If you’re on Musclemag, you’re probably used to hearing that the big stuff in the gym gives you the most bang for your buck.
You know, squats, deadliftss, strict presses, benches, and pull-ups. They should be staples in your routine around which the rest of your program should circulate. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about the rest of your program.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that no two bodies are created equal. On top of this, every single strength coach (myself included) has yet to see a body that’s in “perfect balance.” Whether it’s something as particular as a set of weak inner thigh muscles, to something as straightforward as poor posture, everyone has weak links. Much worse, too many people sidestep those weaknesses by continuing to use the big movements although their form slowly worsens to compensate for their imbalances.
I’m one of the biggest proponents you’ll see for training the big stuff, but it’s about time that an article that takes level-headed view on weak-links training hit the mainstream, so thank me later. Here are three common areas that present problems to the average lifter.
Problem 1: Bad Knees
Training on bad knees can be painful, uncomfortable and usually results in the practice of limited range of motion for lower-body exercises like squats or leg presses. There are many angles to take to assign a fix to knee pain, but here are the tools that I assign the most value to.
First, look at the tissue quality of your quads and hips. Foam roll and stretch the muscles so their tightness isn’t contributing to undue stress on the joint they attach to. Beyond that, however, it would be a good idea to look at the strength of the knee joint itself through flexion and extension.
Peterson step-ups, seen in the first video, strengthen the knee and can incorporate the vastus medialis oblique (VMO, the muscle just above and to the inside of the knee cap) on its medial side. Use a low box to start, and instead of adding weight to this movement, think of adding range of motion by raising the box. Like I show in the video, don’t use the free leg at all to help, and feel free to roll onto the ball of the working foot.
Terminal Knee Extensions are another great primer for bigger lifts like squats, to train knee extension and VMO activation in the lockout. Remember, press through the ball of the foot to make sure the quads are doing most of the work. Also, keep the hips facing forward and not on an angle. Disallow the rest of the body from becoming involved.
Do more deadlifts – Romanian and conventional. The angles you create in a deadlift variation compared to a squat variation create far less stress on the knees due to a more vertical shin position, and they also engage the posterior chain with much less chance of error. Having strong, actively firing glutes and hamstrings will only help reduce knee stress since more surrounding muscles are involved to take on forces and bare load.
Problem 2: Bad Shoulders
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint that’s usually more susceptible to injury than other joints. Shoulder pain during pushing exercises like the bench press shouldn’t be left unaided. Chances are, the pain is a product of poor posture and front-side tightness that prevents the shoulder from moving pain-free through a full ROM.
Once again, the first step would be to look at tissue quality. Stretching and foam rolling the chest and front deltoids is a good place to start.
Resisted Wall Slides. Chances are, you’ve heard of the classic scapular wall slide. This exercise is a good introduction to mobility and posture. I like taking things up a notch by staying seated and going through the same motion with light resistance. This keeps the rear deltoids and scapular muscles lit up through the entire pressing ROM. Check out the video below for an example. And remember: It doesn’t take much weight for this to be effective. I’m using less than 10 pounds of resistance in the video, as much more weight would begin to pull my arms forward, defeating the purpose.
Always pull more than you push. Much more. It’s that simple. I like to recommend a 2:1 ratio of back-to-chest training. And this should go without saying but use good form and make sure your back is being activated on every pull exercise you practice.
Problem 3: Tight Hips
As we learned in section 1, there can be a linkage between bad hips and bad knees. Tight, immobile hips can dictate ROM and also knee health. In many cases, it’s better to nip things in the bud at the early onset of knee pain by examining hip flexibility and mobility early.
As is the pattern, looking at the tissue quality comes first. Improve your mobility and flexibility by foam and lacrosse ball rolling the hips, coupled with dynamic mobility drills to open up the joint capsule. Spiderman walks, seen below, would be my favorite mobility drill for the hips.
Also, there’s a lot of talk out there maligning static stretching, but in my opinion, if it’s done at the right time, you can reap the benefits. Once the muscles are warm and loose, static stretch the hips and quads. This can be done between sets of quad and hip-dominant work in attempts to lower their involvement on subsequent sets.
The cool thing about certain exercises is that they can actually act to make muscles more flexible if you allow them to. Take the example of the RDL. Personally, I feel the weight stretching my hamstrings on the negative phase and allowing me to assume proper technique and geometry through a full, bar-to-floor ROM. Watch the difference between my first pull off the ground (rep 1), and all subsequent reps with regards to my back position and flatness.
The reason for this change is because the initial stretch (preceding rep 1) was unloaded.
It’s a good idea to apply this to a hip stretching exercise like the rear leg elevated split squat. Using light loads and aiming for complete ROM is the golden ticket to a better hip tissue quality, and a deeper squat.