Why you should do it: “This exercise was a staple of many old-school bodybuilders—including Arnold Schwarzenegger—and for good reason: it works,” Joel Seedman, Ph.D., exercise physiologist, athletic performance specialist, and owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta, GA, says. What it does for your upper body is comparable to what a squat does for your lower, he adds. Pullovers target the majority of the muscles in your torso, like the lats, triceps, chest, shoulders, upper back, and core. The move is unbelievably versatile, too; you can use dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and cables. Expect to feel your abs working overtime, since this is also an anti-extension core drill. You’re forced to resist arcing and extending your lumbar spine by keeping your core tight and braced throughout the exercise, he explains.
The reason guys have shied away from the move is, for one, you’re holding some serious poundage over your face at the top of the movement; and there’s also fear of shoulder injury. Your setup can mitigate this risk, though. Rather than lie perpendicular to the bench, which sets you up for an excessive range of motion that destabilizes your scapula and causes excessive curvature of your spine, Seedman advises lying flat on the bench.
How to do it:
1. Lie down on a bench while holding a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or cable pulley in your hands.
2. If holding a dumbbell, grasp it with both hands so your palms are against the underside of the far weighted end. Hold it at arms length straight over your chest.
3. Extend your arms overhead and behind you, moving predominantly at your shoulder joints so little, if any, movement comes from your elbows. “Think about bringing the weight as far in back of you as possible while keeping your arms relatively straight,” Seedman says.
4. “A slight elbow bend is acceptable, and in fact, advisable,” he adds. As you pull the weight back to the starting position just above your chest, focus on activating your lats and chest, not just your triceps, as you follow the same arc motion you made in the descent.
Expert tip: “If you want additional core activation and to force the move to be stricter and more locked in, try to perform pullovers with an isometric leg raise by holding your legs 6-12 inches above the height of your torso, keeping them straight throughout,” Seedman suggests.
2. Duck Walk
Why you should do it:Ngo Okafor, a personal trainer in NYC and two-time Golden Gloves Boxing Champion says, “Duck walks build an insane amount of strength endurance in the lower body.” Due to the pressure (this is actually a good thing!) it places on your hips and ankle joints, it safely creates much more mobility, Okafor says. In turn, this added mobility will help you squat better because you’ll be able to sink lower and deeper, and drive better through your hips because the muscles and joints are properly engaged and firing. You’ll also reap some serious strength gains in your glutes, hips, and thighs because of how much weight it puts on these areas for support. This move serves as an excellent warmup drill (say, 20 steps per leg or walking for 30-60sec).
How to do it:
1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge a little at your hips, pushing them back, and bend your knees to come down into a squat. Go as low as you possibly can and work toward getting lower and deeper as you progress.
2. Position your arms out in front of you or hold them behind your head for added balance. Keep a proud, puffed chest and sink your weight into your heels as you slowly walk in the bottom position of the squat.
Expert tips: Resist the urge to bounce your butt up in the air; staying low will keep your muscles under tension. “If your hips and/or quads are tight, duck walks can place a lot of pressure on the knee joint, so if you have knee issues, don’t do this exercise,” Okafor says.
3. Cable Pull-Through
Why you should do it: “While a good warmup plays a pivotal role in physical preparation and injury prevention, it’s not the most important training factor,” says Felix Bangkuai, NASM-CPT, fitness member ambassador and exercise physiologist at the CREATION HEALTH Wellness Center at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. “The most effective way to order your workout is to include a ‘primer movement’ between your warmup and your first big compound exercise of the day,” he argues. Consider the cable pull-through (and the other moves below) an extended warmup designed to lubricate your joints, activate specific musculature, and hone movement patterns before you tax your body with near maximal effort. The cable pull-through is your lower-body primer. It hits the posterior chain (low back, glutes, hamstrings) and gets your hip and knee joints and smaller stabilizing muscles ready to go.
How to do it:
1. Set an adjustable cable in a low position—not the lowest because you want the line of pull to be more horizontal than vertical, Bangkuai says. Attach a tricep rope.
2. Face away from the cable and assume a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width stance, thinking about pushing your knees out from the center and keeping them slightly bent.
3. Reach down and back through your legs and grasp both ends of the rope (palms facing one another) so you’re straddling it. Push your hips and butt back, keeping your arms straight and spine neutral (maintaining the natural arch of your lower back).
4. Now, like a kettlebell swing, hinge at your hips, driving through them to draw the rope forward and come to a standing position. Keep your chin slightly tucked so you don’t hyperextend your neck.
5. At the top of the movement squeeze your glutes, but don’t lock your knees.
Expert tip: “Be mindful during the movement and make sure your back stays flat, your neck doesn’t hyperextend, your legs stay straight, and you feel those glutes and hamstrings firing!” Bangkuai says. “You’ll really feel a stretch in your hamstrings if you’re doing it correctly,” he adds.
4. Cable Face Pull
Why you should do it: We can’t mention a lower-body primer without suggesting an upper-body one (or two). “Due to our sedentary desk jobs, we sit for hours with a forward, rounded posture, so the anterior cuff and internal shoulder rotators aren’t in need of priming, but the backside of the body is,” Bangkuai says. The cable face-pull is a great go-to because it provides stability to your shoulder blades; it’s a great rehab move and primer for pressing.
How to do it:
1. Attach a rope to a pulley station set at about chest level. Grasp both ends of the rope with an overhand grip.
2. Step back so your arms are completely outstretched and assume a staggered stance so one foot is forward, one back. Bend your knees slightly to create a stable base.
3. Retract your scapulae and squeeze your shoulder blades, pulling the center of the rope slightly up toward your face. Think about pulling the ends of the rope apart, not just back.
4. As you near your face, externally rotate your hands so your knuckles are facing the ceiling. Hold for one second at this top position, then slowly lower. Don’t push your head forward to meet the rope either; keep the motion slow and controlled.
Expert tips: Avoid using too much weight. “Going too heavy forces you to involve the lower back to complete the rep, completely defeating the purpose of the exercise and ratcheting up the potential for injury,” Bangkuai says. Also, make sure you keep your shoulders, elbows, and wrists in a straight line so you put the emphasis on your upper back (dropping your elbows into a low row position targets your lats more). And, lastly, stretch your pecs between sets by holding your arm at a 90 degree angle against the side of a doorframe, leaning into it until you feel a stretch in your pec; this will lengthen the muscles.
5. Straight-Arm Pulldown
Why you should do it: “The cable straight-arm pulldown is superior to maximally target the lats because the tension is more constant throughout the range of motion, whereas dumbbells or a barbell only load half the movement,” Bangkuai says. Straight-arm pulldowns are your pulling primer. And they’re incredibly efficient. Plus, the exercise completes the look of your lats and increases the width of your back and posterior delts.
How to do it:
1. Stand at an adjustable cable machine and grab the lat pulldown bar with an overhand grip that’s about shoulder-width apart. Keep your knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Exhale, then pull the bar down to your thighs. Your arms should remain straight, elbows locked. Pause, then return to the starting position.
Expert tips: Don’t go too heavy—form is crucial. “Emphasize the contraction of your lats at the bottom of the motion,” Bangkuai says. “Remember, you’re priming your back muscles for all the heavy weight you’re about to lift.”
6. Banded Pull-Apart
Why you should do it: Just like with the cable face pull, you need an exercise that stimulates the back of your body to warm and loosen tight muscles and joints. This move is also great when used in tandem with bench press, before or in between sets. It works your posterior delts and upper traps, says Liz Lowe, C.S.C.S., head program designer at Scorch Fitness, a high-intensity interval training gym in Sarasota, Florida.
How to do it:
1. Stand and hold a resistance band out in front of you at chest height with arms extended and hands spaced shoulder-width apart, Bangkuai says.
2. Using light to moderate tension, pull the band apart, keeping your arms straight while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slowly return to the start.
Expert tip: To reduce your risk for injury and improve pressing movements, you need to build a stable shoulder blade. Make this a prehab move you do consistently.
7. Single-Leg Deadlift
Why you should do it: “This move is underrated because it doesn’t appear to be as systemically challenging as, say, a very heavy squat,” says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., a strength expert and author of Lift to Get Lean. “And while it won’t lay you out with exhaustion, it’s a fantastic way to correct imbalances by focusing on one leg at a time,” she adds, because it forces you to see and correct muscle weaknesses and biomechanical issues you miss with traditional squatting. “This move is hands-down the most important foundational move to keep you functional and injury-free,” she concludes.
How to do it:
1. Begin standing on your left leg with an unlocked knee. Rotate and hinge forward from the hip, keeping your right leg straight as you lower your torso.
2. Lower until your chest is nearly parallel to the floor. Then, drive into your left heel to rotate back to the starting position.
Expert tip: Use your arms to help maintain balance. Add dumbbells or kettlebells to increase the challenge.
8. Back Extensions on Stability Ball
Why you should do it: The span of muscle (called erector spinae) that straightens and rotates your spine is incredibly overlooked. “Many times there’s hyper-focus on abdominals with little regard for training this segment of your core,” Robert Reames, C.S.C.S., Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute and Pear Training Intelligence System’s weight control coach says. “But it’s key for posture, core strength, balance, and muscle endurance to maintain all of these things throughout your day,” he adds.
How to do it:
1. Position yourself face down on the stability ball so your pelvis is resting against its center.
2. Spread your legs straight behind you with your toes on the floor for stability. Hold your arms straight, directly beside you, for the least amount of resistance or straight behind you for max resistance.
3. Curl your upper body somewhat around the ball, then extend upward from the base of your spine. Pause here at the top for a split second, then repeat. This is, in essence, a reverse crunch.
Expert tip: “Be sure to continue looking at the floor as to not hyper extend the cervical spine,” Reames says.
9. Military Press
Why you should do it: “Most men turn this exercise into a push press, using the lower body for strength, or by sitting down,” says Jaclyn Sklaver, FITMISSNYC, NASM-CPT, sports nutritionist. “But, used as a strict standing press, this exercise can increase overhead and core strength while boosting range of motion needed for the gym and in everyday life,” she explains.
How to do it:
1. Stand with legs shoulder-width apart with no bend in your knees. Position the barbell on the front of your shoulders.
2. Press the bar overhead using only your arms.
3. Once your arms are fully extended overhead, return the bar to the starting position.
Expert tip: “This movement, done from a standing position, uses very ‘strict’ positioning and no lower body movement to work the deltoid muscles in the shoulder,” Sklaver says. Your triceps are your secondary movers, and your core and legs serve as stabilizers.
10. Goblet Squat
Why you should do it: “High volume squatting has been a staple in any mass building program, with technical breakdown being a pitfall,” says Lucas Dunham, CPT, XPT, performance specialist at EXOS. “This squat variation, however, mitigates the risk of your technique breaking down and allows you to keep constant tension on your quads, glutes, adductors, and hamstrings,” he explains.
How to do it:
1. Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell and hold the weight at your chest, with your elbows pinned to your sides.
2. Come down as if you were going to sit between your heels. To stand, push through the ground with your heels. Keep a 2:2 tempo (two seconds up, two seconds down).
Expert tip: “Before you start the movement, create tension in your hips by attempting to ‘rip the floor apart’ with your feet,” Dunham says. “This will keep your knees safe and allow you to maximize tension in the legs.”
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