Wouldn’t it be nice to pop a can of spinach and have instant strength just like Popeye? Well, I've spent years researching the subject of strength training and in my journey, I‘ve discovered some of the most effective, cutting-edge techniques from many of the world’s leading experts.
Today I'll introduce six unique methods to increase pushing and pulling strength instantly. I guarantee these gems will help your performance in the gym and the best part, no spinach is required!
In the book The Development of Muscular Bulk & Power, author Anthony Ditillo recommends that you lie on a flat bench with your arms behind your head and eyes closed for 15 minutes prior to a workout. During this time practice visualization of the upcoming workout to encourage a positive state of mind and enhance performance.
Strength and conditioning coach Charles Poliquin takes this a step further by having his athletes lie on a 6-inch foam roll for 15 minutes before their workout to help decompress the spine by opening up the intervertebral spaces. Lying on the foam roll lengthwise along the spine will help restore normal spinal curvatures since gravity acts downwards, straightening the spine at the apex of excessive curvatures. Since this method promotes optimal nerve conduction, Poliquin claims that it can increase strength by as much as 3%.
I've found that a greater effect is achieved if the base of the skull (i.e., the suboccipital area) is placed at the edge of the roll causing slight cervical extension. This seems to pull the spine allowing a greater decompressive effect. Remember to use this time to visualize the upcoming workout. In your mind, see yourself successfully completing all target loads.
You can manually decompress the spine and open up the intervertebral spaces with neck traction. You’ll need a partner for this one though. It’s pretty simple really, no medieval contraption is required. Just have your partner grab your head and try to pull it up out of its socket while you perform seated arm curls. It may appear odd, but if performed toward the end of your set, I guarantee that you’ll gain an extra rep or two. The weight lifts almost effortlessly. Try it.
The elbow flexors are innervated by the musculocutaneous nerve, which exits the spine at C5 and C6, two vertebrae of the neck. If these vertebrae are out of alignment, strength will be affected. Activating the long cervical extensors can help to realign the position of the C5/C6 vertebrae. This will increase curling and pulling strength, so try this technique just before back and biceps exercises.
Sit on a Swiss ball, then walk forward until only the back of your head is supported on the ball. Keep the hips up and make sure to accentuate the rib cage. Now try to hold that position for up to a minute. Although you may not reach that duration the first time, just work up to it gradually over sessions.
To make the exercise easier, lean the back of the head against a wall (use a rolled up towel or pillow behind the head for comfort). To make the exercise more difficult, try it on the Swiss ball, but hold a plate or dumbbell on the chest to increase resistance.
At this point you may be wondering how improving nerve conduction with the spine roller, neck traction or neck bridge exercise can increase strength? The following excerpt from Dr. Ken Kinakin’s Optimal Muscle Training book should offer some insight:
Research over the past few years has given us some insight that is rarely discussed or presented with regard to weight training. Some studies have shown that decreasing the nerve supply to muscles can reduce strength and create a possible scenario for pain. If the nerves from the spine to the muscles undergo any compression, or more commonly, any tension, the decreased nerve supply causes a decline in performance and increased risk of injury if heavier weights are used. Research reveals that only a small amount of compression or tension is needed to create this type of weakness. Rydevik (1991) reported that compression of only 10 to 50 millimeters of mercury (the weight of a dime on the back of your hand) can potentially decrease action potentials by up to 40 percent. MacNab (1972) found that compression without pain can cause a neurological deficit or weakness. Wall (1992) found that a 6 percent strain (tension) decreased action potentials by over 70 percent. (Kinakin, 2004, pg. 6)
You’ll need some help for this method. Start off in a push-up position with your hands on a Swiss ball, arms extended with the elbows locked, abdominals braced, and balancing on your toes. Now close your eyes and get your partner to start kicking the ball! It’s that simple, or so it seems…
Closing the eyes will heighten proprioceptors, revving up the nervous system. This drill is useful before pressing exercises, assuming that you don’t go flying off the ball! Your partner should vary the position and speed of kicking for best effect. Perform this warm-up method before chest, shoulders and triceps exercises.
Swiss Ball Hold
Again, a partner is necessary for this drill. Just hold a Swiss ball out directly in front of you with both hands on either side of the ball and your arms fully extended. Tighten the body and prepare for battle! Your partner will then smack the Swiss ball while varying the position, speed and force of contact for optimal effect. The Swiss ball hold can be performed with the eyes open or closed. It's useful for whole body stabilization and can be used with wheelchair athletes as well.
Rocker/Wobble Board Push-Ups
When performing this series of exercises, start with a rocker board and progress to a wobble board. Since the rocker board only allows you to rock in one plane, it's best to exploit different angles such as forward and back, side to side and diagonal. Of course, the object is to keep the board level to the ground throughout the movement.
The rocker/wobble board push-up is a great warm-up prior to upper body training. It's important to keep the core tight with the abdominals braced. Maintain a neutral spine and don't allow the back to sag at any time.
The exercise can be made more difficult by raising the feet onto a step or box, or it can be made easier by pivoting from the knees instead of the toes. Remember to keep the board level at all times.
Perform no more than 5 reps, rest for 2 minutes, and then do your first set of any upper body exercise. You'll be stronger.
So there you have it, six methods for instant strength in the gym without the spinach!
To your success,
John Paul Catanzaro
P.S. To view the methods above and more, pick up a copy of my Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD.