20 Ways to Train Smarter

Get better results for every major body part and big lift with these innovative exercise hacks.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Do leg presses while wearing Olympic shoes to really target the quads.
  2. Position the hands on the outside of the dumbbells when curling. It creates an insane burn in the biceps while saving the elbows and forearms.
  3. If dips hurt your shoulders, do band dips where you attach two bands to the top of a rack. Great for pec and triceps activation.
  4. Brace yourself during single-leg lifts by holding onto a bar or rack for support. It’ll allow for better balance and greater loads.
  5. Do back extensions with a glute focus. Flare the feet out, round the upper back, squeeze the glutes, and drive the hips into the pad during each rep.

1. Don’t let the hips shoot up during squats and deadlifts.

Many lifters will shoot their hips up when they initiate the squat or the deadlift. Don’t allow this to occur. Make sure the knees and hips extend at the same rate as you rise upward. Here’s what it looks like when the hips shoot upwards (knee extension without hip extension):

And here’s what it looks like done correctly, where the hips and knees extend at same rate:

Yes, loads will have to be reduced in order for this to be achieved, but in the long run it’ll allow for safer lifting technique and greater strength gains.

2. Do pause front squats for maximum quadriceps development.

The absolute best exercise for building quads? The front squat. But it has to be performed in a specific manner – with a one-second pause at the bottom of each rep while wearing Olympic shoes and while trying to keep as vertical a torso as possible.

3. Wear Olympic shoes when leg pressing for quad development.

One day I was too lazy to change out of my Olympic shoes after front squatting and went straight to the leg press. I couldn’t believe how much more I felt it in the quads. Give this a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised… and hobbling around for 30 minutes afterwards.

4. Tailor your Bulgarian split-squat form according to your weakness.

When performing the Bulgarian split squat, you can alter your form to develop greater knee or hip strength.

A shorter stride with a more upright trunk will better target the quads.

A longer stride with a more forward lean will better target the hips.

Target your weakness. Knee-dominant squatters should perform hip-dominant Bulgarian split squats. Hip-dominant squatters should perform knee-dominant Bulgarian split squats.

5. Perform glute ham raises with a slight forward trunk lean.

There are different styles of glute ham raises. Some lifters utilize a more complete range of motion by combining two distinct patterns into one movement – hip extension and then knee flexion. Some just perform the knee flexion aspect (and then knee extension during the eccentric phase) while keeping the hips in full extension.

Most believe that the glute ham raise is best performed with the hips in full extension, exhibited by a straight line from the heels to the head when at the bottom of the movement. But that may not be the best technique.

Try this: Allow for more of a flexed trunk – 20-30 degrees of trunk lean. It lengthens the hamstrings at the hip, slightly alters the tension on the hamstrings throughout the range of movement, requires less output from the erectors, and allows for more reps to be completed or greater external loads to be used.

6. Perform offset dumbbell curls

Positioning the hands on the outside of the dumbbells when curling places more load on the biceps brachii by requiring greater supination torque.

Try this: If you normally curl 60-pound dumbbells, perform 3 sets of 20 reps with just the 25 pounders with your hands on the outsides. Rest only 45 seconds between sets. This creates an insane burn in the biceps with minimal stress on the elbows and forearms.

7. Perform band triceps extensions as you would cable triceps extensions.

Most lifters will loop the band around two points of support, but using one point of support works better. It allows for more consistent tension on the triceps, if you perform it properly.

Here’s the key: On the way down, spread out the bands as you would with a cable triceps extension. Perform 3 sets of 20 reps while resting only 45 seconds between sets.

8. Do band dips if regular dips don’t feel right.

Dips are a staple exercise for most, but they can begin to wear on the shoulders of veteran lifters. And for some people, dips just never feel right.

But here’s a decent compromise – band dips. Sure, these should probably be called band decline presses since you’re pushing the load away from the body rather than pushing your body away from a fixed surface. However, they feel a lot like dips.

The main difference with bands is that tension is markedly reduced at the top of the movement, which spares the shoulder joints. But it still elicits a ton of pec and triceps activation at the bottom of the movement, so it’s a win for those who can’t safely perform dips.

9. Do band face pull/pull aparts to hit the delts and upper back.

Band face pull/pull apart hammers both the mid and rear delt heads. It also works the mid traps and rhomboids fairly well.

To perform this exercise properly, it’s imperative that you also pull the bands apart while executing the face pull motion. This is what creates the dramatic rise in deltoid activity.

10. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of machine rows.

The bent-over row, performed with a straight bar or hex bar, is a staple exercise for many. But don’t underestimate machine rows.

With the Hammer Strength horizontal row, the movement path starts more medially and ends more laterally, better recruiting the lats. Try it 2-3 times per week and get stronger with the movement. When you go back to your favorite bent-over row variation, you’ll find you’ll be tossing around more weight than ever, even though you haven’t performed that exercise in months.

11. Perform bench squeezes for improved grip strength.

To deadlift big weight, you have to develop a strong grip. Farmer’s walks and static barbell holds help, but they also tax the whole body and significantly load the spine. If you’re already squatting and deadlifting twice per week, that may cause too much lower back stress.

The solution? Low-stress grip exercises such as the bench squeeze. All you do is grip the bench with a thumbless, overhand grip and squeeze maximally in an isometric fashion for time.

Perform 2 sets of 20-second maximal squeezes twice per week. You’ll be shocked at how well this works!

12. Do gliding leg curls as a substitute for lying leg curls.

Many lifters train out of garage gyms or facilities that don’t contain leg curl machines. One of the best, non-machine leg curl exercises is the gliding leg curl.

Perform these using just knee flexion, with the hips not quite fully extended. This allows for a greater burn and more constant tension on the hamstrings.

13. Perform hollow body holds for increased core stability.

Hollow body holds are an amazing ab exercise. Never heard of them before? Gymnasts perform them regularly in their training regimens as it mimics a lumbopelvic position they regularly utilize in some of their events. What’s great about this exercise is that it builds abdominal posterior pelvic tilting strength and endurance.

Here’s how you do it: Lie supine with the arms and legs in the air and the knees bent. Flatten out the lumbar spine so there’s no gap between the floor and the low back. The upper torso will crunch upward slightly, but you’re not actively trying to do this (it’s a result of the flattening of the lumbar spine).

Gradually lower the arms and feet toward the floor while maintaining the lumbopelvic position. Hold this position for time and continue to push the low back into the floor throughout the duration of the set. Perform 2 sets of 20 seconds at least once a week.

14. Brace during single-leg lower body lifts.

There are several reasons why single-leg lifts are ideal. They spare the spine in comparison to heavier bilateral lifts, they work the legs very well in certain people, and they improve stability and proprioception.

Now, if you’re an athlete, then increasing stability might be a wise strategy, but if you’re not an athlete, don’t be so hardcore about decreasing stability during resistance exercise. There’s a continuum of stability and instability, with one end of the spectrum performing single-leg lifts on inflatable discs with slosh pipes for resistance, and the other end of the spectrum performing bilateral machine lifts.

Neither end of the spectrum is ideal for getting jacked, and it’s perfectly fine to brace during single-leg lifts by holding onto a bar or rack for support. It’ll allow for better balance and greater loads to be used.

Brace during single-leg RDLs and pistol squats. T Nation contributor John Meadows even likes to brace during Bulgarian split squats while holding onto a dumbbell with the opposite hand.

15. Perform leg extensions off the reverse hyper.

Some lifters have reverse hypers at their gyms or in their garages but don’t have access to leg extension machines. Did you know that you can do leg extensions off the reverse hyper?

While not quite as effective as machine leg extensions, they still work well. Just sit on top of the unit and place the strap over your feet.

16. Do band iso holds for increased glute activation.

Want to learn a simple but effective iso hold exercise for the glutes? Simply place a band around the knees, take a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, get down into a hip hinge position, and maximally force the knees outward against the bands.

This is surprisingly effective, and 2-3 sets of 10-20 seconds are all you need to achieve the desired effect.

17. Perform body weight back extensions with a glute focus.

Many lifters have never learned how to perform back extensions with a glute focus, which is unfortunate. If trying to hit the back extensors, then go ahead and utilize spinal flexion and extension, but if trying to hit the glutes and hams, perform them as follows:

  • Flare the feet outward at a 45-degree angle or more (hip external rotation).
  • Round the upper back and keep it rounded throughout the duration of the set. This is more conducive to posterior pelvic tilt and it takes the erectors out of the equation.
  • Achieve a maximal glute squeeze at the top of each rep and envision driving the hips into the pad during each rep. Also, think of the glutes shortening through contractions to erect the torso on each rep, and remember to keep tension on the glutes during the eccentric phase.
  • Attain maximum hip extension ROM via a combination of hip extension and posterior pelvic tilt. You won’t appear to rise up all the way like you do in traditional back extensions, but you’ll indeed be achieving full hip extension.

Give this set and rep scheme a try. Don’t use any additional loading. Just use your own body weight. Perform 3 sets of 20-30 reps with 45 seconds of rest in between sets. If you do these correctly, the booty burn you achieve will be almost unbearable.

18. During certain parts of the year, focus on the squat and do just one hard set of deadlifts per week.

During some portions of the year, you should be hammering the deadlift with sufficient volume. However, during other portions of the year, focus on the squat. It’s much easier to build the squat when not annihilating yourself with deadlifts as it allows for greater squat frequency.

Having a strong squat complements the deadlift – it’ll lead to greater leg drive and lower hips when pulling. So don’t think of this strategy as suboptimal for long term deadlifting prowess. During these times, squat 1-2 times per week and front squat once per week, while only performing one hard set of deadlifts for the week.

When you go to deadlift, just warm-up sufficiently, choose a particular load, and go for maximal reps with that load. An alternative strategy is to just perform a few sets of speed pulls with around 60% of 1RM for 1-5 reps 2-3 times per week. You’ll find that your deadlift strength doesn’t drop off at all during this period of time, but your squat strength rises at a significantly greater rate.

19. Hold the top of the hip thrust for 10 seconds on the last rep of each set.

The top of the ROM for hip thrusts is the hardest portion, and lifters usually skimp on this when they rep out to failure. The hips rise lower and lower on each rep. Combat this tendency by performing a 10-second iso hold on the last rep of each set.

This keeps your form solid as you gain strength. It also induces a killer glute burn. At around 6-8 seconds into the hold, you’ll notice that your hips will want to drop. When this happens, push the hips upward by squeezing the glutes, making sure that the last few seconds of the iso hold are maximally effective.

20. Perform “band no moneys” for better posture.

From a standing position with good posture, hold onto a band with a supinated grip and bent arms. Then externally rotate the shoulders. Hold the peak contraction for a 1-second count before repeating.

Two sets of 10 reps performed twice per week will improve external rotation strength and decrease the likelihood of experiencing undesirable postural adaptations in the shoulders.


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