11 November 2010 ~ Comments Off on Basic Exercise: The Chest Press

Basic Exercise: The Chest Press

The bench press.

Welcome to one of the series we’ll be starting here at Simple Workout: we’ll address the basic gym exercises you should be doing to build strength. Today we begin with the Chest Press, which can be done as a seated machine exercise or the widely familiar bench press.

Muscles Worked

The chest press primarily works the pectoralis major muscles, the large muscles of the chest. It also hits the anterior deltoid (front of shoulder), the triceps, the “long head” of the biceps and the coracobrachialis on the underside of the shoulder.

The free-weight version of the exercise also works stabilising muscles such as the serratus and trapezius, as well as the rotator cuff muscles and the core muscles.


Note: Always begin with low or no weight, concentrating on your form. If you use heavy free weights, always use a spotter.

How to do the machine chest press:

  • Adjust the seat so that the handles fall just below the bottom of your chest. It should be a comfortable arm position without stress on the shoulders.
  • Use an overhand grip, press your back against the seat and keep your shoulders back throughout the entire motion.
  • Breathe out as you push the weight forward and extend fully, pause briefly, then slowly bring the weight back until your hands are almost (but not quite) even with your chest.

How to do the bench press with a barbell:

  • Slide underneath the bar so that you can grip the bar comfortably, slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Lift the bar from the rack and bring it down to the starting position, almost (but not quite) touching your chest. Keep your shoulders back and make sure your butt is always in contact with the bench.
  • Smoothly push the bar up until you reach full extension. Pause again, then lower the weight to the starting position and pause again.
  • When you’ve completed your reps, replace the bar on the rack.

How to do the chest press with dumbbells:

  • Sit on the bench, holding the dumbbells as the rest on your lap. Rock back, lifting the dumbbells into position with your thighs.
  • Holding the dumbbells with an overhand grip, pause momentarily with the weights just above chest level, then push them up smoothly, tapping them (gently!) together at the top of the motion.
  • Pause briefly, then lower the dumbbells smoothly to the starting position. When you’re done, either lower the weights gently to the floor beside the bench or to your chest, then rock forward and upright, resting the weights on your lap.


Using different angles and grips can work your muscles differently:

  • An incline press will work the upper portion of the pectorals and the deltoids harder, while a decline press will put focus on the lower chest.
  • The more narrow the grip, the more your arms will be recruited. A wider grip will hit your shoulders harder.

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10 November 2010 ~ Comments Off on Machines or Free Weights?

Machines or Free Weights?

If you're not sure what it is, don't use it.

When you first step into a gym, the sheer number of devices can be staggering. Benches. Machines. Weight racks in odd positions. Equipment that looks not unlike medieval torture apparatus. If you don’t have a good workout plan to lead you, things can become quite confusing.

The first decision you’ll likely make is the choice between using machines or free weights for your weight training exercises. I’ll help you make that choice, which may be easier than you expect.

The Case For Machines

Simply put, if you’re stepping into a gym for the first time, machines are a good way to start:

  • Easy setup: you can quickly adjust your position and the amount of weight without having to move heavy plates around.
  • Good form: machines normally force you into the right position for the exercise, helping you avoid injury.
  • Heavier weight: you can use the heaviest weight you can lift without a spotter, knowing that if you can’t get it up for that final rep, you won’t hurt yourself trying to set the weight down.

The Case Against Machines

The flipside to all this ease is that most machines feature isolated movements. This causes a few issues that may hold back your progress:

  • Positioning problems: if the machine isn’t adjusted properly, you may be putting too much stress on joints or working the wrong muscles.
  • Muscle isolation: because you’re in a fixed position, you usually won’t be working stabilizer muscles or secondary groups (like your abs). This means you may need more exercises for an overall workout.
  • No balance required: because you’re locked in and stabilized by the machine, you won’t develop balance as you would with free weights.

The Case For Free Weights

With a little knowledge, free weights can help you with overall fitness. They also give you options you don’t have with machines.

  • More complete workout: weight training with free weights will also work stabilizer muscles, and help you develop better balance. You can also perform compound movements that work multiple muscle groups.
  • Variety of exercises: A simple pair of dumbbells is useful for hundreds of exercises.
  • Low cost: you can buy a pair of adjustable dumbbells and a simple bench for your own low-cost home gym.

The Case Against Free Weights

Finally, the reasons you may not want to start with free weights. They really come down to experience:

  • Form required: It’s important to stand, move and squat in specific ways so as not to injure yourself. With heavier exercises, like the squat or deadlift, form is essential.
  • Spotter sometimes needed: to build muscle effectively, it’s important to lift heavy weights until failure (your muscles fail to lift one more time). However, to do exercises like the barbell chest press, you’ll need a spotter to avoid becoming trapped under the bar! In others, like the squat, you have to learn to “dump” (drop) the weight.


Machines are a great idea if you’re new to weight training and want a self-guided gym workout. But once you feel comfortable, start using free weights for some simple exercises. When you can study and practice the form for complex exercises like the barbell squat, you’ll make muscle gains more quickly and improve your balance.

Whichever you choose, make sure to approach your exercise with focus and intensity for the best results.

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29 October 2010 ~ Comments Off on Where to Work Out: Gym or Home?

Where to Work Out: Gym or Home?

You can do fingertip pushups everywhere. If, of course, you can do fingertip pushups. (Photo by lululemon athletica)

When it comes to where you work out, different people have different opinions. Some think the gym is the optimum environment, others prefer to exercise in solitude in the garage or living room. I think there are merits to both. Which is better for you? It really depends on your situation.

When the Gym is Better

The primary advantage of a fitness club is that it has more equipment than you’ll ever need, ensuring that if you decide you want to try a new exercise, you’ll have the stuff for it right there. Rows of rowers, waves of weights…all you have to do is pay the monthly dues.

The secondary advantage is a minimal level of support: unfortunately, most clubs no longer put an employee out on the floor for general questions, but you have a resource for help in the other clientelle: if you’re confused on how to use a piece of equipment, either ask a fellow member or watch someone else using a similar device.

A few other advantages of a gym membership:

  • Diverse cardio equipment. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you can vary your cardio and prevent boredom. Most gyms also have TVs you can watch while you pedal, run or step.
  • Other facilities. Many gyms feature a sauna, and others have swimming pools or whirlpool spas. Mine even has a climbing rock. These give you a chance to vary your exercise or to soothe aching muscles.
  • Motivation. I find it uplifting to be in a buzzing environment entirely devoted to my workout, without phone calls or pets intruding.
  • Discounts on massage. I would imagine you don’t have an on-site masseuse. If you do, please invite me over.
  • Free towels! Not all health clubs have this, but it’s pretty luxurious when they do. In fact, since I work out almost every day and take my showers at the gym, my bathroom has been much cleaner these days.

The primary disadvantage of joining a fitness club is the cost. In the US, monthly fees tend to start at $25 per month and can run over $100, depending on the swankiness of the club. Most clubs will offer a drastic discount if you pay in advance for 6 months or more. Make sure you love the club before you do that!

Also, you’ll want to take more care if you’re susceptible to viruses: think of it as being about as germy as the average workplace, with the addition of athlete’s foot. Shower shoes are important.

When a Home Workout is Best

When I can’t get to the gym (or just don’t want to), I work out at home. The greatest selling point for a home workout is the time savings: no packing the gym bag, getting in the car, finding parking, checking in, waiting for equipment or a shower…at home you just change into clothes you can sweat in, and then go for it!

This brings us to the selling points of the home workout:

No monthly fees. Buy as much or as little equipment as you need. Basic dumbbells and a simple bench are inexpensive and enable you to to a wide variety of exercises. My only piece of equipment is an Iron Gym (review link)—I perform the bulk of my home workout without weights, and at the end of a typical home workout I’m exhausted.

Privacy. If you’re timid about people watching while you sweat, home is the best option. You can also wear that old torn Motley Crüe t-shirt and sing along with “Don’t Stop Believin'” while you jump rope and no one will be the wiser.

Personalized environment. You can play your music at your volume, watch whatever TV channel you want (or pop in a fitness DVD program) and have the temperature as warm or cool as you like it. If you have small children or other things to take care of, you don’t have to be far from them. If you have space in a spare room or garage, you can customize the space for your specific workouts.

The biggest disadvantage of the home workout is that it’s a hassle to acquire and store heavy weights, especially barbells, and bulky cardio equipment, unless you’ve got a dedicated room. Also, because you’re on your own you don’t have other members’ brains to pick. On the other hand, with Google and YouTube at your fingertips, you can find any information you need pretty quickly. On the other other hand, those are good examples of the distractions that can disrupt a home workout.


If you can afford to try a gym for a few months, I recommend you at least give it a shot. The environment there is motivating in a way your living room can never be (unless you buy a few thousand dollars worth of equipment and invite a few friends over). You should experience it for yourself before you make a choice.

If cost is an object, outfit your home environment the best you can within your budget and make a point of doing whatever it takes to maintain your workout intensity. Invite a friend over to work out with you, or invest in some better stereo speakers for your music.

Personally, I work out primarily at the gym, but also at home on days when I can’t (or won’t) get out of the house. Whichever option works best for you, the commitment to fitness is the most important part.

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