Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Bench press, Plank and Skullcrusher variations

Last month, a friend called me out on the fact that I haven't done a fitness post in a long time.  I find it tough to want to write about fitness when I'm personal training and teaching all day long, but she was right, it has been a long time.  So,  I decided to cover two of my favourite exercises (bench and skullcrushers) and one I detest, but it's good for you, so you should do it anyway (plank).

If you find yourself doing the same exercises all the time and they aren't providing quite the same challenge they used to, here are some ways you can make the exercises more challenging.

Bench press
If you've reached a point where you've been working on your bench long enough that it feels like you're just maintaining, and it's been awhile since you've made any significant gains, a drop set can offer an option to increase the intensity without increasing the weight.  Increasing the weight might not be an option if you're already working at your 4RM or don't have a spotter.  A drop set (performing a set with lighter weight immediately following reps to failure with a heavy weight) on bench might seem daunting if you have to change all the plates, so to avoid this, switch to a dumbbell chest press on your drop set.  Typically, a drop set that will achieve 6-10RM will be about 2/3 the weight of your 6-10RM on the same exercise.  This calculation is known as a wide drop set.  A drop set is typically performed after the final set.

Let's work with some real numbers here to clarify how this will be done:
My 8RM on bench press is 125lbs.
My 8RM on chest press is 55lb dumbbells.  To calculate how much weight I should use for my drop set, take the closest set of dumbbells to 2/3 of 55, which is 35lb dumbbells.  This works out to 64% of my 8RM.
I perform the first two sets of bench at 125lbs to failure with 30-60s rest between them.  On the third set, I perform the set at 125lbs to failure, rack the bar, pick up the 35lb dumbbells placed near my feet, and perform chest press until failure (which will likely be anywhere from 6 to 10 reps at this weight).

If your standard plank has become easy enough for you that you are holding it for more than 60s (which good technique, of course--your body should be aligned from head to heels--no bums in the air or drooping hips!), and you're finding yourself getting bored with it, try a decline plank.  The angle of the decline will dictate the level of difficulty.  For example, if you place your feet on an aerobics step on the lowest setting, this will provide approximately a 15 degree angle from the floor, whereas placing your feet on a weight bench will provide a 45 degree angle.  The larger angle (feet on the weight bench) will be the harder version of the exercise.

To perform the decline plank with correct technique, place your forearms on the floor or mat, and step your feet up to the bench.  Your toes should be on the bench, with your heels pressed back and upright.  Keep your elbows directly aligned with your shoulders.  Pull your abdominals in and keep your hips from drooping.  Breath steadily while holding the plank.

If you always use the easycurl bar for your skullcrushers, a great way to change your tricep workout is to use dumbbells for this exercise.  Dumbbells ensure that both arms will be working evenly, rather than favouring the stronger arm, and they allow you to work through the full range of motion more comfortably.

To perform dumbbell skullcrushers with correct technique, begin with your elbows extended (not palms facing out.  Adjust the angle of your upper arms so that the range of motion allows the dumbbells to lower above the top of your head (it is a common mistake to hold upper arm perpendicular to the floor on this exercise).  Inhale, bend your elbows and slowly lower the weight, while turning your palms inward and keeping your elbows in.  Exhale, press up and turn your palms out.  Your elbows should not flare out at any point in the movement.

Give these variations a try, and let me know how it goes!  Also, if you have any questions about these techniques, feel free to ask in the comment section.

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