When we were seven, my friends and I loved to eat spinach. Not because we liked the taste. God no. Raw spinach tasted like, well, leaves, and the goop we'd spoon out of the can was vile, smelly stuff. No, we ate spinach because Popeye ate spinach.
It made him instantly muscular and powerful–a can of spinach and he could punch through brick walls. We could only imagine how it would transform our pre-pubescent bodies into superhero physiques. We shoveled it down our throats, testing our gag reflexes, and satisfying our mothers.
Unfortunately, unlike Popeye, we didn't see any immediate benefits (except maybe my buddy Mark who could projectile vomit green stuff half an hour after eating a can). My sorry ass still couldn't pick up one end of the picnic table and none of us could climb the rope to our clubhouse any faster. Still, we were convinced the spinach was doing something.
Now, in 2010, we've traded climbing trees for lifting weights, and a bunch of guys like me are still looking for that boost, that dirty, sneaky trick that will instantly add pounds to the bar, make our workouts more effective, or prime our muscles to grow.
Thanks to the T Nation experts, I have six such tricks for you. Take it from me: unlike spinach, they're not at all hard to swallow.
One-Arm Lifts for Instant Activation and Strength
Several months ago, T Nation bodybuilding coach Christian Thibaudeau was in a rut.
"I was making progress in the gym, but I needed something to make my training fresh. So I started reading training books from the 1800's–a bunch of cool strongman stuff–and that's when I got an idea: explosive one-arm lifts."
At first, it was a nice change of pace at the beginning of the workout. But a week later, when he showed it to his training partner, Thibaudeau knew he had something powerful.
"The first time we did it, we both beat personal records on the snatch and the shoulder press," he says. "When we tried it prior to the bench press, my training partner beat his PR and I got pretty damn close."
Thibaudeau learned that explosive one-arm lifts potentiated the nervous system without causing a lot of fatigue.
"I still use explosive movements or very heavy partials to activate the nervous system, and they work very, very well," he explains. "But they'll make your body tired if you overdo them."
But an explosive one-arm lift gives you all the activation with almost none of the fatigue.
"During a one-arm dumbbell snatch, for example, both legs and both sides of the body can contribute to the movement. Even though the weight is heavy for the working arm, the overall stress on the body is low," says Thibaudeau. "The heavy weight on the arm and shoulder activates the nervous system via an intense contraction and the rest of the body via the explosive movement. You're activating the nervous system in two ways at the same time."
According to Thibaudeau there are a few exercises that instantly transfer to more strength in two-arm movements like bench presses and military presses. It's just a matter of selecting the right one.
One-Arm Clean and Press
Stalled on your bench press or military press? Chances are your rotator cuffs are weak and useless. "If they're not strong or can't be recruited quickly to stabilize the shoulder joint, you're not going to push heavy weights," Thibaudeau says.
Doing the one-arm clean and press will activate your nervous system and target the rotator cuff and delts. When you go back to the bench or military press, your rotator cuff will be ready to do its job.
Since the one-arm clean and press directly potentiates the working muscle (the shoulders, in this case) Thibaudeau recommends doing all your sets before your main lifts. Then take a few minutes of rest before moving to the bench or shoulder press.
"Start with a light weight you can move quickly and then ramp up with each set from there," he instructs. "And always keep the reps between one and three on each arm. The goal is to activate the nervous system, not tire yourself out."
One-Arm Power Curl
We've all heard about antagonist training. For example, if you want to ensure your chest works harder during the bench press, you'd do a back exercise first. The goal is to pre-fatigue the opposite muscle (the back) so the working muscle (the chest) will have less resistance from the antagonist and will take on more of the lift. But in the case of the bench press, it doesn't work. Why?
"Because if you're doing a bench press correctly, your upper back will need to be as tight as possible," says Thibaudeau. "Doing a back exercise before the bench press is stupid."
Instead, Thibaudeau recommends doing a curl.
Wait. A curl?
"If you pre-fatigue the biceps using a one-arm power curl, you'll activate your nervous system, and the pump in your biceps will stabilize your elbow joints. The triceps will be free to take on more of the weight, and your body will produce more force because it'll be stable," explains Thibaudeau.
Since you're not directly working your primary movers with the one-arm power curl, Thibaudeau recommends alternating one set on each arm with one set of bench presses. Again, keep the reps under 3 and be sure to ramp the weight.
(Thibaudeau recommends holding onto a power rack with one hand for stability, and putting your feet in an athletic stance before doing the one-arm power curl. Oh, and this is one curl where it's OK to use your body to help get the dumbbell up.)
But how heavy should you go on these exercises?
"As heavy as you can with good form and speed," says Thibaudeau. "On my last set of one-arm clean and presses I used a 150-pound dumbbell."
Well, at least it's something to shoot for.
Get Bloated for Big Lifts
The photo of Joe DeFranco talking with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing in DeFranco's garage-style gym is a bit misleading.
"It looks like we're talking about advanced lifting methods, but I'm really telling him how to load up on sushi and soy sauce the night before his NFL Combine lifting tests," admits DeFranco. "And it worked pretty damn well."
According to him, the high sodium content made Cushing retain water (and become heavier) the morning of testing. This extra "bloat" translated into bigger lifts.
"Both of Cush's PR's in the 225-pound bench press test came after a night of sushi binge eating," says DeFranco. "In college he benched 225 for 36 reps and last year at the NFL Combine he got 225 for 35 reps."
Naturally, T Nation strength specialist Dave Tate likes the idea.
"Sodium and carb-loading before a max lift will give you a huge advantage," he says.
Tate recommends eating the following every two hours the day before you test a max-effort lift:
- 1-2 packs ramen noodles
- 1/4 bag salt vinegar chips
- Gatorade G2
Man I don't know about all that sodium. I prefer Finibar™ Competition Bar.
Warm-up Like Dave Tate and Bench More Weight
If you think Dave Tate just gets under the bar and lifts, you're sadly mistaken. A stickler for perfect technique, Tate knows how to truly prepare for a PR. You don't.
"Show me a guy who wants to bench 300 pounds for a new PR, and I'll show you a guy who's warming-up like an idiot," says Tate.
The Idiot Warm-up
- 135 x 12
- 185 x 10
- 225 x 5
- 275 x 3
- 300 x 0
"That's 5650 pound of volume before testing your max," says Tate. "Plus you only did 28 fucking reps."
The Tate Warm-up
- 4 x 5 with the bar
- 2 x 3 with 95 pounds
- 135 x 3
- 165 x 3
- 195 x 3
- 225 x 3
- 255 x 1
- 280 x 1
- 300 x 1 awesome fucking rep
"This way you're doing 3910 pounds of volume but with 40 total reps," explains Tate. "It's 31 percent less volume but 42 percent more repetitions; it's more warm-up but less fatigue."
According to Tate, the smart lifter primes technique, activates the nervous and muscular systems, and gets the job done.
The stupid lifter gets pinned.
Mental Boost for Better Lifts
Dr. Clay Hyght doesn't want to sound like a koan-reciting tree-hugger, but he does want you to get your mind right.
"Before you walk over to the dumbbell rack you have to ask yourself one question: What am I trying to accomplish with this set?"
You may have your logbook, but if don't have a specific intention for each set, the numbers don't mean shit. You won't perform to the best of your ability.
"Let's say you did 200 pounds five times on the barbell shoulder press last week. You have to tell yourself, 'I'm getting six reps on this set,'" says Hyght. "You have six in you. It's a matter of believing you can do six reps."
But isn't that a bit...stupid?
"Hell no. I'm not saying I get under the squat bar, visualize I'm squatting 1000 pounds, and then do it. It has to be realistic. But if you can rehearse it in your mind, you can do it."
"Let's say I'm getting ready to do lateral raises. Before I walk over to the dumbbells I'll close my eyes and say to myself, 'Eight reps, eight easy reps.' Then I'll visualize the entire set. The first few reps are easy, but numbers six and seven are hard. I'll picture myself grinding out the eighth rep with good form and then racking the dumbbells. Then I open my eyes, walk over to the dumbbells and execute. 99 times out 100–assuming my goal is realistic–it works."
Sometimes it works so well it freaks Hyght out.
"I train with a buddy of mine who's even with me strength-wise," says Hyght. "A few days ago we're doing dumbbell pullovers and I tell him to go first. I want to beat him, you know? We're doing the same weight we did the previous week when we got eight reps. Well, my buddy does 10 reps, beating his personal record by two. So I walk over and say, I'm going to get 11. But he's a joker. He tells me to get 15."
Hyght took that as a challenge.
"I laugh and say, Okay. Then I close my eyes and visualize doing 15 reps with a weight I should–in theory–only be able to do 8 times. I picture fatiguing around number 13, 14 and 15. I walk over to the dumbbells, do my set, and holy shit, I get 15."
Hyght recognizes it's not a magic trick.
"The bitch of it is, I was clearly physiologically capable of doing those 15 reps the week before, too. It was just a matter of taking the brakes off my mind. I made myself fatigue at 8 reps."
Read enough sports psychology or talk to any high-level athlete and they'll tell you: if you can visualize performing well in your mind, you've got a better chance of performing well in real time.
The Cure for Stiff Shoulders
Stiff is a good thing when it comes to some body parts (hello, Viagra!). Not so much when it comes to shoulders. Tight shoulders can inhibit the amount of force you can produce on upper body pushing and pulling movements and make it hard to get under the bar for squats.
Instead of stretching them and potentially making them worse, try the side-lying extension rotation from Eric Cressey.
"It's a mobilization that opens the thoracic spine and cues scapular stability and shoulder range of motion," he says. "If you open the upper back, get the scaps in place, and get range of motion, you can save your lower back by staying more upright when you squat. You'll also bench more safely."
Blend Strength and Power for a Badass Body
What good is muscle if you can't do anything with it? It's like organizing a blind date for pornstar Alexis Texas and a eunuch–after the spaghetti dinner and a Hugh Grant movie, he wouldn't know what to do with an ass like that.
Well, a lot of the guys in the gym–most of them who obviously don't read T Nation–are muscle eunuchs.
They focus on hypertrophy but train their body to contract slower over time. If only someone would tell them that explosive exercises and taking advantage of Post-activation Potentiation (PAP) could help them hit high-threshold motor units, making them more powerful and athletic.
While the standard rule is to toss in some vertical jumps, sprints, and plyometric push-ups into your routine, Bret Contreras has two problems with this approach.
"First, most guys go to the gym once per day, so splitting up workouts into plyometrics and speed workouts earlier in the day and strength workouts later in the day isn't practical," he says. "Second, if do power exercises in the beginning of the workout, your strength work will suck. If you do all your power work at the end of a workout you won't improve at all."
The perfect solution is to blend.
Contreras recommends alternating strength exercises with explosive power movements directly after to take advantage of PAP.
"Right after a heavy set (contraction) your nervous system is on fire. If you do your power exercises directly after you rack the bar, you'll take advantage of PAP before fatigue sets in."
The coolest thing about PAP is that it's ideal for advanced guys. "Guys with more fast-twitch fibers who've been lifting for a few years will benefit the most," says Contreras. "They're more fatigue resistant."
Contreras recommends doing power exercises that are very similar to the strength exercises:
- Squats Vertical Jumps
- Hip Thrust Broad jump or sprint
- Bench Press Plyometric push-up
- Walking Lunge Power skip
"You don't want to do it with high-rep work," says Contreras. "Use heavy weight and keep your reps below five."
- Set of bench presses (3 reps)
- No rest
- Set of plyo push-ups (3)
- Repeat 4 more times (5 sets of 3)
Try it Out and Let Us Know
Try one of our six dirty, sneaky tricks the next time you hit the gym and let us know how it goes. (Just go easy on the exclamation marks!!!!) One more thing: do you have a trick up your sleeve? Share it in the comments!