Little exercises for big strength

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One of my favorite quotes is by the eccentric 15th-century Japanese poet Ikkyu. So it goes, “Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.”

One of the biggest challenges anyone will face in this life is the search for their “way” or path. We burn up many years in search of our passions, experience, and knowledge. We forge detailed plans. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. In any event, your unique path show’s itself in time, after you really do put in the time and ripen up.

Strength is one of the best illustrations of the mountain climb. Have you ever felt frustrated by the fact that, if you ask 100 people how to get strong, you will very likely receive 100 answers? Yeah, it’s a strange thing…But only if you’re supposing that there is a best path to lifting super heavy barbells. By now you might be figuring it all out on your won. Ikkyu would laugh. I can imagine his response to the question, “Of course, your path to strength will be unique and a challenge to find. Would you really want it any other way?”

“Of course, your path to strength will be unique and a challenge to find. Would you really want it any other way?”

My definition of coaching is very simple. I think the role is just a matter of sharing your experience so that other folks can leverage it for better results. It’s teaching. Nothing can be more rewarding then seeing student’s graduate and kick as in life. So maybe my advice might help you quicken your ripening time a bit. Maybe you’l find a better path more quickly, and avoid some wear, tear and frustration that is otherwise guaranteed.

Here it goes, are you ready? If you want to get strong and stay strong for life, you need to focus on the tiny exercises. Really, you need to do a lot more of the things most box goers avoid or mock. I know you perked up when I said that, right? Your weekend seminar has started kicking in. “Well, Functional….Crossfit…Machines don’t really…Overhead Squats…Leg press? Shit.”



Manlier than you think

Here’s the thing. I’ve been training seriously for over two decades now. I’ve put in my time under crushingly heavy barbells. I’m honored to have trained with some of the world’s best lifters and coaches, and to call many my friend. With the weight of all that experience behind me, I can say that I never once recall anyone wasting time in the gym arguing over such silly shit like exercise selection. 

You have a goal, right? What is it? Do you want to crush Fran or do you want to when Weightlifting medals? Are you just better at squats and presses? Maybe Powerlifting would be your thing. It really doesn’t matter all that much. Pick and your focus will become clear quickly. You have to practice the stuff you will be competing in. Do so under high impulse conditions. Progressively load your heavy barbells. Sleep and eat as hard as you can because, duh, it’s basically the steroids that you already wish you could take. Honestly, get your ass to bed! 

In addition to the big stuff, you will have some secondary priorities. For example, big snatches are usually built by countless repetitions of heavy front squats, snatch pulls, snatch grip deadlifts, barbell rows, presses with various grips, that sort of thing in some combination or another. Again, to argue over it is to waste time. You have to ask yourself what it is that you need. You could really drill your front squat, for example, but it might not help you much if you already crush on that lift. Maybe you should spend more time doing things that require you to suck, like bending over with the barbell in hand. As my old football strength coach used to tell me, “Son, the strength of a man is measured in his back.”

So what does that leave you with? Well, many would argue that nothing else matters all that much, besides maybe rolling around on the ground with a racquetball up your ass for a few minutes. But these folks would be wrong. What remains is the small, critical stuff. You know, the kind of shit that the strongest people in the world do just about every single day of their lives. I also think it could be just what you need to feel better, and to perform better.

Again, I can’t say just what you should do. I can just share my experience. So, here’s my list of mandatory anytime exercises. I make sure to do each and every one 2-3 times per week as a means of keeping my body mobile, tuned, and “in-shape” for heavy barbell training.

Like to hear it? Here it goes:

1. Back Raise, preferably at 45 degrees. Get your hands behind your head and put the thoracic spine in pulling position. Pretend that you’re about to snatch, but raise. Pretend you’re lifting your back out and away in an arch. This will feel amazing. If you’re not convinced yet, consider that Klokov does them all the time.

My Rx: I do 2-5 sets of 10 -20 reps before and after I load my back with barbells. You can use just bodyweight, or, add just enough load to make it hard. More is not better here.

2. Rows of all kinds. No, not that kind of row. Strength building rows. Row’s with barbells, bands, dumbells, kettle bells, cable systems, machines, I’ve never met a variety that wasn’t very useful for building essential back strength, and keeping your upper half healthy through it all.

My Rx: When it’s time to build my pull, I will do heavy Pendlay style bent over rows for progressive sessions of 5 sets of 5 reps, or something to that effect. The same way many would train their squat or press. That would be once a week. The remaining 10-14 back sessions would be random pulling motions for 2-5 sets of 10, all done for a sweet, sweet pump, baby.


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3. High rep presses are where its at. Anytime I bring the back into my training I immediately starting healing and recovering from joint pain issues. I also enjoy the benefit of increased muscular endurance and limit strength. You should push in all angles, deferring towards angles that are new to you. Powerlifters should press overhead. Weightlifters need to bench a little bit. Most box goers need more of all of it. My only other advice is to get away from an “over”, normal grip when you play. Face palms in when you can. Go wide, go narrow. Use dumbbells, do dips on rings and with bars, push up any way you can imagine, if you have a specialty barbell like a bamboo or football bar, now would be the time to give it a spin. You get the idea. Here’s an example of a strong person doing what strong people do. Check out the bar and the grip. Variation!

My Rx: Pretty much the same as the back raise – 2-5 sets of 10 – 20 reps.

4. This is a must that I picked up during a training visit to Westside Barbell. I was doing a speed benching session with this amazing lifter named Chester. The guy was easily a 700 pound bench presser. Anyway, we did our benching, our high rep dumbbell presses, pulldowns for the back, extensions for the arms, all that stuff. We were done and walking out of the gym until Chester realized what he forgot. “Shit! I forgot to do my hammer curl’s, dude. One second.”

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I battled shoulder tendinitis every one of those super heavy training years. My primary weapon became the hammer curl. It’s nothing fancy. Grab some load in each hand and curl with your palms facing your midline. At the top, flex your shoulder and raise your elbow a bit. The front of the shoulder will light up after some reps.

My Rx: A few time per week, light load of 20-30 pounds, 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.

5. And finally, my secret weapon! No, really, this has always been one of my favorite little exercises, only because it builds the deadlift and squat without causing much of any fatigue. That’s awesome! Anytime you can practice begin strong without getting tired is a super smart thing to do.

I call the move the Keystone Deadlift. Stack some plates or grab some boxes, anything to elevate your body a little bit. Just how much depends on your skill and mobility. When in doubt, keep low. Spread the stands out to shoulder width, and set a heavy “bell of choice” between. Use a kettlebell or a dumbbell, maybe utilize a handle and chain to string plates together. It doesn’t matter. Stand up there, raise the load, and do your pulls. Only stay nice and tall, letting the load sink deeply between your heels. Basically squat up and down.

You can easily add variety. For those who have the mobility, blast your hips by keeping the legs straight. For you athletes, try this squatting motion with hops and jumps instead. You’ll be blasted.

My Rx: A few sets of 10 will pound your ass to hamburger. Start easy.


Do these for high reps. You’ll grow quite the ass, baby. But be careful, they’re vicious.

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That’s my point of view. I hope you find this information useful. If you dig it, share to your friends. Maybe you can help them get stronger, which is a really cool thing to do.


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18 Responses to “Little exercises for big strength”

  1. Micah

    This. This is what you should be doing, Chris. You have tons of knowledge, and you share it in a way that is both A) Unique; and B) Accessible to everyone.

  2. Jimmy D

    This is awesome. Keep great information like this coming please. I’m a huge fan of the show and it’s great that we’re able to get more of this content now.

    • Chris

      Yeah, play and experiment. At the very least it’s super fun, which is benefit enough, right?

  3. Quinn

    Awesome post, had to read it twice to make sure everything sunk in. Perfect timing too, good take home messages and tips leading into the New Year. Cheers!

  4. Joe Lewis

    Do you know where I can find that Stay Hungry T-shirt?
    Also, interesting read. I am recovering from a strained hamstring, and I will start implementing some of these movements as I get back under the barbell.
    Thanks for the article.

  5. Mark Fullbrook

    Awesome article. I’m a year into my crossfit journey and feel that I’m held back by a significantly weak back. I know I need to work on it, but I’m unsure of the right exercises to bring into my open gym time to make improvements.

    • Chris

      A few sets of back raises before and after you train, done consistently and progressively, will make a big difference. Give it a try.

  6. David

    Are the back raises done on a GHD. I can’t seem to see he link form klokovd.

  7. Alex Hutchinson

    Hey, go fix your spelling. You missed a couple letters early in the article. Other than that great job. It was just what I needed to read. Thanks.

  8. Daniel

    Can you post another video of the back raises? The Klokov link is broken and I want to make sure I understand the movement. Thank you!


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