First Things First

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Exercise Combinations that Work

Exercise Odds and Ends for the
Last Frontier of Muscle Growth

Coach Paul SmithCoach Paul Smith under Dave's top squat

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Early afternoon in the gym is the calm between the storms, the lunchtime hurricane and the after-work monsoons -- my favorite time to train. 40 years ago in the Muscle Beach Dungeon, six in the morning was my time to tangle with the iron -- the calm before the first stir of day. Now it would kill me.

It was one of those days. I walked into the gym, glanced around and noted the weights looked ponderous, the benches hard and uncomfortable and the machines resembled hideous devices for inflicting pain. Swell place for trouble, I thought. I dropped my bag in the corner, grabbed my gear and went over to the chinning bar to begin my workout; hanging leg raises in this 21st-century torture chamber seemed appropriate.

I hung there for a long moment and asked myself for the ten-thousandth time, “Why do I do this stuff?” I traced the familiar strain from my fingers and hands, through my forearms, biceps and shoulders and into the lats and torso. The resistance was mild, a good stretch, and I commenced the repetitious action of the leg raise, contracting at the top with all my might. At 15 reps the pain in the aforementioned sequence of muscle areas was unmistakable and the ache in the lower abdominal region came to life. However, the burning sensation in the hip flexors, like the cruel insertion of ice picks, was searing and won first prize. The grand total of 25 reps distorted my facial features and had me breathing like a racehorse coming into the homestretch. I supersetted the rascals with 20-degree-incline leg raises of equal repetitions to further fatigue the muscles and antagonize my body and brain. I’m good at it, one out of five supersets down. I asked myself another clever question while gasping for air, “Are we having fun yet?”

Questions proposed in the first 20 minutes of a full-on training session receive no answers, just as my piteous body hanging from the cold steel bar receives no mercy. The leg raise performed by free-hand hanging rather than utilizing support straps is a madman’s struggle, yet most rewarding. The muscles in succession from grip to torso are under rigorous demand and develop in strength and muscularity accordingly, significant added benefits considering it’s the abdominals I'm really targeting. Get all you can get while you can get it, I always say. The incline leg-ups extend the work done by the hanging leg-ups, assuring maximum overload. Hypertrophy is the goal. Further, the fitness and muscular separation achieved in the hip flexors and the quads due to the repetitive flexing in the twin ab movements are pleasing extras added to the bounty of the enduring athlete. Raking in the gold.

Like the TV infomercial, “But wait, there’s more.” Hustle these moves back-to-back without losing form or tempo and you’ve thrown in athletic and cardio-respiratory advantages to your mounting collection of muscle-building treasures. It’s “ten for the price of one day” at your favorite muscle emporium.

Remember this when you’re busting your backside lifting weights: You don’t do an exercise for one purpose only, curls for biceps or bench presses for chest. Concentrate. Notice all the muscles involved in the performance of each exercise. This takes practice and should be practiced. Know totally what you are doing for maximum benefit and reward. Don’t cheat yourself from enjoying the knowledge of the copious accomplishments you’re achieving from your hard work in each specific movement.

• This is part of your fulfillment as a lifter and…

• Adds to your training incentive

• Gives you the complete picture of your body’s muscle activity

• Promotes focus on the engaged muscles and the intensity of their participation

• Helps you in assessing overtraining or undertraining

• Assists you in intelligently outlining your training routines

You’re rich and should know it. Be thankful always, beware of greed and count humility more precious than gold.

A harsh start, neither inspiring nor delightful; the midsection movements are effective for diverse muscle- and strength-building. I consider the combo a dutiful warm-up and preface to the real musclebuilding ahead. They’re done, I’m invested and at last willing and able to answer the questions raised during the first 20 minutes of battle. I do this stuff because it serves 100 purposes from providing physical joy and fulfillment to developing muscle and might, from character construction to stress dismantling. Now you know. You can’t get that at Yale University or Disneyland.

It’s Friday, my fourth and final two-hour blasting session of the week. I love this workout. I’m reminded of a cat prowling the streets at night when they’re empty, shadowy and quiet. You slink around while your eyes adapt to the darkness, your ears tune into the muted orchestra of sounds around you and your muscles throb from their tense readiness. You’re neither searching nor expectant nor vulnerable; you’re here to do what you need to do and want to do and have fun doin’ it. The night’s yours. You can sit on a lone wooden fence and cry at the blackness if you want, but you don’t. The cold vacant streets and alleys stir a craving within to awaken the sidewalks and lampposts and breathe life into the red brick walls.

This work session is reserved for sniffing, nudging and overturning objects large and small. I have serious work to do this day; it is not without order and purpose, yet it is not defined by a prepared outline. Discovery, invention and improvising are the authors of this training day and the subject is not what am I supposed to do according to plan, but what do I need to do -- what must be done -- for my best interest. Cats go there immediately; they stray well.

We must trust ourselves eventually. For some this quality is achieved in six months. For others it takes years, it comes and goes and we chase it around with a stick. Alas, it’s not uncommon that the trusting about which I speak -- confidence and self-understanding free of pride -- never comes at all. It can and it will. Just knowing it’s there and all of us need it helps us pursue it and gain it. Take the time. Allow yourself the privilege. Trust.

Sometimes I wish I knew what the heck I was saying. It would be useful for all of us. Whatever... Let’s take a peek at the odd assortment of exercises I currently have on hand and why.

Before detailing the individual advantages of the movements and combinations, let me point out that they are all a stray from the norm and I find them a tasty change of menu. They go places I don’t regularly go, cause me to do things I don’t regularly do. Breaking patterns, traditions and habits can be enlightening, freeing and other ways beneficial.

Thick bar deadlift (5x8-15)
Thick bar wrist curl (5x10-20)

Grip strength, lower back health and improving the form of the deadlift are the three top purposes of the exercise pair.

The thick bar limits our gripping strength, as our fingers are no longer able to wrap the bar like hooks. We are forced to use lighter weight in the deadlift, while our gripping might is put to a new test and a new variation of exercise. Despite our fight the bar removes itself from our grasp with each perfectly performed repetition little by little. Finally, our grasp burning, the bar is held in place by our fingertips only -- new sensations, new development -- before we let go.

Pulling the bar with precise deadlift form for repetitions with a relatively light weight is imperative to prepare one for heavy deads -- singles, doubles and one-rep-max -- and to build muscular reinforcement of the back for all occasions. Unless caused to do light lower-back workouts, we tend to ignore the importance of back-conditioning training. Our rationale is the back’s fitness will develop with our deadlift performance. Wrong, as our repeated injuries affirm. We push too hard, too soon. Our will exceeds our capacity. The back needs continuous loving care.

Five sets of sound, well-executed higher repetitions in both exercises are a gift; they build muscle endurance, instruct form, teach patience, work the heart and lungs. The supersetting is possible cuz the thick-bar wrist curl works and tires the belly of the forearm and the power of the wrist, not the finger tips or back of the forearm. Plus the region being worked is small and without demand on the heart and lungs. A stimulating rest, in fact. I hate sitting still for too long. Let’s move on.

Wide-grip bent-over barbell row (5x6-10)
Straight-arm dumbbell pullover (5x12

The bent-over barbell row was one of my all-time favorite exercises during my first 20 years of tough training. I perfected the movement to suit me and the goals I was chasing, something to do with big and strong. In the past year they have returned to the top of the popularity list. I spent the better part of last year wisely reconditioning and rebuilding my lower back to support the large movements -- the systemic developers, the body builders, the workhorses -- squats, deadlifts and bent-over rows.

Hyperventilate; that is, pack yourself with oxygen. Establish a stable foot position some 30 to 36 inches wide, bend over, grasp the oly bar wide (varies, wide for me is two inches shy of the collars), bend the legs and drop the lower back (fairly flat), look forward and lift the plates just off the platform -- an Olympic lifter preparing for a clean and jerk. From that position the exercise is performed. The bar is pulled dynamically -- with steady, near-bursting power saturated with big back muscle focus -- to the center of the pectoral muscle, and lowered with eccentric might. Rep after rep you don’t let go and you don’t give in and you don’t give up. You triumph.

Today I seldom see the bent-over row being done, and never see it performed as I described. I think it was abandoned with squats, hard work and fair play, ethics and morals and the steam engine. I witness a more upright version, less bending at the leg and waist, with a closer grip and shortened pull from the knees to the rib cage. I’m sure it’s got worth, but I feel it’s missing the point. Engaging the weight from a more fully bent-over position throws the workload heavily across the upper back and works its way down the rhomboids and onto the erectors as the thrusting reps take shape. Without prior lower-back conditioning, the movement must be practiced carefully and with the appropriate weight. The power follows diligence.

Rewards are plentiful: systemic (full body) advantages, further enhancement of gripping strength, power and health of the entire back, thickness and density in the total back musculature, midsection conditioning, heavy cardio-respiratory demand and a substantial working of the quads and hamstrings and glutes. A good and generous king.

The stiff-arm pullover is an option, a freedom of choice; to do or not to do, that is the question. On the days I have wild-horse energy, the pullovers are sturdy and complementary pacemakers and oxygenizers, a sweet exercise to stretch the lats and tris and abs. They are fun at a moderate weight and make formidable noise when the heavy weight is pulled off the rack. The decision is made while standing before the length of dumbbells.

Cable crossovers (5x10-12)
Rear deltoid thrusts (5x10-12)

This combination of exercises is nothing revolutionary, just a neat maximum-muscle, minimum-system-demand pair of exercises to activate the pectoral muscles most directly and the too-often unattended rear deltoids.

Farmer’s walk (3x165 feet)

I’ve in recent weeks given you my take on this field-and-pastures exercise from rural America. As I’m running out of space and reader interest, let me simply say the Farmer’s Walk is not a stroll in the park. The truth is in the grip.

I don’t know about you, bombers, but my fuselage is dragging, my wings are hanging and my tail looks like it got caught in the propeller. I’m puttin’ this baby in the ole hanger for the night. See ya... oh, yeah. Turn out the lights when you leave.

God’s speed... Dave

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