Q: How do you prevent knee pain during your leg workouts? Whenever I use heavy weights on exercises like squats and hack squats, my knees bother me so much that I can’t get an effective workout.
A: Brother, I feel your pain! If there’s one thing that I can relate to, it’s the bothersome tendinitis that I often feel in my quadriceps tendons during my leg workouts. I’ve been training for 25 years now, so my tendons have been worked very hard, and they sometimes painfully object to heavy poundages. I can tell you a few of the techniques I’ve found to get around the problem.
First of all, I always warm up my knees before launching into my leg workout. I usually begin by stretching out my hamstrings, hips and glutes for 15 minutes. After stretching, I ride the exercise bike for five to six minutes at a moderate resistance and a fast pace. This short, intense bike ride slightly pumps up my quads and brings some blood into the knees and tendons.
I never begin with any exercise that puts stress on the knees, such as hack squats or front squats. If I begin my leg workout with squats, I always do a set or two on the leg press machine with a light weight. That exercise is very easy on the knees, but it mimics the movement and uses the same muscles that squatting does.
When I begin my squats, I use a wider-than-shoulder-width stance, with my toes slightly pointed out. My knees travel in the same direction as my feet as I begin to descend into a squat. Using a narrower stance with the knees going straight forward instead of slightly out stresses the knees more. When I work up to the heavy poundages’more than 450 pounds in my case’I often use knee wraps for extra protection. I’d never used knee wraps until last year, but I’m squatting heavier than ever before, and I don’t want to risk a knee injury at this stage in my career.
If my knees are feeling okay after I finish squatting, I’ll attempt hack squats. Hacks are sometimes brutal on the knees, but they’re a great movement for adding size to the outer quad for sweep. I always concentrate on the negative by lowering the weight extremely slowly, which also helps lessen the stress on the knee.
I have talked to many bodybuilders in the gym about knee problems, and many of them feel that performing leg extensions before squats or leg presses may also put more stress on the knees. Leg extensions are better after you do all the basics, like squats and leg presses. If your knees are bothering you and you normally do leg extensions first in your leg workout, you may want to try doing them at the end instead.
I’ve also started cycling my workouts much more. I normally take a full week off from the gym every seven to eight weeks. My knees can no longer handle squatting and leg pressing heavy week in and week out all year long. By taking a week off every two months, I can use heavy poundages all year with little to no knee pain.
When I come back to the gym after my layoff, my strength is a little less than it was before the layoff. Nevertheless, it quickly returns, and I usually finish the cycle training heavier than at the end of the previous cycle. The bottom line is that without a week off every eight weeks, I wouldn’t be able to have effective workouts on a consistent basis.
You can also try taking supplements designed specifically for the joints, such as glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin. I take four capsules one hour before every workout. They help to build stronger cartilage and serve as an anti-inflammatory. Try using my suggestions to avoid the tendinitis in your knees. Exercises such as squats and leg presses are vital to building your thighs, but you need to take precautions to avoid knee pain.
Q: My lower and middle pecs are better developed than my upper pecs because I neglected them when I was younger. To be honest, my upper pecs look like they’ve never been worked. I’ve been concentrating on incline dumbbell and barbell presses and performing very little middle- and lower-chest work so my upper pecs can catch up. Will that ever happen? Also, what isolation exercise will develop my inner pecs? I want a deep vertical line from the top to the bottom of my pecs.
A: Lagging upper pecs is a common problem among bodybuilders. After all, the most popular chest exercise is the bench press, which builds mass in the lower and middle areas. Many bodybuilders focus on that exercise as their primary chest movement, and that, as you’ve experienced, can create an imbalance between the upper and lower pecs.
I think it’s a great idea to include exercises such as incline barbell and dumbbell presses to build more mass in your upper pecs. Those are both basic exercises that are great for building size upstairs; however, I think you can also do exercises for the lower and middle portions of your chest while specializing on upper-chest development.
One of the obstacles to developing the upper pecs is getting enough blood to the area. It seems the lower pecs pump up much more easily than the upper pecs do. One way to achieve a beneficial pump is to do a lower- or mid-pec exercise before your upper-pec work.
For example, you could do dumbbell flat-bench presses first and follow with incline barbell presses and incline flyes. That enables you to train the outer pecs with the first exercise while simultaneously pumping blood into the entire pec region. When you move on to incline barbell presses, you’re using one of the premier upper-pec builders, and you get a greater pump because of the dumbbell presses. Finishing off with incline flyes allows you to continue the assault on your upper chest. Flyes performed on an incline bench emphasize the upper pecs without the assistance of secondary muscles such as the triceps.
Another great exercise for building mass into the upper-chest area is bench presses to the neck. It was a Vince Gironda favorite, and he often preached the effectiveness of the rarely used movement. To perform the bench press to the neck, take a wider-than-shoulder-width grip on the bar and keep your feet off the floor to better isolate your pecs. Slowly lower the bar to your clavicles while simultaneously pulling your elbows back so they’re in line with the bar. Push the bar up in a straight line so your upper pecs are forced to work throughout the movement. It’s a great exercise for bodybuilders who have a hard time adding mass to their upper pecs with incline barbell or dumbbell presses.
As for the inner pecs, I believe the two best exercises are standing or flat-bench cable crossovers and close-grip bench presses. The cable exercises let you keep the tension on the muscle while your arms cross at the completion of the exercise (something that would be impossible with dumbbells). That’s the portion of the exercise that will hit the inner pecs.
The close-grip bench press is not as much an isolation movement as the cable crossovers, but you will be able to use more resistance and, theoretically, add more mass to your inner pecs. Just remember to keep your elbows flared out to the sides as you lower the bar and really flex those inner pecs at the top.
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.naturalolympia .com. You can write to him at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648).