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How to build two unsung heroes of a well-rounded physique

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Everyone loves abs, arms and butts. They're the VIPs of physical fitness, the first-ballot hall-of-famers that command spotlights and headlines. But of course, behind every hotshot stands the unsung hero, those tireless workhorses who quietly run the show and without whom the superstar's golden lustre would be decidedly less shiny.

Yes, just as Jordan needed Pippen and Hall needed Oates, bulging biceps can't carry the weight alone. A well-rounded physique is built upon several pillars, most of which you'll rarely read about in Men's Health magazine. Here are two foundational qualities that have the greatest carryover to daily living, meaning even those who'd rather sew their lips shut than step foot in a gym can (and should!) take note.

Grip Strength

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We're all familiar with the clichés surrounding a hardy handshake. Well, the benefit of a kung-fu grip extends far beyond boardroom greetings. From opening stubborn jars to carrying heavy groceries, having a strong grip comes in handy every day. Grip is also the limiting factor on most pulling exercises (e.g. deadlifts, rows, pull-ups), meaning the stronger your hands, the more work you can do in the gym.

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And for those non-exercisers who have people to open their jars and carry their groceries, there's this: According to research conducted by McMaster University's Population Health Research Institute, grip strength is a greater predictor of cardiovascular health than systolic blood pressure. The study shows grip strength can act as a biomarker in tracking declining health; as it weakens, so, too, does the cardiovascular system as a whole, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

The jury is still out on whether or not improving strength can reverse any adverse effects, but as a preventive measure, the evidence indicates lifting weights may be just as beneficial for your heart's health as plodding along on the treadmill.

  • Typical Training Method: Direct grip training isn’t all that common at commercial gyms. What you’re more likely to see are wrist curls, which are one of the few exercises I genuinely loathe. There are many reasons for this, chief among them being that wrist curls – often done while seated, making a terrible exercise even worse – train nothing other than the forearm muscles responsible for wrist flexion. Exercises that focus on singular muscle groups can be useful, but those looking to get the most out of their gym time have more productive options.
  • Better Training Method: In a previous piece, I extolled the virtues of my favourite grip-strengthening exercise, the Farmer’s Walk. Now I’d like to introduce you to the runner-up: the Dead Hang. All you need is a pull-up bar or similarly suitable ledge from which to dangle and you’re set. You simply grab hold of the bar and let your body hang suspended in the air with your arms at full extension. The key to the Dead Hang is to “pack” your shoulders; this means your shoulder blades should be pulled back and down toward your butt for the duration of the exercise. Once your shoulders are in place, keep your glutes tight and your chest high. Not only does the Dead Hang work wonders for grip strength, it’s step one in the progressive path toward pull-up mastery. Start with 10-second repetitions, working up to one minute.

Balance

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Balance is the Rodney Dangerfield of the training world – it gets no respect! Everyone wants to be stronger, faster and more mobile, yet, few appreciate that balance lies at the base of all these qualities. When you consider how devastating falls can be, especially for seniors, the importance of emphasizing balance in your training becomes clear.

  • Typical Training Method: The BOSU ball has become ubiquitous in gyms everywhere, thanks in large part to the ill-defined trend known as “functional training.” Apparently, performing curls and squats while standing precariously on top of a partially inflated half-sphere translates to increased athleticism. Or something like that. I don’t know. Unless you’re the seafaring sort whose days are spent adrift upon a wobbly skiff, BOSU balls are not your friend.
  • Better Training Method: Want to up your balance game in a way that actually relates to daily living? Spend more time on one foot. Split squats are the easiest entry point. Assume a staggered stance, shifting the majority of your body weight toward the lead foot. Your rear foot, meanwhile, acts as a sort of kickstand, balancing your body while you move up and down (be careful not to let let your rear knee touch the floor). Along with strengthening the quads (those beefy muscles on the front of your thigh), split squats also do a bang-up job in increasing ankle mobility. Start with sets of 8-12 reps; once that becomes easy, load the movement by grabbing some dumbbells or elevate your rear foot on a low bench.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA and a striking coach at Black Devil MMA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini

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