Sarah Grace is strong. Really strong. Like strong enough to clean-and-jerk 180 pounds — in real-girl terms that’s the equivalent of hoisting 22 gallons of water, or three newborn calves, or one light-heavyweight bodybuilder overhead. So when Oxygen decided to run a piece on the best way to improve strength, we automatically turned to Grace.
Build Muscle + Power
The workout this boxer-turned-fitness-competitor-turned-CrossFitter programmed for Oxygen is a little unusual in that there are only three exercises. “Deadlift, squat and bench press — these are the three fundamental movements you should be doing to build strength,” she says. “They involve the largest muscle groups in your body and are so metabolically intense that they cause a hormonal change postworkout that increases strength, burns more calories and builds muscle.” Grace outlined some detailed tips on doing these moves correctly. Be sure to read about each one carefully not only to get your form on point but also to make the most of each rep, generating the most power and building the most strength possible.
“The workout is arranged in a ladder format, beginning with six reps of each move and decreasing with each subsequent round until you get to one rep of each move,” Grace says. “You’ll begin Round 1 at about 60 percent of your max weight for each lift, and with each rung of the ladder, you will increase your weight as you decrease your reps until you’re at about 85 percent of your max.”
Go Ahead: Lift heavy!
Don’t know your max? No worries. Begin with a moderately heavy weight (with which you can pretty easily get six reps) and increase your weight with each set from there. Record the weight you used and adjust it to be heavier or lighter next time. Remember: The goal here is strength, so don’t be afraid to go heavy!
Your opponent in this ladder is the clock: Begin when you start Round 1, and stop when you put the barbell on the ground at the end. “To make your workout more efficient, load three different barbells and set additional weights beside them to add when it is time to increase the poundage each round,” she says. Record your results, and each time you do the program, try to beat your previous time. But always remember to pay attention to proper form. Go get your lift on!
Your Stronger-Than-Ever Moves
Exercise Order: 1. Deadlift • 2. Bench Press • 3. Back Squat
Reps Per Move
• Stand with your feet hip-width apart or slightly wider with your toes turned out as is comfortable for you. But here’s a caveat: You should not have your feet spaced so wide that you can’t grab the barbell comfortably outside your feet. If you can’t get a proper hold on the barbell, then shift your feet inward a bit.
• Position your shoulders directly over the bar; this will then dictate where your butt ends up: If your shoulders are too far past the bar, your butt will be up too high; if your shoulders are too far behind the bar, then your butt is too far down as if preparing to squat.
• Inhale and hold your breath, then initiate the movement with your legs, weight in your heels, and lift with your legs, not your back. Your back should never change — it should never arch and never round.
• On the descent, control the weight all the way down, lightly touch the floor and then immediately go into the next rep.
• Your back should be straight, your shoulder blades back and your head in line with your spine. Don’t look up or arch your neck; focus on the floor in front of you a couple of feet.
• Engage your back muscles by imagining pulling the barbell apart as you grasp it with an overhand or flip grip. You can use a regular grip overhand for lighter barbells, but when it starts getting heavy, an alternating grip is best.
• Rise all the way to the top, pressing your hips forward and squeezing your glutes to complete each and every rep. Exhale at the top.
• The bar should move in a straight line from the floor to the standing position at full extension. If you have to go out and around your knees, your starting position is not correct and your movement is not efficient.
• When benching, you should have three points of contact: your upper back and butt on the bench and your feet on the floor. Ideally, you want to be able to use the floor to push from when you start to struggle, squeezing your butt and driving your hips up while pushing through the floor to generate power.
• Your pelvis should be anteriorly tilted to help maintain your natural arch, but how much of an arch you have is individual. I naturally have a pretty big anterior tilt, so it’s comfortable for me to be in that position.
• When the weight starts to get heavy, squeeze your glutes to stabilize your midline and drive through your heels. Your legs, glutes and lower-body muscles are strong and can absolutely power the rest of your body, even when doing an upper-body move. The floor is stationary, so you’re using that to power through the movement.
• When you grab the bar, think about bending the ends down toward the floor. This activates your lats and squeezes your shoulder blades together, giving you a stable base of support from which to push with your upper body.
• Your hands should be just outside shoulder-width apart on the barbell. When you are at the lowest position, your elbows should make 90-degree angles.
• Your wrists should absolutely always be neutral. They should not be extended back or rolled too far forward.
• Your back should not be flat on the bench. Why should it? You have a natural arch in your spine, and forcing it to be flat is unnatural and changes the muscles that are working.
• Once you’re locked in, take a deep breath in, filling your chest and belly, then hold it as you lower the bar to your nipple line. Exhale as you press the barbell back up and away toward your bellybutton, not over your face.
• As you press the barbell up, your hips might rise up off the bench a little as your lower body assists with the lift.
• How wide your legs and feet are positioned depends on you as an individual: Some people have a longer femur, for example, and might need to spread their feet a bit more. There is no one set way of doing it. Play with it until you find what gives you the move power and comfort.
• It is not necessary to bottom out in order to get good results from squatting. Everybody’s goals are different, everybody’s body mechanics are different. If you have no limitations and are comfortable, then feel free to go ass-to-grass, but it’s not wrong or ineffective to stop at 90 degrees, just a little different.
• On the ascent, pay attention to your knees. A lot of people let them cave inward, which can cause a lot of problems with your joints and is ineffective in terms of power. So consciously keep your knees tracking over your feet and even imagine pushing them out a little as you rise to keep them in the correct position.
• Stand with your feet turned out about 8 to 10 degrees; that is the natural angle of your knees in a squat.
• Make sure your elbows are pointed down. When you wing them behind you, the bar rolls up onto your neck, which then causes you to lean forward, throwing you out of position and putting your back at risk.
• When ready, take a deep breath in and hold it as you lower into your squat. This helps stabilize your spine and core, giving you more power and drive. As you rise back to the start, exhale forcefully.
• Initiate the squat by sitting back with your hips first. If you start by bending at your knees, it will throw you forward.
• Drive through your heels to rise back to the start, focusing on squeezing your glutes at the top and standing all the way up.
Sarah Grace: You Deadlift How Much?
What is your personal one-rep max for each of these lifts?
I deadlift 300, squat 260 and bench 165.
Do you have a secret vice?
Oh, I don’t know if it’s a vice, but I am kind of OCD about my house being clean.
What is the worst pickup line you’ve ever heard?
“What do you bench?”
Do you watch the Olympics?
Yes! Summer Olympics. I love the track and field. Love it. Their bodies are amazing. I love to watch the 200 and the 400. Sprinting. And gymnastics.
Do you miss boxing?
Sometimes, when I see women fighters. I still have friends who fight, and I am like, I should get in the ring and spar for fun or do the mitts. I miss it but not enough to make me go back.
What was the hardest part about boxing as a sport?
The mental aspect of boxing is hard. It’s you — just you and one other person, and the more you can control yourself mentally, you can read your opponent better. You can tell what they are going to do and when they are going to do it and how to counter it — there is a huge mental aspect to boxing.
What hurts worse: getting punched in the face or wearing huge heels for a fitness competition?
These days, probably the heels! I almost never wear heels, so it is way more painful, I think!
If you had three more moves to add to the list of must-dos, what would they be?
A push-up, a pull-up and a split squat or lunge.
Get Even Stronger
If you liked this workout, then check out Sarah Grace’s exclusive online course STRONGER, available now on oxygenmag.com/stronger. The program will teach you how to improve strength and performance with workouts, nutrition tips and much more. “The key to building overall strength starts with a strong foundation, and my program will build you up from your core. Let’s get Stronger!” Grace says.
To learn more, go to oxygenmag.com/stronger.