by Bret Contreras T-Nation
Previous installments of The Contreras Files were largely an assortment of information gleaned from the latest literature.
While I plan to return to addressing the new research in future editions, the next two installments of the Contreras Files are going to be a compilation of practical tips that I've learned as a lifter.
If you can't find at least one actionable item in this article, then there ain't no pleasing you!
1. Joint-Friendlier Variations for Consistent Gains in Powerlifting
Injury-prone powerlifters should consider sticking with joint-friendlier powerlifting variations, which might allow for steadier gains by sparing the joints and nervous system.
Specifically, I'm referring to performing slightly narrower-stance squats, slightly closer-grip bench presses, and slightly better form deadlifts.
Keep in mind that these variations won't allow for quite as heavy loads to be used, but they will allow a lifter to train more frequently.
Now, don't get carried away, just take the grip in a couple of inches on bench, the stance in a few inches on squats, and don't allow for any "slop" on the deadlift.
Interestingly, the "perfect form" deadlift is actually a badass way to progress – try to make 90% of your 1RM feel like your 1RM by not allowing the slightest breakdown in technical form.
I've been training in this manner for the past year and I have to tell you, lifting is much more fun and efficient when your knees, shoulders, and low back don't ache.
2. The Best Way to Inverted Row
I don't like using a barbell to hold onto for inverted rows. I think the TRX® is the optimal way to inverted row – it allows for natural wrist rotation and you have to pull outwards slightly on the straps as you rise up, which increases the exercise's effectiveness. The Equalizer® works well too, as it allows for a neutral grip.
If you must use a barbell, go with a supinated grip while pulling to below the chest, rather than a pronated grip while pulling to the mid chest.
3. The Best Way to Goblet Squat
Another thing I don't like is using kettlebells for heavy goblet squats. Dumbbells are much easier to hold onto once you start using over 100 pounds.
When performing any squat variation, I want my upper back, hips, and knees to receive a training stimulus, and therefore I don't want the grasping mechanism to limit the loading.
You can certainly use lighter kettlebells for goblet squats, but if you decide to ramp it up and go hard, opt for the dumbbell. 120 pounds for 20 reps is a good goal to aim for. Here's Ben Bruno busting out a set.
4. The Best Way to Bent-Over Row
I prefer dumbbells to barbells for bent-over rows. They allow for natural wrist rotation and greater range of motion, which makes the exercise safer and more effective. Another caveat is that you don't tend to see "ego-lifting" with dumbbells, so form stays better compared to the barbell variations.
5. Going too Heavy on Single-Leg Movements
I often make the mistake of going too heavy on single-leg movements, to the point where my form breaks down significantly and the exercise fails to look athletic.
Don't do this. You'll receive a greater training stimulus by going a bit lighter on single-leg movements but keeping perfect technical form, rather than relying on momentum and energy leaks to complete your reps.
Your hips shouldn't shoot up faster than your shoulders, and your pelvis shouldn't droop to one side when performing standing single-leg exercises.
6. Posterior Chain Every Day
Some lifters prefer splits while others prefer total body training. For those who prefer frequent total body training, you can and should train the posterior chain every training session.
Here's one way to go about it – one day you might do axial-loaded exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and/or good mornings. The next two days you might do anteroposterior-loaded exercises such as hip thrusts, reverse hypers, and/or back extensions.
Same goes for upper back exercises – one day you might do chins and shrugs, the next two days you might do a couple of different rowing variations.
Axial loaded exercises beat you up more than anteroposterior exercises, so you can use anteroposterior movements as "fillers" to receive a training effect and strengthen weak links while your body recovers and is ready to squat and/or deadlift heavy again.
7. Band Seated Rows for Garage Gymmers
Back when I started training out of my garage, I thought up the band seated row, and to this day it's still my favorite rowing variation. It looks light and easy, but trust me it's not.
Try using a monster band from an appreciable distance away from the rack and you'll realize how effective the movement is.
First, it's very joint-friendly, and second, the focus on end-range scapular retraction strength is through the roof. All you need are a sturdy band, a seated row handle, a bench or box squat box, and a stable pole.
8. Bottom-Half Chest Work for Extra Pump
Sometimes I like to bust out some bottom-half push-ups or dips to really hammer my pecs at the end of a training session. Sure, full range movements are ideal, but this doesn't mean that you can't skimp on ROM here and there to target a particular muscle.
I can typically double my number of reps with dips and push-ups when I omit the top-half (which makes sense), and it stands to reason that this would provide a greater hypertrophy stimulus for the pecs.
9. Two Awesome Exercises for Arm Pumps, with Very Little Joint Stress
Direct arm work tends to beat up some lifters. They either stubbornly stick with it and eventually seriously aggravate their elbows, or they give up on direct arm training altogether.
Case in point, skull crushers and barbell curls are badass, but the skull crusher can be problematic for the elbows and the barbell curl produces a ton of shear stress on the lower arm.
If direct arm training beats you up, switch to band standing triceps extensions and strict concentration curls. Don't go too heavy and focus on squeezing the end-range contraction for a second on each rep.
This will give you the hypertrophy stimulus you're seeking while sparing your joints and not interfering with your strength on compound lifts.
10. The Bodyweight Single-Leg Calf Raise for Genetically Blessed Calves
You might be like me, which is genetically gifted in the calf department. If you find yourself in this situation, you can either omit calf training (the calves receive a training stimulus from squatting, deadlift, and glute ham raises anyway), or twice per week simply bust out a set of bodyweight single-leg calf raises off of a step. Twenty controlled repetitions leave my calves smoked!
11. Three Lifts that are Conducive to "Controlled Cheating"
Cheating during lifting is a slippery slope. Today's "additional momentum" often leads to tomorrow's "spastic seizures." You definitely don't want to cheat much on the Big 3 powerlifts, but there are a few lifts that are conducive to a bit of controlled "slop."
Give yourself 10% wiggle-room at the end of the set with barbell curls, lateral raises, and one-arm rows. Just don't go overboard and be "that guy."
12. Two Excellent Exercises for Lumbar Erector Spinae Strengthening
If you're looking to beef up your lumbar erectors or provide an additional training stimulus for this muscle group, consider performing bodyweight reverse hypers and plate squats. Both lead to surprisingly high levels of lumbar erector activity with very low loads.
You don't even need a pendulum unit for reverse hypers to effectively target the erectors, you can just use bodyweight or ankle weights. And for plate squats, you can get by with a 25 or 35-pound plate.
Check out this chart from an experiment I conducted on myself a while back.
Exercise Mean Lumbar Erector Activity (% of MVC)
Bodyweight Reverse Hyper 79
35lb Plate Squat 66
275lb Back Squat 76
405lb Conventional Deadlift 53
13. Oft-Overlooked Deadlift Assistance Exercises
Earlier in this article I threw the bent-over barbell row under the bus, but bent-over rows and t-bar rows can be great deadlift assistance exercises.
If you choose to do them for this purpose, don't go too heavy and focus on keeping the identical spinal and pelvic posture as your regular bottom-position deadlift form throughout the set.
14. Heavy Kettlebell Swings Improve Round-Back Deadlift Form
When I max on the deadlift, I round over like a mofo. For over a decade I've been in search of the "Holy Grail," some "secret" exercise that would fix this problem.
I tried everything (for example, several months of arched back good mornings twice per week) and I always assumed that upper back strength was the culprit.
Well, I recently stumbled upon "the secret" (at least for me). The culprit wasn't a lack of upper back strength, but insufficient flexed-range hip extension strength.
Heavy kettlebell swings require enormous eccentric hip extension absorption at the bottom of the lift, with a subsequent explosive reversal.
Though I've maxed with 585 pounds on the deadlift, the most weight I could deadlift with an arched back was 425 pounds. Now I can arch-back deadlift 495 pounds, and the only thing I've done differently is get much stronger at swings with the 203-pound kettlebell. This is a big deal!
15. Band Rotary Holds are Rotational Planks
I prefer the feeling of band rotary holds to Pallof press variations due to the prolonged isohold. They're much more difficult than they appear, and I also like bands over cables. Make sure you keep an athletic posture throughout the set.
You have the RKC plank for linear core stability endurance, the side plank for lateral core stability endurance, and the band rotary hold for rotary core stability endurance. These three exercises, along with deadlifts, build a well-rounded core with plenty of stamina.
I hope you enjoyed my ramblings and perhaps picked up something useful you can use in your own training. See you next month!