Freeze It, Hold It, Squeeze It!
I started seriously working out when I was 17. I absolutely love fitness and have been fortunate to reap the benefits of my consistent commitment ever since. Over the years I’ve had a few trainers here and there, but the majority of my knowledge has come from trial and error and ultimately learning how to listen to my body. By paying attention to what my body is telling me—adjusting when I need to and leaning into the “burn,” I’ve discovered how to enhance common exercises in order to maximize my workouts.
That being said, I’m a huge advocate for working out with a trainer. There’s nothing like being motivated by a professional who can push and challenge you to go further than you think you can—mind over matter! A trainer can properly guide you through exercises making sure you’re using correct form and technique to prevent you from injuring yourself. And let’s face it; we all want to do our best when someone else is watching our every move, not to mention the whole accountability factor that goes hand-in-hand with hiring a trainer. C’mon! You’ve got 10 more in you! That’s for canceling last week! And was that pizza I saw you eating the other night when I ran into you?
But for those who are unable to invest in training sessions or feel more comfortable sweating it out on their own (motivation: Beyonce’s Lemonade album— word to the wise… “Don’t Hurt Yourself”), there are many ways to optimize your workouts by simply changing your approach to some popular exercises. Hiding in plain sight are key tweaks that can dramatically enhance the results of your familiar routine making the exercises more effective at getting you closer to reaching your fitness goals.
In the words of Q-tip “just breathe and stop, for real, and give it what you got.” The magic lies in form and technique. While doing my first set of three I repeatedly freeze and hold a muscle contraction for 3 to 5 counts and then slowly release that contraction for 3 to 5 counts without completely disengaging the muscle. For my second set I return to the traditional modality of performing the exercise and in my third set I do a combination of the two—sufficiently shocking my muscles. On days when I really want to push myself I'll increase the holds and the slow releases to counts of 5 to 10. It’s all about freezing and holding it right there, squeezing at the top of the contraction and then slowly releasing.
Below are 6 machines commonly found in most gyms and 6 popular exercises targeting large muscle groups that I’ve learned to refine overtime, which have given me great results. These modifications help strengthen stabilizing muscles and connective tissue. Although these 6 exercises focus on the upper body, you can apply this technique safely to a variety of exercises that target your lower body too.
PULL-UPS: You might recognize this contraption. It’s called a Chin Up/Dip Assist. There is often a padded cushion that can be locked into position where one places their knees after they’ve adjusted the counter weight on the side of the machine. This allows for you to be “assisted” when you are doing pull-ups and tricep dips. If you’re a seasoned gym-goer and have experience doing chin-ups or dips you probably won’t need the assist pad. However, if you are just starting out, please lock the pad into position and select the amount of weight that will adequately counter your own body weight--thus allowing you to perform the task and still be challenged by the exercise. Grab the handlebars at the top of the machine with your palms facing away from you. Let the pull-up start from your shoulder, meaning you should feel your shoulder muscles initiate the pull-up first before your biceps and triceps get involved. Although all the muscles are working together, the primary muscles being activated are the trapezius and the deltoids, so you really want to make sure you’re properly engaging them. With your elbows slightly bent and your shoulders down and relaxed (don’t start the exercise from a place of shrugging your shoulders) quickly pull yourself up into position, hold and freeze right there. Hold for a count of 3 to 5 (or 5 to 10) and squeeze the muscle while you do it. At the top of the holding position your head should be upright and aligned with your spine hovering just above the handlebars. Slowly release your hold returning to your resting position. Repeat this sequence 10 to 12 times on your first set.
Make sure you stretch your shoulders in between, carefully rotating the arm making no sudden jerking movements that can lead to throwing your shoulder out of socket. For your second set do 10 to 12 repetitions of a traditional pull-up paying close attention to your form. It’s always best to “explode up” meaning quickly move into the contraction, squeezing the muscle at the top and then slowly releasing. For your third and final set do 10 to 12 repetitions of a half and half combination of the two previous sets. This is all in service of switching things up so you keep your muscles guessing.
TRICEP DIPS: On the same machine, you’ll want to position the side handlebars that flip inward or outward to the inward position. If you’re using the assist pad to counter your body weight, your knees will remain in the same position as they did for the pull-up exercise. Grabbing the handlebars with your palms facing in towards your body, you’ll want to hoist yourself up, slightly bending your elbows while engaging the triceps. From there you’ll want to dip to a 90 degree angle, slightly tilting your body forward ( which actually works your chest too) making sure that your elbows are locked in, directly under your armpits and not splayed out to the sides like a chicken. Hold the dip for 3 to 5 (or 5 to 10) seconds and then hoist yourself back up to your starting position. Do this 10 to 12 times.
In between sets give your triceps a good stretch by lifting your arm above your head and resting it on the top of your crown and gently pulling at your elbow. For the second set do 10 to 12 traditional dips where you don’t hold for 3 to 5 seconds but make sure you squeeze the muscle once your arm reaches the 90 degree angle during the exercise. For the third set do a combination of the two previous sets.
PEC FLY/REAR DELTOID
PEC FLY: Most gyms have a Pec Fly/Rear Deltoid combination machine where the resistance bars can be adjusted by simply pulling at the pin located at the top of the machine and moving the resistance bars along the track before locking them into place. Adjust the seat to a comfortable position where you feel the pectoral muscles engage. Be careful not to place the resistance bars too far back to the point of hyper extending the pectoral muscle. You should open your arms wide to either side of you and gage from your natural wingspan how far back your arms actually need to go. Too much weight on the pec fly will cause you to engage your shoulder and back muscles, so really pay attention to which muscles you feel are working the most. Your back should remain in contact with the back pad at all times and each contraction should start from your pectoral muscle. If you find yourself pitching forward and your shoulders tensing up, the weight it too high and defeating the purpose of strengthening your pectoral muscles.
With your elbows slightly bent and palms facing inward, shoulders back and down, back fully supported by the back pad, quickly contract the pectoral muscles and freeze right there. Hold the contraction for 3 to 5 ( or 5 to 10) seconds and then slowly release. If you can, try not to fully disengage the weight by letting the plates completely drop. Rather, as you feel your arms moving back to the starting position, resist letting completely go and “explode up” into the contraction once again. Do this for 10 to 12 repetitions.
In between the sets counter stretch your pectoral muscle by grabbing on the side of a wall and leaning away from your firmly gripped hand. For the second set do the traditional pec fly exercise maintaining the same form and remembering to squeeze the muscle while it contracts and resisting the impulse to fully release the weight. For the third set do a combination of the two previous sets.
REAR DELTOID: Simply turn around and adjust the resistance bars to the last locked position. Adjust the seat to the point where you feel the muscle being engaged is the rear deltoid. You’ll be facing the back pad and the same rule will apply about hyper extending. You’ll want to open up your arms to your natural wingspan while doing the exercise. Sometimes I like to wrap my legs around the machine to anchor my position even further. My spine is perfectly aligned, my shoulders are back and down and my head is upright. Elbows are slightly bent and the contraction starts at the back of the shoulder. From this position quickly open your arms and freeze right there. Hold the contraction for 3 to 5 (or 5 to 10) seconds squeezing the muscles while you do it. Then slowly return to the starting position without fully disengaging the weight and then do it all over again 10 to 12 times.
In between sets counter stretch your rear deltoid by gently swinging your arm across your body and holding your elbow leaning into the twist. For the second set do 10 to 12 repetitions of a traditional rear deltoid exercise, maintaining form, squeezing the muscle in every contraction and resisting the impulse to fully disengage the weight. The third set is a combination of the two previous sets.
SEATED BICEP CURLS
SEATED BICEP CURL: Place the appropriate amount of weight plates onto the dial. If you are using a seated bicep curl machine that has weight plates attached to it, then simply use the familiar pin to adjust accordingly. Adjust the seat to the appropriate height where your elbows can consistently keep contact with the supporting pad. Grab the handles and adjust your grip so that your palms are facing up towards the ceiling. Your torso is resting against the supporting pad and your back is upright and straight. The contraction should begin with the engagement of your biceps. In one quick motion, “explode up” to a 90-degree angle and freeze right there. Hold for a count of 3 to 5 (or 5 to 10) and then slowly release the weight on a slow count of 3 to 5. Try your best not to disengage the weight and repeat this cycle for 10 to 12 repetitions.
In between sets counter stretch the bicep by fully extending your arm—your palm facing the ceiling, grabbing your palm with your free hand and gently tug downwards so you can feel the stretch in your bicep. For the second set do a traditional bicep curl making sure to squeeze the muscle at the top and always keep your elbows on the supporting pad. For the third set do a combination of the two previous sets for 10 to 12 repetitions. Squeezing at the top during a bicep curl is what helps to develop that desired bicep peak.
CRUNCHES: Locate the Cable System in your gym that is used for a variety of exercises. Attach the rope clip with two adjoining strands of rope to the top of the Cable System. Adjust the weight to a comfortable but challenging resistance level. Kneel down with your knees shoulder width apart approximately 1 to 2 feet away from the machine. From this position you’ll reach up to grasp the rope with either hand, your elbows slightly bent with your biceps pinned to your ears. Your torso should remain upright and your back straight. Although you can do this exercise to target your upper abdomen causing your back to curl like a cat stretching, for this particular version of the exercise you’ll be targeting your lower abs, which means your back should remain as straight as a board. You will be attempting to keep your alignment by placing your torso and rib cage as close to the floor as possible.
Once you begin the exercise you’ll be able to adjust accordingly to where you feel your abs engage the most. To begin the exercise engage your stomach by tightening your abs as if you are trying to suck your belly button inwards and then bend at your waist. Feel your abs contract then let your arms pull you down to the ground—elbows making contact with the floor. Once your elbows have made contact with the floor freeze right there and hold for a count of 3 to 5 ( or 5 to 10). Then begin to slowly uncoil yourself, keeping your back straight, (slow motion style) through every muscle for a count of 5 until you have returned to an upright position.
Do the second set with the same form but without the freeze and hold, making sure to still let the contraction start with the abs and not the biceps and always squeezing the muscles at the bottom of the contraction. For the third set do a combination of the two previous sets 10 to 12 times.
This is a killer and after 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions on a challenging weight, you’ll be feeling the burn. Counter stretch your abs by laying facedown, pelvis connecting to the floor, palms flat and firmly planted on the floor, elbows in and then raise your upper body, releasing the neck to allow your head to tilt backwards—in yoga this is called Cobra position.
Always consult a physician before starting a new exercise regimen to make sure your body is healthy enough for vigorous routines. I also want to reiterate and further emphasize the sound recommendation of working with a professional trainer that can help design a program for your particular body and fitness goals.
Don’t kill yourself! This is a framework. I often go to the gym and have to modify these exercises based on fatigue or the fact that I’ve reached muscle failure. Once you start feeling your muscles shake your body is telling you we’ve worked hard enough. If you can’t do 3 sets of 12 do 2 sets of 8! Listen to your body and get stronger by slightly intensifying the exercises you already know!