Popeye Strength Without The Spinach

Six methods to increase pushing and pulling strength instantly!
By John Paul Catanzaro

Wouldn’t it be nice to pop a can of spinach and have instant strength just like Popeye? Well, I have spent years researching the subject of strength training, and in my journey, I‘ve discovered some of the most effective, cutting edge techniques from many of the world’s leading experts. In this article, I am going to introduce six unique methods to increase pushing and pulling strength instantly. I guarantee these gems will help your performance in the gym and the best part, no spinach required!

Spine Roller

In the book The Development of Muscular Bulk & Power Anthony Ditillo recommends laying on a flat bench with your arms behind your head and eyes closed for 15 minutes prior to a workout. During this time, he advises utilizing visualization of the upcoming workout to encourage a positive state and enhance performance. Olympic strength coach, Charles Poliquin, takes this a step further by having his athletes lay on a 6-inch foam roll also for 15 minutes before their workout to help decompress the spine by opening up the intervertebral spaces. Apparently, laying on the foam roll - referred to as a spine roller by physiotherapists - lengthwise along the spine will help restore normal spinal curvatures since gravity acts downwards, straightening the spine at the apex of excessive curvatures (generally reducing kyphosis a.k.a. the hunch-back posture!) Since this method allows for optimal nerve conduction, Poliquin claims that it will increase strength by as much as 3%.

I have found that a greater effect is achieved if the base of the skull (i.e., suboccipital area) is placed at the edge of the roll causing slight cervical extension. This seems to pull the spine allowing a greater decompressive effect. Remember to use this time to visualize the upcoming workout – in your mind, see yourself successfully completing all target loads.

Neck Traction

You can manually decompress the spine and open up the intervertebral spaces with neck traction. You’ll need a partner for this one, though. It’s pretty simple really – no medieval contraption is required – just have your partner grab your head and try to pull it up out of your neck while you perform seated curls. It may appear odd, but if performed toward the end of your set, I guarantee you’ll gain an extra rep or two. It is a weird sensation – the nerve fires better and the weight lifts almost effortlessly. Try it.

Neck Bridge

Activating the long cervical extensors can help reposition C5 and C6 (two vertebrae in your neck), which enervate the biceps. This will increase curling and pulling strength (may increase biceps strength by as much as 10%) so try this technique just before back and biceps exercises.

Sit on a Swiss ball. Walk forward until only the back of your head is supported on the ball. Keep the hips up and make sure to accentuate the rib cage. Now try to hold that position for up to a minute. Although you may not reach that duration the first time – just work up to it gradually over sessions. To make the exercise easier, lean the back of the head against a wall. Use a rolled up towel or pillow for comfort. To make the exercise more difficult, try it on the Swiss ball but hold a plate or dumbbell on the chest to increase resistance.

Neck Bridge
Holding a plate on the chest will make the exercise more difficult.
Do this only after you’ve accomplished a full 60-second hold with your bodyweight only.

At this point, you may be wondering how improving nerve conduction with the spine roller, neck traction or neck bridge exercise can increase strength? This excerpt from Dr. Ken Kinakin’s Optimal Muscle Training book should offer some insight.

Research over the past few years has given us some insight that is rarely discussed or presented with regard to weight training. Some studies have shown that decreasing the nerve supply to muscles can reduce strength and create a possible scenario for pain. If the nerves from the spine to the muscles undergo any compression, or more commonly, any tension, the decreased nerve supply causes a decline in performance and increased risk of injury if heavier weights are used. Research reveals that only a small amount of compression or tension is needed to create this type of weakness. Rydevik (1991) reported that compression of only 10 to 50 millimeters of mercury (the weight of a dime on the back of your hand) can potentially decrease action potentials by up to 40 percent. MacNab (1972) found that compression without pain can cause a neurological deficit or weakness. Wall (1992) found that a 6 percent strain (tension) decreased action potentials by over 70 percent. (Kinakin, 2004, pg. 6)

Push-Up Position

You’ll need some help for this method. Start off in a push-up position with your hands on a Swiss ball, arms extended (elbows locked), neutral spine, abdominals braced, and balancing on your toes (see the photos below.) Now close your eyes and get your partner to start kicking the ball! It’s that simple, or so it seems… Closing the eyes will heighten proprioceptors, revving up the nervous system. This activity is useful before pressing exercises (assuming you don’t go flying!) Make sure your partner varies the position and speed while kicking for better effect. Perform this technique before chest, delts, and triceps exercises.

Push Up Position 1Push Up Position 2Push Up Position 3
Vary the position and speed while kicking for better effect.

Swiss Ball Hold

Again, a partner is necessary for this drill. Just hold a Swiss ball out directly in front of you with both hands on either side of the ball and your arms fully extended. Tighten the body and prepare for battle! Your partner will then smack the Swiss ball … I repeat, the Swiss ball (unless you come from Switzerland, you should be safe) … while varying the position, speed and force for optimal effect. The Swiss ball hold can be performed with the eyes open and closed. It is useful for whole body stabilization and can be used on wheelchair athletes as well.

Rocker/Wobble Board Push-Ups

When performing this series of exercises, start with a rocker board and progress to a wobble board. Since the rocker board only allows you to rock in one plane, it is best to exploit different angles such as forward and back, side-to-side and diagonal. Of course, the object is to keep the board level to the ground throughout the movement.

The wobble board push-up is a great warm-up prior to upper body training. It is important to keep the core tight with the abdominals braced – do not allow the back to sag at any time. The exercise can be made more difficult by raising the feet onto a step or box, or it can be made easier by pivoting from the knees instead of the toes. Remember to keep the board level at all times.

Perform no more than 5 reps. Rest for 2 minutes then do your first set of any upper body exercise. You will be stronger.

So there you have it. Six methods for “Popeye” strength in the gym without the spinach!

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.