Not all resistance exercises are created equal. Some lifts are better done with appreciable loads that will maximize muscle recruitment and better induce a training effect. Meanwhile, other exercises, when done too heavy, lose form to the point of recruiting other muscles for assistance and thus the emphasis is lost.
It’s very easy in the heat of the moment and the midst of a workout to want to stack plates on the bar, or slide the pin down a few notches lower. Your heart is pumping and your endorphins are kicking; today feels great, so why wouldn’t you?
If you cannot adequately handle the load with proper form on say, a deadlift, than you will quickly find yourself with a flexed spine, shaking knees, and possibly one-hell-of a backache.
For most this is common sense. Yet, you’d be surprised just how many people neglect the rules of the road and choose to chase a new PR every week even when they don’t have the basic form down.
(I used to be this guy earlier in my lifting years, but have since learned that control at 92% of my max is so much better than a slow, ugly 97%).
Let’s not bore you though with strictly an emphasis on the safety aspect. Why else would you not want to go heavier on a given exercise, even if you could?
Feel and Tempo
Let’s take every gym goers favorite triceps exercise, a rope press-down, as an example before I dive into what this means. Close your eyes, and picture the last time you saw someone do this exercise for a second before you read on…
Chances are you saw them leaning forward and thrusting the weight to the bottom. A little hip English, and absolutely no control at the top of the movement requires them to use their abs, shoulders, and back muscles to assist the triceps in creating the velocity necessary to overcome the inertia of the weight stack.
Sure the weight is moving and they likely feel a burn in the triceps, but are they maximizing the reason they even did the exercise in the first place?
Ideally, the hips are in a slight hinge in an effort to increase the range of motion and the repetitions are completed with a smooth tempo from lockout at the bottom to just above 90 degree flexion at the elbow. No body rock, hip thrust, or shoulder punch at lockout. Just a slow, controlled…holy hell my arms are on fire…triceps pressdown.
Simply put, if the weight is too heavy you can’t possibly feel it working, or control the tempo enough to put the target muscles under tension for a significant amount of time.
In fact, research done on the topic of muscle hypertrophy by guys like Brad Schoenfeld have shown that time under tension is a critical factor in the growth and development of muscle fibers.
So, without further wait and explanation here are those 4 exercises that you shouldn’t go so heavy on!
Triceps Press down, Pulldown, Kickback…(Really triceps anything)
I would argue that the triceps are the most commonly trained, but completely underdeveloped muscle group in the common gym going population. Like that example above, most people go far too heavy and have to rely on momentum and bounce to keep the weight stacks moving.
Instead of slowing down and letting the muscle feel each and every repetition, squeeze, and release most just set the pin about 30 pounds too high and start gyrating around until they hit ten, or twelve reps.
This point really hit home with me personally when I randomly watched one of those DVDs that bodybuilders put out to make some extra cash and keep fans engaged. There I saw said bodybuilder doing his triceps work with nothing more than 120 pounds on the cable. Here stands a man with 20-plus inch arms who was just close gripping 225 for repetitions and he is not going above one-twenty on his assistance work.
Meanwhile, Johnny McScrawny is jumping, humping, and bumping that v handle to lockout every repetition.
Not a good look kids…
Next time you do any version of a cable triceps exercise, regardless of attachment, cut the weight down a few plates and slow your tempo down too. Focus on feeling the lockout and controlling the eccentric phase.
2. Leg Extensions
There is a decent argument that can made that says that we really shouldn’t be putting any work in on the leg extension machine due to patellar tracking issues and overall abrasion of the knee joint. Some would argue that it should be used only for therapy purposes and bodybuilders who need to develop the heads of their quadriceps for stage.
I say…I hear you…but raise you…that any exercise is useful if we teach it properly, load it properly, and monitor its progress objectively. Besides who am I to deny jelly legs and a sweet quadriceps pump?
With the leg extension I typically employ the single leg version. First and foremost, this will cut the weight you use by at least half, depending on your bilateral deficit. Furthermore, the emphasis on one leg at a time allows you to manipulate the rotation of the femur in an effort to stimulate the various muscles of the quadriceps.
A little external rotation nails those insides and a slight internal rotation can make the meat of your quads beg for mercy.
Next time you want to finish off your legs after your standard work be sure to do your extensions one leg at a time. Keep the weight lower and focus on squeezing the quads at lockout, and slowly lowering the weight until it is millimeters from the stack. Then, instead of slingshot-style mechanics, raise the weight at a moderate pace of 1 to 2 seconds.
3. Shoulder Press
I see you sitting over there with your super arched back, ass away from the back pad, actively recruiting those upper pectorals to get that weight moving. Oh, oh…and you stopped at your nose too…hmmm…
Lifting Kitteh is Not Amused by your Shenanigans
Yeah, you are going too heavy.
The shoulder press, barbell or dumbbell, is an awesome strength and muscle building exercise for those individuals in which the lift is not contraindicated. Yet, far too many people are in race to add plates to the bar or grab a heavier set of dumbbells and in the process completely lose the training effect.
If you are half-repping you are only developing the shoulders in that upper range of motion and laying down tissue in a way that could potentially damage your movement capabilities over time. If you are arching your back and pulling your hips away from the back pad, than you are actively recruiting the pecs into the movement, which is fine and dandy if you were doing an incline bench press…
But you’re not…
Take the weight down a bit and focus on bringing the barbell or dumbbells to a point even with your chin. Feel your elbows go down into your sides and your scapula rotate on your back. Keep your abs tight and heels driven into the ground and press the weight back upwards, under control, without over-arching your spine and letting your butt creep away from the bench.
Think full range-of-motion and maximum shoulder recruitment on every repetition!
I debating on putting this one in here. First I thought, squats are a major compound move that develops the body better than most other lifts, so why wouldn’t you train heavy. Then, I thought about so many people who add weight and go down six inches and call it a squat, and…ok…it has to be in there.
The squat is an amazing exercise that employs systemic loading (loading of the spine) with weight that can be held in the front, on the back, with dumbbells or barbells, unilateral or bilateral.
Like the deadlift…it’s awesome.
Yet, the squat is butchered to pieces every single week in every single gym in America that isn’t run by and monitored by quality coaches. Squatting on the toes, not pushing the hips back, core collapsing, squatting 10 inches, so on and so on. It can get downright ugly to be honest.
Remember that part about safety? Yeah, this is one of those lifts where it matters.
I highly recommend hiring a coach, even for a short period of time, to teach you how to squat properly. At the end of the day there are cues that you just can’t give yourself. Yet, if that isn’t going to happen and you are reading this…
I guess I’m your coach now…
First go lighter; all the way down to the barbell itself if you have to. Grab it with balanced hands and guide into that sweet spot in your trapezius muscles on your upper back. Found it? Good, now without moving your hands push your elbows towards the ceiling JUST A LITTLE BIT.
Awesome. Back out of the rack and assume your shoulder with stance. Now, take one foot width wider on both sides. (Move your feet out). Slightly open your toes. Now take a deep breath and try to hold it into your belly.
Push your hips back and keep the weight on your heels. While keeping your chest up begin squatting downwards. Push your knees away from each other and actively push your feet into the ground as you reverse back up to the top where you’ll squeeze your glutes and repeat.
Boom...You’ve probably just squatted lower than you typically do and maintained much cleaner form than you are accustomed to. Keep doing this with the bar, than 65…95…and so on…until you and the bar are family.
So there were four exercises that you can immediately employ a new strategy upon and not go so darn heavy. Feel each repetition and maintain quality form and tempo. You’ll be amazed at how much better your workouts become, as well as how much better your body will feel through the recovery phase.
While we should always be looking to improve, get stronger, and increase the intensity of our workouts it is important to remember that not everything is a strongman event.