shrugs that they call “Bent Over Rows” is any work for the Rhomboids. They will also soon be missing discs, but that is another story.
When you Row, get into that Good Morning “V” Position and strive to touch the chest. Ignore the part where you have long arms and focus on the last four inches “at the top.” A great Rowing exercise is “Two Part Rows.” Rep One comes up to the belly button and Rep Two comes up to the nipples. Really strive to feel how much more your elbows have to come up to make the lift.
I suggest doing Bat Wings at least every time you do a horizontal push like Bench Presses or Incline Bench Presses. And when you row, row. Finish the stroke!
Like most people, I hate Planks. It was Joshua Hillis who got me to start doing them and I discovered a funny thing. I hate planks.
Why? Well, there you are shaking from stem to stern doing nothing but holding a position. It is very hard to look calm and collected while shaking. So, let’s make it harder!
I have one simple drill to assess all kinds of issues with my athletes. It is a one minute plank done as follows:
The first twenty seconds, the right leg is raised as high as it can be raised towards the ceiling…an Arabesque right leg, if you will. Without leaving the plank position, do the next twenty seconds with the left leg Arabesque position. Finally, do twenty seconds of the plank. This is how to increase your life: that minute will feel like forever.
So, how do we assess what happened? Many of my athletes who have done far too many Bench Presses and hard baseball throws complain that the planks hurt their armpits. For these athletes, we need Bent Over Rows and Bat Wings. Lots of Bat Wings. If the athlete flops on to the ground and maniacally begins stretching the hamstrings or complains about hamstring cramping, I know that the Goblet Squat and maybe the Deadlift are needed for repairing the Posterior Chain…especially a thing called “Sleepy Butt Syndrome.” (Wake up your Glutes!) These athletes probably should be doing light Good Mornings every day as well as a daily light dose of Goblet Squats. If we just have a shaking torso and screaming in the last ten seconds, well, that’s easy: include planks as part of you workouts, usually after you do anything heavy.
The last issue with planks is simply an observation from my experience, but it is worth considering. I had some athletes complain about cramping calves on planks and I just couldn’t get my mind around it. In our discussions, it always seemed like the cramping calves were also the same athletes who were missing little things like meals, sensible diet practices, supplements, recovery aids and an understanding that nutrition may have some value for the athlete. Hence, the conclusion: my athletes who get calf cramps are missing something in their diet. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, one or two smart meal choices and a multi-mineral supplement and the problem vanishes. This isn’t science, but experience has some value.
These five lifts, the Squat, the Deadlift, the Good Morning, the Bent Over Row, and the Plank, develop the parts of the body that will instantly impact your game on the court, pitch or field. These five lifts will transform your body. These five lifts are hard and take a few weeks to master.
Which is why you rarely see people do these five lifts…
For more info on Dan John, go to http://www.danjohn.org