Your story is also Erin Stern’s story, and due in no small part to her father, Stern excelled at sports. She started lifting weights as a kid, knocking about on her father’s old Universal multi-station in the garage (which incidentally, she says, he still has and it still works!).
“I remember being very pleased with myself that I could max out on that leg press when I was a kid,” says Stern, who spent almost a decade lifting for performance as a track athlete, focusing on drills to make her faster, stronger, explosive, a winner. But once track was over and she transitioned to figure competition, Stern knew she had to focus more on aesthetics.
“It wasn’t until 2008 when I stepped onstage and saw what I looked like in comparison to other women that I realized the improvements I needed to make,” she says. For example, her right leg — her takeoff leg for the high jump — was bigger than her left, as was her right arm, which she used for throwing events in the heptathlon and pentathlon. “I had the basics of lifting; I just needed to learn about aesthetics.”
Combining her track training with traditional bodybuilding moves, Stern spent hundreds of hours on trial-and-error training until she sculpted a nearly perfect symmetrical physique, one that earned her 11 titles in her career as a pro, including two wins as Figure Olympia champion.
“This is the same kind of training I do now and the kind of work I recommend to anyone wanting to bring her physique to the next level,” says Stern, who created an online education program called The Art of Lifting (see sidebar), which details the exact training techniques and exercises that brought her physique to that winning level. “Once you get to a certain point with your training, it goes beyond the basics,” she continues. “It becomes an art. And each day you go to the gym, you strike with the chisel, and each strike with the chisel brings you closer to your ideal.”
These five moves, borrowed from The Art of Lifting program, are ones Stern suggests adding to your regular rotation to begin your sculpture. “They are unique, effective and use minimal equipment,” she says. “They combine function with aesthetics and can target a specific area that needs attention.”
Parcel these moves throughout your workout week, depending on the bodypart you’re working. Use Stern’s insider tips to make each move that much more effective and you’re on your way to becoming a self-made sculpture.
3 sets, AMRAP
“You can do this move with dumbbells or plates. I use it as a shoulder finisher.”
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a set of light plates in front of your thighs, arms extended. Keeping your arms straight, do a front raise to bring the weights to shoulder height, then open your arms to the sides in line with your shoulders. Lower them to your hips, then immediately lift up again in a lateral raise back to shoulder height. Bring them back together in front of you, then lower to the start to complete one rep.
“There are a lot of steps to this move, but don’t do it mindlessly. Really try for a solid mind-muscle connection, feeling the muscles contracting, feeling your core stabilizing, engaging your traps to control the descent. The more you focus, the more intense and effective the move becomes.”
Landmine Bulgarian Split Squat
3 sets, 15 reps per leg
“Unilateral moves like this require more central nervous system involvement and greater focus, so I put them toward the beginning of my workout.”
Stand with your back to a flat bench and extend one leg behind you on top of the bench, laces down. Hold the end of a landmine bar in the hand opposite of your extended leg and shift your weight into your standing leg. Bend your standing knee deeply, lowering until your thigh is roughly parallel to the floor, then drive through your heel and rise powerfully back to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
“I have found that if you have healthy knees — no stability or mechanical issues — it’s OK if your knee goes past your toes during this exercise, if you’re not going heavy. This helps put the emphasis on your quads, developing separation and detail, while improving ankle flexibility.”
Landmine One-Arm Row
3 sets, 8 to 15 per side
“I like to do this move one arm at a time, because when I use them both together, my right arm (which is stronger) tends to take over.”
Stand to the side of the loaded bar facing away from the landmine anchor point. Hold the bar with one hand near the collar and stand with your knees slightly bent, back straight, torso angled forward about 45 degrees. Drive your elbow up and back to pull the bar toward your rib cage, keeping your arm in close to your side and your shoulders level. Slowly lower to the start. Complete all reps on one side before switching.
“Angle can be everything. Tilt forward or stand up higher to change the emphasis of the move, building up a certain area of your back that will improve your physique.”
3 to 5 sets, 8 to 15 reps
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and take a shoulder-width underhand grip on a barbell, arms extended. Drive your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together to drag the bar up along the front of your body as high as you can. Pause, then lower to the start.
Perform the same motion as with a barbell, but consciously keep the dumbbells the same distance apart at the bottom as at the top and resist the urge to curl them rather than to drag them.
Barbell Alternating Step-Up
3 to 4 sets, 5 to 8 reps per leg
“I love to use a barbell for step-ups because it eliminates a lot of the momentum so the focus becomes more about lifting the weight. Put this toward the beginning of your workout.”
Stand facing a flat bench and balance a barbell across your upper back and traps and hold it with your elbows down. Step onto the bench with one foot and extend that leg to come to standing on top of the bench. Bring your rear knee through to the front, raising it to hip height and hold, balancing for one count. Reverse the steps to return to the start and continue, alternating sides.
Insider tip: “This is a move that can help with symmetry. For instance, if one arm is a lot stronger than the other and therefore larger, doing the move with dumbbells can help balance them out, since they have to work independently.”
“Most people tend to push off the back foot rather than extending the forward leg. Here, again, is where mindfulness is helpful: Start with bodyweight only and notice how your back leg wants to push off, especially on the dominant side. Each session, work to eliminate that urge. Once you’ve mastered that, add the weight and start again.”
The Art of Lifting
Want to take your physique to the next level? Then check out Erin Stern’s The Art of Lifting. Just as a sculptor uses her chisel to carve every detail out of stone, so will Stern teach you how to use weights to carefully sculpt your own physique into a work of living art.
Stern breaks your body into 10 parts — shoulders, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, biceps, triceps, back, chest, calves and abs. For each part, she gives advice, advanced techniques, mental strategies and targeted exercises to help you shape and sculpt that part exactly how you want it. Using her insider secrets, you can craft your own best physique by summer!