By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
1. Stand On One Leg
Probably one of the more common mistakes your trainer is teaching you is the notion that in order to really train your core muscles, it’s important that you balance yourself on an unstable surface. Let's see a show of hands for the number of times this week you saw a trainer putting a client atop the flat side of a Bosu on one foot. With a dumbbell in one hand and a cable in the other, the client attempts to do lateral raises and biceps curls. This is a common example of balance training that’s been taken completely out of balance, so to speak.
You see, the first issue is one that trainers are reluctant to face, that you can stimulate the core better and more efficiently from a stable surface than an unstable one. That’s right. The strongest cores on the planet aren’t of those who stand on one leg, but rather those who lift a good amount of weight while planted squarely on both feet. Research has always been quite clear on this subject, in fact, but still the majority of trainers make this mistake. And your core isn’t the only thing being compromised.
Take our silly yet real example of the person on the Bosu. He’s trying to target specific bodyparts while at the same time working on balance. The fact of the matter is you can’t effectively stimulate muscle growth this way. No matter the goals, if you want to innervate and isolate muscle groups to help tone, add size or burn more calories, you have to overload the muscle. But since you can’t lift as much weight on an unstable surface, the bodypart-specific training is lost.
Trainers would do their clients a huge service if they focused on training bodyparts to their fullest potential because the better muscle they develop, the better the body will look and the more calories it’ll burn at rest. You want to strengthen your core? Save the core work for its own separate day. It’s time for trainees everywhere to start standing on their own two feet.
2. Straps Weaken the Grip
Here's another major mistake. Trainers avoid pulling straps like the plague. You’ll hear reasons like, “It’s not a pure pull” and “You’ll weaken your grip” or “Your forearms will get smaller.” All of these sound convincing, but they don’t hold any water.
Research has discovered (and confirmed for hardcore bodybuilders) that the use of wrist straps offers a significant advantage compared to bare hands for weightlifting. On pull-ups, for example, straps allow subjects to complete an average of one extra rep on all sets performed. Same for dumbbell rows. In fact, straps have been shown to allow lifters to complete an average of two extra reps on all sets attempted. Two more reps than you’d normally be able to do.
What you need to realize is that being able to complete 1–2 additional reps on every set of your back workout with a given weight is better for developing back muscle and strength, no matter what your body type or physique goals. When you string those reps together over the course of weeks, months and years, do the math. That’s a lot of work either accomplished or missed, and all those extra reps happen to be those completed at or near muscle failure.
So regardless of what your trainer tells you, always use straps when hitting back. Never let your back development be at the mercy of your grip. If you can do dumbbell rows with 80 pounds for 10 reps without straps, but you choose to do 100-pound rows for 10 reps with straps, not only does your back benefit, but your grip will also be just as strong as before. By adding weight with straps, your grip doesn’t magically get weaker. Now if you want to build a stronger grip, train for grip and forearm strength some other time, just not when it can detract from the goal at hand.
3. Don’t Take Your Laterals and Front Raises Above Parallel
Arnold would probably still chuckle at this rule. He was known to take his dumbbells far beyond the point in which his arm was in the horizontal plane, but you wouldn’t hear any naysayers around him … (and neither should you).
Some misinformed trainers would have you believe that when you go above parallel with a dumbbell on isolation moves for delts, the muscles all of a sudden aren’t doing the work. The next time you hear that, ask, “So what muscle is moving the dumbbell above 90 degrees then?” You’ll likely get a blank stare. The fact is the delts are highly involved up to 130 degrees, which is about 40 degrees past the parallel. Not only that, but if you take the front raises above the 130-degree point, you actually engage the very tough-to-target low traps (another reason Arnold was set apart from the rest). The only reason you wouldn’t go above 90 degrees is if you have some pre-existing shoulder condition or injury that would prevent you from even trying it or are purposely trying to train within a partial range of motion.
If you’re going to limit the range of motion, do so from the bottom of the rep. Stop the motion of the dumbbell when it’s about 6–8 inches from touching your body. That approach will help you maintain constant tension in the middle delts on lateral raises as well as on your front delts during front raises.
4. Avoid the Smith Machine
Plainly said, the functional-minded trainer has so much difficulty comprehending why anyone would work inside a Smith machine. The fixed plane of the bar is too limiting; they can’t grasp why anyone would want to work in a Smith when everything on the machine can be done in a power rack or open space with free weights.
Here’s why. Similar to our discussion on balance training being taken too far out of context, machine avoidance is simply ridiculous. Isolating a muscle with leg extensions or preacher curls, or what's arguably the greatest invention in the gym — the Smith machine — is absolutely worthwhile. Truth be told, sometimes you don’t want to worry about balance, but need to just focus 100% on overloading the muscle(s). The simple fact that the free-weight counterpart can be done doesn’t mean it always should be.
The long and the short of this point is that the Smith machine provides safety and the opportunity to remove stabilizers from the equation on compound exercises when simple fiber overload is the principle goal. No more, no less. Working on a Smith shouldn’t be grounds for patron removal. Should free weights be replaced with machines? Of course not. But the best minds in the gym understand the relevance of the Smith and can cogently incorporate it into a “balanced” repertoire.
5. Train Abs First
The four main muscles that make up the abdominals are the rectus abdominis, the internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominis. Without question, the best abs program is one that incorporates exercises that focus on all of these areas. However, the best time to concentrate on these areas is not at the beginning of a training session, and it’s not really ideal to place ab work between other exercises during a session either.
A lot of misguided trainers will tell you it’s important to get ab training out of the way as soon as possible in your routine. We get what they’re attempting to do here — it’s a quick-fix solution for the dreaded abs training. As they see it, nobody wants to hit abs after a grueling leg session, for instance, so why not check them off the list first? Or trainers will simply chock it up to the fact that if you don’t hit abs quickly, most people will just skip doing them. But neither reason holds any merit — not even close. Hear us when we say you should never hit them first: You risk serious spinal instability by doing so and you subsequently cause your major lifts to suffer on top of it. Period.
The abs and core are critically important to the most fundamental exercises in the gym. The squat, deadlift and bent-over row are all dependent upon intra-abdominal pressure (the ability of the core to provide pressure that supports the spine from collapsing forward during exercise). If you exhaust your abs and core prior to a training session, you automatically put yourself at a disadvantage on all kinds of lifts, as well as other exercises that involve power, such as plyometrics. The perfect scenario that trainers should embrace is to attack bodyparts, schemes and plans first and cap it all off with aggressive abdominal and core-specific moves afterward. As long as other moves don’t follow after them, you can allow your abs to be completely fatigued and exhausted. A trainer won’t be able to provide you any firm physical reason why doing them first is best, so don’t.
6. Always Look Up
Pick a move: the squat, barbell row or bent-over lateral raise. Listen up and you’ll hear your trainer reminding you to look up for safety. Attention all trainers: Your clients are about to read something you’re not (but need to be) instructing them to do. Always keep your head in what’s called a neutral position. Craning your neck is never appropriate advice and could be catastrophic on the cervical spine, not to mention performance.
There are some form pointers that should be adhered to on virtually each and every exercise. Elements such as keeping your abs tight, knees slightly bent, chest up; these points are all pretty standard. But for whatever reason, trainers seem to think the most appropriate angle of the head and neck is whatever angle allows you to see yourself in the mirror. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On standing moves, looking back at yourself is just fine. But on bent-over moves, as well as on the king of all exercises — the squat — your eyes should be focused forward. But “forward” doesn’t mean “mirror.” Forward is wherever a neutral spine would direct your eyes. Take the bent-over row, for example. With your body bent-over about 45 degrees, your head should remain neutral, which means it’s 45 degrees to the floor too. From that position, you shouldn’t be able to look back at yourself in the mirror, but rather on a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you.
Same goes for “looking up” when you squat. Throwing off the natural arch in your spine, in this case the cervical spine, with perhaps hundreds of pounds of weight across your back puts a huge amount of pressure on the disks. Keep it safe by keeping your head neutrally aligned. You’ll be so much stronger and safer by remembering this key form fact.