How to Build Strength Without Size

Bench Press Female (2)

There are two types of lifters: those who want to be bigger, and those who don’t. Yes, the second group does exist, and with good reasons.

For competitors like powerlifters and fighters, weight classes matter. Having more muscle is often an advantage for you, but going up against competitors who also have more muscle may not be such an advantage.

And, of course, there are those of us who don’t want more muscle because we like the way we look without it. I know, bros, that sounds crazy. But to our broettes, maybe not so much.

Anyway, here’s a simple strategy for increasing strength without increasing size.

Step 1: Limit Volume

Training volume refers to the total amount of work you subject your muscles to over a certain period of time. Usually we refer to this in the context of a single workout or throughout a week’s worth of training. As a general rule, an increase in volume causes an increase in the training stimulus and an increase in results across all axes: more strength, more skill, more stamina, and yes, more muscle.

However, a lot of strength and skill can be accumulated with low volume, and giving the muscles involved a relatively light workload means that there is less of a demand for increased muscle mass. An important note to make here is that a “light workload” in this regard does not mean that light weights are being used, but that 1 set of 5 reps at 100kg puts far less burden on the muscles involved than 5 sets of 5 at 100kg with the same exercise.

Step 2: Spread Volume

Once the total training volume has been reduced to an amount that is still useful for strength but not as useful for hypertrophy, spread the volume out throughout the week. In a classic bodybuilding split, you might do 20 sets of a body part all in one workout, and then rest those muscles for a week before doing it all again. After limiting volume above, you might only have 10 sets of a body part, and now we’re going to spread them out over several workouts.

This method allows heavy weights to be used often without accumulating much fatigue. The effect on strength sans hypertrophy is threefold. Firstly, strength is a skill, which means the more often you practice it, generally the better it becomes. Secondly, the low levels of fatigue make it easier to train with heavy weights more often. Thirdly, as discussed above, it gives the muscles very little to need to recover from, which limits the stimulus for growth.

Step 3: Use Assistance Exercises to Improve Movement Patterns

In strength training, we normally break a program down into main lifts and assistance exercises. The main lifts are the ones that matter most to us. For a powerlifter, this is the squat, bench press and deadlift. For a weightlifter, it’s the snatch and the clean and jerk. For you it may be some combination of the above, or none of the above. In any case, these are the movements by which we ultimately measure our strength.

Assistance exercises, on the other hand, are all the other exercises we do to support our progress on the main lifts. Often we use assistance work to build the muscle mass that contributes to our main lifts, but if we don’t want more muscle mass, then that option’s out. So how else can we use assistance exercises?

One way is to turn them into drills to improve our technique on the main lifts. An example is the paused squat, used to build tightness and control at the bottom of the squat, and to teach the lifter to really recruit the muscles of their hips and legs to restart movement out of the hole. Another example is the speed deadlift, in which intense amounts of force are applied to the bar in the same form as a regular deadlift, but the muscles are highly stimulated without becoming highly fatigued.

Step 4: Limit Nutrition

A certain amount of muscle mass can be built while your body is in a hypocaloric state. This amount is distinctly less than the amount that can be built in a hypercaloric state. Ultimate, muscle mass is made of energy, which is gained by eating. Maximal muscle gain always occurs while you’re eating more than you need to. So, simply by eating less than that amount, you will reduce the amount of muscle mass you can build.

This is not to say you should starve yourself or do anything drastic. Not at all. But eat to maintain weight, or eat slightly less than that if you have excess fat to get rid of, and you will slow down a lot of the processes that your body goes through to answer the body’s request for more muscle.

Sample Workouts

With that covered, here are two sample workouts you could use to get stronger without building muscle. The first is an upper body workout; the second is a lower body workout.

Upper Body Workout

  • Bench Press 2×5
  • Banded Bench Press 5×2
  • Pull Ups 3 sets, 7-8/10 RPE (rating of perceived exertion)
  • Band Pull Aparts 3 sets, 7 RPE

Lower Body Workout

  • Squats 3×3
  • Pause Squats 2×5
  • Speed Deadlifts 5×2
  • Kettlebell Swings 3 sets, 6-7/10 RPE

5 Benefits of Lifting for Women

I’ve been training women since 2008. Each and every woman I’ve trained has gotten stronger in the process. Here are 5 ways in which this has made their lives better.

Improve lifelong skeletal health

Female vs male bone mineral density

Female vs male bone mineral density

Due to a combination of genetic factors (in particular hormonal differences) and lifestyle factors (men are more likely to consume more food and have more physically demanding jobs), men tend to have higher peak bone mineral density than women. Once women hit menopause, it gets worse.

One of the most reliable ways women can combat this is with whole-body strength training. Strength training places loads on the skeleton which stimulate osteoblast production. Osteoblasts are new bone cells, and by stimulating their development you can increase bone mineral density in the first half of your life and minimise the decline later in life. Consequently your day-to-day life will be easier and you will have a higher quality of life for longer.

Improve immediate health

If strength training is your ace in the hole for retirement, excellent. But what about right now? Well, here are some of the ways your health can be enhanced right now:

  • A balanced strength training program can help improve posture which will reduce headaches and back pain.
  • Strength training improves joint stability, further reducing various pains and preventing some injuries.
  • It’s also used to rehabilitate many injuries.
  • Some women report that strength training eases the severity of PMS (but your mileage may vary).
  • Have you ever heard of runner’s high? It’s caused by endorphins that get released after about an hour of cardio. Or you could just do one heavy* set of deadlifts to get the same endorphin boost!

*Heavy is a relative term. For training purposes, “heavy” is not about the total weight being moved, so 100kg is not always heavy and 1kf is not always light. Rather, what we refer to as “heavy” is anything in the upper range of what you can safely do. So sometimes 1kg will be heavy, and sometimes 100kg will be light. It all depends on the individual and the context.

Confidence

This one’s a little harder to guarantee. If only self-image were so simple!

Nonetheless, the average woman has a lot of latent strength and power that she is unaware of. Tapping into that physical power and exerting it is often scary at first, but then it becomes liberating. Few things boost a person’s confidence like discovering you have an ability you previously thought wasn’t there.

It’s Fun!

Again, less of a guarantee here. But when you take the confidence boost of learning that you are stronger than you thought possible, and combine it with the fast-acting endorphin boost that comes with heavy training, you have a recipe for a good time. Add to that some spirit (as is the case when working with a coach or a group of other lifters), and you might be surprised with how much you end up loving your time at the best bar in town.

This bar!

This bar!

It makes you look good

This is at the end of the list for a reason: to emphasise the point that while strength training really is great for transforming your body, there’s so much you can get out of it even if you don’t want to change your physique at all.

Ultimately, strength training – not cardio – is the type of training that has the most impact on your appearance. Your physique is determined by three main factors:

  • Bone structure
  • Body fat
  • Muscle mass

You can’t do much about bone structure without surgery, so we can’t train or diet our way to a new frame. Body fat is influenced by total activity and nutritional context. If you eat more than you need, you will increase fat everywhere. If you eat less than you need, you will lose fat everywhere. Cardio is great for burning energy, so it can contribute a lot to how much food is needed, but more cardio and less food both have the same approximate effect on how you look.

Strength training, however, allows you to have some control over your muscle mass. If you are at a healthy weight and have fairly low bodyfat, but you still don’t have the curves you want, you will have to make them out of muscle. If you see two girls standing next to each other, both the same height, size and build, but one is really toned and the other isn’t, the toned girl has more muscle mass.

Don’t believe me? Check out Staci from nerdfitness. She looks the same size in both of the pictures, but is clearly more toned on the right hand side. She’s also 5kg heavier on the right. This is what strength training can help you achieve.

So, if you’re a woman and you want to enjoy the process of progressively getting hotter, healthier and more confident, this might just be for you.

My First Competition with GPC

Yesterday, Sunday 6 September, I did my first GPC (Global Powerlifting Committee) powerlifting competition: Spring Cup at PTC Brisbane. I have competed in the past through IPF (International Powerlifting Federation), so I’m not a complete rookie, but due to some variations in the rules, I may as well be.

The squat is where most of the variation takes place. In IPF, as a raw lifter you are not allowed to use knee wraps and the squat takes place in an Eleiko squat stand.

Eleiko squat stand.

Knee wraps provide some elastic assistance and compression of the quadriceps, which triggers increased muscular contraction. Doctors achieve a similar effect when they hit your knee with a hammer, which causes the quadriceps to fire, resulting in an involuntary kick. The addition of knee wraps in GPC’s definition of raw lifting has meant a couple months of me squatting in wraps to get used to it.

The squat stand used in IPF means that set-up involves unracking the bar and stepping back out of the rack. This is how most people will set up a squat in most gyms. However, in GPC, competition squats use a monolift. The monolift means that you unrack and then the supports holding the bar are pulled away from you. No stepping back, and if you do step back you’ve broken a rule.

Valhalla Monolift used in competition.

A slight variation in the bench press is the GPC allows you to bench with your heels off the floor (but some part of your foot must be on the floor at all times). In IPF, the entire foot must be planted at all times. I prefer heels up, personally, because I have a much easier time obeying another rule which is agreed upon in both federations: your bum must stay planted on the bench throughout the lift. I’m never tempted to lift my butt off the bench when my heels are up, but with my heels down it’s a lot harder to keep my hips where I want them.

The day was a whole lot more fun than I’ve had competing in the past. This had a lot to do with the community present. That’s not to say that there isn’t good community in IPF. I made several friends in my IPF competitions. But the people running IPF competitions I’ve been to weren’t so fun, and if you knew what was going on, it was just as often in spite of them as it was because of them. In contrast, Scott and the team who ran Spring Cup were very friendly and approachable, went out of their way to make sure everything was clear, and there was zero chance of condescension if you made a mistake (I recall one of the judges in a previous competition belittling one of the girls over a minor rule because she “should know better”). Bonus points for punk/rock/metal music playing the entire time.

Okay, onto how things went for me personally. I’ll break this into two categories: lifting experience and coaching experience. While I wasn’t formally doing any coaching yesterday, I was helping out another lifter from Masterpiece Strength Academy, Josh “Smith Machine” Smith.

Lifting Experience

In my previous competitions, I’ve missed my final attempt on squat and bench press, and on my very first competition I missed my first bench press due to technical problems (jumped the start call). I was expecting to make some kind of blunder getting used to the new rules, but I got at least 2/3 white lights on every attempt, meaning all 9 attempts (3 squat attempts, 3 bench press attempts and 3 deadlift attempts) were successful. In fact, I rewatched my lifts this morning, and I think I only got 1 red light throughout the entire day, on my second bench press.

I went in hoping to squat 172.5kg, bench press 102.5kg and deadlift 195kg in the 67.5kg weight, and I achieved all three personal bests after weighing in at 67.3kg. Let’s have a look at my 3rd attempt on each lift. I’ll share a single video of the entire meet here, with times for my final attempts below. The reason I’m not linking directly to the individual attempts is that at the time of writing this, something’s going wrong with YouTube and it keeps ignoring the times that are plugged into it.

Squat

Third attempt can be found at 1:35:00. I’m pleased with how well I maintained technique here. The descent was slow enough to be controlled and fast enough to get a little bit of spring out of the bottom. My knees move in a tiny bit at the bottom, but nothing drastic. For the most part I was able to keep them out strong. On the concentric, things were fairly fast, but there was still a grind about halfway up, which suggests that I couldn’t have lifted much more than that. Had I gone for 175kg, it’s possible I could have gotten it, but it’s also likely that it would have drained me a lot and hampered my results on bench and deadlift. 172.5kg was an all-time PB and just under 2.6x bodyweight.

Bench Press

Third attempt can be found at 4:56:30. Again, straight A’s for technique, so there’s no surprise that there were white lights everywhere on this one. Evidently I’ve done something right in training over the last few months, because prior that that I had never benched more than 95kg. When I did my first attempt at 90kg, I thought they might have misloaded it, because it only felt like 80kg. Next attempt at 97.5kg (competition PB), it still felt light and easy. I was tempted to push my luck on my third attempt, but I’m glad I didn’t and instead stayed true to my plan to lift 102.5kg. This was slow on the way up, and the muscles that felt it the most afterwards were my glutes, which is normally a sign that the next increment up would have been a failed lift. 102.5kg was an all-time PB and just over 1.5x bodyweight.

Deadlift

Third attempt can be found at 7:40:45. I chose 195kg because, in training, I could barely get 190kg off the floor for singles. I had trained for 200kg, but when I couldn’t do any doubles at 190kg (and even had one shot at 190kg where the bar never left the ground), I decided to aim for 195kg in competition. It seems I underestimated how excited I’d be on the day (not to mention the effect of baby powder on my thighs), because 195kg came up fast and easy. Scotty said in the video: “Should’ve taken 200, I reckon,” so 5 minutes later I went back stage and that’s exactly what I did!

195kg was an all-time PB of +5kg and just under 2.9x bodyweight. 200kg was another PB and more like a true 1RM. It’s 2.97…x bodyweight. Can I claim a triple-bodyweight deadlift now? Or nah?

Coaching Experience

As I wasn’t really coaching anyone, the coaching experience I gleamed from this competition was a bit like Intern Boy on his first day. Tim (Josh’s actual coach, who was off doing Father’s Day stuff) left me to wrap Josh’s knees. I’ve never wrapped anyone before, so we went through it a couple times in the warm up area. Good thing, too, because my first attempt at wrapping him was off. It felt too tight behind his knees and when he squatted with it wrapped like that, the wrap on his left leg came apart enough to reveal skin.

Second time around was much better. I was able to cover greater area, wrap him so that it didn’t come apart at all, and made it feel much more comfortable — despite having actually wrapped him much tighter. Working on Josh’s wraps and watching other coaches wrapping their lifter’s knees was valuable practical experience, and allowed for some good observations.

Josh and I did each other’s lift-offs on bench press. This was nothing new to me at all, but it meant that I had access to the warm up area while the strongest men were preparing. Seeing how some of the best do it is always beneficial. By working with Josh on his squat and bench press, I had a very privileged position in seeing what other powerlifters and their coaches are doing. This, in turn, is a tiny little inch forward in becoming a better coach myself, so that I can help you become a better lifter.

PB’s. PB’s Everywhere.

For the next week I’ll be away on camp, so this week seemed like a good week to make a bunch of PB’s happen. I’ll share here the success of two clients and one Ryan.

Client 1: Cara

Cara’s been training with me for 1x30min session per week for the last 6 months. Had she been training more frequently and for longer sessions, she would have progressed even further than she has. She has wrist and shoulder issues, so for her the first time she bench pressed the empty barbell was a big deal.

This week she squatted 72.5kg, which is more than her bodyweight, bench pressed 35kg and deadlifted 85kg. I’m most impressed with her deadlift, because we haven’t trained it directly in months — she had a lot of form issues, and it seemed best to train her with variations that help her to get around those issues. Consequently, she spent a while building up technique on RDL’s, and has more recently been practicing hex bar deadlifts. The most she had lifted to date on the hex bar deadlift was 55kg.

Client 2: Helen

Helen has been training with me for a year and is also a personal trainer. She came to me with significant back issues which had made productive training on her own nigh on impossible. Her squat and deadlift numbers were looking pretty good late last year, but right at the start of the year Helen got overzealous and tried deadlifting more than she could handle. We had to start over from scratch.

This week she squatted 75kg and attempted 80kg but didn’t achieve proper depth. No pain, though. She then deadlifted a whopping 105kg and push pressed 40kg. Her bench press is sitting at 50kg and she can currently do 3 chin ups.

Myself

For much of the first half of this year, I hadn’t lifted more than 80kg, and it showed when I tested my maxes a couple months ago. Squats and deadlifts were down 20kg, bench press was down 10kg. Curiously, my non-competition lifts had stayed about the same or had actually improved, which did give a clue about what was working in my lightweight programming.

Then I decided to start training for max strength once again. I registered as a member with GPC and will also be returning to competition in September, so long as nothing goes wrong to prevent me from competing.

In this last week before going on camp, I made PB’s 3 days straight. First PB was OHP, locking out 62.5kg overhead. This is a neat little 2.5kg PB, and is only 7.8kg below my current bodyweight of 70.3kg.

The following day I went to the uni gym where I had a bit of an audience and squatted 5x150kg, which is the most I’ve squatted in competition. I used to compete through IPF where the equipment rules are a little different, so part of this PB is simply the fact that I’m using knee wraps instead of knee sleeves. But the very first time I wore knee wraps (a little over a month ago) I was barely able to do 1x150kg in them, so I know that the improvement has more to it than just putting the wraps on.

Finally, today, I improved the lift that I’ve always struggled with the most because my brain gets in the way: the bench press. My bench press has never been high up there, and normally I’m lucky if I can add 2.5-5kg to it in a year of serious strength training. Well, today I took my old PB of 95kg and did it for 3×2. This isn’t just a good achievement for me physically, but a major achievement mentally. It means I’ve overcome some fear of the bar.

It’s been a good week!

Now time to pack my bags.

Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made in the Name of Getting Big

When I started training, I was extremely skinny.

The first time I set foot in a gym to train, I weighed about 44kg at 170cm. But that wasn’t the first time I exercised with the intent of gaining muscle. That first started when I was 12 years old, 150cm and 25kg.

That’s a BMI of 11. No, that’s not an exaggeration.

Over the next decade, I did a lot of stupid things so you don’t have to. Here are some of the stupidest mistakes I made:

1. Training With My Ego

You may also know this as the mistake literally every male who sets foot in the gym makes.

For a man (or someone who wants to look and feel manly, at least), there’s a powerful imperative to be strong. That’s what got me to start training in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for us to divorce being strong from becoming strong. To become strong, one must first accept that he isn’t strong (yet!). Incidentally, that forges humility, which is a component of strength of character.

If we don’t acknowledge our limitations, we won’t train where we’re at. If we don’t train where we’re at, we won’t get the most out of training and will blunt our results. That’s before we even touch on the issue of too much load + too little technique = injuries. Injuries, mind you, prevent training, which then prevents further strength development.

Even in saying that, the person who lifts the most weight (even if they lift it really, really good) isn’t necessarily the biggest. Yesterday I squatted 3x8x120kg at a bodyweight of 70kg. Meanwhile, I have friends with just as much leg and hip muscle mass as me, if not more, who would get stapled under the bar trying to squat 3x8x60kg! What you emphasise in a given, how you load up the muscles, how you control the motion, whether or not you lock out each rep, total training volume (sets x reps) and density (how long it takes to accumulate that volume) all play a part. When it comes to building muscle, you do want to lift heavy, but that’s relative to what you can handle once all of those other factors are considered. The best way to lift maximal weight safely through a full range of motion isn’t necessarily the best way to put a slab of meat on your bones.

2. Training The Mirror

Fortunately, I always saw enough value in my back and legs to train them, too. So I never went as far down this path as the cliche gym rat does.

Having said that, “how much do you bench press?” remained the question everyone was measuring results by. So when I did my first split training program, it was an upper/lower split (which I endorse), but I ended up doing twice as many upper days as lower days.

When you train in an unbalanced manner, you become unbalanced. At best, this means you only look disproportionate. At worst, this means you also function disproportionately, which creates all kinds of pain and injuries. In my case, my shoulders are messed up because of it in ways that will never naturally heal. It’s highly manageable, so I have no plans on seeing a surgeon, but it’s better to be functional than to be managing dysfunction.

3. Making Things Too Complex

I don’t want to bag out complexity. Complexity isn’t a bad thing, and is often needed. To get the most progress, we need to use different rep ranges, different exercises and different techniques. A certain degree of complexity is good.

But once I started learning methods that increased training complexity, I started seeing complexity itself as the end-goal of exercise programming. I started doing things that were needlessly complex because it was fun and a challenge. But it was the wrong kind of challenge, because it didn’t lead to increased size or strength.

4. Making Things Too Simple

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Wise words. After a stretch of increasing complexity in my training for the fun of it, I went back to basics and got great results.

Then I overshot.

In the name of simplicity, I started leaving undone things that needed to be done. For a whole year I barely did any rows. For longer I ignored my calves. I took low bar back squats and conventional deadlifts in sets of 5 to be the be all/end all of lower body training, and my upper body training consisted entirely of bench press, overhead press and pull ups, again for sets of 5.

In doing so, I limited the muscle and strength I could gain in the prime movers for each of those movements, and practically nullified the results I could get anywhere else.

5. Eating Too Much

When I was 22, I weighed 62kg. I decided I really needed to eat more to gain more muscle mass. So I took the internet’s advice and started eating enough to gain 0.5kg/week. I stalled at 67kg for a while, but eventually got back on track. At 62kg I was 12% bodyfat, so I had about 7kg fat on me and 54kg lean body mass. At 67kg I was 18%, so I had about 12kg fat on me and 55kg lean body mass.

That’s 5kg gained, 4kg of which was fat.

That should have been a wake up call. That should have been as high as I went without cutting excess fat. Instead, I kept on pushing the scale up. Eventually I got up to 76kg. I didn’t measure my bodyfat percentage at that time, but I did measure it when I was back down to 70kg. 22%. Yikes! That’s about 15kg fat and still 55kg muscle, maybe even worse.

I had been getting bigger, but I hadn’t been gaining any muscle. Or, if I had gained any muscle with the added fat, the amount lost while cutting fat was too much to justify it.

In reality, we can only gain a small amount of muscle in a given time period. For a man to gain 10kg of muscle mass in a year requires the best circumstances for growth. And for each little bit of progress that has already come, the next little bit will be about twice as hard. There’s never any good reason to be gaining more than 1kg/month, and for most of us we shouldn’t even be aiming that high. Once we’ve gained the tiny amount of muscle mass we can gain, the rest is fat.

For the record, it took a very long time to cull most of the fat gained in this stage of life (much longer than the numbers might suggest), and it left me with lots of stretch marks. Probably increased my number of fat cells, too, which makes it harder to maintain a low bodyfat percentage. It also established some bad habits that have made diet harder to stick to ever since.

6. Not Appreciating My Results

When I started out as a 12 year old, I gained 7kg of lean body mass before my height started catching up. This was great news. But all I saw was that I was still 8kg lighter than most of my peers. When I first went to the gym, I went from 44kg to 58kg over 2 years while maintaining 7% bodyfat. This was excellent progress! All I saw was that I wasn’t another 30kg heavier, and my bodyfat% couldn’t be counted on 1 hand. I was my own toughest audience.

Had I appreciated the results I was getting, I wouldn’t have done many of the stupid things I did. I definitely wouldn’t have done #5, which has had longterm negative consequences, as has #2.

When you don’t appreciate the good things that are happening, you feel like crap. You might look great, but you end up with terrible body image. You become blind to the fact that things are working, and so you pursue ever stupider things in the hopes that they will finally work. You don’t get to enjoy your results and you do horrible things to yourself. This is by far the stupidest thing I’ve done in the name of getting big.

The Slackest Deadlift is the Best Deadlift

If 7 years of teaching people to pick things up and put them down again has taught me anything, it’s that outside of elite circles the majority of bad or missed dealifts failed before the bar even left the floor. Once the bar comes off the ground, technique is pretty straightforward: drive your hips forward and drive your shoulders back. Do that until you lock out, and a deadlift that started good will probably stay good and finish good.

Even if your form is good in the set up, that’s still not enough. Setting up with good form but bad technique will still lead to any number of classic deadlift errors, the worst offenders being arms that try to do all the work, lower backs that round out like a camel and knees that go in all the wrong directions.

This rep is going to go bad in 3...2...1...!

This rep is going to go bad in 3…2…1…!

The trick is not just to set up with a good position, but to then create the right tension and take the slack out of the bar.

All barbells have some capacity to bend. A good barbell will bend slightly under a heavy load and return to straight when unloaded. Taking the slack out of the bar is taking advantage of this natural tendency of the bar to bend under load. This creates both a stronger rep and a safer rep. We’re all about lifting heavy weights safely, so taking the slack out gets a full seal of approval.

To do this, we can’t just get into position and then pull the bar off the ground. That won’t work. Instead, we’re going to pull ourselves into the bar and push the ground away.

If you’ve already learned the basics of how to deadlift, you should already be setting up with your lower back in extension and the bar against your shins. As you pull yourself into the bar, your lower back should remain in neutral extension and your whole body should become tight. Keep your arms locked, generate tension in the glutes and hamstrings, and try to get your upper back as high as possible before the plates leave the ground. To do this, you’re going to have to bend the bar. Depending on how flexible the bar is and how much weight is on each end, expect the middle of the bar to raise 1-2cm without the plates coming up at all.

As soon as the bar is maximally bent, the slack has been taken out. Push the floor away with your heels, drive your hips forward and drive your shoulders back until you lock out.

When you deadlift this way, a few things happen, aside from reducing the range of motion by 1-2cm. Because the whole body gets tight, you are bracing, which will help you to maintain a good back position. You’re pushing with your legs, which will help you to keep your knees from going in any funny directions, and it will help you to keep your arms locked. You will be peeling the bar off the floor rather than yanking it off the floor, which will give you the safest conditions for your strongest lift.

I’ll close with this old video from the first time I deadlifted 180kg. If you look closely, you can see that when I swing myself into the bar (which you don’t have to do, but I feel better deadlifting this way) I’m not just throwing myself about for the lols. I’m actually creating tension as I swing into it, and the first thing the bar does is bend at the start of each rep. This is what we’re aiming for, and it will help make the remainder of the rep go smoothly.

Using Your Abs – All of Them

When I was a child, the big debate about ab training was whether to do sit ups and crunches. The trend was moving towards crunches, because they involve an actual lengthening and shortening of the rectus abdominis, which you probably know best as your 6-pack (or, if you’re genetically gifted, your 8-pack; or, if you’re in your off-season, your keg). Trunk rotation was becoming popular, too, as a means of training your obliques, also known as your “what the hell, I have abs on the side of my abs?!”

But about a decade ago, things started to change. Fitness became increasingly “functional” (ignoring the fact that looking hot to attract members of the opposite sex is technically a function), and somehow “doing the groceries” became a major selling point to exercise. As I pause and reflect, especially on the number of times I’ve made some kind of grocery reference to explain why a certain exercise is good and another is bad, I wonder how a decade’s worth of personal trainers almost unanimously came to the conclusion that groceries and other mundane aspects of life could be categorised along with the fun, exciting, empowering, sexy framework we were meaning to promote.

100% of the reason to compete in powerlifting is that it helps with carrying bags in from the car.

100% of the reason to compete in powerlifting is that it helps with carrying bags in from the car.

As this shift took place, anti-extension and anti-rotation became the big thing. Instead of crunches and Russian twists, planks and side planks started becoming popular. Which was all well and good, until we all got to the minute mark on each exercise and asked: “Is that it?” For a while there, Pilates and yoga was getting so popular that guys seemed to do it for reasons other than checking out 20-something year old girls in yoga pants. Around this time, “deep core muscles” started becoming popular, which we all took to mean that underneath our 6-packs were half a dozen more 6-packs created when our livers, gall bladders and short intestines do planks and crunches of their own.

Yoga pants were now only 95% of our reason for showing up.

Yoga pants were now only 95% of our reason for showing up.

While the 24-year-old guys were side-planking in an opportune position to perve on 24-year-old girls who were somehow working their cores by being in a pretzel stretch, 17-year-old boys were stacking 3 blue plates on their backs while planking and 17-year-old girls were learning about Kegel exercises from Cosmo.

Meanwhile, everyone was saying that if you wear a belt you won’t use your core and you will break your back. Silly powerlifters.

So, what the nut is going on, and what can you do about it?

First thing to know is that all of the above worked to some extent. Yes, all of it. Flex, rotate, avoid flexion or rotation, wear lycra, use bodyweight, use added weight, strap a tight belt around your waist or avoid belts altogether. All of it works.

The trick, then, is not in finding the one and only best way to use your abdominal muscles, but knowing which methods work best at a given moment. Let’s get down to the basics. Watch out, you’re about to get hit with some sciency stuff.

It's science

That’s what happens when I science.

Abdominal muscles and their functional anatomy

Let’s get into some base anatomy. It turns out that knowing what things are where kinda helps in figuring out how to use them. We’ve already mentioned rectus abdominis. Though normally associated with a 6-pack, it can really be any number of muscle segments packed in there. It isn’t even always the same number on each side (left and right), and if the structure is uneven there’s not much you can do about that. Rectus abdominis attaches from the medial section of the ribs down to the pelvic bone, which gives rise to use in trunk flexion, thus why crunches have been a popular exercise for the muscle.

As an interesting side-note on the rectus abdominis muscle, the general attitude is that the more segments, the better. As I noted above, you can’t change how many segments are actually there, or where the segments divide. You can however change how much fat is covering the various segments. What may come as a surprise is that more segments do not make the abs stronger. In fact, every segment weakens the leverage and blunts the force that the rectus abdominis can exert between the ribs and the pelvis. So if you have a 10-pack, you might like super cool, but your abs are effectively less powerful for it. And if you only have a 2-pack, you might look like a deceased rapper, but but your abs will be super powerful because of it.

To the sides of rectus abdominis, you have four oblique muscles: two per side; one of which is external and the other internal. The external obliques attach from the lateral edge of the ribs down onto the lateral edge of the rectus abdominis, all the way down to the pelvic bone. This means that it’s pretty hard to load up rectus abdominis without at least activating the external obliques. Underneath, the internal obliques run in the opposite direction, starting along the edge of rectus abdominis and splaying out across the ridge of the pelvis.

Underneath all of these muscles is one really freaking big muscle that you probably didn’t know exist. When we talk about “deep core muscles,” we’re usually only referring to one muscle, and it’s this one. The transverse abdominis, like the rectus abdominis, goes all the way from the medial ribs down to the pelvic bone. You might think it has the same function as rectus abdominis, then. You’d be wrong. You see, the whole of rectus abdominis spans from the ribs to the pelvis, which is pretty impressive. Transverse abdominis? It laughs at rectus abdominis and calls it an amateur, because its anchor point between the ribs and pelvis is merely its origin point. From there, it wraps all the way around the body and inserts into the spine, leaving the rest of the abs behind.

Then we all proceed to forget that it exists, not use it, and wonder why we keep hurting ourselves.

The fibres of rectus abdominis run straight up and down, which means that as our motor neurons punch electricity into those fibres, they contract, pulling the ribs and pelvis closer together. The fibres of tranverse abdominis, on the other hand, run horizontally, from the midline of rectus abdominis around to the spine. When we light up those fibres and activate our deep core, they shorten in a pattern much like tightening up a girdle. Or a lifting belt (hint, hint). They squeeze in tight around our internal organs, and transverse abdominis ends up acting like a corset to make us a size smaller. Sadly, it doesn’t go the extra mile and boost our clevage.

Nice try, tranverse abdominis.

Nice try, tranverse abdominis. Nice try.

Down south, we also have our pelvic floor musculature. I won’t go into as much detail about pubocoxygeal muscles, because when it was time to learn this stuff in my days as a student, we all giggled and blushed too much to get our exercise science right. I remember something in the textbook about how to massage the area, but have strictly refused to apply that knowledge to clients, because I don’t run that kind of business.

The cue that’s traditionally given to women in how to activate their pelvic floor is to tighten the area like you’re trying to hold in pee. Or to actually hold in pee. Not having female bits myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to experiment on myself to test if there’s a better cue to use on women. But I do know that this is an introductory cue, and over time you want to build up a little more control than having the musculature completely on or off.

For men, the introductory cue is something I can much more easily empathise with: suck your balls (sorry, no spotters or assistance allowed) up into your stomach. You may be wondering why a man would want to learn to control his pelvic floor. After all, we aren’t usually trying to avoid peeing during exercise. Nor are we trying to make things as tight as they were before we had three kids. Unless you have a very interesting story. Well, there’s two reasons, and they apply regardless of what equipment you pee with.

The first reason is that the transverse abdominis and pelvic floor, along with a few other muscles around the hips and trunk, tend to activate better in unison. The overall tension in the midsection increases, which allows you to make better use of your core and become stronger safely. The second reason is that sharting while your squat or deadlift is common enough among men to be an inside joke in the lifting community. It doesn’t need to be. Learn to use your pelvic floor and it will become an aberration for anything to come out of your rear end other than pure strength in the form of intense glute drive.

Using the core while lifting

Even when you aren’t training your core, you should still be using your core. Without a belt, the transverse abdominis (assisted by the pelvic floor and internal obliques) contract to draw everything in. Your belly draws in from the front, and your junk draws up from below. The same amount of stuff exists within your abdominal cavity, but its now more tightly packed. This increases intra-abdominal pressure, which in turn supports the spine and helps to keep the trunk rigid. With few exceptions, we want the trunk to be very rigid and tight under load, as this increases the force transfer between the hips and the shoulders, and it protects the spine.

If you are lifting without a belt, draw your belly in and your junk up. Get tight. Breathe deep, so that you have additional diaphragmatic pressure pushing down, really compressing your abdominal cavity and boosting intra-abdominal pressure.

If you are lifting with a belt, the emphasis changes. Now, instead of drawing your belly in, your objective is to push your abs out through the front, sides and back to fill up your belt. Your belt should already be fastened tight, so as you push out into it, things are going to get really tight. Again, fill your lungs. Breathe all the way down into your pelvis. Your rectus abdominis and external obliques will activate due to pressure being placed on them and your trunk will become very sturdy. Most people can squat and deadlift more with a belt than without, because it makes for a very tight, dense trunk. Bench press, overhead press and other exercises are a bit more hit or miss, but you won’t be weaker with a belt on.

Every time we practice a unilateral exercise, our obliques have to kick into action. So a great way to train your obliques without having to actually train your obliques is to do one-sided movements: one arm rows; one arm presses; step ups; suitcase deadlifts; and one legged deadlifts are all great options. This works because if it didn’t, being loaded on one side and not the other would result in being pulled out of position in the direction of the weight. The trick, therefore, is to maintain solid form as much as possible, while being conscious of properly bracing your whole core.

Training the core directly

For the ultimate 6-pack.

For the ultimate 6-pack.

From a functional perspective, we always want to start with activating and controlling the transverse abdominis and pelvic floor before we worry about the outer core muscles. That’s not as exciting when it comes to the mirror, but it deals with the more important jobs that your body needs doing. Beyond using your transverse abdominis and pelvic floor in all your normal exercises, one of my favourite transverse abdominis exercises is the bird dog.

Before I learned the bird dog, I went straight to the plank as a transverse abdominis exercise. When your abs are already strong, this can work. For the average beginner, though, planks are too intense to properly activate and control a muscle they didn’t even know they had. Most beginners will struggle to maintain a good position in the plank, and if they do it will be because their rectus abdominis is doing a lot of anti-extension rather than because their transverse abdominis is holding their guts in. The bird dog, on the other hand, is much easier to control due to decreased torque, and because it features unilateral movement it uses the internal obliques for added support. Win-win.

When it comes to loading up the outer abs, we can load them either dynamically or isometrically. That’s fancy-talk for training them by making them move or training them by preventing movement, respectively. Because of this, crunches, sit ups and planks all work. Crunches dynamically take the rectus abdominis through flexion, while planks use rectus abdominis isometrically to resist extension of the lower back. For a long time, sit ups were popularly written off, because all the movement is in the hips, so people reasoned that sit ups were a hip flexor exercise rather than a rectus abdominis exercise. In reality they train both the hip flexors and rectus. Just like in planks, rectus abdominis is trained isometrically, keeping the spine neutral. Just above the bottom position, the torque is actually very high. Add some weight and you have yourself a surprisingly brutal ab exercise.

The outer obliques enjoy similar benefits. We can train them dynamically through rotation and lateral flexion of the spine, or isometrically through exercises where the goal is to keep the spine rigid against strong forces that threaten to cause lateral flexion and rotation. A word for the wise, though: anti-flexion and anti-rotation exercises always carry over to the big lifts and athletic activities that require high degrees of tension, and they don’t risk wear and tear on intervertebral discs in the spine. The simplest lateral flexion exercise in the world is the side bend, in which you hold a heavy weight by your side, lean into the direction it’s pulling you, and then come back up straight. And the simplest anti-flexion exercise for your obliques is to take the side bend and remove the bend. The exact same muscle will be worked, but in a different way. A slightly more interesting variation is the suitcase walk, in which you keep your torso upright and your shoulders square while walking around with a heavy weight in one hand. Or, if grip’s a limiting factor, you can try waiter walks, where you hold the weight (usually a kettlebell) up at shoulder level.

By now you should know what each of the muscles that make up your abdominals are. You should know how to contract them, and be on your way towards learning to control them. Control is always a work in progress, so keep practicing. You should know how to use your core with or without a belt, and how the obliques in particular benefit from unilateral movements. You should also have an idea of what types of exercises you can use to train your abs directly. Now go lift something heavy.