by Ben Bruno T-Nation
Last August, on my 27th birthday, I made the goal to share 27 useful training tips by this August you know, the practical stuff that you can start implementing on your own immediately.
Here are eight more for you. I cover a wide range of topics so you should definitely be able to find at least a few that apply.
1. Calf Training Sans Machines
I don't do any direct calf work.
If you've ever met me, this probably doesn't come as a huge surprise because, well, my calves reflect the neglect – meaning they aren't very impressive.
They get enough indirect work from things like sled work and glute-ham raises so that they aren't completely nonexistent, but they're not great.
It's not that I'm against training the calves, it's just not a big priority. If you're after big calves, though, I absolutely think you should be doing calf raises of some kind. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either genetically blessed in the calf department (I'm jealous) or like me, has some pretty puny calves themselves.
I'm usually a fan of using free weights over machines, but calves are an exception. Machines are simpler and work better.
But what if you work out in a home gym or in a bare-bones "hardcore" gym that doesn't have any machines? Then it gets tricky.
One of my online training clients recently ran into this dilemma, so I started thinking of some good workarounds for him.
The usual staples in this situation are bodyweight single-leg calf raises or standing barbell calf raises. While these are both better than nothing, I'm not a big fan of either.
I like single-leg calf raises done with just bodyweight, but they're simply too easy for most dudes. You can hold a heavy dumbbell in one arm, but even then you're really going to be really limited as far as loading potential is concerned.
Barbell calf raises offer much great loading potential, but when you do them freestanding, balance becomes the limiting factor.
To circumvent that issue and take the balancing aspect out of the equation, try doing them with the barbell pinned flush against the rack so you're scraping the rack on the way up and down, similar to a Smith machine.
For this to work, you need to hold the bar in a front squat position so you can lean into the rack slightly to keep the bar on the correct path.
To increase the range of motion in the stretched position at the bottom of the rep (which is important for growth, by the way), stand with your toes on a weight plate or small aerobic step and your heels dangling freely in the air.
You can do them single-leg or double-leg, but I much prefer single leg because a) it just feels better to me and b) the non-working leg can serve as a "spotter" in case you lose your balance.
If that description left you confused, here's what it looks like in action:
Balance shouldn't be an issue since you're using the rack for support, but if you do start to feel shaky just tap the free leg down to rebalance yourself. You can also use the free leg for a little added boost at the end of the set to help squeeze out a few more self-assisted "forced" reps.
This is harder than it looks, and when you take into account the friction of the bar against the rack, you probably won't need a lot of weight to really feel it.
To hit the calves in a slightly different way, you can also set up more like a rack pull with a big forward lean, which turns the exercise into something like a donkey calf raise.
These feel quite a bit different from the front squat version, so switch it up and try it both ways.
If you find yourself looking to bring up your calves but train in a machine-free gym, these may be just what the doctor ordered. I should really start doing more of them myself.
2. Training "Free Days"
The topic of "cheat days" or "free days" is big in the nutrition world, and people swear by them for both psychological and physiological reasons.
I prefer to be a little more fluid with my eating. I eat well the vast majority of the time and only keep good food on hand, but when I go out with friends I'll let loose a bit (sometimes more than a bit), regardless of what day it is. It's a similar concept I guess, just less rigid.
I do love to employ a "free day" in my training program though, which functions essentially the same as a dietary cheat day. On the last day of the training week I go in and do whatever the hell I feel like doing at that particular moment. Just about anything is fair game, so long as it's not (too) reckless and it doesn't interfere with subsequent training sessions.
My rationale for the free day is mostly psychological. I think that to make progress in the gym it's important to stick to a logical plan, but once you've been training hard for a while you can start to get bored or stale, especially when you aren't competing in anything or training for something in specific and instead are mostly training just for the love of it.
Maybe you do your regularly scheduled workouts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and follow it up with a free day on the weekend, or maybe you lift Monday-Friday with Friday being the free day. The setup isn't too important, just make sure it's the last training day of the week.
To liken it to food, the idea is that you're making sure to eat all your healthy food first and then following it up with dessert, so to speak.
Examples of "free day" workouts might include:
Complexes or circuits
"Vanity Day" (arms, traps, abs, calves, etc.)
Work on a weak lift or weak body part
Catch up a workout you missed during the week
Jump in with some friends and do whatever they're doing
Skip the gym entirely and rest (I do this about 30% of the time)
If you're training for a specific goal or competition, then free days may not fit into the equation, but if you train with more general goals in mind, it can be a great approach.
3. Recovery and "Overtraining"
The people that worry the most about recovery and overtraining are the ones that don't train hard enough and aren't strong enough to need to worry about it – while the stronger dudes that train like maniacs on a regular basis don't give recovery the respect it warrants and often push themselves beyond their limits.
That's why I don't like to write about overtraining very often, because the wrong people pay attention. Weak and lazy people use overtraining as an excuse to feel okay about their indolence while the people that should pay heed are too busy kicking the **** out of themselves to care.
When I first started training I was so anxious to get stronger that I trained almost every day with marathon workouts that would scream "overtraining" on paper. You know what happened?
I actually got stronger and it taught me the true meaning of hard work. I wasn't strong enough and hadn't learned how to push myself hard enough to overtrain.
Now that same program would absolutely bury me. On paper my workouts today don't hold a candle to what I used to do, but they still kick my ass even more because the weights I'm using are so much heavier and I've learned how to push myself much harder.
Conventional wisdom would say that the more advanced you get, the more workload you can handle, but that's only true to a point. The stronger you get, the more emphasis you must also place on recovery.
I think most people need to worry about undertraining much more than overtraining, but we here at T Nation are part of the few who perpetually ride that fine line between training hard and overdoing it, hence the added importance on recovery methods to ensure we aren't sabotaging ourselves.
I've been using Z-12™ since the start of December, and after trying it out I must say that I'm surprised it's not talked about more on this site – it's some really good stuff!
Like many of you, I've struggled off and on with sleep and have tried all sorts of different sleep aids, and Z-12 is by far the best of the bunch.
My problem isn't falling asleep so much as staying asleep. I tend to go to bed around 11 P.M.-midnight and have to be up by about 5:30 A.M. – which doesn't leave too much time to begin with – so it's important that I maximize that downtime to the fullest.
For some annoying reason though, I also seem to wake up for no apparent reason and then my mind starts racing about everything I have to do. The next thing I know, it's time to get going, leaving me running on fumes. Sound familiar?
Since taking Z-12 though, I sleep much more soundly through the night and wake up feeling refreshed, which makes for a much nicer day.
It's funny, you often hear people talk about how supplements are not meant to make up for a crappy diet, and I totally agree. But I think the same thing goes for crappy sleep. Along with good quality food, good quality sleep may be the best supplement going.
5. Hand Care for Meatheads
Hand care is quite possibly the least sexy topic I've ever broached, but if you lift heavy weights regularly, it's damn important.
Before you click off the screen and try to revoke my man card, rest assured that I'm not talking about getting your nails done or anything like that. The only manicures I get come from my own teeth.
This is just about keeping your calluses in check so you can continue to train hard, because if you've ever ripped one then you know how badly it sucks and how much it can put a damper on your lifting.
To keep that from happening, get one of those gizmos that resembles a cheese grater for your hands.
Once a week or so, soak your hands in warm water and gently scrape the calluses with the grater to remove most of the dead skin. The whole process will only take about three minutes, but it will end up saving you lots of pain and bad training sessions over the long haul.
Disclaimer: You don't want to remove the calluses entirely as small calluses will actually help protect your hands and serve as a badge of honor for your hard work in the gym, but you do want to keep them filed down enough that they don't tear and your hands aren't so nasty that on one will let you touch them.
6. Bring the "Warming Up" Part Back to the Warm-up
More and more attention is being given to the warm-up, and rightfully so. A good warm-up is extremely important for both long and short-term joint health and helps set the tone for a good workout.
But I think we tend to think about the warm-up too much in terms of elaborate mobility and activation drills that we sometimes lose sight of the whole "warming up" part of the warm-up. This is especially important during the winter months for those of us that live in colder climates because all the latest and greatest mobility drills are useless if you're cold.
Walk into most gyms and you'll see a room of half-naked people. While I certainly appreciate the eye candy as much as the next guy, I don't think exposing all that flesh to the cold air is the best way to warm up. During the workout is a different story, but during the warm-up, wearing layers can make a huge difference and really expedite the whole warm-up process and allow you to get more out of the mobility work.
Back in college when I had to walk to the gym, I'd do my warm-up in a T-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt, a winter jacket, sweatpants, and neoprene knee sleeves. Then during my first exercise I'd do a warm-up set, strip a layer, do another warm-set, strip a layer, so by the time I got to the work sets I was feeling great and ready to rock and roll.
I've since ditched the winter coat, but I'm still big on layering up. It may not be the most fashionable thing to do, but the gym isn't the place to worry about fashion anyway.
Along those lines, don't be afraid to start the workout with a few minutes on the bike, elliptical, or something else to get your heart rate up a bit and get a little sweat going. Some will scoff at this and see it as "old school," but in conjunction with other warm-up drills, it can be an important piece of the puzzle, especially if you train early in the morning as a way to get moving a bit before hitting the weights.
7. "Top Down" Pressing
I've started to notice that some of my clients experience mild shoulder pain on the first rep of the set on dumbbell presses, kettlebell presses, and landmine presses that goes away on subsequent reps.
At first this had me perplexed because these exercises are all supposedly "shoulder-friendly," but looking at it more closely, these pressing variations all start from the bottom position, which can be tough on the joints.
It's the same reason dead-stop deadlifts can be harder on the lower back than touch-and-go deadlifts, and step-ups are harder on the knees than step-downs.
For these clients that have problems starting in the bottom position, I've had them switch to mostly unilateral pressing variations and instructed them to start the set by using both arms to press the weight up to the top position, and then use one arm to lower the weight, thus starting the set with the eccentric.
That seemingly trivial tweak has made a huge difference; so if you find yourself in that same boat with your pressing, give it a try.
8. Drink the Rainbow
As someone who can't stand cooking and spends most of my day walking the gym floor, I go through protein powder faster than the Kardashian sisters go through spouses.
Shakes are a convenient way to meet your protein requirements and Metabolic Drive® Low Carb is the best tasting stuff I've ever used by a mile, but eventually chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry starts to get old.
If you feel similarly, try mixing and matching the flavors to spice things up a bit. I'm loving a scoop a chocolate with a scoop of vanilla, and while I don't really like strawberry on its own, I really like it mixed in with chocolate or vanilla.
If you really want to get frisky, you can even mix all three together and make a Neapolitan shake – though admittedly I haven't gotten that adventurous yet.
Sometimes it's the little things that go a long way.
Hopefully some of these little things strike a chord with you and you can start putting them to use. In the meantime, I'm off to the laboratory (the gym) to see if I can come up with a few more useful tips to improve your training in time for my 28th birthday.