Use Common Sense Weight Training

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Using improper form while weight training can be counter-intuitive, and sometimes even dangerous. Here are some tips on the best weight training exercises, from a 40 year veteran of the sport. 

For many years I over trained. Like many people, I was of the belief that more is better. I suffered for it with not only a bad case of tendinitis, but I probably didn’t make the progress I could have made if I had used a little more common sense in my training.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t train hard. I’m all for training hard. However, the key is to know when enough is enough.

So how do you know when enough is enough? Well, the answer is not the same for everyone. Everyone has a different tolerance or threshold for pain. Not everyone recovers from a heavy workout in 24 hours. Not everyone needs to (or wants to) spend 2 or 3 hours at the gym everyday. It’s all very personal.

Just because a certain workout routine works for one person, that doesn’t mean it will work for you. It is often a trial and error process before you can come up with a training routine that is just right.

I think the first thing you need to do when starting a weight training routine is to be honest with yourself.

Ask yourself questions like: What are my goals? What am I trying to achieve? How much time do I want to put into this?  Yet the most important question to ask yourself is: How important is this to me?

Most people these days are pressed for time, so be realistic with yourself. Don’t commit yourself to working out 2 hours a day, 4 days a week, when you know very well it’s not a realistic goal. I have seen more people quit, get discouraged, and not make progress for this reason more than any other reason.

If you want to find your own workout plan, we have to start with the basics. First, decide how much time you want to put into this, or more importantly, how much time you can put into it.

Next, you have to decide which form of weight training you wish to focus on. Basically, there are three main forms of weight training: Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, and Olympic weightlifting. While bodybuilding focuses on building up your body with muscle, powerlifing focuses on becoming  more powerful, and gaining strength.

Courtesy Newsday

Then there is Olympic weightlifting, the only one of the three that is an Olympic event, hence the name Olympic lifting. This consists of two main lifts: The snatch (lifting the bar overhead in one motion) and the clean & jerk (lifting the bar overhead in two motions). In Olympic weightlifting you will not only gain strength, but speed, flexibility, and coordination. Technique is of the utmost importance in Olympic lifting.

So, which of these three are you looking to focus on? If you are interested in competing, you have likely already picked which of the three you enjoy most. If you aren’t interested in competing, you might want to use a combination of all three, or you might want to focus on the one you enjoy most.

But before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight. If you aren’t interested in getting stronger and gaining muscle, you need read no further. Go out for a jog. Weight training is all about getting stronger and gaining muscle. And for you ladies who are concerned that your going to look like the hulk, stop worrying. Women do not have the same muscle mass as men have, and the women you see that look like the hulk have chosen to look that way. Most women who are competing in bodybuilding do not look like the hulk. Yes, they are muscular, but they don’t have the same kind of muscle mass as a man.

If you have determined that you have a limited amount of time to spend on weight training, you most likely will not want to compete–unless you are just a natural, someone who is God gifted and doesn’t need to spend a lot of time on it. But for the rest of us, here is what I suggest. As I mentioned before, Olympic weightlifting is very technical. So if you don’t have much time to invest in it, you would probably be better off to stick with bodybuilding or powerlifting.

The snatch & clean & jerk are not lifts you want to do without some coaching from someone who has experience. However, there are ways to break the lifts down into simpler forms. For instance, with the snatch, you can do overhead squats– squatting with the bar over your head instead of resting it on your trapezius like a regular back squat.

Start off with a broomstick, and use a wide grip (as wide as you need to).Then, you can try to get your grip a little closer each time you do them. Once you get the hang of it, you can work your way up to an empty bar. This is a great exercise for increasing overall flexibility while building up your back muscles.

Courtesy tribesports

You can also break down the clean & jerk by doing some power cleans and push presses from squat racks. Push presses are a great exercise for building up strength and adding some muscle to your shoulders and triceps. Power cleans are great for building explosive power, and they work most of the major muscle groups. However, I don’t advise trying them without some coaching from someone with experience.

The front squat is another great exercise that most Olympic lifters do. The obvious difference between this and the back squat is that you are holding the bar in front, just as you would if you were doing a standing press.

For most people, the front squat is a lot more difficult than the back squat. There are two reasons for this: #1- It’s harder to breathe because the weight is resting on your collar bone/clavicle. #2- Flexibility. A lot of people have a hard time getting their elbows up high enough to hold the bar properly. This is usually due to poor upper body flexibility, but it can also be due to having long forearms.

If you find that you are really struggling with this exercise, and you have no intention of competing in Olympic lifting, you may just want to stick to the back squat. But, there is another solution. If you aren’t able to get your elbows up high enough, you can hold the bar by simply crossing your arms. This is the method used by most bodybuilders.

The deadlift is another great exercise for building strength and muscle. If you want a really strong back, the deadlift is the way to go, but you have to make sure you learn proper technique. Make sure you do not round your back, keep your back arched and your chest out, and use your legs and hips to lift the weight. Rounding your back is a great way to get a serious injury.

The squat is one of the very best exercises you can do, but like the deadlift, using bad form and rounding your back will lead to injury. Use a shoulder width grip and stance with your feet slightly pointed out. Keep your back arched and your chest out and squat down as low as you can, while keeping your hips in line with the rest of your body. If you want big, muscular, powerful legs, the squat is an absolute must. It’s also a great flexibility exercise when done properly.

There are numerous bodybuilding exercises–so many that it would be impossible to list them all. If you have no intention of competing, it’s best to stick to the basics. I can’t tell you how many people I see at gyms spending hours on isolation exercises, and yet spending practically no time at all on the major exercises, like squats or deadlifts.

Now that we’ve looked at the workouts, let’s go through each body part. We’ll start with calves.

Calves: Your calves already get plenty of exercise every day just from walking and standing. That being said, if you’re involved in athletics, building up your calves isn’t going to make you a better athlete. Unless you have plans to compete in a bodybuilding contest, I see no reason to spend much time doing endless calf raises. However, if your calves are really skinny, there’s no harm in doing a few sets of calf raises, but don’t bother spending too much time on it.

Want to build up your legs? Do squats, squats, and more squats–there’s no way around it.

Almost every athlete does squats, and with good reason. They work all the major muscle groups in your legs, hips, and back. Want to increase strength, explosive power, muscle, flexibility, speed? Do your squats!

Don’t believe the myth that squats are bad for your knees– Quite the opposite is true. There are only two reasons why squats would cause knee pain. You are either not using proper technique, or you’re over training.

I suggest rotating back squats with front squats (great for developing the quadriceps muscle), but as I mentioned before, front squats are difficult. If you’re really struggling with them, stick to back squats.

Another great exercise for the quads is leg extensions. Be wary though, because there is some controversy surrounding this exercise, due to the fact that it puts a lot of torque on the knee joints. Some say they are good for the knees, while some say they aren’t. If they bother your knees, don’t do them

First off, you shouldn’t use much weight on leg extensions. There is no reason to. Second, do them slowly. Extend your leg fully and hold it at the top for a second or two. You will feel a good burn in your thighs. Don’t over due it on these– 2 or 3 sets of 10-12 reps is plenty.

I also like to do leg curls for the hamstrings, but just like with leg extensions, use light weight and do them slowly, holding it at the top for a second or two. 2 or 3 sets of 10-12 reps is all you need.

The leg press can be a good leg exercise too, especially if you are recovering from a knee, leg or back injury that prevents you from doing squats. If you are going to do them, I suggest using the kind of leg press where you are lying on your back, and not the kind where you are sitting. The angle from the sitting position puts a tremendous strain on the groin muscles. The only groin pull I ever had in my life was from using a seated leg press.


Abdominal: For the abdominals, I like to just stick with good old sit-ups. I used to do them on a slight incline while holding a 25 lb weight, but as I got older and started gaining weight, I was no longer able to do them. Now, I just do them on a flat floor with no weight, while my wife holds my feet down. If you don’t have someone to hold your feet down and you don’t have access to a sit-up board, you’ll have to find another way, like putting your feet under a couch.

Leg lifts are another good abdominal exercise, although I don’t do them myself. Abdominal work gets a lot more difficult as you get older, especially if you have some extra pounds on you. Once again, unless you are competing or you are one of those guys that insists on having six pack abs, you don’t need to overdue it. Just do what you are capable of. That doesn’t mean slack off, but it’s important to know your limitations.

Let’s move on to chest. The bench-press is a great exercise for building upper body strength and muscle, but I actually have always favored the incline bench over the flat bench. The incline bench is a great exercise for the upper chest and shoulders. I suggest rotating the flat bench and the incline bench, but don’t become overly attached to the bench like so many people do.

When I was competing in Olympic lifting many years ago, the one question I was asked all the time was, “how much can you bench?” They were somewhat stunned when I told them I don’t do bench presses. Most competitive Olympic lifters don’t do bench presses, for one simple reason: They will not help you to lift more weight in either the snatch or the C&J. Don’t get me wrong, the bench is a great exercise, but it’s not the exercise you want to mainly focus on to become a better athlete.

Dips are another good exercise for overall upper body strength (triceps and shoulders included), but don’t overdue it. They can put a lot of strain on the elbows and shoulders when done in excess.

Shoulders: Speaking of shoulders, the standard military press is a great exercise, as long as your lower back can handle it. I prefer the push press, where you bend your legs slightly as you are are pushing the weight overhead. If you have problems with tendinitis in your shoulders, as I sometimes do, you can try doing behind the neck push presses. I prefer them because they are just a lot more comfortable for me and less painful.

Another good shoulder exercise is upright rows. Hold the bar down by your thighs and stand up, bending slightly forward at the waist. Use a slightly narrower grip than the standard shoulder

Courtesy youtube

width grip and pull the weight up to your neck, with your elbows pointing out. Be sure to lower the weight slowly.

There’s no need to use a lot of weight on this exercise. If you’re doing dips and benches for your chest workout, don’t forget those exercises are also working your shoulders. Between the presses, the upright rows, the benches, and the dips, that should be more than enough work for your shoulders.

Back: We’ve already discussed the deadlift. If you want a strong solid back, you can’t go wrong with deadlifts. Make sure you’re using proper form before you start loading the weight on.

Another great exercise for building the upper back is lat pull-downs. You simply sit down, and using a wide overhand grip, pull the handle (which is on a pulley) down to your chest. Chin ups and pull ups are another good exercise for the upper back. These are obviously a lot easier for people who are a light body weight.

Trapezius: If you’re doing power cleans, and you’re doing them correctly, you shouldn’t need to do any other trapezius exercises. The upright rows, which we discussed in the shoulder exercises, will also work the traps. You can always add a couple sets of shrugs too, but no need to overdue it on those.

Forearms: Most people use them pretty regularly in their everyday life, but if you want to give them some extra work, try wrist rolls. You will need a dowel. Drill a hole through it and then put a rope through it. Tie one end of the rope to the dowel and tie the other end to a 5 pound weight. Hold the dowel out in front of you, and walk the weight up with your hands, then walk it back down. Your forearms will be as solid as a brick.

Biceps & triceps: I saved everyone’s favorite for last. What guy doesn’t want to impress the girls with his big guns? Everyone notices big arms, probably because it’s the one part of our body that is usually exposed.

So here’s what I suggest you do for your arms: Nothing!

That’s right, I said nothing! My arms measure 18 inches flexed. Want to know how many curls and tricep extensions I do? Zero! Why? Because, almost every exercise I’ve suggested in this article will work the triceps and biceps to some extent. Okay, a few curls and tricep extensions once in a while can’t hurt, but don’t become one of these guys I see at the gyms all the time that spend an hour working their triceps & biceps, but will not even spend 5 minutes on squats.

Once again, I’m not talking about the bodybuilder who is competing. That’s a whole different ball of wax. I’m giving you exercises that will get you in shape, increase your strength, and build muscle, so don’t try to do what someone who is competing is doing, unless you’re looking to compete yourself. It’s a waste of time and energy!

I have about 40 years of weight training under my belt, which includes 8 years of competing in Olympic weightlifting and 6 years of competing in powerlifting. At 55 years of age, I no longer have the time, the energy, or the desire to spend hours and hours working out. I also find that I don’t need to. Many people are surprised to hear that I only spend about two hours a week working out, and I still actively compete and break State records in my age group.

It’s not because I’m a natural– Believe me I’m not. If not for weight training, my strength would be very average.

The key is consistency, mixed with a no nonsense approach.

I don’t miss workouts, and I don’t take time off. I take it very, very seriously. I normally workout at home, because I have found that most people at the gym do not take it seriously. Unfortunately a lot of people use the gym as a social club. I’m not interested in socializing when I’m training. Socializing is for outside the gym. You need to stay focused. Not staying focused and not taking it seriously leads to injury.

In all my years of weight training, I have had only one serious injury that required surgery. I have to thank the good Lord for that, but I also attribute it to staying consistent, staying focused, and using good form and technique. My workouts are short, but very intense!

The big 5: If you have a very limited amount of time to put into weight training, here are five exercises that are essential. I guarantee you will gain strength and muscle if you do just these five exercises consistently.

#1- Squats. #2 – Deadlifts. #3 – Standing press or push press. #4 – Bench press #5 – Power cleans (but not without coaching)

Here is pretty much my training program in a nut shell. I only squat once a week. I rotate the back squat with the front squat from week to week. I do about 8 or 9 sets for a total of 25-30 repetitions. I do about 5 warm-up sets and 3 or 4 sets with heavy weight.

I do deadlifts once every two weeks. I do about 10 sets for a total of about 15-20 reps. 5 or 6 sets of warm-ups and 4 or 5 heavy sets.

I do push presses once a week, usually about 6 sets for a total of 25 reps. 3 warm-ups and 3 heavy sets. I do bench presses once a week and rotate them from week to week with Incline benches. I do 6 or 7 sets, sometimes low reps, between 1 and 4, sometimes high reps, between 5 and 10. I do power cleans once a week for about 8 sets and a total of 15-20 reps.

I usually do a couple sets of shrugs after my cleans. I also do two sets of high rep leg extensions and leg curls once a week. I do sit-ups more regularly, at about 4 times a week.

As for cardio, I’ll go for a bike ride on occasion with my wife. We try to get in a game of badminton at least every other day during the warm weather months, and lately I’ve added some moderate jogging to my routine because I’m trying to lose weight.

That’s it. That’s my workout.

Keep in mind that I’m competing in powerlifting, so my sets are high and my reps are usually pretty low. It works for me, but you will have to experiment with sets and reps to see what works best for you. Please remember to learn proper form and technique before you start loading the weight on.

Remember, train hard, but use common sense.


About Mark C. Morthier

I grew up in Northern NJ as a fan of local sports teams–the Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers. But it was different in football: I was a Dallas Cowboys fan. In sports, I played high school football, competed in Olympic-style weightlifting (1981-1989), and I’m engaged currently in powerlifting (2011- forward). I’ve participated in nearly 60 weightlifting/powerlifting competitions and currently hold several New York State & New Jersey State records in the 50-54 (Masters Division) age group. I’ve also served as a weightlifting/powerlifting coach. In addition to competing I’ve always enjoyed writing, even though I don’t have special training in either journalism or sports writing. Writing is an avocation for me, an adjunct to my day job. For years I worked as a forklift operator. Now I’m a school bus driver in Upstate New York, I’m really honored to be a contributor at The Sports Column. My favorite topics are football, weightlifting, and 1970’s NFL.

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