Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S. is the training director for Men’s Fitness and Muscle&Fitness magazines, and the author of 101 Best Workouts of All Time, available on amazon.com and wherever books are sold.
You probably started working out because you wanted to lose weight, get stronger, or feel better, but you also wanted to be able to do some cool stuff that would impress people and show them that you’ve really made progress. Maybe it was touching the rim of a basketball hoop, or bench-pressing a pile of weight. But somehow, you never made it happen. Whatever your goal, we have a plan to help you achieve it, even if you’ve long since given up trying.
You see, the quickest way to accomplish anything in fitness is to break it up into smaller steps. Work on one thing at a time, and pretty soon you’ve stacked up enough steps to climb right over your goal. Here are five fitness goals you may have had on your bucket list, and how you can achieve them.
1. Increase Your Vertical Jump
The ability to get air correlates with explosiveness, speed and overall athleticism. If you play in a recreational basketball or football league, improving your leap will translate to power on the court or field, and you can dominate the opposition — even though they just came for the beer.
Step 1: Strengthen Your Legs
First, you need to “increase the horsepower of your engine,” says Ben Bruno, a Los Angeles-based trainer. That engine is your legs, which, of course, power your jump. The stronger they are, the more force you can apply to the ground and the higher you’ll get in the air.
Perform two lower-body focused workouts per week, building one around the back squat and the other around the deadlift. You can also work on single-leg exercises such as the lunge and split squat as assistance lifts to the squat and deadlift. “Do three to four sets of five to eight reps,” says Bruno.
Step 2: Add in Plyos
Plyometric exercises train your muscles to produce force quickly. Once you have a foundation of strength — your engine — you need to practice kicking it into high gear. After a month or so of lower-body training as described above, add a box jump to the beginning of one of your lower-body workouts and a squat jump to the other one.
For the box jump, choose a box that is challenging to jump onto but not dangerous. Push your hips back, bend your knees slightly and swing your arms backward; then swing your arms forward and jump onto the box, landing softly.
For the squat jump, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor and then jump as high as you can. Complete three sets of five reps for each move.
Step 3: Practice Speed
Lifting light weights quickly is another method of increasing power. Make one of your lower-body workouts a speed day, performing either the squat or deadlift with 60 to 70 percent of the load you think you could lift once. Complete three to five sets of three reps.
“At this point, you should also test your vertical jump once a week,” says Bruno. At the start of your workout, or on a separate day when your legs feel fresh, grab some chalk and stand by a wall. Extend one arm overhead and mark the highest point you can reach on the wall. Then practice jumping: Take three jumps, resting at least two minutes in between each one. Mark the highest point on the wall you can reach at the peak of your jump. “If your third jump is better than your second, go for a fourth,” says Bruno. “If it’s worse, call it a day.” Your best jump of the day is your new max vertical jump.
2. Squat 1.5 x Your Body Weight
The barbell back squat becomes a part of nearly every athlete’s training program at one time or another, regardless of what his or her sport is. “A big squat denotes strong and well-defined legs, and an increased potential to run fast, jump high, and hit hard,” says Bryan Krahn, C.S.C.S., a New York City personal trainer. A max squat of one-and-a-half times your bodyweight is attainable within a year or so of proper training, he says.
Step 1: Use a Box
People think of squats as a quad exercise, and they certainly work the thighs hard. But failing to fully activate your glutes and hamstrings will hold your squat back severely. Learn to sit back with your hips, as if lowering yourself into a chair, so that your posterior muscles can take on more of the load. Squatting onto a box teaches this best.
Place a box on the floor behind you. It should be low enough that, when you sit on it, the crease of your hips is lower than the top of your knees. (Note: This is ideal squatting depth, but only go down as low as you safely can.) Angle the box so that one of the corners points between your legs. Set up as you would to squat normally, take the bar off the rack, and step back. Now bend your hips back and push your knees out to begin your descent. Try to pull your body down with your hip flexors — the muscles located on the front of your hips that help raise your legs in front of you. Land softly on the box and keep your body tight. Pause for a second and then explode back upward. Make squats onto a box your mainstay on leg day for several weeks until your form is solid. Do three to five sets of five reps.
Step 2: Focus on Periodization
Periodization is a term trainers use referring to how workouts are planned over time. To meet a long-term goal, you need a long-term plan to get there. A simple periodization scheme for strength is to progress to a different rep max — the heaviest weight you can handle for a prescribed number of reps — each workout. Gradually work up to an 8-rep max on the squat in Week 1, then a 6-rep max in Week 2, and a 4-rep max in Week 3. Come back in weeks four, five, and six with 7-, 5-, and 3-rep maxes, respectively. Continue in this fashion until you’re ready to test a 1-rep max in Week 12. Then you can begin the program again if you like.
“By cycling your loads, you confuse the body so it doesn’t adjust to the rep ranges you’re using,” says Krahn. “You’ll be able to add weight each time you repeat a rep max.”
Step 3: Work on Weak Points
As your squat progresses, you’ll find that you have trouble completing the lift at a certain point in your range of motion, or that your form is breaking down. For instance, you may have trouble coming “out of the hole” on the way back up from the squat, or you may feel your chest caving in or your body drifting forward. Identify what the problem is and assign an exercise to correct it. (But first, look at your form again. Most issues stem from bad technique and simply returning to squats onto a box can work wonders.)
If you’re getting stuck at the bottom, experiment with pause squats after your main squat sets. Hold yourself in the bottom position for two to three seconds to build strength at the hardest point in the lift.
If you feel the bar is folding you in half, throw good mornings into your program. The set-up is just like the squat but the movement takes place almost entirely at the hips. Bend your hips back until your torso is parallel to the floor, and then squeeze your glutes to come up and lock out. Three sets in the 5–8 rep range will help you feel sturdier when squatting.
3. Improve Your WOD Time
If you’ve given CrossFit a chance, you’ve probably encountered Fran — one of its most popular WODs (Workout of the Day). The routine itself is short, but it doesn’t feel that way. Fran consists of three rounds of barbell thrusters and pull-ups, done for 21, 15 and 9 total reps, respectively. Most beginning CrossFitters complete Fran in eight to 10 minutes; the elite ones do it in well under three.
Step 1: Thrust Faster
The thruster is a combination of the front squat and push press, requiring you to hold the bar across the front of your shoulders throughout the squat with the upper arms parallel to the floor. “That can make it feel like the bar is pulling you forward onto your toes,” says Katie Hogan, a head trainer for the CrossFit Level 1 Seminar in the Bay Area, California. “Working to stay back on your heels the entire time is critical to maintaining balance and getting power out of your hips to move the bar quickly.”
Practice with an empty bar. At the top of each press, stand tall as you lower your arms. The moment you feel the bar touch your shoulders, make sure your elbows are up so your arms are parallel, and begin your descent into the squat by pushing your hips back. Squeeze your glutes on the way up to help drive out of the bottom of the squat and use the momentum to press the bar overhead. “The best Fran times will cycle all three sets with unbroken thrusters,” says Hogan. That is, you won’t stop due to fatigue, or to adjust your setup in the middle; the momentum of one rep will flow into the next. “Try to get at least one set unbroken and build up from there.”
Step 2: Pull Faster
Kipping pull-ups, where you use power in your hips to clear the bar, allow you to perform reps faster. Hang from the bar and swing with straight arms, keeping your legs straight and held together tightly. Don’t bend at the hip, but swing back and forth from the shoulder joint, keeping your body rigid with abs tight. Start with sets of 8 to 12 reps.
When you’ve mastered that, complete full kip ups by kicking your legs forward at the end of your forward swing so your body starts moving behind the bar with power. Pull yourself up using the momentum. “The more power you can generate in your swing,” says Hogan, “the less work your arms have to do to pull you up,” which saves energy and enhances speed. At the top of the pull-up, push yourself away from the bar to give you momentum to come back down and begin the next rep quickly.
Step 3: Rest Less
“There’s no optimal work-to-rest ratio on Fran,” says Hogan. “The WOD is short and simple and something you need to learn to gut out.” If you can’t do unbroken sets — all 21, 15 or 9 prescribed reps for each movement in one shot — then you need to break these numbers up into something you can handle and build up from there.
You could aim for three sets of 7 to complete the first round of 21, then 6, 5 and 4 reps to get 15 total, and finally three sets of 3 reps to hit 9. Having to set the barbell down and coming off the pull-up bar are inevitable rest breaks; just be sure to keep your time between sets minimal and maintain the fastest pace you can.
4. Bench Press Your Body Weight
The bench press may be overused and overhyped, but it’s still a timeless measure of upper-body strength and a great chest, shoulder and arm-builder. Benching your body weight is a requisite for calling yourself “strong.” Bench right and you’ll be strong for life; bench wrong, and you may need shoulder surgery.
Step 1: Be Sure to Arch and Tuck
Hardly anybody in your average gym knows how to bench press properly. Even the meatheads who put up more than 300 pounds rarely practice the finer points of technique, and that’s dangerous, since the bench press can be highly problematic when done improperly with heavy weights. Powerlifters compete on the bench press, and the technique they’ve developed allows them to minimize risk by minimizing the range of motion on the lift — which at the same time maximizes the weight they can use.
Lie on the bench and arch your back hard. Imagine pushing your chest up to touch the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, squeeze your glutes, and root your feet into the floor. Your whole body should feel tight. When you lower the bar to your chest, tuck your elbows about 45 degrees to your sides — do not let them flare out 90 degrees as most people do. When the bar touches your sternum, below your nipples, drive your feet into the floor and use that energy to help you press the bar back up. “Arching your back and focusing on bringing the bar to the lowest part of your chest reduces the distance the bar has to travel, and tucking your elbows takes pressure off the rotator cuff,” says Krahn. Your shoulders are in a more stable position at the bottom of the lift, and you’ll be able to press with a better mechanical advantage.
Step 2: Get on a Program
As with the squat, proper periodization ensures long-term gains. People tend to fear performing a heavy bench press. After all, you are voluntarily bringing a loaded bar down over your face, throat and ribcage — it sounds like a great way to cause some serious damage. The solution is to get in the habit of pressing heavy regularly, both to build confidence and maintain technique under strain. When you cycle the bench press along with similar movements that help build it, you’ll gain strength and shore up weak points even better.
One week, work up to one heavy rep on the bench press. It doesn’t need to be a max, but heavy enough that you’re challenged. (Note: Make sure you have a spotter or use a power rack with spotter bars for safety.) The following week, pick a different but similar pressing movement and do the same thing. This can be an overhead press, incline bench press, floor press (where you lie on the floor and lower the bar until your triceps touch down) or board press (where you place a board on your chest and lower the bar to touch the board). Choose a different movement in your third week, and then return to the bench press in week 4, using about 60 percent of your max for three sets of five reps.
Repeat the cycle, and after a few more weeks, test your max bench again. You’ll see that all the heavy work translated to a stronger press, and probably improvements on all the other lifts as well.
Step 3: Keep Doing Push-Ups
Basic exercises like the push-up never go out of style, no matter how advanced you get. The most common weak point on the bench press is when the lifter begins pressing the bar off his or her chest. That’s where you’re at your weakest. Pressing power from the bottom position relies mainly on strength in the pectoral muscles, and there’s no simpler way to train them than by doing push-ups.
Twice a week, separate from your upper-body workouts, perform 100 total reps of push-ups, resting as needed until all reps are complete. Aim to do it in five sets of 20. When you can do that, increase the total to 120. Not only will you fortify your bench press, you’ll end up with a noticeably bigger chest.
5. Run a Faster 40-Yard Dash
NFL recruiters look for wide receivers and running backs with “40” times somewhere around four-and-a-half seconds. If you can get yours to around five, you’ll be the fastest person on your flag football team, or at lest be able to leave your buddies in the dust in a foot race.
Step 1: Build All-Over Strength
Speed is built on a foundation of strength, and not just leg strength. Work on increasing your overall strength on the squat, chin-up and bench press, says Jason Ferruggia, a strength coach and author of The Renegade Diet. “The chin-up is important because you drive your elbows back,” says Ferruggia, which is the same action they take when you’re pumping your arms during a sprint. The shoulders generate arm swing, which contributes to your momentum when you’re running. Since the bench press works the shoulders and allows you to use heavy weight, it’s a good choice for pumping up your delts. However, Ferruggia recommends performing the bench press on a slight incline to make it more joint-friendly.
Train these three exercises three times per week. You can squat and press on Monday, working up to the heaviest weight you can handle for 5 reps. On Wednesday, repeat the workout, using 80 percent of Monday’s load. On Friday, use 90 percent of the weight you worked with Monday.
The chin-ups can be worked every session, but change your grip each time, alternating hand position and grip width. Perform four sets of 6 to 8 reps.
Step 2: Get Explosive
As your strength improves, you can work more sport-specific exercises into your training that improve your ability to produce and absorb force. “The hang clean is the premiere exercise for developing sprint speed,” says Ferruggia. Start each of your workouts with it and do five sets of three reps. Follow the same heavy-light-medium approach you used for the squat and bench press above.
Before sprint sessions (when you practice your dash), you should warm up with hurdle jumps, which help develop reactive speed. Place three low hurdles or other objects that simulate them on the ground in front of you, spaced evenly apart. Jump over one hurdle, land, and immediately jump over the next and then the last. Do five sets of three hurdle jumps in this fashion.
After the hurdle jumps, perform medicine ball throws. Use a 10- to 12-pound ball and complete five sets of three chest passes (as if throwing a basketball). Throw the ball as hard as you can to a partner or against a solid wall. Throws build power throughout the upper body.
Step 3: Run With Correct Form
Strength and power aren’t worth much if you can’t translate them into the ground properly while running. Use the following as a checklist to ensure correct sprinting technique.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, your back toe in line with the heel of the front foot. Shift your weight forward so your body feels like it could fall forward the moment you begin your sprint. Bend the elbow of your trailing arm 90 degrees, your back hand tucked by your hip pocket. Explode off the line, but keep looking down at the track.
As your torso begins to straighten up, keep your posture tall, your face relaxed, and arms bent at 90 degrees, pumping vigorously so that each hand comes to face level and then slightly behind you each time. Don’t shrug your shoulders, and let your palms remain open. The ball of each foot should strike directly under your center of gravity.
Remember to give your goals a chance. The lack of immediate progress doesn’t mean your program isn’t working, and changing up your workouts too soon can hurt your gains. You also shouldn’t mix goals—concentrate on accomplishing one thing before taking on another. We’re confident that with this step-by-step plan, you’ll be able to achieve each one you set out to conquer.
Have questions about any steps in the plan? What other goals do you need help achieving? Tell us in the comments below and follow Sean on Twitter for more fitness tips daily.