13 Simple Changes to Get the Most from Your Squat, Deadlift and More
Small changes can yield big results.
When you update your smartphone, you’re not doing a complete overhaul of all the software, you’re just downloading a few changes that make it easier to use. In the same way, you can update your form on exercises you’re already doing.
With a couple of quick tweaks, you can make movements easier, safer and more effective. Try these simple changes to five of the most popular gym exercises to see how some quick updates can make your workout exponentially better.
The deadlift isn't one-size-fits all.
Adjust Your Deadlift
This exercise seems simple enough: You grab a bar on the ground in front of you and pick it up. Despite its simplicity, you can modify the exercise to make it more effective and safer for your lower back.
1. Sumo Deadlift
Traditionally, you perform a deadlift by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, lowering your hips and grabbing a barbell. However, not all people are built the same, and some folks need to set their feet wider. If you’re built with wider hips than the average person, the sumo deadlift should feel better. You’ll also target more hip and leg muscle with this technique tweak.
HOW TO DO IT: Set up like a sumo wrestler: Stand with your feet wider than your shoulders, point your toes out slightly and touch your shins to the bar. Then, lower your hips and grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Lean back and stand up with the bar to finish the movement.
2. Chest-Up Deadlift
When you pick up something heavy, your lower back is at risk for injury. And if your back rounds as you pick up the weight, your chance for injury increases, according to a 2009 study in Clinical Biomechanics. So it’s important to maintain a flat back the whole time.
HOW TO DO IT: To flatten your back, raise your chest while holding the barbell. If you’re wearing a T-shirt with a logo on the front, someone standing in front of you should be able to see the logo. Raising your chest automatically flattens your back, protecting your spine from injury during the lift.
3. Pause Deadlift
Sometimes you set up perfectly to lift the weight, but when you actually start lifting your form falls apart. To keep your form on point, try practicing pause deadlifts. Make sure you use lighter weight for this variation, because your muscles must do more work!
HOW TO DO IT: Set up to lift the weight from the ground, lift it a few inches to about the middle of the shin and hold for a few seconds. Then lift the bar all the way up. As you hold the bar, do a few quick form checks. Are your heels still on the ground? Is your chest up, or is your back rounded? Make form adjustments during your pause, then continue with your lift.
Not all squats need to be done with barbells.
Perfect Your Squat
There are quite a number of ways to do a squat. You can use a barbell, medicine ball, kettlebell, dumbbells or resistance bands to make it harder. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of things that can go wrong with your form on this exercise, so if you feel like your squat is awkward or you have trouble dropping your hips low enough, it’s time to work on some basic technique shifts.
4. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is the miracle drug of squat technique fixes. With this one exercise, you can fix several different form mistakes. This may be a form-fixing exercise, but don’t take it lightly. After one set you’ll feel it in your lungs and legs!
HOW TO DO IT: Grab a kettlebell and hold it in front of your chest with both hands. Squat down until your elbows touch your knees, then stand back up. Having weight in front of your body lets you keep your weight back and sink lower into the squat. Holding up the weight forces you to keep your chest high and your back straight.
5. Shift Your Feet
The way your skeleton is put together is unique, so you’ll have to experiment to find the most comfortable squat technique. There should be one spot that feels the smoothest for squatting down and standing up. This is your sweet spot, and you should find it every time you do a squatting exercise.
HOW TO DO IT: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and do a body-weight squat as low as you can. Then shift your feet out an inch and try again. Keep moving your feet wider apart, progressively pointing your toes out to the sides as you do. If you feel like it starts to get difficult to get down into your squat, start to move your feet closer until it gets more comfortable.
6. Put Something Under Your Heels
When you squat down, your heels might lift off the ground slightly. This is a common problem and usually is a result of tight hips or ankles or leaning too far forward.
HOW TO DO IT: Put a small lift under your heels. Your gym should have small weight plates that you can use to prop up your heels. Perform a body-weight squat with the plates under your heels and practice leaning back as you go down. Try doing a set with the heels raised and a set with the heels flat to feel the difference.
Use your muscles, not momentum.
Strengthen Your Kettlebell Swing
Swinging around a high-mass metal object as fast as possible might sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s a great cardiovascular workout that also strengthens your hips. Beyond holding your kettlebell as tightly as possible to prevent it from flying out of your hands, there are a few technique alterations you can try out.
7. Think: Forward AND Backward
Charles Sconga, Philadelphia-based certified personal trainer and owner of Charge Performance and Wellness, teaches the kettlebell swing as a forward-and-backward movement.
HOW TO DO IT: He emphasizes driving the hips forward to push the kettlebell up and sitting the butt back when you pull it down. In other words, move with the kettlebell.
8. Pull the Bell Back Down
As you thrust your hips forward and the kettlebell flies up, you might think that the hard work is over. Not so fast. There isn’t much room for relaxation if you want to get the most out of this exercise. Instead of letting the kettlebell calmly glide up into the air and gently float back down, aggressively pull the bell back down through your legs.
HOW TO DO IT: As soon as the bell reaches shoulder-height, snap it back down toward your hips. This keeps the intensity of the exercise higher as you fly through repetitions. This tweak will also make a big difference for someone who doesn’t feel sufficiently challenged while doing kettlebell swings.
9. Focus on Your Abs
By keeping your abs tight during this exercise you’ll get in a bonus core workout, essentially turning it into a total-body movement.
HOW TO DO IT: As you swing the kettlebell up and down, hold your abs tight. (Imagine that someone is about to run up and hit you in the stomach.) Brace yourself and swing the kettlebell up and down aggressively. As you pull the kettlebell down toward your body, do it with your abs as well as your arms. Take quick, short breaths while contracting your abs — no relaxing!
Lunges don't have to hurt your knees!
Fix Your Lunge
Let’s face it: Lunges can hurt (and not necessarily in a good way). But since they’re one of the most effective lower-body exercises, you’ll want to incorporate one (or both) of these changes into your routine to keep your mind engaged and your body injury- and pain-free.
10. Plant Your Front Heel
If you feel lunges in your knees, it’s probably because you have too much weight concentrated on your front toes. By putting weight back on the heels you’ll take some of the pressure from your knees and incorporate your hamstrings and glutes into the movement.
HOW TO DO IT: As you plant your feet and prepare to lower yourself to the bottom of the lunge position, raise your front toes off the ground. Keep the toes off the ground through the entire lunge, and don’t put them back down until you’re ready to switch legs.
11. Find a Focal Point
Sometimes balancing during the lunge can be a challenge and make you feel like a toddler just learning how to walk.
HOW TO DO IT: Fix your eyes on one point in front of you and don’t let your gaze stray from it. This gives your brain a steady reference point to help maintain your balance.
Planks don't have to be boring!
Amp Up Your Plank
While planks are one of those core exercises that everyone in the fitness world knows, you might not feel them in your abs. By quickly changing your setup and tensing your body in a certain way you can make this exercise all about your abs.
12. Pull Elbows and Toes In
The point of the plank is to remain as still as possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tense your muscles.
HOW TO DO IT: Start by digging your elbows and toes into the ground to prevent them from sliding. Then pull your elbows and toes toward each other. If you focus enough pressure into the ground they won’t move toward each other, but it requires you to tense the entire front of your body, including your abs.
13. Elbows in Front of Shoulders
Traditionally, you set up for a plank with your elbows under your shoulders. If you’re getting too advanced and no longer feel challenged in this position, try this small modification.
HOW TO DO IT: Move your arms forward little by little. When your elbows move forward, you have less support in the plank position and are forced to use your core muscles more and more, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Henry is a freelance writer and personal trainer living in New York City. You can find out more about him by visiting his website: henryhalse.com.