These exercises will prime you for your return to the Iron Paradise.
Your gym routine may have been based around the squat rack, deadlift platform and heavy machinery for quite some time before gyms were forced to shutter due to the coronavirus pandemic. Or maybe you suffered an injury and the doctor’s orders include a few weeks without touching any heavy iron.
Either way, once you get the go-ahead to set foot in your Iron Paradise again you’ll want to power out a few bench presses and overhead presses.
But before we do that, it’s important to get our muscles back to the place they were before our unplanned break.
Why is this important? When you re-enter a gym, you need to remain functional so you can perform the same compound exercises (exercises that target more than one muscle group) without feeling stiff and tight. Tightness in key areas such as the hips, shoulders, back, or other muscles in the posterior chain will strongly affect your performance.
Upon returning, you may find that your range of motion is limited and your joints/muscles feel weak and frail from months of inactivity. In this piece, we’re going to run through a short program that can help fix these issues.
This program is great for anyone who’s had to take a prolonged break from their Iron Paradise, whether that be due to a worldwide epidemic, injury, or any other reason. Follow along and you’ll be back to ripping your old 1-rep max before you know it.
We need to start a program to keep each individual muscle group loose, strong and flexible. We can do this by practicing simple “single movement” exercises with light to no equipment to maintain overall functionality. We’ll include resistance bands and the optional pair of dumbbells if available. This equipment is cheap, multi-purpose, and light in weight, if not weightless.
For this piece, we’ll be focusing on the lower body. We’ll revisit how to loosen up your upper half in a separate piece.
HIPS AND LOWER-BODY EXERCISES
The hips are a significant muscle group for general and functional health. They play a vital role in performing all strength exercises for the lower body, such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, snatch, and the clean and press. If your hips are weak then you’re going to experience a weak lift. When tight, they affect everything from keeping a neutral spine and engaging your core, to lowering yourself beyond 45 degrees.
As a result, your spine is forced to compensate for the load of most lower-body exercises. This concludes in injury as well as being unable to target the correct muscles and lift the desired weight. Tight hamstrings also have a huge negative impact on your form. If these large muscles are tight, they severely limit the motion of all your “sit muscles,” such as the hips, glutes, quads and core.
Without functional hamstrings, your explosiveness, strength, and balance all take a hit when performing exercises such as barbell squats and deadlifts. If the situation is bad, you may even feel like you’re going to fall backwards when squatting low.
In this scenario, the rest of your sit muscles are also forced to compensate, running the risk of hip impingement, muscle tears, and spinal problems.
So let’s take a look at six exercises that can counteract all these issues from arising before you get back into the gym.
1) SEATED CLAM SHELLS
The clam shell is a great hip strengthening exercise that allows you to push the muscle group to its maximum ability against your own body weight. This exercise also strongly targets both gluteal muscles (maximus and medius), giving you more power and stabilization in your hip flexors. Clam shells give you more control and coordination when demonstrating the concentric phase of a barbell exercise such as a squat, lunge, or deadlift.
The clam shell can be performed in a variety of ways. We’ve chosen to do this exercise in a seated position. This is to replicate the position of a squat when in the concentric phase with your hips and thighs situated at a right angle to the floor. To perform this workout, sit on a bench or chair that is low enough to meet a right angle position. Tie a resistance band around both legs just above each knee cap. Have your feet positioned shoulder-width apart and sit tall with your back straight. Externally rotate your knees and push the band apart away from the body on both sides as far as you can. Slowly come back to your original position and perform the same movement again.
Perform 15-30 reps with a heavy resistance band for three sets. Ideally, perform the highest amount of reps to failure. Take a 1-minute rest between each round.
2) FIRE HYDRANTS
The fire hydrant is one the best functional exercises for the hips. It includes all three movements of the hip flexors: extension, external rotation, and abduction. This workout is also great for strengthening the gluteus maximus, medius, and core when performing the lift. The abdominal muscles are engaged throughout this exercise when performed correctly. This routine helps maintain good posture and keeps your pelvic muscles strong and flexible. It’s a highly beneficial exercise for when you’re planning to get back into different variations of heavy compound exercises. Use a resistance band to add intensity to the targeted muscles.
Tie a resistance band slightly above the knees. Slowly come down to all fours and place your hands directly under your shoulders with your palms flat on the floor.
Keep your legs at a 90-degree angle and your back straight. To perform one repetition, start with both knees together and lift one leg upwards and laterally away from the body. Try and lift your leg as high as you can beyond 45 degrees. Return to your original position and perform the same movement again on the same side.
Perform 15-30 reps with a moderate to heavy resistance band for three sets per leg. Take a one-minute rest between each round.
3) FROG PUMPS
Frog pumps are a great functional exercise for abducting and externally rotating the hips. Glutes are a key muscle for posture, which in turn is key for demonstrating good lifting technique. This is a great workout to include in our program as it isolates both gluteal muscles during the concentric phase. It also helps mobilize your adductor muscles if experiencing a tight groin.
Sitting on the floor, lie down with your back flat against the surface. Looking up at the ceiling, bring both soles of your feet together with your knees pointing away from the body.
Your legs should be in a diamond position. To perform one rep, squeeze hard with your glutes and lift your hips off the ground till your body is positioned in a straight line at 45 degrees. Lower yourself down to your original position and perform the movement again. If you wish to make the exercise harder, place a heavy dumbbell or similar object on top of your hips for the duration of the workout.
Perform 15-30 reps for three sets. Ideally, perform the highest amount of reps to failure. Take a one-minute rest between each round.
4) SIDE LEG LIFTS
Side leg raises are a great exercise for working the gluteus maximus and medius while also stabilizing the pelvis. This workout also targets our TFL (tensor fasciae latae) and IT Band (Iliotibial Band). These muscles support hip movement, but primarily help stabilize the knee or patella. When performing heavy lifts, they play an important role in supporting the knee joints carrying the load. If these muscles become weak, they can affect our ability to lift as the knee can feel vulnerable and about to “give way.”
Lie down on your right side on a mat. Fully extend your legs and stack both feet on top of each other. Your body should be positioned in a straight line. Rest your right elbow on the ground behind your head. Place your left hand on the floor to assist you with the lift. Turning your left toe slightly downwards, raise your left leg till it can’t go any higher. Slowly return to your original position and perform the movement again. Tip: Turning the toe downwards during the movement engages your glutes, TFL and IT Band more.
Perform 20 reps with a light to moderate resistance band for three seats on each leg. Take a one-minute rest between each round.
5) STEP UPS
Step ups work every aspect of your lower extremities. This is the ultimate lower-body exercise as it generates a lot of power in your hips, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Because your body weight is supported one foot at a time, this also works all the stabilization muscles in the pelvic area on the concentric phase (going up) and eccentric phase (coming down). Practicing this workout often will significantly increase your strength and ability for performing barbell exercises where the hips are pushed backwards.
Use a bench or chair that’s high enough to step above 90 degrees. Starting with your right leg, place your foot straight on the chair and keep it in line with your knee joint. Keep your back straight and engage your core for the duration of the exercise. Stepping up with your right foot, drive all the force from your body through your heel till both feet are standing on the chair. Remember to stay within a straight posture as you complete the repetition. Return to your starting position by stepping back with your right foot. Tip: To add more load and intensity to the exercise, hold a pair of dumbbells steadily by your sides when performing the movement. You can also hold a single weight in a central position at the midline of your body.
Perform 20 reps on each leg for three sets. Take a one-minute rest between each round.
6) BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS
Bulgarian split squats are a great functional exercise that replicates the movement of a static lunge. Like step-ups, it targets all the major extremities in the lower body such as your hips, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. It also strongly tests your core and all your stabilizer muscles in the pelvic area because of its unilateral position. The elevation of the back foot allows you to get more depth in the lunge and target your muscles more. It’s very beneficial to practice this exercise outside the gym. It will keep your motor senses alive before attempting to go back to performing barbell lunges or different variations of the lunge workout.
Find a bench, chair or horizontal bar positioned higher than 90 degrees. Bring your right foot forward about 2-feet from the equipment you wish to use. Getting into a lunge position with your torso facing upright, engage your core and keep your hips square. Elevate your back foot so it’s resting on the bar or chair. Keep your right foot in line with your knee as you lower yourself to the floor. Your left knee on the opposite side should almost touch the ground. Your right leg should be positioned at a 90 degree angle while performing the movement. Don’t let your right knee surpass your toes at any time. Drive your body weight through your right heel back to return to the starting position. Tip: Drive all your weight through your heel to put a lot of emphasis on your hamstrings. If you wish to further target your glutes and hams, step a little more forward with the right foot.
Perform 15-20 reps on each leg for three sets. Take a one-minute rest between each round.