Exercise articles and video usually do well when showing solid training techniques. You can easily find out what body geometry to assume and what your knees should look like; to apply a tight back, proud chest, and more. Where these articles drop the ball is in their frequent neglect of hands and feet.

Get a Grip, Set Your Stance

It’s easy to take your hands and feet for granted, but you shouldn’t, they’re the anchors for all the weight you’re lifting! The truth is, minor changes to hands and feet can mean huge differences to what you hit during your set. Here’s a few FAQ’s that can get things started on the right foot — pun intended.

Should I use a false grip for barbell presses?

A false (thumbless) grip is a subject of plenty of controversy. Since the thumb isn’t wrapped securely around the bar, the risk for injury increases. That said, there’s a reason many elite-level powerlifters and advanced trainees alike use it. Having the bar located directly above the wrist can be better achieved using a false grip. Without the thumb in the way, the bar can travel straight across the base of the palm. More importantly, a false grip allows you to squeeze the bar harder through the fourth and fifth fingers. This makes for more triceps activation when bench pressing. You’ll feel a difference, but this is not a grip for beginners. Use a false grip at your own risk, and be sure to squeeze the life out of the bar when you use it.

I’m always told to press through my heels when squatting. What do I do with my toes?

This is one of the most misconstrued blanket cues in all of fitness. People practice the cue to apply heel pressure with good intention, but then proceed to take half their foot off the ground as a result. This creates another variation of the same problem. In truth, the ball of the foot and toes should get FULL pressure when doing an exercise that requires pushing through the feet – that includes squat variations, leg press, and lunges. As long as you’re not specifically asked to do otherwise (like in the case of sissy squats, for example), press down through the whole foot.  A lifter needs to have all the muscles of the foot and shin active to enforce stability, and that comes from pressing through them. Moreover, I like to apply mild outward tension (spreading the floor) with my feet to involve more leg musculature.

Shoulder-width stances are best when squatting, right?

Wrong. The real answer (which is actually the same with most definitive fitness questions) is: It depends. See, for many, I’m sure a typical shoulder width stance isn’t bad. But it really depends on what stance works for you based on your levers, goals, mobility, and most importantly, your skeletal frame. If your hip sockets are positioned facing more frontwards than the next guy, chances are a narrow-stance squat will promote the best depth and least resistance for you. Alternatively, if you have a wider hip width and outward –facing sockets, then your best depth may be hit with ease using a wider stance.  

I’m 6’4”, and my ideal stance (seen in the video below) is more narrow than many others of my height and width. 

It’s not hard to find out which foot widths work best for you. Find the place during your squat where your low back begins to round and pelvis begins to curl under. Whichever squat width allows the least of that is the one you should use.

Should I twist the dumbbells during bench and shoulder presses?

To answer this, it’s good to think of the shoulder’s makeup. It’s a ball-and-socket joint that is often pulled out of position due to front-side tightness and immobility. Aside from “added stimulation” for the muscles in question, a controlled twisting action during pressing reps can actually aid comfort and reduce unwanted pain or joint stress – especially if the lifter has a history of shoulder issues. Twisting to more of a neutral grip towards the bottom will externally rotate the upper arm, pulling the shoulder back behind the collarbone for less joint stress due to less impingement while bearing the load. That’s why neutral grip presses are often coined “shoulder-friendly”.  Long story short, if you’ve got bad shoulders, take advantage of a small twist action to an external rotation at the bottom.

I always lose my grip first when doing heavy lifts. How can I make it stronger?

Most people rely on straps when this is the case, but that won’t solve the problem – only Band-Aid it. Strengthening your grip usually involves more than just performing a lift itself. First, make sure your technique is sound. You don’t want your hands and arms to do more work than they should. Second, make fatter handles by adding a pair of Fat Gripz. These will deliberately help improve the grip strength. Muscles of the hand and forearm respond well to high-endurance training styles, so add farmer’s walks and other loaded carries to the mix in order to train them to sustain force for long periods of time. Soon, a set of 10 heavy deadlifts will feel like a cakewalk.