Situps Are Dead

“Isometrically training the rectus is consistent with its architecture and stabilizing function to enhance performance and power development in the hips and extremities.”Dr. Stuart McGill

As a member of SWCC, a Naval Special Operations Force specializing in maritime warfare on small boats, I spent a substantial amount of time on a craft known as an 11-meter RIB. The RIB is an eight-ton, thousand-horsepower jet boat with a steeply angled Kevlar hull capable of speeds around fifty miles per hour.

This is all peachy when you’re on a nice flat bay, but when the boat is going airborne over open ocean waves while you’re wearing body armor, small weapons, ammunition, and a helmet with night-vision goggles, it’s pretty damn rough on the body.

This is going to hurt!

The best analogy I can come up with to describe it would be if you were to ride in the bed of a dump truck while racing down a bumpy road, partially blindfolded with a toaster strapped to the top of your head and an extra fifty pounds or so of awkward gear on your body. Every three to eight seconds, the bed of the dump truck is going to lift completely up and then violently and unexpectedly slam back down while rolling 45 degrees to either side. It’s like being in a car crash several hundred times in a night.

These impacts can reach 20 g’s and literally break bones. They’re rough on every joint in the body and the spine is particularly vulnerable. Shattered vertebrae were not unheard of.

This meant that when it came to physical training, optimal joint alignment and function was crucial, particularly for the spine. Nothing we did was for solely cosmetic reasons, although we developed lean and muscular bodies as a byproduct. We wanted to make it through deployments without broken backs and be able to do our jobs.

Abs trained for spinal stability look as strong as they function

This required a different approach than what most of the civilian world (and the military as well) did when it came to training the anterior core, which you probably refer to as your abs. As it turns out, this approach also works tremendously well for athletes and civilians who train primarily to look good naked.

When it comes to training the abs and the body as whole for visual appearance, it’s important that one develop the entire anterior core and not just the rectus abdominis, which is the primary muscle involved in situps, planks, and crunches. This approach will create a tight, well-balanced midsection with visually striking obliques, along with the sought after six pack.

The other consideration when it comes to visual appearance (as well as spinal stability) is posture. It’s been well established by researchers such as Harvard’s Dr. Dana Carney that an open, upright posture is crucial to creating the appearance of social dominance, also known as “the guy girls want to sleep with.”

For this to happen, the spine must be as erect (no pun intended) as possible, the chest held high, and the shoulders pulled confidently back.

The downside to movements like crunches is that they repeatedly flex the spine forward and pull the ribcage closer to the pelvis. This reinforces the exact opposite of open, tall posture. Movements like situps can also have a negative effect by tightening the hip flexors and pulling the pelvis into anterior tilt, which leads to excessive spinal curvature and a visually shortened, hunched over spine. Not many people think of hunchbacks when they’re trying to imagine a sexy body.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame did sit-ups and he wasn’t so popular with the girls!

Why it works

The joints of the body function along a continuum. Much like a bullwhip, a mobile section is anchored to a stable section that is capable of transmitting force without absorbing it.

The small sonic boom produced by cracking a bullwhip is possible because the handle is completely rigid and the whip becomes increasingly mobile down its length, all the way to a soft, pliable tip.

The spine functions similarly. The lower facets of the lumbar spine are meant for rigidity; they allow only a small range of motion.

As you move up from the lumbars into the thoracic section of the spine, the facets become increasingly mobile, just as a bullwhip becomes more mobile the further away from the handle you go:

No Spinal Flexion

Training the abs with spinal flexion movements such as crunches reverses this continuum. These movements loosen the lumbar spine and diminish the mobility of the upper spine. Therefore, we stay away from any kind of movement involving spinal flexion, and the majority of our ab work also avoids hip flexion.

As Dr. Stuart McGill has famously illustrated in his books and lectures, the role of the anterior core is to provide stability to the lumbar spine and transmit force. It serves to prevent undesirable motion, be it rotational, extension, or lateral flexion-based. To paraphrase Dr. McGill, if the rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle) was primarily intended to flex the spine, it would look like a giant hamstring muscle.

A Note on Hip Flexion

Hip flexion, the action of drawing the knee towards the chest, is a crucial part of athletic movement, and many people in particular need to strengthen hip flexion with the knee above 90 degrees of flexion.

In many athletes, a combination of immobility in the hips and lack of strength in certain hip flexors causes the lumbar spine to buckle (posterior pelvic tilt) during activities like sprinting or exercises like hanging leg raises. This leads to impaired stride mechanics and a weak spine.

With this in mind, we do specifically train hip flexion, primarily with exercises like wall march iso drills, mountain climbers, or dead bugs, which train ab/glute co-contraction and unilateral hip flexion. In this way, the athlete learns to separate hip flexion from spinal flexion and maintain the structural integrity of the spine.

The Movements

Plank and Side Plank

These are well known by now in most circles and we still use them quite a bit. When in the plank, ensure that the spine is in a neutral, straight line. You should be able to set a broomstick on the athlete’s back and have it touch their upper back, sacrum, and head. Do not allow the lumbar spine to sag into extension.

A common variation is the “RKC Plank” in which you actively contract the glutes and place the elbows close together and further out in front of you than normal.

With the side plank, pay attention to the hips to ensure that they are not flexed during the hold. Firing of the glutes will help to ensure that the hips are extended.

Tall Kneeling Pallof Iso

This movement (and most like it) is generally attributed to the physical therapist named John Pallof who popularized them.  I often drop the Pallof part out of the name, mostly because I can never remember how to spell it right.

Most of these movements are held for isometrics of between five and thirty seconds. We do them with a partner pulling on a band, although a cable machine works fine if you’re training by yourself. Rather than talking and destabilizing your spine by exhaling too much, just nod your head to indicate to your partner that he is pulling with enough tension.

The tall kneeling press can also be performed with a split stance to help train ab/glute co-contraction and stretch the hip flexor and is advisable for people who have a hard time keeping their lumber spine from extending with both knees down.

These are also often done as a press in which the hands are drawn towards the chest and then pressed fully away at intervals. By changing the leverage in this way, you get less resistance with the hands close to the chest and can break a 30-second iso into smaller segments. Try a 30-second bout, with three 10-second holds at the fully extended position and the hands brought briefly back to the chest in between.

Anti Extension Pallof Press Iso

We generally only perform this one with a split stance. The potential benefits of performing it with both knees down seldom outweigh the chances of hyperextending the lumbar spine and promoting poor movement patterns. Ensure that the spine is neutral at all times and pay attention to the shoulders. They should be positioned overhead, tucked slightly forward, and the scapulae should be retracted and depressed the entire time.

Anti Lateral Flexion w Band

This is performed with the resistance coming from the same side as the forward leg and with a split stance only. The scapulae need to be set down and back with the sternum high. Grip the band with the hand opposite to the resistance side and set the hands directly on top of the skull. Ensure that the lumbar spine is neutral. Many people who lack mobility in their thoracic spines and shoulders will arch their lower backs in order to maintain upright posture, so pay attention to the lumbar curve.

Salute Plank

This variation adds an anti-rotation component to the traditional plank, which normally is solely an anti-extension movement. The hips must be kept flat and the glutes should be braced throughout the movement. We typically switch arms every five seconds for 20-second bouts, although we have worked up to switches every twenty seconds for 80-second bouts.

Foot Drops

Years ago, I was talking with Pavel Tsatsouline about drills specifically for military guys working on small boats, and he showed me this drill. It’s a highly effective method for training spinal stabilization and the ability to mitigate impact. Pick your partner up by the feet, shake them slightly so that he can’t predict which foot will be dropping, and let go of one foot. Your partner should be able to maintain a neutral, tightly braced spine and keep both feet at least close to level. Pay attention to the shoulder blades. You’ll find greater stiffness and strength if the scaps are locked down and in, and the lats are tightly braced.

This exercise can also be performed from the pushup position, in which case the glutes must be solidly braced and the abs functioning to prevent extension at the spine. Tension in the lats plays a crucial role here as well.

Ab Lever, Full

These can be performed from rings or a pullup bar. A neutral grip bar allows for the best leverage. Here, the ability to generate full body tension is crucial, and the abs must brace powerfully to prevent extension at the lumbar spine. You can ease your way into it by bending one leg in order to decrease the resistance. If you do so, make sure that you contract the glute on the extended leg and keep your spine neutral.

Plate Slide

Plate slides require both an anti-extension and anti-rotation effect from the abs. The glutes should be locked out in order to keep the pelvis from tilting in the anterior direction. We use 2.5 pound plates and move them every five seconds in order to allow the athlete to reset into the pushup position between each slide.

X Plank

This drill places substantial demand on the gluteus medius while the core musculature must work to prevent lateral flexion. Keep the heel of the top foot at least as high as the toes in order to ensure that the athlete isn’t externally rotating the hip and moving from the hip flexors instead of using the gluteus medius to abduct the hip.

Conclusion

By understanding the function of the anterior core and spine, you’ve got a wide variety of options for training your abs to improve both appearance and performance. You have no reason to do situps or crunches ever again….and your spine will thank you.

Written by Craig Weller

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Situps Are Dead discussion thread.

About Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

One Quick Fix for a Stronger Back and Shoulders

Think about all the pullups, bench presses, dips and rows you’ve done in the gym. Now what if I told you that you have been doing them wrong?

This oversight is limiting your progress in all of these movements, leaving you with less strength and less muscle, and it’s eventually going to leave you with a shoulder injury that will either restrict you to the pink dumbbell and bouncy ball section of the gym or force you to skip upper body lifting altogether while you recover.

About two years ago I was sitting with Nate Green in a restaurant in Long Beach. What started out with one flirty waitress grew into a group of girls from a nearby table, and Nate went into the line of questioning that he had worked out as part of his research for Built for Show.

“Picture what you consider to be your physically ideal man. He’s wearing boxer shorts and you have a 360 degree view from the neck down. What three areas are you going to look at first?”

One of the top three answers to this question (meaning the place a woman looks at first when she’s trying to decide if you’re worth taking to bed) is almost always “upper back.”

This same mistake that impairs your performance on pulls, presses, and dips also significantly shortchanges the muscular development of the upper back, making you look less appealing to the fairer sex. The good news, though, is that it’s fairly simple to fix.

The mistake: Focusing movement on the arms without initiating from the scapula.

It seems like a simple distinction, but it’s such a fundamental aspect of upper body strength training that it’s the equivalent of initiating a squat with the lower back instead of the glutes.

Why it happens

The North American lifestyle, coupled with common training practices, works to predispose most people to a number of postural imbalances. As far as the upper body is concerned, the main factors at play relate to what you’re doing right now. In order to read this, you’re probably sitting in front of a computer with your arms directed in front of you, your scapulae protracted forward, at least a small kyphotic hunch in your upper back, and your head is most likely too far forward.

Almost all of us do this to some degree for much of the day, whether on a computer, reading, writing, or even driving. Over time, this leads to postural adaptations. The muscles that fire in order to maintain this posture, mainly in your chest, are chronically tightened while the muscles in your upper back and traps are relaxed and weakened in turn.

This tight-chest/weak-back imbalance is exacerbated by the position of the spine. With the upper spine flexed into kyphosis and the head carried along with it, the thoracic spine gradually adapts and becomes limited in its ability to extend. Because the scapulae have a difficult time retracting when the thoracic spine is flexed, you’ve got a one-two punch for faulty scapular function. What all this means is that most North American lifters are prone to some degree of scapular dysfunction, and this will carry over into any upper body lift they perform.

Because the scapulae are unstable and tend to be somewhat winged and protracted (pulled forward), any movement will occur with the humerus pitched anteriorly in the capsule. This anterior translation weakens the force that you can eventually produce in an upper body movement. Any good bencher will tell you that a tight back and strong lats play a huge role in the lift, especially in the early portion of the movement.

Poor scapular function also makes the shoulder prone to impingement and injury. All that grinding you feel in your shoulder when you bench press probably has some roots in the position of your scapulae when you’re training. Fix the scaps and you fix the shoulder.

The last point here is that when all the muscles that should be involved in retracting and depressing the scapulae are left unused or are only partially activated, they aren’t going to grow. This means that your upper back, which is one of the main areas in need of serious hypertrophy in order to exude a look of strength and power (and is also one of the first places a woman looks for when she’s checking you out) won’t be up to par.

How to make it better

The first step is fairly simple: Understand that pulling movements should be initiated and finished with the scapulae. This may feel a bit foreign when you first start focusing on it. You’ll be working with muscles and movement patterns that aren’t as strong or habituated as your old ones. As you pull, think of keeping your head upright and pulling your shoulder blades into your back pockets.

Fixing this faulty pattern by addressing the weak link at your scapulae will eventually enable you to reach new levels of strength in these movements and provide benefit to the entire kinetic chain. Chinning, rowing, and pressing with strongly functioning scaps will ultimately carry over into generating more force throughout the chain, lifting with greater loads, and eventually, to building bigger, stronger arms.

Every repetition you perform in the gym creates an auto-associative memory within your cerebral cortex. This is why it’s crucial that quality should be emphasized on every rep. You’re building a pattern–essentially a habit–and the more heavily ingrained that pattern or habit is, the more likely it will be recalled in the future, particularly if your body is under stress and fatigue.

With enough quality reps over time, this pattern of high quality scapular function will become ingrained strongly enough that it will become the default movement you produce in any upper body movement, even under fatigue.

Common Culprits

Pullups

When you do a pullup, the movement is complete when your scaps are locked in, down and back, as hard as possible.

You’ll probably notice how much more difficult it is to lock your scaps in well instead of just popping your chin over the bar. The bar should be pressing into the lower part of the sternum, not just below your chin or at your clavicles. Your elbows should finish behind your rib cage.

You’ll also notice how much more solid you feel when you do it this way, and pretty quickly you’ll begin to feel a new level of strength and muscle mass developing in your upper back.

Correct Pullup form is demonstrated below – crappy to the left, good to the right:

Bench Press

Always start the bench press by taking a big belly full of air, slightly arching the thoracic spine, and locking your shoulder blades down and back as hard as you can. You should feel a lot of tension in your lats.

In order to keep this tension, you’re going to need a good liftoff from a spotter. Reaching back over your head to pop the bar off the pins is a good way to lose the tightness in your back and pull your scaps out of place. As you lift, maintain that tension in your upper back. Even as the bar locks out and descends, don’t let your scaps drift out. Crazy bell presses are a great tool for teaching this tight bar path.

Rows

Due to postural flaws or motor pattern inefficiencies, many people don’t finish a horizontal row with their shoulder blades. Instead, their scapulae remain only partially retracted and they finish the movement by drawing their elbows as far back as possible, which wrenches the humeri forward in the shoulder capsule. Instead, start and finish the pull with your shoulder blades and ensure that your humeri stay seated solidly back in the capsule. The elbows only need to come back as far as necessary to get your scaps locked in.

Keep the head back and the cervical spine neutral during all pulling movements, including chins and pullups as well as rows. Don’t allow yourself to cheat your way through the movement by popping your chin forward to create momentum.

Dips

If you care about the health of your shoulders, don’t descend further into a dip than you can go with your shoulder blades fully retracted. As soon as your humeri start to pitch forward, you’re endangering your shoulders and reinforcing a faulty motor pattern.

Specific Drills

A good way to speed your progress is to add in some drills to activate the necessary muscles around your scapulae and improve the ability of your thoracic spine to extend. I stole just about all of these from Mike Robertson, creator of Assess and Correct, so if you want to get really in-depth on this stuff, his material is a great resource. These can all be done in a few minutes and would be a good add to your warm-ups. Doing them between sets of upper body lifts as an active rest interval can be helpful as well, and is a good way to get the most out of your time in the gym.

Band Scapular Depressions

Here, you’re going to let the band pull your shoulder blade upward and then use your lower trap to depress it by pulling down towards your hips.

Banded No Money Drill

This one works to activate the scapular retractors, primarily the rhomboids and middle and lower traps. In this one, make sure that the scaps stay locked down. Don’t allow your upper traps to dominate and pull your shoulders up to your ears.

Banded Scapular Protraction

The serratus anterior is an extremely important muscle for quality scapular function. It is often the first muscle to shut down in any sort of scapular dysfunction, so it’s crucial to keep it working well. It functions to keep the scapula locked down to the rib cage and is critical in movements involving scapular upward rotation.

Side Lying Rotation

This one improves thoracic mobility. Keep the top leg bent at ninety-degrees with the bottom leg straight. Brace the abs to prevent motion at the lumbar spine and rotate over as far as you can, following your hand with your head.

Pec Minor Broomstick Stretch

The pec minors have a tendency to become chronically tight. When you see someone whose shoulders always seem to be pitched forward, the pec minor is a likely culprit. Lengthening it will allow the shoulder capsule to fall back into a more natural, safe position.

Summing Up

One simple distinction when you train upper body can make the difference between continual training and injury, between getting stronger and being stuck on a plateau, between developing a massive, well balanced upper back and being that guy who only looks like he works out until he turns around. Pay attention to what you’re doing with your shoulder blades, and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Written by Craig Weller

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – One Quick Fix for a Stronger Back and Shoulders discussion thread.

About Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

Weighted Carries for Size and Strength

As a member of Naval Special Warfare, I was frequently deployed to austere locations around the globe, and it was imperative that the guys and I maintained high levels of strength, resilience, and stamina.

We often had very limited equipment but needed to come up with good workouts regardless. One of our favorite staples was and still is the weighted carry.

Weighted carries are one of the best ways I’ve found to develop strength, muscle, and real world stamina–the ability to just keep going no matter how much it sucks to do so. This quality alone will help you develop a much more resilient and better-looking body.

So, Just Pick Something Up and Carry It?

There is an important consideration with any of these carries. It’s not as simple as just throwing heavy stuff on your back or picking it up and slogging down the road. With each step and every second that your body is under load, you’re ingraining a neuromuscular pattern and teaching your body how to move. If you teach it poorly, your body is going to recall this and perform poorly in the future.

Your goal here is to develop strength and resilience under stress so that your body will stand tall and unbroken under heavy loads when the undisciplined masses around you would be falling apart.

How Do You Progress?

Progression is based on increasing the quality of movement, but not just by increasing the load, time under tension, or frequency of the movement. It doesn’t matter if you add an extra hundred pounds to the bar if your technique goes to crap in order to do so. Likewise, going from eight to ten reps is irrelevant if you have to reduce the quality of each one of those reps to get there. Leave that nonsense to the tank-top wearing Jersey Shore idiot bench pressing with deadlift straps on. You’re here for a purpose.

The Movements

Waiter’s Walk

The waiter’s walk is a unilateral movement, and like most overhead lifts, it provides a good insight into one’s postural integrity. It is performed by hoisting a single dumbbell or kettlebell overhead with the other arm unloaded. The core musculature must work intensely in order to stabilize the spine and prevent lateral movement. You want your shoulders to stay level and avoid twisting or hiking one shoulder.

If you’re prone to anterior pelvic tilt, have limited ability to extend your thoracic spine, excessively tight lats, or dysfunctional scapular function, you’re likely to see it here. You should be able to hold the weight vertically overhead with your scaps locked down and in. If you cannot set your scaps back, your lower back will arch (compensating for limited thoracic spine mobility, scapular dysfunction, or tight lats) or the weight will continually fall forward, and you need to address some postural imbalances.

Example of a GOOD Waiters Walk

Example of a BAD Waiters Walk

Slosh Pipe

The slosh pipe is an eight-foot PVC pipe, either three or four inches in diameter, filled halfway with water.

It’s unique, incredibly unstable nature makes it demanding on the core musculature. You must keep your abs braced as tightly as possible to prevent unwanted motion and loss of stability at the lumbar spine.

The slosh pipe can either be carried in the zercher position or overhead with a snatch grip. I typically use the zercher carry exclusively when working with women, as the hypertrophy that the overhead carry is likely to induce in the upper traps is great in guys but not so desirable in your girlfriend.

The same postural checks involved in the waiter’s walk apply to the overhead slosh pipe carry. Make sure that the spine is neutral, scaps are locked down and back, and the head and chest are carried high. Pay close attention to pelvic alignment, and don’t allow the pelvis to tilt anteriorly.

Example of a GOOD Overhead Slosh Pipe Walk

Example of a BAD Overhead Slosh Pipe Walk

Farmer’s Walk

The farmer’s walk is one of the simplest carries. Take two dumbbells or kettlebells, pick them up, and carry them somewhere.

Simplicity doesn’t mean foolproof though. Postural integrity is crucial here. The weight needs to be carried by a vertical spine and well aligned shoulders. Keep your head and chest up, scaps set down and back, and allow your upper traps to carry the weight. Your lower back, rhomboids, and mid traps should be playing a secondary role only. If they start picking up the majority of the work, you’re caving in and falling forward.

Example of a GOOD Farmers Walk

Example of a BAD Farmers Walk

Single Side Farmer’s Walk

This one is exactly what it sounds like. Pick up a single weight in one hand held at your side and move. The postural checks here are similar to the waiter’s walk, as are the demands on the core. Your abs must work hard to keep your shoulders balanced and your spine level. Do not allow your weighted shoulder to hike up or your spine to flex laterally to the side.

Farmer’s and Waiter’s Combinations

You can also combine a farmer’s walk and a waiter’s walk by putting a heavy weight in one hand at your side and a lighter weight hoisted overhead in a waiter’s carry. This is a great one for simultaneously developing work capacity and postural integrity.

Example of a Farmer’s and Waiter’s Combinations

Rickshaw/Trap Bar

The Rickshaw is a specialized piece of equipment somewhat similar to a trap bar. We got ours from EliteFts. It is built with fat grip handles and can hold as much weight as you want to throw on it. The fat grip handles provide the main benefit over the standard trap bar.

The performance points here are the same as the farmer’s walk.

Craig performing a Carry with a RickShaw/Trap Bar

Safety Squat Bar

This is another specialized piece of gear and it’s invaluable. We got it from EliteFts as well, although I’ve seen quality ones from several manufacturers.

The main, and substantial, advantage to the SS bar is that its cambered design and yoke allows the weight to be carried further forward than with a standard straight bar, which positions the weight directly over the spine and allows for perfect postural alignment under load. The yoke also allows you to drop your hands from the bar and is fantastic for people limited by shoulder or t-spine mobility issues or injuries.

This one is going to be tough to use inside the confines of the gym and you definitely don’t want to drop it, so have two spotters with you in order to hoist it up onto your shoulders.

Straight Bar Overhead Carry

This is a movement we used quite a bit on deployments in the military when other equipment was extremely limited. Like the other overhead carries, it’s incredibly demanding and will exploit any postural weaknesses, so pay close attention to your performance points. Do not allow your chest to cave, lower back to arch into hyperextension, or shoulders to drift forward, and do make sure your scaps are locked down and back.

Bumper plates are great to have here, as you can just snatch the weight overhead and carry it as far as you can before dumping it to the ground for a rest.

Underwater Rock Carry

This is one move that you’re not going to be pulling off in a commercial gym or any public facility where you’re not sleeping with the lifeguard because it scares the hell out of people and probably violates all sorts of insurance mandates.

If, however, you have an open expanse of ocean with a sandy bottom and a desire to develop anaerobic capacity, comfort under stress (the prospect of drowning is one of those things that tends to raise the heart rate and perturb even normally stoic individuals), and have some fun, it’s a great workout.

A rubberized steel weight or a dumbbell that you don’t mind getting rusty will work, but big smooth rocks are best because you don’t have to worry so much about them if you lose them in the murky water in the surf zone. (I’ve spent some long evenings searching for dumbbells in the ocean after someone panicked and bolted for the surface).

You’re going to need a partner and a decent level of competence and comfort in the water for this. Take your rock, carry it as far as you can into the water from the beach, and then sprint with it under water while your partner swims on the surface. Once you’re out of oxygen, come up to the surface and switch out with your partner. Alternate in this fashion until you reach a set distance, like a depth of water you no longer feel like diving to, and then return.

Another option is to find some calm water about five feet deep and mark off a distance laterally along the shore. Sprint the rock as far as you can before coming up. As soon as your head breaks the surface you’re done and it’s your partners turn to try and beat your distance. Oh, and don’t drown.

Sherpa Skull Carry

Like the underwater carries, this isn’t necessarily something you should try yourself, it’s just something I find interesting.

While backpacking in Nepal, I spent quite a bit of time with the Himalayan Sherpas, and they have an interesting means of carrying double (and sometimes more) their bodyweight up the mountain. Their packs are so heavy that they couldn’t use standard shoulder straps because the weight would pull them over backward. Instead, they run a strap from the bottom of their pack up that loops around the head, and allows them to carry the brunt of the weight using the skull and neck. This helps them to keep the weight centered well enough forward to balance and maintain a steady pace up the mountain.

I tried on one the Sherpa’s packs, and the heavy cervical load was surprisingly comfortable. The Sherpas also have fantastic posture, with none of the kyphosis and forward head posture commonly seen in Western cultures.

I may look a little strange but I have fantastic posture and can carry more than you!

How to Integrate Weighted Carries Into Your Workouts

You can use these carries for a variety of purposes. If your goal is raw strength, load them up with as much weight as you can handle for a short distance and use sets in the five to eight range.

If you’re after a conditioning workout to develop strength endurance, lower the weight a bit and carry the weight for either a longer fixed distance with two to four sets or for intervals. Either way, keep in mind that postural integrity must always come first.

These exercises work great as an outdoor workout, but if you’re confined to a gym, most of them can easily be performed indoors, even in small areas.

If you’re limited to a small, crowded space, pick a course that weaves in and out of equipment and do laps if necessary. The changes in direction will throw an element of instability into the carry and increase the demand on your supporting musculature. Just be sure to walk the course in both directions in order to keep the demand balanced from left to right.

If you intend to integrate the lifts into a full body or upper-lower split program, consider them to be an upper body-dominant, vertical pushing type movement. They will place a significant demand on your upper back as well but don’t quite constitute full range scapular retraction or horizontal pulling. This means that they would work well in a workout that already contains a vertical pull and a horizontal push with a little extra scapular retraction work, like horizontal rows.

Before I get to the sample workouts, I want to go over one more crucial thing: your alignment.

Bare Bones and Core Muscles

The primary concern here is your skeletal alignment, which is reinforced by proper muscular balance. Ever heard about the studies in which you can support a car on the femur of a cadaver? (No? Well, I do read some weird research papers…)

Your skeleton is incredibly strong. It’s the job of your muscles to enable your skeletal structure to carry weight most efficiently. This means that postural awareness must be foremost in your mind, until it becomes second nature. The scapulae must be locked down and back, the chest up and open, head high, palms neutral (not rotated back like Fred Flintstone), and lower back held neutrally with the pelvis cleanly lined up with the rest of the spine.

The strength of your anterior core is crucial here. Pay close attention to the angle of tilt of your pelvis. Most Westerners are prone to an anterior pelvic tilt due to postural imbalances brought on by the egregious amount of time we spend in the seated position every day. This can be exaggerated under load, which weakens your spine and the rest of your body and also limits the ability of your abs to function.

It helps to have a spotter walking with you to shout cues as you move, just like you would do during a heavy squat or deadlift. Your cognitive ability to process information declines under stress so cues should be simple and easily understood. Things like “Shoulders back, head up, chest up, abs tight, flat back” are the most helpful.

Make sure in advance that you and your spotter share an understanding of what each cue means so that there is no need to contemplate when the time comes.

Along with spinal alignment and pelvic tilt, the other crucial postural check is at your shoulders. It’s quite common, especially under fatigue, for the shoulders to start to drift forward, the thoracic spine to flex into kyphosis, the scaps to spread apart, and the chest to cave in. These things all work in conjunction with one another to wreck your body.

As soon as you pick the weight up, your shoulders must be set solidly back in the capsule. With good alignment here, the load is balanced perfectly over your vertical skeleton, which is capable of supporting incredible weight. Your upper traps and delts are the primary supporting musculature with your middle traps, rhomboids, and the rest of the muscles around your scaps, providing a crucial role in keeping your scapulae from drifting forward and collapsing your chest. Your forearms and biceps are also going to take a beating in order to support the weight in most cases.

Sample Workouts

For Conditioning:

Option 1 – (preferably following a lower body strength workout):

Select a 25-meter course or route through your gym.

Weight Selection: Use the heaviest dumbbells you can press for a 10-rep max floor press.

  • Floor Press – 8 reps
  • Single Arm Dumbbell Row – 8 reps per side
  • Farmers Walk – 25 Meters

Repeat the course, doing the floor presses and rows every 25 meters for as many rounds as possible in ten minutes. If necessary, cluster the presses and rows into smaller sets with brief rests in between in order to get the necessary number of reps. Do not sacrifice form in order to get all eight in one shot.

Option 2:

Same as above but with a heavy dumbbell in the farmer’s walk position and a lighter one in the waiter’s walk position. Alternate sides every 25 meters and use the heavy dumbbell for single arm rows and single arm floor or bench presses.

For Strength (following any strength workout):

Option 1:

Load a rickshaw or trap bar with the heaviest weight you can handle for ten meters.

  • Rickshaw or Trap Bar Carry – 10 meters
  • Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
  • Rickshaw or Trap Bar Carry – 10 meters (return to start)
  • Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
  • Overhead Slosh Pipe Carry – 10 meters
  • Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
  • Overhead Slosh Pipe Carry – 10 meters (return to start)

Rest as much as needed to return heart rate and breathing to baseline and repeat three times.

Option 2:

Weight selection – The heaviest weight you can carry for a waiter’s walk.

  • Waiter’s Walk with non-dominant hand* – 10 meters
  • Switch hands
  • Waiter’s Walk – 10 meters (return to start)
  • Single Side Farmer’s Walk with non-dominant hand – 10 meters
  • Switch hands
  • Single Side Farmer’s Walk – 10 meters (return to start)

*or whichever shoulder is less stable.

Repeat for four rounds.

Be Creative

The basic principles here are easy to grasp. Pick up something heavy and move it, and your body will get strong. Progression is based on your ability to do this with increasingly heavy loads, for greater distances or more sets, while maintaining optimal postural alignment.

This means that you’re free to experiment. As long as you keep those principles in mind, you can grab whatever heavy thing you have available and use it to improve your strength, postural integrity, and work capacity. It’s not complicated, but it can be a brutal, effective workout.

Written by Craig Weller

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Weighted Carries for Size and Strength discussion thread.

About Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

Leave Lat Pull-Down Land and Build A Bigger Back

Here’s something fun to look for the next time you head to the gym: count how many people you see doing lat pull-downs compared to how many you see doing pull-ups. I’ll bet you a pitcher of Guinness that the lat pull-down station has more groupies than a Justin Timberlake concert.

And if there happens to be anyone at the pull-up bar trying to crank out reps, I’ll bet you another pitcher that their reps are few in number and ugly to boot…they’ve got the right idea but the wrong technique. Well, I’m here to fix that.

Latching onto a bar with your full bodyweight in tow can be a much more humbling experience than sitting at a machine where dignity can be preserved with a quick change of the selector pin on the weight stack. This is why many people end up getting stuck in Lat Pull-down Land, and fail to ever perform a single set of double-digit pull-ups.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With the right plan in mind and some well-applied effort, you can easily surpass the average gym rat’s five pullups and be knocking out sets of ten to fifteen.

Why should you get better at pull-ups? Good question.

Pull-ups are necessary for building a wide muscular back and play a major role in arm, shoulder, and trap development. They recruit a huge amount of upper body muscle and, if done correctly, activate the high threshold motor units responsible for explosive movements and dense muscle growth. Additionally, when properly performed, they strengthen the musculature responsible for depressing and retracting the scapulae and help to keep your shoulders strong and safe from injury.

Pull-up or Chin-up?

To be clear, a pull-up is done with the palms forward, a chin-up is with the palms facing you, and a neutral grip means that the palms are facing each other.

Grip used for a Pull Up

Grip used for a Chin Up

Neutral Grip

So should you do chins, neutral grips, or pullups? Ideally you’d do all three, but let’s consider the differences:

Pull-ups are harder. This is because your biceps are in a mechanically less efficient position, which is fancy talk for “you can’t use them as much.”  By putting the biceps in a weaker arrangement, you create a weak link. Movement will stop when this link fails, and the decreased load that you can use with pull-ups because of mechanical inefficiency at the elbow joint carries over to less loading on the lats. Therefore, the harder the movement, the less you can do.

I recommend mixing up the three variations, although beginners should start with the chin-up. Each exercise will place your joints under slightly dissimilar stressors and load the muscles a bit differently, causing you to build bigger muscles, and giving you better strength balance.

Fixed bar or handles?

Nearly every gym has a pull-up bar, but few have Olympic rings or blast straps, although the latter may be better for your wrists since they allow for natural rotation.

A free-moving handle or ring is the best of both worlds. Typically, the palms will move forward into pronation as the shoulders adduct fully at the bottom of the movement. Then, as you pull upwards, the palms will naturally supinate, allowing maximal loading, solid scapular retraction, and an efficient pull. This gives you a full range of motion with maximal loading and also minimizes strain on your wrists. 

However, if all you have is a good old-fashioned straight bar, that’s fine too!

A Quality Rep

It doesn’t matter how hard you flail; it’s not considered a legitimate pull-up or chin-up unless the bar touches your sternum. One of the major benefits of either movement comes from the retraction and depression of the scapulae at the top of the movement (when your shoulder blades are down and back), and you can’t achieve this if you’re craning your head upward in order to barely tap the bottom of your chin on the bar.

Locking out the rep is not done with the arms, but with the shoulder blades.

Never Be Bored

As you get stronger on the chin-up and work your way through the neutral and pronated grips, you’re going to want to introduce some variations to keep your mind fresh and hit the muscles from new angles.

High threshold motor units (HTMUs) are the key to strength and size when it comes to pull-ups, and there are a variety of ways to recruit them. Cycling through these various methods will help you get bigger and stronger by taking advantage of these HTMUs and will allow you to keep some novelty in your program.

It’s probably been a while since your last physics class, but here’s a quick refresher: force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. With either of those components, you’ll find good means for generating maximal force.

We’ll start with acceleration, which is kind of like the Dynamic Effort day used in the Westside Barbell powerlifting method: you’re going to move a light weight extremely fast. The catch here is that most gym equipment requires that you also slow down and control anything that you move really fast, lest you throw small metal things through the wall.

Slowing down the bar diminishes motor unit recruitment and diminishes the benefits of the lift. 

The first way to overcome this is to use bands. With bands, the amount of resistance increases throughout the range of motion to the extent that despite maximal muscular effort, the bar or implement decelerates on its own. That means you don’t have to try to stop the bar.

For these, you can use a dipping belt or a powerlifting belt, but I go with a parachute rigger’s belt since I know it will never break or come off.  You can get them at tactical supply stores like London Bridge or Blackhawk online for about 25 bucks.

Loop the band through the belt, and choke the other end around a heavy dumbbell. I typically use a purple Jumpstretch band and occasionally add one more red or orange band, but you may have to adjust that depending on your strength levels and the height of your bar. Even a single red band can provide enough resistance at the top to encourage greater explosiveness.  

Band Resisted Chin Ups

Another great method is using weighted chins. These are on the mass side of the mass-acceleration curve. For these, chins work much better than pullups because of the greater mechanical efficiency. You’re trying to produce as much force as possible, so you want to avoid weak links. According to Charles Poliquin, a good standard is to add two-thirds of your bodyweight for three reps. Surely, this would take some work to reach, but it’s a good goal nevertheless.

Weighted Chin Ups

A third option is to do standard chins, but with a single arm eccentric. Pull yourself up to the bar as you normally would, then lower yourself under control with only one arm, trying to slow yourself down as much as possible. You are capable of generating more force in an eccentric movement than a concentric, and this allows you to overload your muscles with more weight than they would normally handle. After lowering with one arm, pulling yourself back up with two will make you feel like you’re floating. For an added bonus, you can start by holding yourself at the top of the bar in a single-arm isometric before beginning the eccentric portion of the movement.

Single Arm Eccentric Chin Ups

Assistance

If you’re having trouble locking out a single bodyweight pullup, or can only get two or three in one shot, you should go with band assistance in order to get in sufficient volume.

Bands allow you to stay in the same range of motion as a normal pullup, and provide the most assistance at the bottom, where you need it most. Most of their pull is dissipated by the time you’re at the top of the movement, leaving your muscles to pull their own weight.

The setup is simple. Just choke a band over the pullup bar and loop the other one around a foot. You can easily graduate to less assistance with a smaller band, or just loop the band over a bent knee instead of your foot.

Band Assisted Chin Ups

Putting it all together

If you’re stuck in the single-digits on chin-ups, advanced techniques like weighted chins are a lifesaver.

If you can do five reps with your bodyweight, you should be able to add ten or fifteen pounds and get sets of one or two reps. It’s important to focus on the quality of each individual rep and think of your workout in terms of total reps, not just a cool-looking set and rep scheme.

Twenty-five single reps done with added resistance or single arm eccentrics will result in a much higher level of motor unit recruitment than a 5×5 template using only bodyweight.

Let’s get to chinnin’!

This sample program will allow you to increase your strength levels in vertical pulling movements and get on the road to more muscle. If you’re stuck around five or six pullups in a single set, this should get you into double digits within two months or so.

This program assumes that you do upper body pulling twice per week, such as on Monday and Thursday, and that you can do about six reps in a single set. A day or two before you start, test yourself on max pullups to establish a baseline.

Week 1

Workout 1 – Chin-ups, 25 total reps done as singles.

Do your rep, drop off the bar, and let your arms and back relax for ten to fifteen seconds. Aim for more rest initially until you get a feel for what you can do. Ensure that every single rep is perfect and that you feel a maximal contraction between your shoulder blades. Really focus on pulling your scapulae down and back. Don’t get impatient. This should feel easy at the beginning.

Workout 2 – Single-arm dumbbell row, 26 total reps per side done as 12 sets of 2 reps.

For these, you remain focused on quality reps and locking your scapula back as hard as you can on each rep. Perform two good reps, rest ten seconds or so, and then switch sides. Do your two reps there, rest about thirty seconds, and start over for twelve total sets.  

Week 2-4

Workout 1 – Weighted chin-up, 25 total reps done as singles.

Add weight only if you finished 25 single reps in the previous week without difficulty. This will be the same as last week, but this time you’ve got a little bit of weight strapped to your waist.

If you reach a point at which you can no longer lock out a single rep cleanly, stop the workout there and make a note to do the workout next week with less weight or more rest between sets. If you finish the workout easily, add weight to the belt next week.

Workout 2 – Single-arm dumbbell row, 26 total reps per side done as 12 sets of 2 reps.

Week 5-8

Workout 1 – Band resisted chin-up, 26 total reps.

Speed is your goal here. Get your sternum to the bar as fast as you can and feel your scapulae retract maximally, then drop right back down. You can start these as sets of two reps, but drop down to singles if your rep speed slows at all on the second rep.

Workout 2 – Neutral grip cable row, 25 total reps, done as doubles or singles.

Once again, the focus here is on individual quality reps with as much motor unit recruitment as possible in each one. Focus on scapular function. Only pull the handle until you feel your shoulder blades lock all the way back; don’t keep rotating your arms back and force your shoulders to pitch forward. Use enough weight so that sets of two reps are challenging and give yourself enough rest between each set to make it all the way to the end. 

Wrap Up

Once week nine rolls around, you should be able to hop onto a bar and knock out around twice the number of reps that you could do two months ago. Keep experimenting and use your newfound strength to work up to triples (sets of three reps) with weight or band resistance. Stay with chins until you can get more than ten reps at a time, and then you can start working pull-ups into your routine.

Stick with it and soon you’ll be rewarded with increased upper body strength, size, and density and a really smug feeling as you walk past the guys who are still stuck in Lat Pull-down Land!

Written by Craig Weller

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Leave Lat Pull-Down Land and Build A Bigger Back discussion thread.

About Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

A Barbell is Just a Tool – Get Creative With Your Workouts

A lot of people in the fitness industry love to make the declaration that “a kettlebell is just a tool.”

Well, no shit. This is largely a straw-man argument. It’s an attempt to appear insightful by countering a position that nobody, with the possible exception of a few fringe eccentrics, has ever made. Kettlebells are versatile and great for conditioning but, like anything else, they have their drawbacks.

As a member of Naval Special Warfare, I often found myself in locations devoid of conventional gym equipment. Despite this, physical strength and conditioning was a crucial part of my job, and everyone around me prided themselves on being physically ready for anything regardless of external conditions. This led us to get creative and improvise a lot of different equipment. Sometimes we would have nothing more than a few heavy rocks, some sandbags or even just our bodyweight but we always found a way to get the job done.

This gives me a different perspective on strength training than most people. I don’t see my options as merely the basic items found in Globo Gyms and the usual array of 80’s era bodybuilder movements. There is an entire world of options available, and many of them are probably more effective than what you’re doing right now.

Yes, a kettlebell is just a tool, but so is everything else in your gym. Your protein powder is “just a tool.” It’s not the one and only option. For example, you could always spear a squirrel in your front yard and barbecue it. The powder option is just good deal more convenient and doesn’t require scaring the neighborhood children with your new crossbow.

Ultimately, every piece of equipment, exercise, food and supplement you use is just a tool. If you were to take one away, you could improvise another to fit its place and perform the same function. It’s a matter of certain things being more well-suited for attaining specific outcomes than others.

With anything, it is important to first consider what your goal is, and then select the appropriate means of accomplishing it. This is a far better approach than picking a method because it sounds cool or you’re simply familiar with it and then trying to adapt it to a goal.

Methods must evolve and be cycled from time to time. Particularly with training methods, and also with some nutritional supplements, there is a diminishing-return effect. Bench press and standard back squats will probably work well for a while, but if you do them over and over ad infinitum, you will begin to realize increasingly smaller returns on your investment of time and energy. Repetitive use injuries and muscular imbalances are also a danger.

This means that novelty is often your ally. What worked well a month ago may not be as effective of a tool today.

Mental fatigue and boredom also play a role in your training success. Few people like to do the same thing day after day. Intensity trumps almost anything else when it comes to training success, so when it declines due to boredom or burnout, so does your result.

At a recent seminar, Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell said in regard to their training on maximal effort days, “We never do the same thing twice.” Louie spoke about a training program tested on a group of Eastern European powerlifters. It included around 45 different exercises in a three month period. At the conclusion of the program the lifters, some of the strongest men in the world, had one main complaint. They wanted more exercise variations.

Even for powerlifters concerned with improving performance on a single lift like the squat, there are dozens of different methods and pieces of equipment employed. Cambered bars, safety bars, boxes, foam pads, boards, bands, chains… Monotony is the enemy.

Every once in a while, whether for the sake of using a novel stimulus to potentiate new adaptations, a different training method to keep boredom at bay, or out of necessity because you’re away from your usual gym or an entire fraternity is monopolizing the bench press again, you should include some new equipment and training methods into your program.

Here is a list of a few examples that you can add to your workout:

Car Push/Prowler Push

The Prowler is great training tool, but not everyone has access to one. Just about everybody, however, drives a car to the gym or at least knows someone who does.

Both exercises develop great strength in the posterior chain, particularly the glutes, by emphasizing powerful hip extension.

When using your car, have a buddy in the driver’s seat and keep it in neutral. You may need to click the key one notch for the steering to work, but leave the engine off until you need to turn around. This is not a good time to be breathing exhaust fumes. Eventually you’ll work out the right positioning for your hands. Pushing off the bumper will probably feel too low, but the higher you get the less efficient the angle of your body becomes.

Prowler Push – it’s as hard as it looks!

Car Pushing – You may want to stay with something smaller than a Hummer on your first go though!

Band-Resisted Push Ups

Resisted Push Ups are a great means of adding accommodating resistance to a closed-chain pushing movement. Pushups differ from the bench press in their ability to develop scapular function and torso stability and the bands require a fast, explosive push.

Don’t loop the bands over the base of your fingers. Rather, keep it just at the base of your wrist, held down mainly by the bones at the base of your wrist opposite your thumb.

Band-Resisted Push Ups

Band-Resisted Push Ups – close up of hands

Overhand Tire Drag with Rope

If you’re looking to develop grip strength, massive forearms and a powerful back, this movement is for you.

Attach a thick (at least 2″ dia.) rope to a heavy tire, weighted sled or the back of your buddies’ car. Bend at the hips without rounding your back and pull the object towards you hand-over-hand.

Overhand Tire Drag with Rope

Slosh Pipe

This is a favorite. A slosh pipe is a PVC pipe, usually three or four inches in diameter and six to ten feet long. It’s filled halfway with water, which makes it incredibly difficult to stabilize and move with. It can be used for a variety of exercises and always thrashes your abs as they fire to keep your torso stable. These are highly effective for developing the upper traps and delts.

Try using it for military presses, zercher and overhead squats and lunges, or carries for distance. The increased demand on stabilizer muscles will provide a valuable and novel stimulus.

Zercher Lunge with Slosh Pipe

Plyometric Pushups

These are good for improving explosiveness and rate-of-force-development in a horizontal pushing movement. They’re popular with MMA athletes for this reason.

A good way of measuring them and ensuring adequate force production is to drive yourself up and over a medicine ball or even a partner facing you in the pushup position.

Plyometric Pushups – Start

Plyometric Pushups – Middle

Plyometric Pushups – Full Movement

Olympic Ring Shoulder Press

Start with your legs locked out in front of you and flip to an inverted position, then brace your body and drive forcefully upwards with your arms and shoulders. This will develop a high level of upper body strength and stability, not to mention freak out pretty much everybody in your gym.

If overhead space is limited you can set the handles closer to the ground and start from an inverted position. You can also do these with Blast Straps or a TRX system.

Olympic Ring Shoulder Press

Sledgehammer

Unless you’ve got an ample supply of lumber for destroying, you’re going to need a tire to do these. Convenient as it may sound, take it off your car first. There are a variety of ways to use a sledge and they’ll all develop your body in a slightly different way.

Overhead strikes will develop the anterior chain; rectus abdominis, pecs, hip flexors, etc. The lats and serratus anterior will get a good deal of stimulation as well. Placing the tire upright against a wall and striking it in a rotary motion will help target the oblique abdominals to a greater degree.

With any variation, the sledge will develop a strong, vise-like grip and provide a nice healthy outlet for the day’s accumulated stress. Hey, it’s fun to smash stuff.

Sledgehammer Strikes

Jumps from Knees to Feet

I learned these from Louie Simmons. They’re popular with Eastern European athletes and are excellent for developing explosive hip extension, which is important in just about any athletic movement.

They can be done with bodyweight or with added external weight. I recommend starting with a weight vest such as an XVest once you progress to weight.

Although it’s outside of the scope of this article, they can be done to mimic Olympic and power lifts. I’ve seen them done with as a snatch and a power clean variation and Louie said that doing them with 225 pounds on the bar, racked on the shoulders like a squat, was considered a starting point for many of the athletes he spoke with.

Jumps from Knees to Feet

IronMind Gripping Implements

Your body functions in kinetic chains and the weakest link in that chain will be the limiting factor in athletic performance. With any kind of pull, whether a deadlift, pullup or locking onto an opponents arm in an MMA fight, when your grip fails you fail too.

Improving grip strength not only increases strength and stability around the wrist and elbow joint to prevent injuries, but will enable you to smash through strength barriers on your lifts as well.

Most of the best gripping devices I’ve found have come from IronMind. They make a variety of implements to serve different purposes.

Eagle Loops strengthen open-hand grip strength and can be used to develop individual fingers. Climbers in particular find this useful. I use them a lot for pullups and farmer’s walks.

Along with being good for hand strength, they allow the wrist to rotate in a more natural fashion, which is more comfortable and biomechanically efficient and can be helpful for those with wrist injuries.

Eagle Loops

Outer Limits Loops work in the opposite direction and strengthen the hand’s ability to open. This is important for joint balance and can often be a missing link in forearm development. Strengthening the antagonistic gripping muscles is particularly helpful for MMA athletes as it will increase joint stability during isometric contractions and keep the hands and wrists more stable during punches. I use them mainly for farmer’s walks by clipping them to a kettlebell. If you’re particularly frisky you can try doing pullups with them, although you’re probably going to need some band assistance to start out with.

Outer Limits Loops

Plate Pinches

An easily available way to develop pinching strength is to pick up two plates, anywhere from 10 to 45 pounds, placed together with the smooth sides outward and hold them off the ground for time by pinching them with your hand. Be sure to hold them over a rubberized surface (a bench works for smaller plates) and away from your toes in case you drop them.

Plate Pinches

Towel Pullups

This is a budget-friendly way to develop supporting grip. Take a thick towel, twist it up into a rope and loop it over a pull up bar. Do your pullups by gripping both ends of the towel. Another option is to hang for time. Ideally, do this at the conclusion of your pulling workouts.

Stronger forearms enable stronger biceps and triceps, which carry over to more weight on compound pulling movements and a stronger back and bigger muscles throughout the chain. Grip strength is not something you want to overlook.

Towel Pullups

Bottom-Up Turkish Get Up

I came across this one courtesy of North Dakota strongman “Unbreakable” Adam T. Glass. Most people have at least heard of the Turkish get up, which is a great strength-based full-body conditioning movement. Performing it with the kettlebell gripped upside down provides a new level of difficulty and will lead to tremendous strength developments in the arms and shoulders. If your grip fails, and it probably will, don’t drop the bell. Just allow it to rotate in your hand and catch it in the normal racked position on the back of your forearm.

Bottom-Up Turkish Get Up

Time for a Change?

This is only a partial list of movements and implements you can use to increase strength, pack on some muscle and improve your conditioning while breaking out of the conventional gym rat mold. Get creative and look around. Right now you’ve probably got what you need for a great workout laying around nearby.

Make a list of every conventional exercise that you did last month. Keep in mind what the goals were behind each of those exercises, and for a few weeks try using only exercises that are not on that list to achieve each of the same goals. You’ll almost certainly find a few things that work better and are more fun than what you’re doing now.

Don’t build your workout around pieces of equipment. Select your equipment based on what your goal for the workout is. The means matter far less than the results.

Written by Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen and is founder of Barefoot Fitness

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – A Barbell is Just a Tool – Get Creative With Your Workouts discussion thread.