Dumbbell Bench Press
Working your chest, triceps and shoulders, the bench press is the yardstick of upper-body strength. It may have fallen out of favour in more ‘functional’ circles, but I’d argue there’s something incredibly ‘real world’ about being able to push away a heavy weight that’s pinning you down. Switch out your barbell for dumbbells for an increased range of motion, revivified muscle growth and rebalanced strength from left to right.
An optimal bench press begins with your legs.For the type of full-body ‘tightness’ that is required, kick your dumbbells up to your chest before bringing your feet behind your knees, driving your heels into the ground and contracting your glutes, quads and core to create a rigid structure from ankles to shoulders.
The closer you have the weights, the more your triceps will bear the brunt. Take them further apart and you’ll stretch your chest more, but begin to stress your shoulders. Hit the Goldilocks zone by starting with the inside head of each dumbbell touching the outer portion of your chest. Maintain this distance throughout.
Your upper arms should be set about 45 degrees to your body. Again, anything closer will bias your triceps, while going wider will stress those shoulders. Lower to the outside of your pecs over 3 to 4 secs. Pause for a beat, then press up with gusto. Throughout each rep, concentrate on driving your shoulder blades down and maintain a slight arch in your lower back. Focus on that pec stretch: that’s the real money-maker.
As far as accessible, muscle-building movements go, the pull-up is hard to beat. Some, however, can find the rigid ‘locked in’ range of motion uncomfortable on the shoulder joints and elbows. The gymnastics ring pull-up circumvents these issues by allowing you to find a more fluid, natural range of motion. You’ll be pulling pain-free for longer.
Jump up and get a good grip. The free-hanging nature of the rings will enable you to manoeuvre your palms, and therefore your shoulders, into a comfortable position before you even start pulling. For maximum impact, try taking your lats to full stretch by starting each rep with your palms facing away from one another.
Brace your core and point your feet in front of your body creating a ‘hollow’ position. Lock your shoulder blades down and back, then pull yourself towards the rings by drawing your elbows towards your pockets. Keep pulling until your chin passes above your hands, rotating your palms to face you.
Reverse the movement, lowering with control back into a complete dead hang. Keep your feet in front of your body throughout. Experiment rep to rep with different hand positions, so you can find the best path for your own mechanics, while striking a balance between joint health and a full range of motion.
The D-ball Squat
A primal movement pattern, the squat is unrivalled in its ability to slap mass on to your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Yet many struggle to stick the landing, especially as the weights creep up. Trade your bar for a ball and leapfrog all the technical nuances for a low-skill lift that’s as safe as it is hardcore.
With the ball between the midline of your feet, hinge down and roll it from side to side, working your hands underneath to grip it. With your back straight, shoulder blades back and chest up, drive through your heels to stand. Drop the ball into your lap and ‘hug’ it tightly before standing: the ball should be covering your torso.
Take a wider than shoulder-width stance to give yourself plenty of room. As you squat, keep tabs on the position of the ball; it will keep you upright, so you don’t lose your balance. This protects your back, building those all-important ‘postural muscles’. Lower slowly until the crease of your hip passes below your knee, feet flat.
Keep your shoulders pinned back and breathe into your belly, pressing your diaphragm against the ball to protect your spine. Stand up explosively before repeating. At any time you can safely drop the ball, which is important as you begin to tire. It ensures your ego can’t write cheques your quads can’t cash.
Incline Bicep Curl
All of the moves we’ve covered are gym royalty in their domains. But we also know that our hearts belong to the bicep curl. Take a seat, get comfortable and get ready to wage war on your T-shirt sleeves with the only bicep curl variation you’ll ever need.
Set an incline bench to a 45-degree angle and lie with a light dumbbell in each hand. Allow your arms to hang straight down behind your body. Unlike standing, or even sitting upright, this position forces your shoulders into extension, fully lengthening the biceps to make use of every last degree of motion.
With your palms facing forwards, drive your shoulder blades into the bench and slowly curl the dumbbells upwards, ensuring that your upper arms remain perpendicular to the ground. Lying at this angle will help to nix any ‘body English’ that you might be tempted to use to assist.
At the top of each rep, squeeze your biceps and allow your upper arms to drift forwards. Although ‘keeping your elbows back’ is often heard when cueing the curl, the biceps brachii assist in raising the shoulder, so end with your elbows pointed slightly upwards. Flex your triceps at the bottom of each rep.
The bench press may be the king of upper-body moves, while squats reign over the lower domain. But the deadlift takes the crown when it comes to full-body bang for your buck. And good news: elevating your feet on to a box or a set of plates can supercharge its potency. It’s a game of inches, after all.
Load your barbell and position it above a set of plates. You should just have enough room to get your feet beneath the bar. The increased range of motion means you will have to squat further to reach the bar than with a conventional deadlift, majorly increasing the role your quads play.
With a grip wider than shoulder-width, focus on ‘pulling yourself down’ to the bar, until your hips are low and your chest is high. Beginning each rep from such a low position forces your lats to work overtime, locking the barbell into a safe range of motion, and tying your upper and lower body together.
Imagine that you’re pushing the floor away with your feet as you begin to stand, keeping your hips low for as long as possible, barbell close to your body and your torso upright. Reverse the movement exactly, maintaining a braced core. The huge amount of full-body time under tension will lead to bigger legs, a thicker back and increased mobility.
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