Getting your reps in with big moves like bench presses, barbell squats, overhead presses, rows and the like is great. In fact, if you’re looking for the biggest bang for your buck, nothing beats those moves in the weight room. However, when so much of your year-round training routine becomes focused on improving your PRs for those lifts, you become completely debilitated when one neglected area of training is put to the test: groundwork.
What is “groundwork”?
Groundwork is basically stripping exercises down to ground zero — these are challenging exercises that involve minimal or no weight at all. Why do we do this? To develop strength and skill. Developing control of your body while performing unloaded moves is critical to improving performance when you add load back to the workout.
For example, if your bench-press numbers are going up but your push-up numbers are suffering, it’s a sign that you aren’t developing functional strength. In other words, if you bench more than 300 pounds but can’t perform sets of conventional push-ups, something is wrong.
Major deficiencies manifest themselves when you go back to basics, and despite most trainers’ level of conditioning, brushing up on the proper techniques of groundwork staples such as push-ups, pull-ups, planks and goblet squats is in order. You’ll probably realize areas where you’re dropping the ball.
Sometimes you must take a step backward to reassess your “why” when it comes to weight training. If you’re moving tons of weight but struggling with the basics, it’s time to backtrack and strengthen the foundation. It’s a smart move that could help prevent the house from falling apart a few years down the line. Good groundwork should be a skill you’ve mastered that no one can take away from you. Ever.
The push-up is as simple as hitting the deck and pushing yourself back up with your arms, right? Wrong. The push-up is actually a highly underrated, complicated movement that should be taken more seriously and should be performed with more focus. Done properly, the push-up involves quite a bit more than just the chest and triceps, which is the reason it often feels more demanding than even a heavy bench press. If you want to fine-tune your form, there are key components to a push-up that need to be addressed.
Set It Up
When doing a standard push-up, most trainers place their hands too wide. This can cause shoulder stress and create a position of weakness when performing the move. Instead, place your hands at shoulder width and tuck your elbows closer to your body when they bend. From above, your body should create an “arrow” rather than a letter T. Having a closed elbow position places the humerus in a much safer position and avoids force on the rotator cuff.
Range of Motion
Above all, never sacrifice your range of motion. As you get tired, it’s easy to let your face fall by craning the neck toward the floor. This can create the visual sensation of still making it all the way down, when in reality, you’ve cut your distance in half. In this case, it serves you best to cut your reps in half and simply do more sets of fewer reps, using brief rest periods to reset your technique and rep quality.
Core and Glute Activation
The push-up is as much a core exercise as it is a chest and triceps exercise. If you don’t feel your abs working hard during a set of push-ups, your form is out of line. The hips should be held high and the glutes engaged, so the body moves completely together. At the lowest point, the chest and toes should be the only things contacting the ground, with the chin tucked (while looking at the floor) and the hips and stomach an inch away from the ground. Keep the core engaged by drawing the abdominal muscles in, and squeeze the quads and glutes. This will help neutralize the pelvic position and contribute to a rigid body.
It’s erroneous to think a proper pull-up is quantified by whether or not you get your head over the bar. There’s more to it than that.
You can’t fake a pull-up. You’re either strong enough to pull yourself up or you aren’t. Pull-ups will uncover weaknesses in physical strength — which is probably why so many trainers neglect them or don’t do them properly.
The pull-up is widely viewed as a prime back exercise for strength and development. Sadly, it’s rarely performed in a way that exploits the back muscles properly. The hollow, pencil-straight body that most lifters pull with actually disengages the back muscles from doing the work and encourages the arms to pull the body over the bar.
Lead With Your Chest
To achieve the right form, think about raising your chest to the bar as you engage the lower traps and depress the shoulders to start each rep. Once you’ve mastered this, your body should move up toward the bar by a couple of inches before your elbows bend. Then pull with your arms.
Arch the Back
Many trainers think the body should be completely straight during pull-ups, but to develop the back, encourage an arch. Retract your shoulder blades to engage the lats, rhomboids and lower traps more effectively. Even if you don’t make it as far over the bar, you’ll be using the correct muscles to perform the movement. You should be feeling proper pull-ups deep in the bellies of the lat muscles — the meatiest portions of your middle back — not just in your armpits.
Don’t engage your elbows first because that turns this into a biceps exercise. During your reps, drive your elbows back and down, and use your back muscles, not your arms, to pull your chin above the bar.
To get stronger at pull-ups and enforce good form, add eccentric reps to the end of your pull-up workout. Once you’ve hit failure and can’t pull your body up to the bar, assist yourself to the top using a box or step, and slowly resist the negative rep (the falling phase) until you reach a dead hang. Aim for a five- to seven-second descent. Perform as many additional reps as possible.
The plank is a test of core strength but it’s probably the most commonly botched movement in the world of groundwork. Lifters often pride themselves in being able to hold a plank for upward of three minutes, although it has zero translation to their actual core strength. Relying on your arms, shoulders and lower back to perform a plank allows a lifter to find much more muscular endurance for long holds compared to strictly using the muscles of your trunk in good form.
Build Your Foundation
Pull your quads tight by pushing your knees as high toward the ceiling as they’ll go. At the same time, pull inward as though you want to make your elbows touch your toes (or “drag the floor toward itself”). Just like the push-up example, you’ll notice that you can’t maintain this kind of tension and technical precision for a significant length of time — so don’t. Keep your focus on quality, and do multiple sets of 15 or so seconds each, creating as much abdominal tension as you possibly can for that time.
Keep Your Hips Up
The first thing to fix when planking is the pelvic position. If you aren’t engaging your core muscles your hips will sink. Not only does this do nothing for core strength, but it strains your lower back. Raise your hips one or two inches higher, and then tuck your tailbone under by squeezing your glutes hard. Doing this will immediately engage the lower abs.
Once you’ve mastered the basic plank, remove a base of support for an additional challenge. Set a target such as a medicine ball or step at arm’s length in front of you and slowly reach forward to touch the top of it, alternating arms. Make sure you don’t lean over to support yourself each time an arm leaves the floor. Your body position should look like both arms are down the entire time. To ensure this, have a partner place a light object like your cell phone or shoe on your lower back. If it falls off, you have work to do.