Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.
I’m a creature of routine. I find things that work for me, then stick with it. This can be a good thing when it comes to training; while some preach constant changes (muscle confusion, brah!), I’m more of the type who believes you create a program, use it over time and give it time to work.
However, there comes a time to change things up. It’s a tough balance between distance running and weight training for me. These forms of exercise compete with each other for time and resources. Want to be fast? You won’t be very muscular. What to be big and muscly? Fine, but forget about being fast over the long-haul.
I’ve accepted that reality. I know that I’ll only get so big or so fast, and I’m cool with that. As long as I can tough out a race over 15 miles or more, I’m good. And while I may not ever be a body builder or a power athlete, I like the idea of being strong. A little bit of both goes a long way in terms of staying healthy for a long time, and performing well in the outdoors.
Anyway, I digress. I decided it was, in fact, time to shake things up. My leg-day workouts were getting too long, too taxing. And there were areas in my training that got short-changed as a result.
So I split up some of the stuff I do on leg day, then added some more goodies. The end result? A workout that blasts the posterior chain (back, shoulders, glutes and hamstrings) while also balancing out a rather imbalanced weekly workout schedule. Here’s a review of the exercises:
Barbell deadlift: I do four to five sets of these. I start light, but quickly get heavy. This is a power lift, one that requires heavier weights and lower reps. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in (the axle grip), and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.
Barbell clean-and-jerk: One of the standard Olympic lifts, this is also a power move, and a complicated one at that. The clean-and-jerk is very technique-oriented, and I recommend good coaching and research before performing this move. That said, it’s an awesome full-body, compound exercise that builds explosiveness and power, and ultimately, strength in your legs, core and back. Stand at the bar in a deadlift position, but place your hands further apart than in the deadlift, and both palms down (no axle grip). To start the lift, explode up with the bar, but instead of stopping at a deadlift finish position, raise that bar to a front-squat position. You will likely come up on your toes a bit (the whole leg gets involved). Once in this position, you will do a push-press to finish the move — squat down slightly, then explode up powerfully with your legs, press the bar up, and lock out. For balance purposes, you might feel comfortable having one leg forward, one back, then coming to a neutral standing position once this lift is complete. This lift is easier shown than explained in type, so here ya go:
I do this in sets of four reps. This ain’t an exercise where you do high-rep sets. Even so, you will get a cardio element during your sets. Tip: This exercise is VERY technique oriented, and it is a riskier move than most other lifts. It’s vital you do weight you can handle, and don’t break form.
Farmer’s walk: This one is a lot easier to master. Simply pick up two heavy weights, then walk slowly with them in your hands for a minute. Dumbbells or plates work here. Maintain good posture and keep tension on your shoulders. A real trap-buster, and it will really help your grip strength, too.
Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.
Pull-ups: The king of back exercises, especially those broader lat muscles. But don’t be fooled, pull-ups and chin-ups are awesome for the entire back/shoulder muscles groups, as well as for your biceps and grip strength. I strongly recommend doing dead-hang pull-ups (no kipping) for optimal strength gains and muscle growth. Grab the bar, and “pack” your shoulders (don’t start from a completely relaxed position); flex your shoulders so they are supporting your weight at the bottom of the lift). Concentrate on pulling your chest toward the bar until your chin clears it, then lower yourself slowly. With this, do as many reps per set as you can.
Rear-delt band pulls: Band pulls? Really? Yes, really. I’ve read some really great stuff from elite lifters who use band pulls to strengthen those small backside shoulder muscles (rear delts, rhomboids), which in turn opens their chest and allows them to get huge gains in exercises like the bench press. Take an elastic band and grab both ends with your hands. Then slowly stretch the band out until your arms are fully extended in full-wingspan mode. Then slowly return to your starting position. Sets of 20 to 25 reps are good on this one.
Flexed-arm hangs: A good finishing exercise for the back. Go up to the pull-up bar, then pull yourself up to where your chin clears the bar. Hold that position for, say, 10 seconds. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. As you get stronger, increase the time.
So my workout looks like this:
Deadlift: sets of 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 (increasing weight)
Clean-and-jerk: 3 sets of 4 reps (increasing weight)
Farmer’s walk: 3 sets, 1 minute per set
Pull-up: 3 sets, as many reps as possible for each set
Rear-delt band pulls: 3 sets of 20
Flexed-arm hang: 3 sets, 10 seconds per set (more time if you’re stronger)
This is causing me to redo some of my other workouts during the week, but I’m good with that. A lot of the things I do are geared toward promoting a stronger posterior chain. This has a couple benefits. First, you can’t be a strong person without a strong back. And second, if you’re an endurance athlete, that entire posterior chain — back, glutes, hams and calves — need to be strong if you’re going to perform well and prevent injuries. Elite distance runners may need to tweak this (for the sake of being fast). But in general, if you’re interested in a high level of general fitness, doing the work on that ole backside should be a priority.