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Thriving and Your Identity

While the purpose of this site clearly has been and still is to optimize physical vitality and energy, a whole lot more than technical exercise instruction and adherence is required. We’re not machines; it’s impossible to maintain good fitness habits in a heartless, robotic fashion, at least for long.

What separates us from a machine is a lot of things, but the most important area is the heart. I’m not referring here to the entity that pumps blood through the body and helps maintain life, but rather the soul or spirit identity that reveals our motivations, passions, and purposeful goals.

Image courtesy of khunaspix at

Image courtesy of khunaspix at

When I exercise, it’s not really about the precision of the movement; sure, doing an exercise properly makes for both safe and effective results, but it’s far more about what within is propelling me to do that which is seen on the outside.

Yesterday, someone told me “You really still have a lot of passion for lifting, even being older.” While I wasn’t especially excited to be referred to as “older,” the younger friend was telling me that he was impressed with the energy I displayed as I moved rapidly from one exercise to another, carrying out each repetition with passionate intent.

Whether or not you’re an athlete or personal fitness trainer, like myself, isn’t the issue here. What does matter is that you find a personal reason for exercise, something that moves your “internal meter.” You may be able to grind out a series of decent workouts for the sole purpose of “looking good for the summer,” but the likelihood of keeping up such a habit that becomes part of who you are is really small without something further driving you.

The subject of internal motivation, your heart, and even your very identity is the stuff of endless books and articles purporting to give you the answers to those essential questions. I believe, though, that who you are is most accurately tied to “whose” you are. It’s this truth and its ramifications for finding genuine identity and purpose that I plan to address in coming articles.

Triceps–Forgotten Arm Muscles

Many LOVE working biceps, as this article instructs, but what about that other side of your arms, the somewhat forgotten triceps? Just as you really need to work your back roughly as much as your chest to avoid dangerous imbalances (along with aiding in symmetry), so too do you need to ensure proper balance between the front and back of the arm.

Sure, the bicep is the thing people generally see coming to them, but you want to look good walking away also! Most importantly, as cited, it helps prevent the imbalances that often lead to injury. We’re wired to be holistically healthy, definitely including a well-rounded body.

this poor guy from childhood ads had no biceps OR triceps!

this poor guy from childhood ads had no biceps OR triceps!

Many of us need some kind of triceps work

If you’re inclined toward doing a lot of close-grip pressing exercises (narrow grip push-ups for eg) and also do a lot of overhead pressing with a shoulder-width (or closer) grip, then you may be getting enough triceps work already.

Many, however, don’t do all of this, and as such could use some direct work on the backside of the humerus (upper arm). Women especially seem inclined toward wanting to “tone their arms,” usually meaning those triceps.

Tone, or muscle?

On that note, diet comes into play in a significant way, but for sure you can aid that process by the exercise you do. I don’t believe in spot fat-burning as legit science, but there’s no debate that working your triceps will enhance the muscle in that area, giving you a firmer, stronger look, and without becoming a full-scale bodybuilder in the process!

At the same time, for those who want to build appreciable muscle, significant volume combined with moderately heavy weight can be a boon to that. The intensity can give you some muscle in the back of your arms that nicely complements the bicep obsession.

What to do specifically for triceps? Oh, there are many exercises available as part of a home workout—no shortage, and that includes solely using your body weight, or even just some of it. There is nothing like visual to describe some of your options, which you’ll note in several ensuing pics, along with clear verbal descriptions.triceps-anatomyThe obligatory—but brief!—science

The triceps are a series of muscles which run along the back side of the humerus, or upper arm. These muscles are termed “elbow extensors,” because the elbow is the hinge that allows your wrist to move away from your shoulder, extending (or straightening) the arm.

Triceps are involved in various pushing exercises, for instance, when you press something away from your chest area, or when you’re trying to hold someone from barreling through a door, or simply when you’re trying to get up off the floor. They’re also heavily utilized in sports, whenever you’re throwing something, for instance.

As noted, you obviously utilize the triceps muscles a good bit whether you’re aware of them or not. But to ensure you create balance both aesthetically and functionally, some direct triceps work may be in order.

You can make it as easy or difficult as you want, including utilizing different versions of the same exercise. For instance, there’s the triceps extension. You can do this one of a number of ways, according to availability or preference.

You can do these (described immediately below) on the floor

You can do these (described immediately below) on the floor

Different Strokes, Same Triceps

Lying Triceps Extensions—For example, if you have a set of dumbbells, you can lie on your back, using one arm at a time or both. Hold the dumbbell(s) with arm(s) straight up in the air (as in Fig C above), perpendicular with your body (technically, you can start like Fig A shows, but in my opinion it’s clearer to explain the other way). Maintain the position of your upper arm and elbow as much as possible, while allowing (under control) the forearm to come back toward you as the weight in your hand starts to make an arc toward your head, though just to the side of it. No bonking! (Fig A)

Begin contracting those triceps muscles to generate the energy for moving the weight back up to the starting position (Fig B shows middle of the movement). You should feel it in the back of your arms if you’re doing it right.

Bodyweight Triceps Extensions—Or, you can do these without any weights at all. If you want to use full bodyweight, find a higher surface than what I’ve shown in the pics below, so that you’ll be on your feet, leaning over while standing. If you don’t have a good, higher surface (as was the case in said below photos), you can do these from the kneeling position. This makes the movement easier, but you can make up for that by building up to doing these one arm at a time.  You may also choose to do this kneeling version simply because you’re not quite ready to do the standing one.

Start with your feet (or knees, if not standing) in a position back far enough from the surface you’re holding onto so that you’ll get a good lean into the movement, making sure you’re working those triceps. If your body is too close to your hands to start off, there’s little effort needed in moving you away from the surface your hands are clinging to.

starting point for bodyweight tricep extension

starting point for bodyweight triceps extension

Contract your triceps in order to start pushing yourself away from the surface, eventually extending out completely, where arms are straightened.

midway point

midway point



The key here, as noted, is the freedom from even needing weights with you. Anywhere you happen to be where there’s some kind of stable edge to grab onto can become a home exercise (or one you can do if you’re staying in a motel, for that matter).


Triceps pressdown with bands—You hear about triceps pressdowns on a cable machine at the gym; why not create the same basic movement at home with simple workout bands? Use the “anchor” (that is made to safely attach in the crack of the door—not all brands are as safe) to firm the position of the bands, allowing them to dangle down to hand position (in this case, had to do them from a kneeling position, which is fine)


elbows at side, wrists straight

Start with your hands grabbing the ends of the band, palms face down, wrists locked (don’t allow them to bend back, as you can incur injury). Elbows should be essentially to your side, and they—along with your upper arm—should remain stable through the movement to ensure you utilize your triceps muscles.

Once in that position, press downward, allowing your elbow to act like a stationary hinge while your forearms move in a downward arc toward the ground. You’ll notice that since the bands are stretching, the resistance increases. But that’s actually perfect for this exercise, because you tend to gain leverage (a form of strength) as you start locking out at the bottom.

finishing point

finishing point for bands triceps pressdown

Triceps Kickback—Another triceps focused movement you can do with dumbbells is known as the triceps kickback. But, as well, you can even use a jug and fill it with water (for a true home exercise!) if you don’t have any dumbbells laying around. Instead of requiring a bunch of different weights in order to increase the resistance, you can simply pour in a little extra water.

You’ll first want to find a stationary surface to set your body up on (as shown in pic below). The foot of your working arm will be on the floor, while the off-arm knee and hand will be on the object, creating a tripod of stability while the arm of your hand holding the weight (or jug) remains free.

Form Critical

You want to ensure your back position is sound, so stick your tail out just a bit to allow for a slight curve (opposite of rounding!) in your back. As well, keep your torso relatively parallel with the ground.

Now, move your humerus (upper arm) back to where it’s parallel with the ground. This will ensure you get the most out of the exercise for your triceps. (if you only move your arm back to less than parallel, you won’t work the triceps nearly as much). Attempt to keep your wrist relatively locked, stable, while allowing your forearm to remain perpendicular to the ground. This will create an ‘L’ between your upper and lower arm as you hold the weight in your hand, ready to begin the lift.

starting point--torso and upper arm parallel with ground

starting point for triceps kickback–torso and upper arm parallel with ground

Start engaging your triceps muscles to lift the weight further behind you, making sure your upper arm and elbow remain as fixed as possible. For one thing, if you swing your upper arm further behind you, you’re using your shoulder to help lift the weight, taking a lot of the effort away from your triceps muscles. You’re also jeopardizing your shoulder health as well, since some folks are tight in that area to begin with.

Once that upper arm and elbow start moving around, halt the set at that point. You may either have simply reached your good repetition limit (let’s say you did this movement at least eight times before your form breaks down) or you may need to lessen the weight used. It’s far better to go with a lighter weight and do the exercise properly than hoist a heavier weight up with sloppy form.

arm extended back, upper arm remains parallel with ground

arm extended back, upper arm remains parallel with ground

There are even more options available for tricep activation, but these will provide you a number of choices for hitting the back of those arms as part of your home exercises.


The “Push Off”—A Nice Alternative to the Push Up

The “Push Off,” so deemed by this guy one day when toying around with bodyweight exercises as part of a home workout, is—at the least—a welcome alternative to the sometimes grudging, standard push up, an old basic that sometimes elicits images of physical torment!

the agony of it all

the agony of it all

But the push off might even be considered the ultimate of at home exercises, as you’re not just using your bodyweight, but you’re also using a doorway (see instructional pics, noted by caption, further below) of your home.

Many Advantages

This “little brother” to the push up can be used for warm-ups, for those not ready to do a set of several regular push ups, or simply to toy around with some variation.

No matter where you’re at in that pecking order, push offs can make you more aware of how your muscles function than any form of chest or pushing exercise. That’s because without having to exert a ton of force, you can focus a lot more on your body’s response to various tensions and angles when doing these. There’s no large weight (bench press) or deep and difficult angle (elevated push ups) demanding your main attention, distracting you from really feeling the chest muscles working with the movement.

Another benefit, potentially a huge one, is that you can adjust mid-exercise a whole lot easier and safer than you ever could doing, say, a heavy bench press. For example, if you feel some kind of discomfort, it’s easy to stop anywhere in your range of motion during the repetition. If, on the other hand, you’re on your back with a heavy barbell on your chest, you have no choice but to try and push the weight all the way up, or hope you have someone spotting you. If neither of these are available, pray!

Prepare to Push

Prepare by, as always, warming up your joints, especially your upper body, but even  some for your legs, as you’ll be on your feet the whole time.

similar muscles are used for the push off as the push up

similar muscles are used for the push off as the push up

Place your hands while standing against both sides of a door frame (see instructional pic #2, as shown by caption) about the level of the bottom of your chest. Experiment with what’s best for you, or you can adjust that height for variation of how you’re hitting your chest. Placing your hands flush with the door frame sides will help your wrists compared to the more acute (bent back) angles they’re at when doing push-ups with palms flat on the floor.

The lower you place your hands, the more it works the chest and less the shoulders and lats and vice-versa. As noted in  the more general, thorough chest article, many people tend to push somewhat higher up their bodies, which brings in their shoulders and lats but not enough for their chest muscles. It’s critical to get a great mind-muscle connection to get the most out of these.

Stand back at a distance where your hands are still in position to both sides of the door frame (like for instructional pic #2 below) while arms are fully extended and where you’re still standing almost upright.

(You can of course make this exercise easier by moving your feet up closer to the door frame. This not only decreases the distance you travel, but also the angle from gravity, as you are closer to a standing position the whole time)

Beginning path

With your arms extended, use them to move under control toward the door frame. Keep your core (midsection area) tight, not allowing it to sag forward (same with a push-up). As you start approaching the door frame, move your head to the side to allow your body closer to the frame and make the movement more challenging (see pic immediately below).

note head slightly to side of the door frame, allowing for more depth in the movement

Instructional pic #1-note head slightly to side of the door frame, allowing for more depth in the movement

Push away from the frame slowly, under control and focusing on feeling those chest muscles engaging as your body continues to move away from the frame. Proceed until your chest is totally contracted while your arms are fully extended (see next pic below).

Try and maintain that mind-muscle connection with your chest as you allow yourself to slowly drift back toward the door frame. You won’t feel it the same way as you do moving away from it, but it will help you keep the focus that provides you a great benefit even from a very basic exercise like this.

full extension of the movement (or repetition)

Instructional pic #2-full extension of the movement (or repetition)

As you gain confidence and comfort with this movement, you can do several things for variety, including changing the speed, where you explode off the door frame instead of moving deliberately. You may get a better muscle pump due to the variation. Further, it can increase your ability to move explosively in real life situations, where you never really know what may be required.

Variety the Spice

You may also challenge yourself by doing push offs with one arm instead of two. Just adjust whatever slight amount needed to ensure balance as you perform the exercise; it’s a far easier change than trying to go from two-arm to one-arm with the standard push-up!

A less considered option that increases difficulty is standing on one leg to do them. Doing so causes some core tightening to maintain body stability, since you don’t have the benefit of planting two feet on the ground to stabilize yourself. Further, since you’re on just one leg, physics causes your upper body now to exert more force, since the other leg’s force is taken away from you.

any pushing exercise on one leg changes the dynamic

any pushing exercise on one leg changes the dynamic

I mentioned above that shortening the distance (placing your feet closer to the door frame) makes it easier, partly because you’re more upright the whole time and not contending with gravity as much as a result.

But if you want to make gravity more of a factor instead, you can maintain your regular, full distance with your feet and make your main focus be at the hardest part of the rep (upper body closer to the door frame, as in instructional pic #1, where gravity is strongest since you’re leaning forward more). You’re also in a naturally tougher spot from a leverage standpoint (it’s harder the furthest you are away from full arm extension, generally).

You ask “how do you focus on that portion of the exercise; don’t you have to do a full repetition (where you go from start to finish (arms extended)?” No, you don’t.

Partial Reps

You can do what’s known as “partials” (or zone training, or J-reps, depending on the degree of specifics and application). Focus totally in the first half of the range of motion (from start to middle, or the distance from instructional pic #1 to pic #3 (below), then dropping back to the starting position, then back to the middle position, etc, until you start to get fatigued.

middle portion of the movement

Instructional pic #3-middle portion of the movement, one which epitomizes a home exercise

You can then do the second half/extended arms portion for several partial repetitions to finish your set. This portion of the movement (pic #3 as starting point, pic #2 as end point) is normally much easier due to leverage and gravity factors. But since you have already fatigued some from battling the more challenging portion for several partial reps, this “easier” part now will actually become more challenging than normal.

I’ve detailed the push off done with a door frame, but the reality is you can easily adjust this for just about any surface, making the exercise more challenging the lower the surface you place your hands on.

Your Home Is Your Gym

My first client, who had experienced broken forearms in previous years, didn’t want to perform regular push-ups but needed to strengthen her upper body. So I had her use her fairly high kitchen counter top, using the same form essentially as I’ve described and photographed above. In time, she began doing these “pseudo one-armed” (more weight shifted to one side of her body, then the other), with one-armed being the next logical option.

You can also use a sturdy table, a chair, your bed, or anything else that has some stability for you. The possibilities are practically endless as to what home prop you can use to push off from.

any reasonably stable surface in your home will work for push-offs

any reasonably stable surface in your home will work for push-offs

The doorway is a great way to begin though, and it sets the stage for each level, eventually leading you back to the good ol’ push-up if you choose. Most importantly, it helps give you independence from gyms and total flexibility in your home workouts.


Physically Thriving and Your Identity

Many of us hear “you need to exercise!” and we kinda nod in passive agreement, but we often lack the passion to follow through, sometimes to even get started. It’s pretty obvious, though, based on the many New Years’ Resolutions that fail after a few weeks (or at best, a couple months) there’s more to it than simply having a general realization that being physically fit is to your advantage.

each year starts with new resolutions that often falter shortly after

each year starts with new resolutions that often falter shortly after without an ID change

Is it because you are unsure of just how beneficial it is to your health and well-being, or is it because the message just isn’t reaching your inner self, the passion that drives you to really undertake the journey to fitness?

Quick Fix Fizzle

I think a lot of us are looking for quick fixes that require very little effort, and these often backfire, if they even work at first. You hear time and again about people getting on some crash weight loss program and then not only regaining the weight before long, but being heavier than when they started!

often how we feel for weight loss or any kind of goal

often how we feel for weight loss or any kind of goal

Too, I think many of us realize deep down such “get it now” programs don’t truly work. We just don’t want to face that as a fact of life. We, deep down, crave and need to have something that energizes us internally. You know, on some level, that true success comes when you possess passion for something, because even the process becomes an enjoyable journey. The results merely  act to reveal the right path.

Desire: The First Step

As my “About” page notes, part of my motivation comes from seeing what happened with my beloved parents, who both passed away too early and under horrible conditions (not that death is ever pleasant). It left me with a greater determination to take a path independent of the conventional medical, at least as much as possible. Freedom is within our grasp a lot more readily than we realize. We’ve been conditioned to believe in conventional medicine more than we should.

I think I also am motivated internally by my coming up short in playing football as a youngster for the school. I tried out but was largely too skinny and my wiry frame seemed to hold me back, whether that was physically or just psychologically. Whatever the case, I didn’t fulfill my biggest dreams. As an adult (well into middle age), there’s still a passion for in some way resolving those unfulfilled goals.P1000268

Belief: The other critical component

My faith has increased over time as well, that faith not in myself, but in God thru Christ. Some of you may balk here, and that’s obviously your choice. But I speak from actual experience and not just book sense or study. He sustains and empowers me. I don’t have anywhere near all the answers and never will, but the journey is definitely a progressive one, filled with some stops and starts but also greater joy.

On that note, He has shown me that we never can really be as effective in our actions until we first embrace BEING who He has us designed to be. I believe all things emanate from within far more effectively than simply battling things out while traversing up the mountain. I think, though, this latter is what most of us do—we try to change what we’re doing through pure willpower but fail to be “born again,” to see ourselves as “new creations” like He sees us who have come forth to be renewed.

Uphill Battle vs Calling

I state this from a perspective of someone who, until very recently, continually sought that harder path of self-determination, willpower and raw effort without really embracing a new me. It’s the opposite of how many of us move—we often try to will ourselves into something we want to accomplish without willingly having ourselves cleaned or renewed from the inside out. Spiritual growth and victory is, though, an “inside job.”

You may well be able to start and maintain a highly effective and fulfilling fitness program through sheer, long-term willpower (whether home workouts or otherwise). I just believe, through my own deeper thoughts and experiences, that you’ll be far more likely to succeed long term if you’ve internalized the process. The more said activities are tied with your own I.D., the more powerfully you’ll take to them.

When objective and identity meet

When objective and identity meet

You were born to be highly special in a way deeply unique to you. The more you’re able to attain that identity, the far more powerfully and sustainably you’ll be able to walk out the steps needed to succeed.

That may not include physical fitness to such a degree that it’s your calling (as it is mine), but your body is vitally important, and integrating your physical health into your own life’s special path will only produce greater attainment in any journey you’re taking.


Bodyweight Squats-Strengthening Your Legs Safely

The squat is a very basic, functional human movement. You essentially “do squats” anytime you get into and out of a chair or couch, for instance. Or you may need to drop to the ground to pick something up, then stand back up again. (if picking up anything heavy at all, you’d want to perform a squat to lift the object, rather than bend over and try lifting with a rounded back). Understandably, we all therefore need to be able to perform this everyday movement properly, which makes this an optimal home exercise.

the 2nd one is how many of us lift things--russian roulette with your back!

the 2nd one is how many of us lift things–russian roulette with your back!

Lower back and knee pain—two very common complaints related to getting down and back up—are not normal results of exercise or aging, etc. Rather, they are the product of the cumulative effect of various abuses or neglect.

Inevitably, you may use dumbbells, bands or a weight belt (no massive barbell loaded on the fragile spine near the neck), but first we need to develop the most sound, safe and effective form for getting the most out of the squat movement. Because any problems with form done without any resistance/weights is only exacerbated by increasing the load. Let’s head off problems before they start or become worse.


If you’ve barely been moving around, start with some light warm-ups, ensuring your knees and legs overall are ready to do some exercise.

If you haven’t done any actual squats in a long while, start off practicing in and out of a chair first. You’ll be more free to test it, knowing the chair “has your back” in case you lose your balance. As noted, this is an ideal movement for your home workouts.

The first thing you’ll want to ensure is a stable stance to help you descend and come back up properly. Stand with your feet about shoulder width, toes either pointed forward or slightly out. To aid with balance (and keep you less inclined toward falling backward), feel free to point your arms forward. Look roughly straight ahead, not considerably up or down. Your abdominal muscles should be fairly tight and your shoulders back and down, with chest out. This will all help keep you from rounding your back as you reach the bottom of the movement.

Ideal start and finish for bodyweight squat

Ideal start and bottom position for bodyweight squat

The Critical Descent–Knees

Many think about the upward phase almost exclusively, envisioning coming up with the body to a standing position and feeling those quads (front, upper leg muscles) doing their work. But you create the story for your legs (and back) in the downward movement.

To descend, many people want to do so from their knees, but you should think of breaking down instead from the hips and stick the rear back. This automatically lessens the high tension your knees experience when you emphasize your weight upon them. It also ensures that the knees won’t move  past your toes, as they should not be any more than the slightest bit beyond them, if at all. If you follow this advice, your knees will appreciate it!

Another cue is the way your feet are feeling. If you notice your heels raising, then you’re likely over-emphasizing your knees in the movement. Your weight should be more toward the heel than the front of the foot. (see pic below for example of knees in poor position with heel raised)

note knees extended far beyond toes; raised heels are another cue

Basic No-No’s for squats: note knees extended far beyond toes; raised heels are another cue

The Critical Descent–Back

Your back should maintain a very natural, slight curve, not a dramatic arch. Ideally, you would descend until your thighs are about parallel to the ground. If you feel your back starting to round a little, that’s alright, but only a small amount. As well respected strength coach Eric Cressey notes, “Flexion is fine (and a normal functional task) when it isn’t accompanied by compressive loading.”

Since we won’t be compressing the spine with heavy barbells, a bit of rounding is actually acceptable if done with focus. Still, to ensure you don’t overdo this, keep your abs engaged (tight) to help your back remain reasonably neutral.

When you’re doing these without a chair to sit in, only go down as far as you comfortably can, where your back isn’t excessively rounding or your knees aren’t buckling just to get the extra depth. It’s always better to guarantee quality and safety over quantity. Instead, you may need to work some on flexibility, though that can at least partly be remedied just with repetition. The more you practice this movement, the more you’ll gradually be able to descend further.

Coming Back Up

As you engage your quads (upper legs) to drive you back up out of your seated position, you want to be sure you are coming up from your hips, just as the hips were your focus in going down. Because if you start your ascent by raising your shoulders, it’s going to create considerable strain on your lower back. The hips and shoulders, instead, should come up at the same rate, as James Wilson of MTB Strength Training Systems aptly emphasizes.

squats are great for much of the body, but especially the quads

squats are great for much of the body, but especially the quads

If you focus on intensely driving up from your heels (ensuring you’re warmed up sufficiently), your quad muscles will feel it! This is also where you’ll note safe and effective form, as coming up on the balls of your feet will indicate too much weight distributed toward your knees, so just refocus on the heels and coming back down the next time from your hips, sitting back into the lowered position.

Additional Tip:

I’ve noticed that if I squeeze the glutes at the top for 1-2 seconds after coming up, it makes dropping down from the hips much smoother! You’ll have to make that determination yourself though. Also note the longer you contract there, the more time you’re not keeping your upper leg muscles under tension. Generally, the less rest between repetitions, the more effective the exercise.

Whether you can only do one, or 100, focus on the form in the manner noted in the article. Details are critical in all exercise movements, and this is no exception. As noted, the focus for this at home workout movement isn’t to lift enormous poundages, but to greatly stimulate your quad muscles while, most importantly, ensuring the safest path to do so.


Moving Toward Shoulder Sanity–Dumbbell Shoulder Press

One of our most abused areas are our shoulders. We can give them—the front part, especially—too much work, considering the obsession with things like bench press and other pushing exercises that constantly hit the anterior (front) portion of the deltoids (muscles of the shoulders). (though I, as your at home personal trainer, won’t be instructing you to do barbell bench presses as part of your home exercises, you can still abuse the shoulders in other chest pressing movements)

Even back exercises, like rows, can contribute to unstable shoulders and poor posture, such as excessive rounding (as you lower the weight too far). This not only will cause you less attractive appearance and muscle imbalances, but also opens the door to injury.

Further, our society’s tendency to sit for long hours at a computer, texting, etc adds tremendously to this forward lurching and shoulder rounding. As you can tell, the need for proper deltoid balance is tremendous today. Shortly, I will post on exercises specifically designed for this.

this shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive non-physical activity and abuse

shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive sedentary activity and abuse

The dumbbell shoulder press is an exercise that can either help your shoulders, or exacerbate the problem further. The more you point your elbows forward, the more you’ll work the front portion of your shoulder; the more you keep them pointed to the sides, the more you’ll hit the lateral (side) portion. You want to target this side area as one way to provide your deltoids some sound balance.

Preliminary Phase:

Test your ability to keep your elbows out to the side (called the frontal plane—think of the way your arms and legs travel in jumping jacks) of your body without any weights initially. Pretend you’re in the set position to lift weights (or any object) overhead. Your upper arms (humerus) should be roughly parallel with the ground (again, elbows out), palms facing forward. Now raise your arms as if you’re lifting said object overhead.

As you’re raising and then finishing lifting the arms as high as you comfortably can, are your elbows still mainly pointed to the side (frontal plane), or have they moved markedly forward to some degree?

My own elbows, at this juncture, tend to move a bit forward, not totally in the frontal plane anymore without extra warm up and careful stretching. To that end, I’m working on flexibility (another subject and article for the near future!). The more sideways from your body that you can safely maintain your elbows, the more you’ll be able to develop the side of your shoulders and, as a result, the less emphasis you’ll place on the front area, which as noted gets plenty of work automatically from other activities.

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

When you have these flexibility issues, it not only limits the level of overall deltoid development due to limited range of motion, but it also forces you to bend your torso back more than normal to keep the weight from moving too far forward. This can cause lower back discomfort.

Let’s assume you’re able to keep your elbows mainly out to the side as you raise your arms. You’re then ready to start your presses as part of your home workout.

Seating Considerations:

First, determine what you want to use for seating (we’ll assume seated presses for now, rather than standing). If you have a bench with a back support (or can raise the back of your bench up to at or near perpendicular), then great. You won’t be using your stabilizer (core) muscles like you would if you had no back support, but for some it’s safer to have it, and you can also focus more on hitting the deltoids hard.

If you don’t have a bench or chair with a solid back support and need something for your back, you may want to try sitting on the floor (legs crossed Indian-style) and against a wall. For lower back comfort and support, place a cushion of some kind between you and the wall. (*if needing to do presses from the floor, you may be  safer doing them one arm at a time, allowing for using your non-working arm to help hoist the weight into position)

Another option is to sit on an exercise ball or simply to find any firm seating (even if it doesn’t have a back support) that you can use to do your seated shoulder presses. Without a back support, you will need to really focus on engaging your core muscles, keeping them tight in order to ensure back safety.

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

Now that you have your platform for performing your shoulder presses, the question is how much weight do you want to use? A lot of folks use too much weight, which leads to either sloppy form to get the dumbbell up (and can aggravate shoulders and other areas). Others may decrease the distance their arms travel, ie shortening their range of motion. This also hurts your shoulder development. It’s far better to use a lighter weight, concentrate continually, and execute the movement fully and feel the deltoid muscles through the whole set.

Getting set for the movement:

There are multiple ways to get the weights you’ve now chosen into the set position (weights held up near neck level, perhaps touching shoulders lightly, prior to pushing them up toward the ceiling). If the weight you’re using is fairly light (it should be, especially if you’re not highly experienced and already using excellent form), then you can probably just hoist the weights from the floor into starting position as you sit back.

If you are on an exercise ball, though, you will need to ensure it’s “stable,” or you can fall off of it. So if using this to sit on for presses, it’s best to already have the weights in hand as you sit on the ball.

If said weights are on the heavier side, you can bring them to your knees first and then raise the knees up while also pulling upward with your arms simultaneously to hoist the weights into the starting position.

As to your starting position: many advocate starting with your upper arms parallel to the ground. I disagree, as this will give you a good tricep workout with some shoulder involvement, but you’ll be cheating yourself of some gains for those deltoids. Instead, start with your upper arm lowered to where the dumbbells are touching, but not resting on, your shoulders. This extra movement will give you significant additional deltoid growth.

though standing in this version, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

whether seated or standing for the shoulder press, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

Ensure your feet are firmly planted on the ground, both helping to provide you stability and also some extra power for lifting.

One last thing about the starting position: keep your shoulders back and down. This will help ensure you’re keeping your elbows out to the side, which again will help maximize lateral (side) shoulder development.

Executing the Lift:

Now, press the weights up, attempting to maintain a smooth trajectory upward. You may see that your arms start coming together naturally as you press the weights toward the ceiling. That’s totally acceptable, provided you avoid clanking the dumbbells together at the top, as you’ll lose tension on the shoulders if you do.

Press the weight up only as high as your arms naturally travel. If you feel (or see, if you have a mirror) yourself shrugging your trap muscles (those back muscles leading to the neck) and allowing your whole shoulder girdle to raise, then you’re going too far up. Just go until your arms no longer naturally can move up further.

Avoid locking out entirely, as you lose some of the tension in your shoulders as well as possibly aggravate your elbows, especially if you “pop” them up into the finished position. It’s better for you to stop just shy of that point to avoid those problems.

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

As you come back down, maintain control of the weights, actually resisting gravity with your shoulders. This should greatly enhance what you get out of the exercise. Sure, you’ll do less repetitions and/or weight, but what’s important is maximizing the stimulation your shoulders get. By also maintaining good form and a controlled pace, you’ll be protecting them as well.

To summarize:

*Determine your flexibility for doing the shoulder press and whether you need to focus more first on careful stretching before taking up the weights.

*Find an ideal place to perform your dumbbell shoulder presses

*Hoist the weights into position for pressing

*Press the weights overhead without going into a shrug

*Lower the weights back to your starting position under control by keeping your shoulders engaged fully

*After your set, place the weights back on the floor

As always, for home workouts we emphasize dumbbells over the barbell, partly for convenience of space, but also because, as legendary bodybuilder Dave Draper (“Blonde Bomber”) aptly states, “Dumbbells are much safer than restricted bar pressing ’cause they may be altered in motion to accommodate rotation cuff’s particular mechanical requirements. This is done by “feel” and focus to avoid abuse and to work around an injured or weaker area.”

Definitely! To sum what he says, focus first on safety and secondly on proper feel, always being aware of what you’re doing to help ensure your healthiest and maximal deltoid development.


Less Workout Time, Greater Benefits

In addition to at home workouts simply saving time from preparing for and driving to and from the gym, you can further cut time in those exercise sessions done in your comfy confines.

It’s called supersetting, and it’s also a very sensible approach to training, because it helps ensure much better body balance, which not only looks good and provides greater functional fitness, but even more importantly acts to prevent injuries.

You do, however, need to be highly familiar with the home exercises you’ll be using, since you will be moving more rapidly and switching movements frequently. This will require concentration, familiarity, and decent cardio capabilities, especially the faster your pace.

The basic concept is to work a particular muscle group for a set, for instance, the chest press (eg, dumbbell bench press or pressing laying back on an exercise ball–more on chest exercises here). Since your chest needs a little time to rest in order to effectively handle another set, shift to the opposite side and work that, in this case your back.

First stage of push-pull superset

You can do dumbbell rows, for example, or use exercise bands, creating a pulling movement; the exact opposite from the pushing done with the chest exercise.

After doing one “round,” (a set of chest followed by a set for the back), do a second and then a third round of this same combo before going to two totally different body parts.

Another superset example would be doing an exercise that works predominantly your quadriceps (front muscles of your upper legs) followed by a hamstring exercise for the back of your upper legs.

great exercise for your lower backside, an area often neglected

great exercise for your lower backside (hamstrings and glutes), an area often neglected

For the front, you can do squats, either bodyweight or holding dumbbells (or even adding a weight belt if desired). These do hit the back of the leg some, but still work the quads more. Follow that up with doing something like a glute-hip raise (see pic immediately above), as the movement has various names), where you start off lying on the floor, elevate your feet on something like a bench or exercise ball, and then raise your hips off the ground by utilizing those hamstrings.

After doing one round of squats followed by glute-hip raises, you should then be ready to do another set of squats, followed by the glute-hip, etc, for a total of three rounds.

This front-back concept also would apply for the arms, where you can do a set of dumbbell curls, followed by tricep extensions or kickbacks.

front-back concept diagram for biceps and triceps

front-back concept diagram for biceps and triceps

Another superset can be shoulder presses matched up with pull ups or a lat pulldown (if you have a home machine; if not, you can use exercise bands for the same effect).

Yet one more superset would include your all-important core, where you’d do a set of crunches followed by a set of hyperextensions (note pic below). I’ve found personally the most readily available way to do this is with the ever portable exercise ball.

Here’s an example superset workout for the whole body, albeit a fairly abbreviated one. Remember, in this article, we’re here to save time!

3 rounds of each superset

Superset #1:

Dumbbell bench press (or pushups) followed by dumbbell rows

Superset #2:

Shoulder press followed pull ups or lat pulldown with bands

Superset #3:

Bicep curl followed by tricep extension or kickback

Superset #4

Bodyweight squat (or holding dumbbells for added resistance) followed by Glute-hip raises.

Superset #5

Exercise ball crunches followed by Hyperextensions

excellent instruction on hyperextensions

excellent instruction on hyperextensions

*If you have done three rounds of each of these supersets with minimal rest between rounds and supersets, you should be reasonably tired. However, if you still have something left in the tank and feel the desire, re-do Superset #4 (legs), since the first three supersets were upper body.

Hopefully, you’ll find this type of home workout both challenging and refreshing, especially considering the amount of physical activity and resulting health benefits you can achieve in a relatively short amount of time. Home exercises allow for many possible superset combos, so you can obviously modify based on what you have available or simply what you feel like performing at the moment.

I have plans for a new article soon that lists many at home exercises to choose from, virtually all of which can be used in some combo with another to create any number of possibilities for superset based home workouts.


Simple home workout

As an in home personal trainer, this is a very basic, fairly abbreviated workout that I prescribe for some of my clients, especially if I’m unable to be there at the time while he still desires to do home exercises in between sessions with me.

Ideally, you would do this home workout at least twice, maybe three times a week, with at least a full day rest in between any two workouts (eg would be Mon-Wed-Fri, or at least Mon-Thurs).

Since this is for an overall workout, I’ll keep instruction to a necessary minimum. Other articles will be a good bit more detailed for specific at home exercises.

Warm-up the whole body first, as always, for at least five minutes–longer if feel need to loosen up a little more and/or get body further warmed.

Lower body: 3 sets of each of these

Glute-hip raises: lie on your back on the floor, elevating your feet on something (ball, bench, or table, for eg) and raising your hips up while focusing on using the the hamstrings (muscles in the back of the upper leg) to do so. Contract at the top to help maximize muscle stimulation in hamstrings and glutes. (We are starting with these since so many people neglect the backside in their development)

finish stage of glute-hip raise

finish stage of glute-hip raise

Bodyweight squats: stick your tail out enough to ensure curve in lower back (as opposed to rounding your back), dropping down your upper body via the hips and not from your knees. As you start back up, try to drive more from your heels than the front of your feet. (if not used to these, start off by testing your abilities with a chair or couch behind you just in case you lose balance). Click here for in-depth info on how to get the most out of these.

Calf raises: do as many on two legs as you can do with good form (where not using body to jerk self up). If these become too easy over time, you can hold onto dumbbells to increase intensity, or you can do on one leg at a time (can lightly hold onto a rail or put hand against wall for balance). *doing elevated calf raises (placing ball of foot on, say, a stair step while allowing heel to hang) naturally increases the effectiveness.

for calf raises, find surface you can lower your heel from for greater development

for calf raises, find surface you can lower your heel from for greater development

Upper body: 3 sets of each of these

Chest press
with dumbbells (If you have a bench or exercise ball: if not, see pushups shortly below),  focusing on stretch at bottom while ensuring chest muscle activation as much as possible (not dropping too far down though, just to where you get a stretch, under control as you bring weights down). See this article for much greater detail on the most powerful way to benefit from chest work.
*Push Offs: If you want to change things up or have no bench, you can do this highly flexible movement, a sort of “push up-lite” (push-ups can be considered a granddaddy among home exercises). The same principle applies of focusing on form over numbers, getting some stretch as you go to the lowered position.

Dumbbell rows, one arm at a time. Find a bench or about knee-high table (or other reasonably stable and flat surface) to put your non-working side’s hand and knee on. Your leg on the working arm side acts as a part of a tripod with the other two limbs. Focus on form over numbers, just like always, by using your back muscles to pull the weight up instead of your arms. Keep the torso stationary and reasonably close to parallel with the ground.

Shoulder press (standing or seated) with dumbbells: remember to keep elbows pointed straight out to sides (as long as can do so comfortably) to help work more of the overall shoulder. No need to lock out totally at the top, just go up as high as comfortable, then come down under control. (see article for thorough instruction of seated version)

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

client using exercise ball for seated press, with spotting behind him for safety

Pull ups/chin ups/exercise bands pulldown–you can use either a pronated grip (hands away) or supinated (hands toward you), depending on preference. As always, focus on form and feel, like you’re using your back muscles to pull you up and the arms are more or less secondary in the movement. Focusing on staying under control and not being as concerned about numbers will help go a long way toward both safety and getting the most out of the exercise for muscle building. An example of this is not bouncing out of the bottom. Rather, descend under control and without free-hanging at the very bottom.

(If you don’t have a chin up bar, you can use exercise bands, placing the anchor as high up on the door as possible, crouching on knees, grasping handles and pulling them downward just past your chin)

Bicep dumbbell curl (optional): the upper arm and elbow should remain in the same place, with the forearm being all that moves. This ensures the most activation of your biceps. Supinate the hand (palm of hand out/up from the outset if comfortable enough, as this gives you the most stimulation of the bicep. See this article for more info. For bit of variety, use a “hammer grip,” which will work biceps less but forearms more (see pic below)

for bicep variety, do hammer curls (palm of hand toward body) to hit the forearm more

for bicep variety, do hammer curls (palm of hand toward body) to hit the forearm more

Crunches: Finish with some of these for the core. There are many midsection exercises we will soon discuss, but at least that way you’re doing something for the core in the meantime.

In order to maximize your home workouts, always feel free to ask any questions or have something clarified


Treasure Chest: Creating Safe But Effective Movements For Your Chest Muscles

One of the most emphasized (sometimes overly so) muscle groups is the chest. In fact, Monday is often referred to as “National Bench Press Day,” since so many would-be bodybuilders and powerlifters robotically run to the gym the first day of the new work week to hit the benches.

They lie on a bench, grunt and groan to lift the barbell off of the rack, descend and hoist, descend and hoist, again and again and again. They’re dead serious about what they do, but their results don’t often show it. Instead, you might as well have this:

No clowning around with this exercise

No clowning around with this exercise

Despite such dedication by so many, few actually develop their chests to any satisfactory level, and some that do pay a heavy long-term price with shoulder issues and more as part of their badge for bench press bravery.

Neither of these discouraging outcomes needs to be realized. You just need to know how to make the most of your chest exercises, and do so in a safe manner in the process. You can do these as part of a home workout and avoid the crowded scenes at the public workout places.

Bench press-free home exercises that develop your chest musculature include push offs (using a counter top, for instance), push ups, dumbbell chest presses on an exercise ball or bench, and standing push presses with bands.

Lending "helping hands" of extra resistance to client's pushups

Lending “helping hands” of extra resistance to client’s pushups. Note his excellent form, keeping whole body rigid, not resting on the floor at the bottom of the movement

Regardless of your exercise of choice for the chest, a couple of basic instructions can both greatly increase chest activation and safety in your efforts.

Preliminary: The Focus

As we mentioned earlier, many folks attempt to work the chest but see very discouraging results. That’s often because the individual is overly focused on the end goal of moving the weight or resistance from point A to point B. With that tunnel vision, he/she is missing the key element, which is engaging the muscles in question, instead often throwing other bodyparts too much into the process.

The end goal of finishing the lift/rep should not be the main focus. That merely is the aftermath of what you’re doing through the movement.

a main purpose of chest (pec) muscles is to pull the arm across the body

a main purpose of chest (pec) muscles is to pull the arm across the body

You need to first focus on engaging the chest, and the best and easiest way to do this is to practice that sensation without any weight at all. While standing, raise your arms in a position as if you’re about to begin a pushup or bench press rep (elbows back, forearms facing forward, upper arms raised about 45 degrees from your torso, hands slightly ahead of your chest).

As you do so, pull back your shoulders and stick out your chest, as if you’re “bowing up to someone” like you’re going to intimidate them with your physical presence. If you experiment just a bit with it, you can feel when your chest muscles are activated. It may help also to think about pulling your arms back enough to stretch your outer chest area a little.

At this point, practice on slowly moving your arms forward while keeping those chest muscles activated. After a short while, you will likely be able to maintain that mind-muscle connection through a full range of movement while increasing your speed.

Lifting Details:

Accomplishing this and then applying it to the actual exercise provides two huge advantages: actually working the chest effectively and helping to protect the shoulders through keeping them somewhat back and down during your movement. When you allow them to round forward, that can, especially over time, cause shoulder issues. Shoulder injuries are among the most commonly cited among lifters, often due to abuse.

Regarding this emphasis on feeling the chest muscles engaged through the movement, a contrast may help provide why it’s important:

When many people do various chest pressing exercises or pushups, they think about pushing the weight or moving the arms out and away. This can be effective in finishing the repetition, but it often causes your shoulders and traps (upper back muscles near the neck) to become overly involved. The chest muscles only contract marginally in such a case.

exercise bands can offer a great way to ensure your chest is contracted thru the whole movement

exercise bands can offer a great way to ensure your chest is contracted thru the whole movement

By keeping the focus on the feel, a la the chest contraction, rather than the end result of completing the rep, you’re going to get a lot more muscular activity in the chest area, and you’ll avoid overworking the shoulders and traps.

One more detail to cite in this article regards the location of your hands to start the repetition (ie. where you begin before moving your arms forward). Regarding how close in or far out to hold the weights (or positioning hands when doing pushups or chest presses with bands); that’s somewhat personal preference, though it’s not recommended to be too far out away from your torso, as it can strain your shoulders too much. However, too far in becomes more of an inner chest and tricep exercise, less of a full chest one.

Generally, you want to have your hands positioned a little wider than shoulder width. *Tip: keeping your upper arm separated roughly 60 degrees from the side of your body will help determine hand placement (to an extent, this will be individualized based on your own structure).

Pic on right, note the angle of the upper arm from the body. Not entirely perpendicular to it. Helps increase chest involvement

Pic on right, note the angle of the upper arm from the body. Not entirely perpendicular to it. Helps increase chest involvement

You also don’t want to hunch your traps (muscles that blend to the neck) upward in order to be at a certain hand position (i.e. moving hands upward). That puts you back in a pattern of excessive use of your traps and shoulders, as cited earlier with many folks.

Speed Matters:

Finally, the speed of reps; the general rule is to go up controlled yet explosively and down controlled and deliberately. The deliberate, slower speed on the eccentric (down, withdrawal) portion will help you avoid bouncing out of the bottom or stretched position, which helps keep you injury-free. As a bonus, many studies have shown that a controlled descent creates greater muscle growth!

As always, inhale as you come down, exhale as you push up.

This may seem like a good bit to follow, but mainly just making that mind-muscle connection will provide you with a great home workout while giving you safety to boot.

Bicep Health—The Dumbbell Curl

Most anyone loves to have “big guns”–biceps that grab attention, that make you look good in a short sleeve shirt. The bicep is definitely a “show muscle” and truly shines in the summer sun!

even Popeye--the "forearm god"--loved to flex those biceps!

even Popeye–the “forearm god”–loved to flex those biceps!


But it’s a lot more than that, as it’s highly functional for daily living as well. You use your biceps to varying degrees in a wide variety of activities, many you don’t consciously think about. Basic examples include picking up household items from the floor and setting them at higher places, opening canned goods, and even simply bringing a drink up to your lips to guzzle. Any movement, light or heavy, that requires your forearm to be elevated or brought in toward your body will bring those beloved biceps into play to one degree or the other.

Biceps are an easy reminder to ensure you keep and even improve your muscularity as you age. There is nothing like a good pair of biceps to help give you an indication you’re doing some right things in maintaining your independence and vigor and even using them to help others. It’s a good feeling when you’re middle aged (or beyond) and being asked to lift something heavy for someone else who may be a good bit younger than you are!


Regarding the dumbbell curl (pictured), this is a standard exercise, yet many—perhaps most
—folks don’t get anywhere near the benefits they can out of it. In the gym (or as part of a home workout), you see someone doing curls for months on end with no or minimal improvement. Why is that?

I’ve even seen a couple of folks use their backs so much, that it’s almost not even an arm exercise in any sense! It’s more like going for a ride or something, rocking so recklessly that they need a seat belt. Strap yourself in! It’s no wonder those folks don’t get any arm growth.

Most of us don’t go to such an exaggerated movement, but there’s still a fair amount of swaying with the body or other cheating methods that require less of the biceps.

Smart to use dumbbells:

note my neutral grip--palms facing inward (more comfortable for some trainees)

note my neutral grip to start–palms facing inward (more comfortable for some trainees) before turning them upward during the lift; elbows to the side from start to finish

You can also use a barbell, but I (and most people) find that dumbbells are an overall safer, sounder path to take, because it doesn’t lock your arms into a precise movement that the barbell does. In short, dumbbells provide a lot more flexibility and variety. They also are much more home workout friendly, allowing you to store them in the confines of your place with relatively little space needed.

In preparing to curl, stance is foundational. Note John’s stance (in the first pic above) and how he’s staggered his feet, rather than keeping them in the same plane. This helps lessen stress on the back/spine area. It’s not a significant concern for most when using light weight, but matters more if you already have back issues and/or are using heavier weight.

Form Is King:

You want to generally keep your hands supinated (palms facing up) for maximal bicep effect, but it’s important that if your flexibility is limited, you can invert your grip some (i.e. use a more neutral grip throughout the movement, palm tilted in some instead of up). Also, many folks may feel more comfortable and natural beginning with a neutral grip (when arm down at your sides, hands are facing your legs/body) and then supinating (turning palms upward) as they start the lift. Just be sure to keep the wrist steady, not rolling it upward while you perform the lift regardless of whether you rotate the hand while the weight comes up.

One significant clue–keep the elbow in close to your side. It’s a simple reminder for you at any time. If you notice your elbow moving beyond the smallest amount, then you are not hitting your bicep as much; rather, you’re getting your shoulder involved more as it’s lifting up the humerus (upper arm) instead of your bicep moving your forearm to get the weight up.

note my elbow remains to my side, wrist stays locked, only moving forearm, making bicep do all the work

note my elbow remains to my side, wrist stays locked, only moving forearm, making bicep do all the work

If that’s the case, concentrate a little more on keeping the elbow in close to your side. If you’re still unable to keep from lifting the elbow up, just end the set or use less weight next time. If you’re unable to get, say, at least six to eight repetitions with that weight before losing form, then you probably should drop to a lesser weight. It’s not so much about how much you can lift, but the stimulus the muscle gets from the movement.

Again, let the forearm and it only do the moving. Your biceps will greatly appreciate it.

Lowering the Weight–More Important Than You May Think:

When you lower the weight, do so controlled, modestly slowly, to prevent bouncing out of the bottom. Bouncing puts a lot of extra stress on the bicep and can create injury, especially over time and/or if you’re using a heavy weight.

More on that note: each person’s bottom position may be a little different, depending on various factors, flexibility being the primary one. If you cannot straighten your arm out totally at the bottom, that’s OK. Don’t force it. And the more weight you’re using, the less you should put any extra pressure on your muscles to straighten your arm out.

The general rule is you can descend to a lower (arm more straight) position the slower you take it down and the more flexible you are. The faster you allow the weight to fall, the earlier you need to put on the brakes and avoid hitting the bottom of the rep range.

Obviously, there are significant safety advantages to taking the descent slower, and the extra time the muscle remains tense increases the muscle’s growth, as studies frequently show.

Take the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement. slowly, controlled for best results

Take the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement. slowly, controlled for best results

We spoke earlier about the tendency to sway coming up, which brings your back into the lift and creates body momentum that puts far less emphasis on the biceps to perform the lift. Don’t do that! Your focus should be on building the muscle, not so much on how many reps or how much weight you’re lifting. Sure, those things obviously have their place, but let them be the end result of your training, not the means! Like noted, if you over-focus on these things, you will far more likely cheat to get them and rob yourself of the enjoyment and rewards of the bicep blitz.

Here’s to your ageless vigor and happy home workouts!