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FitSmart: January 2010

Whether you train for yourself, those around you or purely just for function, everyone needs to train with purpose. If nothing else,  the overall well-being we can achieve through our health and fitness programs

January 8, 2010 
By Brad Lawrence

Whether you train for yourself, those around you or purely just for function, everyone needs to train with purpose. If nothing else,  the overall well-being we can achieve through our health and fitness programs is a purpose for us all. We may have different training goals but we all strive for a strong, healthy looking body. Your personal level of fitness should be a priority, especially in our line of work. Our jobs require well-rounded individuals with little room for holes in conditioning. There is no shortcut or secret to help you reach your peak fitness level and it’s going to take lots of dedication and hard work. One of the toughest tests in this day and age when we’re all so busy is maintaining adequate strength. Let’s look at the best muscle and strength-building exercises. These exercises provide the best bang for your buck. These movements should be staples in all our fitness programs.

Basics of adding muscle
Adding a few pounds of muscle to your frame has never been easy and some people struggle their entire lives to do so. Adding muscle requires proper nutrition, hydration and proper training. There are hundreds of variables we can try in the gym; the most important variable in your training program may be as simple as exercise selection. Everyone has fancy tips and tricks to increase strength in the “smarter, not harder” fashion but at some point you need to pick up the weight and throw it around to get better with it. We know lifting volume generally builds muscle, and high-intensity, powerful, complex movements increase strength. Adjust the amount of weight and the number of reps and sets to fit your goals. If you are unsure how to perform these movements, enlist the help of someone who is or at least watch a few demo videos until you’re comfortable.

The squat and the front squat
Let’s start with the most fundamental and functional exercise, the squat. It is the single most important exercise in the gym. No single exercise combines more muscles than the squat. The primary target – your quadriceps – feed off training volume and can take a beating in the gym. Quad muscles benefit the most from a high volume, heavy weight program. The squat not only benefits your legs, it recruits all your core muscles into one complex power movement. If squats aren’t a regular fixture in your leg training program, then revamp your program starting with the squat or the front squat.

Strong squat: 315 pounds or 1.5 x body weight.

The deadlift
Not far behind the squat is the traditional deadlift. The deadlift is another major compound movement recruiting most muscles in your lower half and core. Primary muscular targets are hamstrings, quads and core. The amount of core stability and core development attained from this exercise is underrated. The deadlift is thought to be the oldest and purest form of testing strength and it is one of the top exercises for overall body development.

Strong deadlift: 315 pounds or 1.5 x body weight.

The traditional, wide-grip pull-up is often referred to as “the upper body squat”. It’s also one of the most overlooked exercises in many athletes’ strength programs. The pull-up is the single best back-building exercise in any gym. It is also benefits your core and arms. Alter grip width between sets to trigger different areas of your lat muscles. A true pull-up is from a dead hang with palms placed away from you and outside shoulder width, with no “kipping” or swinging action.

Strong pull-up: 20 repetitions.

Chest press (dumbbell or cable)
First things first: It is OK not to bench press. Bench presses are the most overrated exercise in the gym and have been proven over time to cause significant damage to the shoulder joints. Freeing your shoulder joints allows a horizontal and vertical load on your pectoral muscles, as opposed to the vertical only load of a bench press with your shoulder locked into place. Pectoral muscles will develop symmetrically and fully without a bench press. Besides, the benches are always busy, so move on to dumbbells or cables where you’ll get better results.

Strong dumbbell press: 100 pounds or more than 50 per cent of body weight

Shoulder press (standing)
Most people are more familiar with the sitting version of the shoulder press. The press is a popular exercise that is, hands down, more advantageous from a standing position. A standing shoulder press is the best exercise for development of the shoulders. Secondary targets for this exercise include triceps and trap muscles. When performed from a standing position, your body is forced to engage the core, adding all core muscles and stabilizers to the lift. Perform this movement with a barbell or dumbbell; both will show great results.

Strong standing shoulder press: 135 pounds or more

One of the great things about building a better, healthier, stronger body is that nothing is absolute or set in stone. The possibilities are endless and variety is the spice of training. Remember to alter your training program about every six weeks or whenever you feel like you’ve reached a plateau. The exercises above should be a staple in any program and give you a base on which to build the rest of your program. Now that you know your exercise selection is correct don’t second guess yourself. Get in there and leave some blood on the barbell.

Brad Lawrence is a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department and a certified personal trainer who  specializes in training and nutrition for emergency responders. He has trained and coached countless firefighters through all aspects of fitness and overall well-being. E-mail Brad at

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