Maybe you’re pretty strong. Great. But that just increases the odds that you can’t do these easy movements that would allow you to get even stronger.
There’s something that happens to people who can bench 300 pounds or deadlift over 400. They start to think these accomplishments exempt them from the little things that built their foundation or kept them in the game.
What usually happens is that they start to think they’re too advanced for certain things, but ironically, it’s these “little things” that end up holding them back. With that in mind, here are six humbling movements that will attack the weak points of strong lifters (and not-so-strong lifters, too)… if indeed you can even do them.
There’s a 90% chance that almost all of your weight training revolves around sagittal plane or “forward and backward” movements. These comprise all the popular and important lifts you see in the gym.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I’m not here to bash deadlifts, squats, rows, or press patterns. But while focusing on this plane of movement may be great for muscular development and even strength, it leaves muscles responsible for adduction, abduction, or even rotation hanging out to dry.
That may not sound like a huge deal, but their dormancy over the long haul can lead to serious imbalances, chronic pain, and injury. What you need to do is use small tools to escape the sagittal plane and force the muscles to stabilize load when force is applied in a different direction.
Let’s start with the medial glutes. It’s surprisingly difficult to maintain a single-leg bridge when the lever arm moves farther away from the body (as seen in the video). Focusing on slow, controlled reps and a maintained contraction on the grounded leg will make the medial glutes work hard to maintain a straight-forward orientation of the pelvis.
If your hips sink or twist (and believe me, they will if you’re new to this movement), it’s a strong indicator that you have some work to do. This isn’t the same as doing a squat with a band around the knees; in fact, this is much more effective due to the supine positioning and single-leg emphasis.
Building the glute medius will positively affect the performance of your squats, deadlifts, and lunges, and also act to take stress off of your lower back and sacroiliac region. As a bonus, the farther you can pivot your raised leg, the more that will speak to your level of active hip mobility, which can doubly serve someone who’s tight. If you’re a meathead, that’s probably you.
Guys with a lot of muscle and a heavy back squat are instantly cut down to size when performing side lying adductions because the entire movement is dominated by the inner thighs and obliques.
Attempting to get one leg to touch the other while maintaining a straight bottom leg is the goal here. Using a mat on top of the box will help the working leg feel comfortable. Sets of 10 reps per side should be more than enough.
Lots of people can muscle their way through weighted pull-ups that are only technically half-decent. They might be able to pull 500 pounds off the ground and they can row heavy weights attached to a cable for lots of reps. That’s all great for cosmetic mass and skill-specific strength.
But there’s a reason why those same strong people tweak their necks when they look over their shoulder or throw out their backs when they’re picking up a pencil or tying their shoe – it’s very easy to become artificially strong, and it may even allow you to escape injury for a long time.
But the truth is, big heavy lifts like squats and deadlifts – as important as they are – require a foundation. And if all the little things aren’t doing their part to contribute to a compound movement, it’ll catch up to you in the form of chronic pain or acute injury.
In the case of the upper back and neck, attacking the deep neck flexors and extensors and actually zeroing in on the rhomboids, rear deltoids, mid traps, and teres minor is the way to really see change in your upper back and neck health, along with your posture.
You may think you’ve got a strong neck and good postural muscle strength, but the back plank will make you realize in a hot second just how incredibly weak these groups are relative to other synergist muscles involved in your pull patterns.
Sets of 15-second holds are more than enough to start noticing technical failure, especially if you carry a lot of size. Some coaching points:
- Keep the chest, chin, and fists as high towards the ceiling as possible. Protrude the neck to make the flexors work hard. Drive your elbows into the benches to raise the ribcage.
- Keep the hips up high. Don’t let them fall, or else the rear deltoids won’t get hit as hard.
- To progress, move the benches a couple of inches farther apart to create a larger lever arm before adding any external loading. Even a small change in bench width will make a world of difference in the difficulty level of the move.
The classic wall slide is ineffective for most people. It doesn’t take much to build the skill of keeping your arms on the wall while you slide the hands up and down.
Resisted slides, however, create a forward force angle that requires the rear delts and upper back to become much more engaged – without letup – through the entire set.
Maintaining wide elbows and a neutral spine position becomes a lot harder than it is with traditional wall slides, but it doesn’t take much weight to get the benefits from this movement, as long as technique is maintained.
If you carry a lot of muscle, chances are you have tight shoulders. That’ll lead to shoulder aches and pains, and also prevent you from breezing through mobility based movements like Turkish getups, snatches, or med ball throws.
The reason why football players are never mistaken for bodybuilders is because regardless of how much muscle they pack on, they’re still able to move freely, have joint integrity, and achieve full ranges of motion, whereas watching bodybuilders sprint or perform any feats of athleticism can be a cringe-fest.
As far as the upper body is concerned, having good circumduction – the ability to move the shoulder a full 180 degrees – comes from a combination of flexibility through all muscles that cross that junction, and strength of the working muscles to pull your arm through the desired ranges.
In short, that combo of strength and flexibility are what creates mobility, and it’s probably something you need more of. Medicine ball tomahawks truly hit the entire posterior chain when done correctly, but the focus is on the same shoulder mobility mentioned above.
Use a light medicine ball to start. Ten pounds should be plenty. The rules are simple:
- Keep wide elbows at all times. It’s easy to do this exercise if you cheat by doing a biceps curl instead.
- Keep your chin tucked and neck packed. Craning your neck forward (into the floor) is just a compensation pattern that won’t make for any positive improvement for the joint mechanics.
- Touch the medicine ball to the upper back and pause on contact. Raise everything else you can off the ground at the same time to create a full arched-angel position.
This movement will light up your weak lower traps and rear delts, and give you an honest indication of what your shoulder rotation looks like. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to ace this movement, but you probably won’t at first.
The idea of scapular stability is pushed so much that we forget about one truth: For every load-bearing joint, stability and mobility lie on a continuum. Even if there’s a great need for plenty of mobility, there’s still a mild need for some stability, and vice versa.
In the case of the scapulae, stability is king, but the body must posses the capacity to move the scapulae around at will. This will contribute to healthy, pain-free shoulders, and also allow the shoulder joint to move freely.
People with good scapular mobility won’t have problems performing prone plate transfers.
In the video, I’m only using a 2.5 pound plate. With my clients, I use their water bottle or one of my fat grips. The point is, it’s very easy to let technique go out the window, and it’s extremely humbling, even with the lightest of loads. Keeping everything possible off the mat is harder than it looks. Do 8 passes in each direction.
Taking a phase to add all these exercises into your program, possibly on their own day, can create the perfect storm to making your body a more efficient and healthier machine in and out of the weight room.
Getting good at this stuff is worth your time, so check your ego at the door before you find yourself checking in at your weekly physio treatment center. By the way, they make for some great conditioning moves, too.