Monday, March 30, 2009

The Flat Bench: What is it Good For?

If you work out in a health club or fitness center, chances are you'll find some incarnation of a flat bench over by the free weights. Perhaps you stay away, thinking this is the territory of the bench pressers, the grunters, the heavy lifters. Not so.

To better open your mind to the possibilities of what you can do here, let me start by telling you what these benches are not for:
  • Storage of personal items---sweats, keys, etc.
  • Taking a load off to watch SportsCenter
  • Eating off of...obviously
  • Bench pressing only

What are they good for? Anything else. Which means: if you've been fearful of venturing into this section of the gym, afraid that you and your 5-lb dumbbells don't belong, think again. In fact, I'd like you to get intimately familiar with this useful piece of equipment (just be sure to wipe it down when you're done). And to get you a little more comfortable setting foot in the most intimidating neighborhood in your health club, here are a few moves to help you fit in:

  • Push-Ups. Push-ups with your hands on a flat bench make for an excellent transition between modified (kneeling) push-ups and traditional ones.
  • Step-Ups. Hold a 5 or 10-lb dumbbell in each hand and step up and down on the bench for a fantastic butt and thigh workout. Try them facing sideways as well.
  • Plank Hold. Rest your elbows on the bench and prop yourself onto your toes so your body forms a straight line, and see how long you can hold. Great for the entire core.
  • Prisoner Squats. Stand next to the bench, facing away from it (like you're going to sit down on it) and interlace your fingers behind your head, elbows out (like you would for a crunch). Keeping your chest lifted and looking straight ahead, press your hips down and back into a squat, stopping just as your butt hits the bench (but don't put weight on it). Pause at the bottom, then push through your heels and stand back up.
  • Tricep Dips. Sit on the bench facing sideways, with the heels of your hands resting on the bench by your sides and elbows pointing straight back. With your feet resting on the floor and knees bent, lower your body weight on your arms until your elbows are bent 90 degrees and then push back up.
  • Reverse Crunches. Lie on your back on the bench and lightly hang onto the bench with hands by your ears. Put your legs straight up in the air, knees slightly bent, and slowly lower your legs away from you, keeping your low back in contact with the bench at all times. Exhale as you pull your legs back up over your hips. These are also very effective done one leg at a time.

If you work out at home, a chair or sturdy coffee table can substitute for the bench in many of these exercises. And if you go to the gym, use these moves to muscle your way in next to the muscleheads. You'll look like you belonged there all along.

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