The Fit Five: Raw Strength
Our expert weighs in with the best practices for boosting strength and performance.
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Strength training is what makes us better athletes. It gives us a leg up on the competition when it comes to pushing, pulling, hitting, and throwing. Strength training is also critical for protecting the body from all the bumps and bruises we take along the way. To maximize our efforts in the gym for peak performance in the game, we tapped into our resident fitness expert, Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S.
Q1: I'm looking to increase the size and strength of my traps. What is the best technique for performing shrugs?
"Use a barbell, which will allow you to load the greatest amount of weight for the strongest muscle-building stimulus. Hold the bar at shoulder width with your palms down (or use an alternating grip if the weight is too heavy to hold on to; lifting straps are another option). Shrug your shoulders to your ears, pulling them back a bit as they come up. Since the bar will touch your thighs, it won't allow you to retract your shoulders very far, but doing so activates more of the traps."
Q2: I've been making good progress on the bench press so far, but have hit a plateau in the last eight weeks. How can I break through and start increasing my weight again?
"Identify your sticking point. If you have trouble pressing the bar off your chest (getting it up from the bottom position), your pecs are probably weak. Add some pushups and dumbbell bench presses to your program to bring them up. If you can't lock your elbows out at the top of the movement, your triceps need work. Work on close-grip bench presses and triceps pushdowns. If you have a partner, have him hold a board or foam roller on your chest while you bench press. Bring the bar down till it touches the surface (the range of motion should only be a few inches), pause, then press back up. Work up to a heavy set of 5."
Q3: How can Olympic lifts improve my performance on the Big Three?
"Olympic lifts build power, a strong core, and strong back and shoulder muscles. All of these are important for making gains in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Try working cleans and snatches into the beginning of your lower-body workouts."
Q4: How many days a week should I be squatting, optimally, to increase strength?
"If you haven't been lifting long, you can squat three days per week doing three sets of five reps. This gives you lots of practice so you can perfect your technique, and you can increase the poundage quickly. If you're more advanced, work up to a heavy set of five, three, or one once per week. The warmup sets you take to get there provide enough volume, and the heavy weight on your max set will be a good stimulus for strength."
Q5: Is there a benefit to squatting without shoes?
"It depends on the shoes. If you're wearing running sneakers that have air pockets or anything else that makes their soles squishy, your squat won't be as stable as it would if your feet were low to the floor on a flat and stable surface. You can squat in Olympic weightlifting shoes, which have a high heel—this gives you better leverage and transfers more of the stress to your quads for better thigh development. You can also squat in Chuck Taylors, minimalist sneakers, or barefoot, which ensures a stable footing and can potentially build more strength in your feet and ankles."