12 Days of Liftmas: 2018 Edition


Day 1: Train Opposites

Muscular imbalances are one of the biggest causes of injury, wreaking havoc on posture, positioning and aesthetics - so how can we counter them and make sure nothing is missed? By training the opposites.

The majority of big compound movements fall into one of these movement pattern categories: vertical push/pull (eg overhead press, lat pulldown), horizontal push/pull (eg bench press, bent over row) and squat/hinge (eg squat, deadlift). Be sure to include an exercise that works the movement pattern in the opposite direction (eg bent over rows after bench press) on the same day to make sure no muscles are missed. This goes for isolation exercises too, performing an exercise that works the joint in the opposite direction.

This doesn't mean we need to use the same load/intensity - some movements will require more resistance than others (our lat pulldown may be stronger than our overhead press), and we may choose to prioritise different directions for different sessions (eg having heavy deadlifts and lighter leg press one day, then heavy squats and lighter KB swings another day). Instead, using the same total amount of working sets for both directions is a good place to start to keep things in balance. This can be done looking at the cumulative training week volume, or per session (the easiest way being to perform them back to back as a superset).


Day 2: The 2 Pillars of Recovery

When it comes to recovery techniques, many people start to think about massage, hot/cold therapies (saunas and cryotherapy), some kind of vitamin smoothie - but these won't do much unless you're covering the foundation of recovery - eating and sleeping enough.

If we don't consume enough calories to rebuild (and improve) our bodies, there's little chance we'll be recovered and operating at full capacity for the next session - reducing the effectiveness of the training session and increasing the risk of injury if we go hard.

This is why it's tricky to lose weight and maintain muscle mass/performance, and even harder to lose fat and build muscle at the same time ("lean bulking") - while reducing our calories will help us lose fat, it can hinder our ability to repair and build more muscle. It can be done to a degree using the bodies fat stores, but it's not as effective as upping the calories to make sure you're fuelled and ready for the next training session.

If we don't get enough sleep or rest, there's not enough time for the body to have rebuilt and improved our muscles, tendons, bones etc, so we're operating at a disadvantage. We also won't be as mentally alert, ready to get hyped or focused for a big lift as we are after a good rest
Additional recovery methods can help, but without the foundations covered they're just wallpaper covering a hole in the wall. They might look nice and feel us feel good, but when the weather gets rough we'll be in trouble.


Day 3: Escape the "Sets x Reps" Prison

The traditional Sets x Reps structure for workouts is used because it works and is easy to track, but that doesn't mean it can't get a bit stale - so why not mix it up with challenges or alternative sets every now and then?

We're trying to work our muscles, and there's more than one way to achieve this end. We can incorporate challenges, such as:

  • the X-Tonne workout: lift various weights until you reach a cumulative total, eg aiming for a 10 Tonne total (10,000 kg), we can do 10 reps with 100kg (to make 1000kg), then reps with the same or a different weight until we reach the target

  • EMOM (every minute on the minute): lift a weight or perform a set at the top of each minute, go for a predetermind number of minutes or until you can't do any more

  • AMRAP/Rep PB: pick a weight, and do as many reps as possible - you might surprise yourself so don't aim for a certain amount of reps and stop, go until you can't do any more (safely)

Or alternative sets:

  • Drop sets: hit a weight for as many reps as possible, then drop the weight and keep repping. Repeat until you reach 0 weight or burst into flames

  • Pyramid sets: start with a light weight, perform high reps, rest, pick medium weight for medium reps, rest, pick heavy weight for low reps, rest, medium weight for medium reps, rest, light weight for high reps. The pyramid can have as many levels/steps as you like, just remember you'll be fatigued by the time you reach the top so it's risky to go for a big rep max

There are plenty other options to choose from, those are just some of mine and clients favourites.

I wouldn't recommend doing more than one of the above per workout as they can be intense and difficult to recover from - everyone and all training loads are different of course, but that's where I'd start.


Day 4: Don't Forget the Thumb

When training the grip or forearms it's easy to focus on the fingers or the wrist, as these muscles and movements will produce a pump and enable us to hold more weight from a barbell.

We often forget about the thumb, as it doesn't do much in wrist curls or work as hard as the fingers in barbell holds (holding a deadlift or pull up bar).

For a more complete grip workout or developed hand/forearm we need to include movements and holds that put the emphasis on the thumb - think holds that open the thumb up from the hand, such as thick bar work, pinch holds, or a combination of the two with thick pinch holds (plate sandwiches).

There are also speciality pieces of equipment to work the thumbs directly, but they're not necessary unless you're looking to develop very specific hand power for feats of grip strength, competitions or to become a Thumb Warlord.


Day 5: Beer Can Bracing

A beer can (or any can for that matter) is most solid when it's full and has no dents in it - as soon as it unleashes it's contents and gets a dent in it, it crumples. The same is true for our bracing when lifting.

If we take a deep breath, pushing our core muscles out and locking the position in by squeezing them down (pulling our ribcage down) instead of in (towards our spine), and hold the air in our torso throughout the lift, we'll have created a solid column to support the weight and keep our bodies in an advantageous position to move the weight efficiently and safely.

When we breath out we start to lose some of this stability (sometimes it's unavoidable, holding the breath too long can hinder performance), or if we pull our core in towards the spine we'll create a dent in our column of stability, increasing the chances of us losing our positioning and getting crumpled by the weight.

Some think that by over-tightening a lifting belt they'll have created an artificially stronger core when lifting. What this actually does is create a big dent in our torso, and while the belt can take some of the strain it forces a lot of the tension into our structures (bones, tendons, ligaments) as we can't use our core muscles so well.

If we do wear a belt, it's better to have it tight enough that our abdominal muscles have something to push against (helping them do their job), but no so tight you can't get a big breath in and move properly.


Day 6: Fly Forward

The shoulder fly (delt side raise, lateral raise, DB shoulder abduction etc etc) is a staple exercise for developing the shoulders, and just as it has various names there are various ways to perform the exercise.

As the shoulder is a ball and socket joint and is held in place mostly by muscle, this gives it a greater range of movements it can perform. So while we can stick to standard "stand up straight" flies, there's no reason we can't change the angle of resistance to hit slightly different parts of the muscles around the shoulder.

By leaning forward slightly we can hit parts of the middle and rear delt in one swoop. If you're shoulders feel terrible performing stand up straight flies, or you fancy a change, these are a good alternative.

The same rules apply as any other shoulder fly - keep the shoulder blades pinched together and make sure it's the shoulders doing the work and not using swing momentum or letting the back take over - the upper back will come into play, but make sure it's not doing all the work.


Day 7: Save Instability for Later

Instability exercises are all the rage for viral videos and "how to make exercises harder", and can be great tools if used appropriately - unfortunately they're often not.

As the name implies, instability exercises use equipment and surfaces that make you wobble, targeting the stabilising and core muscles to work our balance. However, the unstable nature means we reflexively can't apply full force to the exercise with our other muscles - studies suggesting the force is reduced to 70% compared to a stable version of the lift, but is often less than this depending how coordinated we are and the degree of instability.

This reduction in force is great for rehab - we can still get hurt falling over, but we're less likely to get hurt from using too much force.

If we're not rehabbing, however, the instability exercises aren't making our muscles work as hard as a more stable one (as they're not able to generate as much force). So we're better off performing more stable exercises first to blast the muscles with greater resistance, and save the instability exercises for later in the workout to work our coordination/balance if required.


Day 8: The Best Time to Train

At different times of the day our bodies will be in a slightly different state - things like testosterone levels, core temperature, and cortisol levels will vary throughout our waking hours. Add stuff like how long it's been since our last meal, alertness, and general "readiness", etc, does this mean there's an naturally optimal time to train for our bodies?

Probably, but to monitor and process all the relevant data is a lot of hassle for the average athlete. Fortunately, there's a simpler way - we create the best time through consistency.

What this means is that our bodies are incredibly adaptable, so if we are consistent in the time of day that we train then our body will gradually make the necessary adjustments and optimise for that time with enough practice.

If we have an event or competition coming up it is wise to try to train at the same time the competition starts, so we're used to getting in the zone and moving at this time.

It's not the end of the world if we train at different times in the day - we can still put in solid work at odd hours throughout the week - it may just be less optimal. As long as we're getting the work in we'll be making some kind of progress


Day 9: Where Are Your Elbows Going?

When training the upper back, rows and their plethora of variations are the go to exercises. While they're generally all horizontal pull movements, how we move our elbows can shift the focus of the work between the various muscles.

Bringing the elbows towards (and behind) the hips puts the emphasis on the lats, and bringing the elbows out to the side puts the emphasis on the rhomboids and traps (mid and lower).

The other muscles will be involved to a degree, but where the elbow goes will dictate what's doing the majority of the work - so is worth considering if you're wanting to work specific muscles.

Don't worry about being mega strict with the form, what's important is that we can perform the exercise (relatively) pain free - if this means a few degrees outside of textbook form then so be it.


Day 10: Appropriate Footwear

Comfort is an important factor for training, burning muscles and flaming lungs are enough discomfort without adding poor footwear to the mix. However, we need to make sure the comfort isn't impeding our performance.

Shoes with hella cushioning will impede our training as they don't provide a stable base to push from - limiting how much force we can produce (see Day 7 - Save Instability for Later). It may seem like a small amount of instability, but as it occurs at the roots of our stability (our feet on the floor) it can have an insidious effect.

Also, if the shoe is too narrow, our toes and feet are unable to spread out naturally - the smaller, more unnatural base of support hampering our balance and thus performance.

What is better, for lifting at least, are shoes with minimal cushioning (the flatter the better), have enough space for our feet to spread out properly, and have a grippy sole to add to our stability. Another option is to lift barefoot - just be aware of the surface (slippy wood or any bits of gravel), and the facility policies (some will not allow barefoot training).


Day 11: Short on Time? Increase Intensity

In the hustle and bustle of daily life it can be tricky to fit in big training sessions, fortunately there's a few ways to squeeze more out of each minute for a speedy session.

Exercise choice: ditch the isolation exercises (single joint) and focus on big compound exercises (multi joint). Each rep will hit multiple muscles, increasing the efficiency of the workout (eg a few sets of heavy deadlifts instead of individual exercises for hamstrings, quads, calves, glutes, lower back, lats, traps etc).

Rest time: training with heavy loads/low reps will require a long rest time, so while 3x3 seems quick on the surface it can quickly add up with 5+ mins rests. Instead, we can reduce the load and the recovery time, hitting sets of 6-12 with 30-60 seconds rest. Or we could keep the reps low, reduce the load and rest time (such as with EMOM sets). We can also implement a Tabata style setup - 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest, repeat.

Super/Giant sets: instead of completing all sets for one exercise before moving onto the next one, mash them together in super (2 exercises back to back) or giant sets (3+ exercises one after the other) before taking a rest. This works best using exercises that work opposite muscle groups - eg overhead press and pull ups, deadlift and leg raises etc - or we can use exercises that work the same muscle groups for an intense blast - eg squats and jumping lunges, bench press and chest flies. Giant sets let us work a bunch of muscles in a short amount of time - eg bench press, barbell row, ab rollout: 3 sets with 30-60 seconds rest between sets.

Don't forget bodyweight movements: we can also use our bodyweight as resistance, set up a timer or aim for a certain amount of reps and go nuts. These can be a great finisher or secondary exercise to torch the muscles and get the blood pumping - think pull ups, bodyweight inverted rows, press ups, jumping squats etc.

Most important to remember is that even a little work is better than nothing - if you can only get in to do a few super sets or hit a couple sets of a heavy ass compound lift it'll be far better than doing nothing at all (within reason, recovery is important but this tip is for those struggling to get much training in each week). Even different sports or modes of exercise we can dial up the intensity (sprints, speed sets, incline work) to get some quick work in - might not be as effective as a huge session, but is far better than nothing at all.


Day 12: Building Muscle? Think Intensity

Traditionally sets of 8-10 reps are used to build muscle, but studies are showing there's a bit more room to play with - what really matters is the intensity.

In this context, intensity is how close we get to failure - so if we're using a weight we can perform for 10 reps (and no more, our "10 rep max"), we'll get the best muscle building stimulus performing 8-10 reps with this weight - less reps won't provide quite as much of a stimulus. We just need to be careful to avoid injury or straining something with the higher intensity - listen to your body and be careful of risky form when fatigued.

We can use this for a range of reps, 6-15 being the most optimal, but reps outside this range can still have muscle building properties - the focus will just be more on performance than muscle building (lower reps for power/strength, higher reps for muscular endurance). The same intensity rule applies, if we only perform 15 reps of a weight we could crank out 20 with, we won't get much to show for it beyond a pump - just go for the extra reps safely (with a spotter, safety pins or a safe place to dump the weight if you get stuck mid rep).

Ideally we combine this with progressive overload (each week doing more - either a lil more weight, an extra rep or an extra set), but in a pinch moving a weight until we can no longer move it safely will do the trick.

It is also wise to use a broad range of reps to give the muscles slightly different stimuli and to give the joints a break from heavy weights - we can do this during a workout by starting with low rep/heavy weight sets, and finishing off with higher rep/light weight work to torch the muscles.