If you don't do what's best for your body, you're the one who comes up on the short end. — Julius Erving
Let's talk about cheating. No, not when Olympic swimmers shoot helium up their bums or when your wife catches you chasing some stray kitty from down the street. Let's talk about cheating in the gym. Like when you bounce the bar off your chest with such force that you create a mini Panama Canal across your nipples. Or how about when you curl with such powerful momentum that it looks as if you're reenacting your favorite scene from "Anal Angels, Part VI?"
Why exactly do we perform such circus acts in the gym? Well, to make the weight easier to lift, of course! In fact, it's natural — instinctive even — to get any job done in the easiest way that we can. Therefore, if the "job" is to do a pull-up, the most efficient way to accomplish it is to swing wildly from the bar, making weird Michael Jordan-like double pumps on the way up, and dropping like a stone on the way down. The most efficient way to do preacher curls is to use an incomplete movement. And the easiest way to squat is to...well, use a leg extension machine! In other words, cheat.
Obviously, the problem is that to get bigger, stronger, and perform better, athletically you need to make the exercise harder, not easier. As Ian King points out, you can use a slower eccentric, longer pauses, isometric pauses, the one-and-a-half technique, or incorporate pre-fatigue movements. But recently, I've stumbled across a few old tricks that make even those ballbusters look tame!
I invent nothing. I only rediscover. — August Rodin
I learned about something called bottom-position training from dinosaur training guru Brooks Kubik. In turn, he learned about them from his research on 1920s strongman Henry "Milo" Steinborn. Steinborn is credited with popularizing the heavy, flat-footed squat. (In the 1920s, lifters normally performed light squats on their toes.) Now, think about this before you ever complain about your gym's equipment again: Steinborn didn't use a squat rack. Instead, he would upend a loaded bar, sometimes with 550 pounds on it, squat down beside it, let it fall across his shoulders, and then stand up with it. In other words, he started his squat from the bottom position! Consequently, he became one of the strongest men in the world at the time.
You may be asking yourself, if bottom-position movements are so good, why haven't I heard much about them? Is it because there's something better out there, maybe a new machine that solves all the problems of these powerful free-weight movements? Yeah, right. Can you say "Nautilus?
Psychologists say that we forget things because, unconsciously, we don't want to remember them. For example, it's easy to forget a dentist appointment or that you're supposed to have dinner at your mother-in-law's. Why? Well, we don't necessarily want to remember those things. They're tedious, and often painful. I think weight training is like that. We unconsciously "forget" to do pull-ups because we know that pull-downs are easier and less likely to damage our egos. Over time, a good exercise can fall by the wayside. That's what's happened with bottom-position movements — we've collectively forgotten about them. Well, it's time to remember what I like to call rock-bottom training.
Whatever does not destroy me makes me stronger. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Rock-bottom bench presses
Set the pins in a power rack or squat cage so that the bar is just brushing your chest. This is the start position. Begin by pressing the weight up. Stop just short of lockout and lower the weight. You can apply your own tempo here, but try to lower the weight slower than you raised it. Let the bar sit on the pins for two full seconds before you try the next rep. Visualize the pins to be made of glass, and you must sit the weight back down as gently as possible.
Starting from the bottom makes the exercise much tougher and, initially, you'll have to lower your normal poundage. By reversing the usual motion, it's easier to concentrate on a slow, controlled eccentric movement. Rock-bottom training also negates the stretch-shortening cycle that TC and King wrote about in their Four Seconds to More Productive Workouts article. Plus, you'll recruit more muscle fibers, get stronger and bigger, and attract a higher quality of kitty...uh, sorry, female companionship.
If you're a Poliquin disciple, you do full, "ass to grass" squats. If you go by Kubik's instructions, you squat only to parallel. Either way, set the pins so that you have to get underneath the bar and begin the squat from the bottom. Like the bench press, you'll drive the weight up off the pins, stopping just short of lockout. Lower the bar slowly down and gently place it back on the pins. Once again, come to a full stop and rest for a couple of seconds before you attempt another rep.
Pain is fear leaving your body. — Anonymous
I don't use this method all of the time, but it's a great way to shake up your usual routine. Sometimes, I'll sandwich regular squats with bottom-position squats. For example, do two sets of rock-bottom squats, then three sets of regular squats. Finally, finish with two more sets of bottom-position squats. You can try for maximal lifts, too, if you fancy a real challenge. One thing's for sure, after a few weeks of bottom-position work, your regular squat and bench press poundages will hit the ceiling. You could even apply the rock-bottom philosophy to other exercises, like overhead presses, skull crushers (triceps extensions), and close-grip benches.
Note: Hardcore dinosaur trainers add thick, two-inch barbells into the equation, making the pressing exercises even more difficult. Of course, these guys also chew on tractor tires while watching the game on Sunday!
When you cheat, you're only cheating yourself! — Your First-Grade Teacher
The first step to training in the most productive manner is to alleviate cheating. (Okay, a cheat rep or two at the end of a strict set might be all right to bump up the intensity, but beware of the risk-to-benefit ratio.) The second step, especially for an advanced lifter, is to make the exercise harder — in effect, doing it in a way that's the opposite of cheating.
Give rock-bottom training a try. And, hey, leave that stray kitty alone, huh? Those things carry diseases, you know.