Adding more plates to your deadlift or bench press or moving that peg down the cable stack is a pretty amazing feeling. Way, way less amazing: pulling a muscle because something in your body wasn’t actually ready for that added weight. Why does that happen? Because while you’ve worked hard to improve the strength of the prime mover muscles, the smaller stabilizer muscles haven’t gotten their due. Add these exercises into your routine to stay safe while you get jacked.
1. Get a Grip
Hand strength is probably one of the most underappreciated aspects of weight training. But with a strong grip, you can hold and control more load for more reps, particularly for deadlifts and pullups. “In everyday life, you have to grip things, like your suitcase or grocery bags,” says Michael Urti, CSCS, vice president of personal training operations at Retro Fitness. “It’s an important muscle group to work—the ones in your hands, wrists, and forearms.”
To strengthen your grip, add the following two moves to the end of a heavy lifting week.
Farmer’s Walks and Suitcase Carries
Hold heavy weights by your sides and walk forward purposefully for 30 seconds up to a minute. Two-handed farmer’s walks work both grips at a time, while one-sided suitcase carries involve the core more, as it has to engage to help keep you upright (more on that upcoming). Don’t cheat on the load—Urti recommends choosing based on the weight you’d use for a heavier dumbbell chest press. Rest for about the same amount of time that you walk, and do three to five sets.
Another great way to work hand strength and burn out the chest after a tough bench day is with pushups done with your hands tented, weight on the fingertips. Do two sets of 15 reps with no more than a minute rest between.
2. Firm Up Your Core
Crunches can’t be beat for working the superficial six-pack muscles. But without also-strong deeper core muscles, you could end up hunched or even with back pain—and if you can’t stand up straight, you can't show off your well-earned washboard. “You see those guys who put the weight belt on in order to do bigger heavier lifts? You can [and should] train your bodies to do that without the belt,” Urti says.
The secret is in antiflexion and anti-rotation core exercises, or ones that train your core muscles to resist giving in and collapsing under a load. Do any one of the following three moves toward the beginning of your heavy weightlifting workout, after the warm up but before you hit it hard.
Kneeling Cable Chop
Rig the cable machine with the triceps ropes set up high. Kneel down facing the cable, one knee up and one back behind you. With a moderate weight on the stack, pull the ropes down in front of your chest, hold for a moment, then finish the move by pulling the ropes across your front leg to the outside of that hip. “The rotation should come from the shoulders, not the hips,” Urti says. Slowly resist as you release back to start. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side, with a minute rest between each.
Kneeling Cable Lift
The opposite movement pattern of the cable chop, you’ll lower the ropes to the lowest position. Again, kneel in front with one knee up and one back. Pull the ropes up toward your chest and then high over the shoulder of the lead leg side. Resist the urge to let the weight stack drop on the return. Continue for 10 to 12 reps per side for three sets with a minute rest between each.
Pallof Cable Press
Rig up the cable machine with a single handle at chest height, either when standing (easier) or kneeling tall on both knees (harder). Align yourself so one side of your body is to the cable machine and your feet or knees are close together, and the cable is at tension when held in both hands at the center of your chest. Press your arms straight out in front of you, keeping them aligned with your sternum. “The resistance is coming from one side so the body wants to pull to the side, but you have to hold your body tight against it,” says Urti. Hold for two seconds, then release your arms back to chest center for two seconds. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps, then switch sides. Do three sets with a minute rest between each.
3. Move Sideways
Lateral movements are very important for agility and stability on your feet, but most exercises are in the front-to-back movement pattern. “Training laterally is what makes you able to balance on one foot while picking something up, or able to regain your balance if you’re thrown off,” says Urti. Add the following moves to your routine as noted.
Side Step-Up to Balance
Add this to the end your lower-body strength circuit. Stand to one side of a 12-inch to 18-inch box. Place your closer foot on top and step up with one leg, pushing through the heel and driving the knee of the free leg up to a 90-degree angle. Hold for a beat, then lower back down with control. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps for basic conditioning, or add dumbbells by your sides and reduce the rep count to five to eight, with a rest of a minute between sets.
Tack this plyometric move on to the end of leg day for a quick lower-body burnout. Start in curtsy position, front knee bent, back leg with toe resting behind you. Explode off the front leg to leap to the side, landing squarely on what was the back foot, tapping the other toe on the ground behind you. Jump side to side in this manner for 30 seconds on, then 30 seconds rest, for three to four rounds.
4. Fortify Your Shoulders
Quick show of hands: How many people do you know who’ve suffered shoulder injuries? (Apologies if you’re one of them and raising your hand caused pain.) While there are a number of ways to get a bum shoulder, injuries to the rotator cuff are among the most common. “To prepare shoulders for high intensity moves, you need to strengthen the smaller muscles,” Urti says. “If you’re looking for increases in your shoulder press or bench press, stronger rotators allow the prime movers to perform in a much more stable manner, so you can lift more weight.”
On shoulder and chest day, do both of the following moves as part of your movement prep before you start your lifting workout.
This funkily named shoulder move positions your arms halfway between a front raise and a lateral raise. Begin with fairly light dumbbells—10 pounds to start, with your hands at your sides. Raise your arms arms straight up and out at 45-degree angles from your body, hands in neutral grip, stopping when your arms are parallel to the ground or slightly higher. Keep the move very controlled both as you raise up and lower down. Do two to three sets of 15 reps with a minute rest to activate the shoulder muscles.
Set up a light to moderate resistance band with the anchor at about belly-button height. Stand so the band handles are to your side and grasp both with the hand furthest away from anchor. Lock your bent elbow into your side (you can even place a folded towel between your arm and waist), and slowly rotate your hand out to the side, being sure the movement is coming from the shoulder, not the torso. Do 15 reps per side for two to three sets, resting a minute in between.
5. Take it One Leg at a Time
“When you’re doing strictly bilateral (two-legged) movements like squats and deadlifts, you have the risk of having the stronger side compensate for the weaker,” Urti says. By making a point to work one side at a time, not only can you reduce muscle imbalances, you’ll improve the stability of each leg, which in turn will allow you to handle more weight on those big bilateral exercises.
Add the following move at a higher rep scheme as a supplement to your barbell squats for strength and stability gains.
Start in a staggered stance, one foot stepped forward of the other. Keep your torso slightly angled forward and bend both your knees to lower yourself toward the ground, as low as you can without your back knee touching. Press through the heel of the front leg to re-extend the legs. Do eight to 12 reps for three sets (a minute between)—it should be challenging. If it’s not, add dumbbells by your sides, or elevate the back foot (and then add dumbbells). Once your stability improves, try a pistol squat—standing leg bends, other leg extends out in front of you in the air—using the TRX for support, then ditch the straps and work on your range of motion.