New Year’s is about fresh beginnings and new goals. I have a couple of goals for you this year. I challenge you to be able to do one unassisted pullup and/or one body-weight squat by next year.
More is built into these challenges than a simple one-time repetition. You will gain many positive external skills and results from pursuing these goals.
The squat is such a functional exercise that all of your other movements, both in the gym and in life, will become better. It widens your sphere of ability.
Developing a good squat means you will eventually address issues such as range of motion and core strength. In searching for range of motion, you will more than likely venture into the realm of mobility. You’ll use tools such as foam rollers and stretches to unlock your hips to get low enough.
Supporting that kind of weight on your back also means that your core may need to be stronger. If you see your back rounding under light loads, then some additional core exercises may be in your future. Search among my many core columns on www.lvrj.com/trainer to find some good ones.
The pullup is another superfunctional movement that provides high returns. For some, the road to an unassisted pullup may be long. Again, the benefits you gain while traveling that road make the trip worthwhile. Core strength and shoulder stability are among some of the big gems you will unearth.
Your journey may also include some mobility. You’ll find that a relaxed muscle is stronger than a tight one. Spending some time with the foam roller on the lats and upper back can do wonders for back stiffness and overall soreness.
Think how an athlete looks who already can perform these challenges. Squatting body weight is a commendable benchmark. That athlete generally doesn’t look obese. When a person walks around at a healthy weight, he or she is likely to be able to move efficiently to handle a similar weight in a squat. As athletes approach that body weight benchmark, muscles such as glutes, quads and hamstrings start looking pretty good. If the athlete was overweight to begin with, you will see body weight decrease as a result of the exercise.
The same goes for pullups. The movement gets easier the lighter the person is. Athletes who can do a pullup generally will have some tone to their arms. Their back is generally strong enough to hold their posture straight instead of hunched over. They look healthy and fit.
My advice for these New Year’s challenges is to stay constant with your program. If you miss a day during a week, then make sure you don’t miss any days the next week.
Doing the work to reach your goals takes time. The more you make your fitness goals a way of life, the more likely you will be to accomplish them.
Many people think that the day after they perform a maximal effort movement is the day they will be the sorest. Not true. When I "max" on a lift, I am never any sorer than I would be from a regular workout. If anything, I am less sore. Max day means that I get to do fewer repetitions. The weight is just heavier. If I miss a lift, then I assess where to focus for the next few weeks. It could be accessory movements to my main lift or mobility focuses or even making sure I don’t overtrain my prime movers.
Be sure to warm up before maximal lifts. Don’t jump into it. Spend a few minutes to get your heart pumping and perform some movements at lighter weight to prime your muscles. Use a spotter. For squats, use two or three spotters.
Being caught under a barbell that weighs as much as you do is not fun and may even cause injury. Err on the side of caution and be safe when lifting. Get a trainer to coach and spot you. The best athletes in the world have multiple coaches; you would do well to get the experience of a trainer on your side.
These challenges are not for everyone. If you have any condition where lifting in this fashion is contraindicated, then please listen to the advice of your physician. Doctors always trump trainers.
That doesn’t mean that being fit and making goals is not in your realm of options. You just need to do so with a little more caution. Get a trainer to help get you there. Good trainers will ask your doctor for guidelines and restrictions before they develop a program for you. Most doctors will gladly prescribe guidelines to increase your physical activity. Doctors appreciate patients who do their best to stay healthy by exercising.
Instructions for BODY-WEIGHT SQUAT CHALLENGE
Having already performed warm-up sets, load the bar to equal body weight. While the bar is still safely racked, place the bar on the meat of the trapezius muscles behind the neck. Contract the core and stand up with the loaded bar. Take one step back to clear the pins of the squat rack. Contract the core and take a deep breath.
Pull the hips back and down while pushing the knees outward. Keep the back straight. Squat as low as you comfortably can. Contract the glutes, keep the chest up and ascend out of the squat.
Minor form flaws become major form flaws under maximum load. Watch the knees so they don’t turn inward. Have someone keep an eye on your back so it doesn’t round while it is loaded with weight.
Progress up to a body-weight squat. Depending on the athlete, this could take a few months or the better part of a year. Get a trainer or gym buddy to watch form and be a spotter.
Instructions for PULLUP CHALLENGE
Position the hands so they are outside shoulder width on the pullup bar. Orient the hands so the palms are facing away from the chest. Contract the core, straighten the legs and point the feet.
Contract the lats and pull the elbows inward toward the rib cage. This will elevate the body so the chin is over the bar. Return to the starting position.
There are easy ways to progress the pullup to maintain correct form and reduce the risk of injury. Many gyms have pullup machines that can be set to a number below body weight. Jump-stretch bands are also an easy way to transform any bar into one that provides assistance. See my earlier column on pullups for the breakdown.
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Chris Huth is a Las Vegas trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.