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Building a Brutally Large Back
Go to any bodybuilding contest or fitness expo and you will see an array of impressive looking people. Large muscular arms, chest and shoulders fill such events yet often when viewed from behind these people seem to look a lot more average. It’s nearly disappointing to see such impressive human beings from the front seem to disappear when they turn around. Seeing a person with a large muscular back usually causes someone to step back and take notice since it’s a much more rare sight. Lats flaring out like the hood of a cobra along with thick rhomboids and traps protruding out of the fabric of whatever clothing is attempting to cover the heavy muscularity certainly catches the eye. Chances are when you see such an individual you’re not looking at any old gym rat; you’re more than likely viewing an athlete of some kind be it a high level bodybuilder, strongman, powerlifter or some other discipline of iron.
So why is it that the average gym rat does not seem to be able to build an impressive back? In my opinion, there are a few reasons:
– The first is the misconception that because the back is made up of several individual muscles that it needs to be trained from every single angle known to man. Go to any large gym and chances are they have all sorts of fancy looking back training equipment. Am I saying that all machines are useless? No; of course not. However, until you have built heavy slabs of muscle on the back of your upper body, I suggest you stay as far away as possible from any machines!
– The second reason is that people fail to properly activate their back during the exercise. It’s not rocket science, but there is a certain way you must position your body in order to fully work the back. This can be difficult to master and will certainly make your weights used decrease considerably at first.
– The third reason goes hand-in-hand with the second reason. So many people get caught up in the numbers being lifted that they forget why they’re in the gym in the first place. This is why you see guys looking like a retarded monkey trying to hump the bar when they do bent over rows. Another example is the guy doing rounded back deadlifts followed by dropping the weight with no control. It is no wonder that nearly every gym rat seems to have a “bad back” when form like this is the norm.
– The fourth and final reason is a lack of hard work. It’s easy to blast your delts, arms and chest into the ground and force growth, but it is an entirely different thing to generate enough intensity and have a strong work ethic to build a big back.
Now I am going to go over the three exercises that will build a big back without fail. I will not go into how many sets or reps you should do since this really depends on various factors. I will say that with proper technique and intensity, you certainly won’t be knocking out 20 sets per workout, but if you need as few as one or as many as let us say five working sets per exercise is something that must be discovered by yourself. What I will do is go over the correct method for performing these essential back altering lifts.
Bent Over Row
There are two grips you can take: the first being palms facing the body and the second palms facing away from the body. Choose which ever one you find the most effective and feels the best. If using a palms facing away from the body grip, you should take a shoulder width grip which is determined by grabbing the bar exactly where your hands fall when you allow your arms to hang straight down to the side of your body. If you use the palms facing the body grip, you may choose to go a little wider or a little narrower than shoulder width. Grab the bar where it feels the most comfortable. Your knees should have a slight bend in them at all times, but you should not be using any leg movement during the exercise. Your upper body should neither be so bent over that you’re parallel with the floor nor should it be so upright that the movement resembles a shrug with a slight movement in the arms. About 70 degrees from the floor is ideal for most people.
To get into the right position to do this exercise, perform a deadlift (see deadlift instructions) and then lower your body into the bent over row position. Once in that position your low back should move no more. If you look like you’re bobbing for apples while doing this exercise then you’re doing it wrong! The head should be positioned upright at all times and your chest should be held high and pushed forward. You don’t have to look up at the ceiling, but your head should be at least looking straight ahead. You should never look at the floor as chances are you will round your spine.
Now for the most important part, your lower back must be arched and kept arched the entire time! This is the most common problem my personal training clients have; they seem to lack the ability to understand how an arched back should feel, and thus fail to maintain this position throughout the movement. Practice arching your back while holding just an empty bar and watch your form in a mirror to make sure you hold this arch throughout the movement. At the start of the rep your scapula should be pulled forward. This is easy to do: just allow your shoulders and upper back to be pulled towards the ground while at all times maintaining the arch in the low back. Power the bar up with as much force as possible while maintaining the correct body posture. The bar should touch your lower abs; at this point, you should hold the movement for a full second making sure that your scapula is contracted and that you squeeze your entire back muscularity. After this contraction, slowly, and I do mean SLOWLY, lower the bar back down. This should take you at least 2 full seconds with 3 full seconds being the ideal. Once you have reached failure and you end the set, make sure to lower the bar like you would on the last rep of a deadlift (see instructions on deadlifts).
The second exercise is chin ups. There are three grips that you can use: A palms facing the body grip with your hands about shoulder width apart, a palms facing away from the body grip with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip, and finally there is a palms facing each other grip with your hands placed at about shoulder width. During the movement your head should be positioned upright and your gaze should be angled slightly upwards. Begin the movement by imagining that you’re driving your elbows down and back. Although the biceps can never be taken out of the equation, by performing the rep in this manner you will activate your back instead of primarily activating your biceps.
Just like with the rows, perform the rep as explosively as you can without losing the correct body position. The main culprit to poor form would be allowing your legs to swing back and forth while performing the rep. Remember, you’re attempting to build a large amount of muscularity not see how many chin ups you can do; we shall leave that to the Cross Fitters and their “kipping” chin ups. Hold the contraction for a full second squeezing all your activated muscles at the top of the rep. Follow this with a very slow negative; it should take you a full 3 seconds to lower your body before beginning another repetition. You should lower until your arms are very nearly straight and locked out, but stop about half an inch from the bottom. That final half inch will do nothing for additional muscle stimulation, but it will cause undue stress on your elbow.
Our final exercise is the big daddy of all exercises since it activates the most muscles…even more than the squat. It is the deadlift. Correct form on this exercise is imperative, so listen closely. Walk up to the bar and hang your arms at your side like you would while standing completely relaxed. You should grip the bar where your arms hang naturally since this is exactly straight down from where the arms attach into your shoulder. You have two choices of grip: double overhand or you can use a mixed grip where one palm faces towards the body and the other faces away from the body. The mixed grip is used when the weights being used exceeds what the double over hand grip can hold onto. If you like, you can use straps, but this is only advised if you do not want to develop as large forearms. It is also important to note that you should only ever use straps with the double over hand grip; you should never use straps with a mixed grip since this defeats the point of using straps due to the fact that the risk for tearing a bicep still exists. Another point to consider when choosing a grip is the possibility of an imbalance between sides of the body that could occur from using a mixed grip instead of a double over hand.
The bar should be against your shins when you begin the movement. Yes, your shins will take a beating, there may be blood and there certainly will be bruising, but this is all part of the game. If you’re the sensitive type, you could wear shin guards which seem to lessen the discomfort.
As you begin, take a big breath and squat down; your ass should always be lower than your head. In fact, the lower your ass is in comparison to your head the better. Straighten your arms so that there’s a slight tension on the bar. Now I don’t mean try and pull the bar up with your arms, but rather get a small amount of tension between so when you do initiate the pull your arms do not bend or jerk at the bar. Doing so is a high risk method and could leave you with a torn bicep.
Your head and chest should be held up high throughout the movement, and your low back should be slightly arched at all times. Drive the bar up hard, but remember to maintain the straight arms (imagine them as mere hooks) and the slight arch in the low back. Visualization helps some people, so perhaps the image of you pushing the ground down with your feet instead of pulling the weight up may help. Remember the deadlift is basically a jump, so a good way to practice and increase your deadlift is to practice box jumps and jumping in general. Once you reach lock out, your upper body will be erect and your legs will be locked out. Do not lean back and hyper extend your lower back; this is pointless and dangerous. All that is required is that you stand up fully.
Okay… so far so good, right? Well here comes the hard part; this is where it seems to crumble apart for nearly every lifter and is the reason there are not a lot more muscular backs walking around. You need to lower the weight SLOWLY! Now I don’t mean ultra slow, but a full 3 seconds should be taken to lower the bar. Now, I know what you’re thinking sitting safely behind your computer screen: “Sure… no problem; that’s not hard.” All I can say is try it this way and feel the difference. If you have in the past performed sets of 10 repetitions with 500 lbs while dropped every rep once you have reached lock out, don’t be surprised if 10 repetitions with 405 lbs is nearly impossible to perform. When lowering the bar, continue to look upwards slightly. Don’t lean your head back so far that you strain a neck muscles, but never ever look down at the floor. You may exhale slightly while lowering the bar, but I suggest that you always keep some air in your lungs while performing any heavy compound exercise. Once you have lowered the bar to the floor, take a deep breath or two and repeat. When performing the deadlift in this manner the touch and go will not be an ideal method because you will run out of air and struggle to breathe. Instead, perform a repetition then rest the bar on the ground, and take a couple of seconds to get oxygen back into your body before continuing.
So there you have it! Yet another article telling you what should be common sense, but keeping it basic and working hard really is what needs to be done to achieve a big back. However, for most people this never seems to resonate, so they go back to doing 10 different Hammer Strength rows and never develop the kind of back that sets you apart from the rest. Why not opt for simplicity and just give this a go. Like I said earlier, you need to pick how many sets you should do and how many reps. I personally like around 3 working sets for each exercise; for reps I use around 8 for chin ups, 12 for rows and between 3 and 20 for deadlifts, but like I said, you have to find that sweet spot for your own body. Every week try to increase upon the previous week while at all times keeping up the correct form. It is not counted as progression if you go up 20kg from one week to the next but your negatives go from taking 3 seconds to simply dropping them down with no control. You actually worked harder on the lighter set with the slower negatives! I will promise that if you can slowly and consistently increase your weights until the day that you can do chin ups with 40kg attached to your waist, do strict rows with 140kg and do sets of deadlifts with 5 plates per side, you will be one of the few people that doesn’t disappoint with a lack of muscularity when they turn around. You now have the tools, so it’s officially time to put your new skills to the test and put in the hard work!
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