"Guinness World Records" isn't just a compilation of who has the longest fingernails or who can dispense the most milkshake from his nose — there are lots of fitness records in there too, like longest plank, longest wall sit, most weight sumo squatted in an hour and most burpees in a minute.
These might not be the kind of goals you're after, but these record holders have something every exerciser can use: the ability to set a goal, train for it and achieve it. Here are 13 tips from five of these record holders that helped them improve in their specialty exercises, set better goals and achieve personal records — and you can incorporate them to get the same results from your own workouts.
1. Set and Celebrate Tiny Goals
Setting smaller goals that can be achieved on the way to a bigger goal is nothing new, but Wendy Ida suggests setting tiny goals along the way. Really tiny. The 66-year-old personal trainer in California holds the record for being the oldest active personal trainer in multiple disciplines and also for the most burpees in a minute (an impressive 37). "When you set a small, minuscule, anthill of a goal, you get there and you go, 'woo hoo!' You pat yourself on the back," Ida says. "Remember the feeling you had when you were doing good or making that accomplishment, especially on the days you don't want to work out. When you feel that way, get in your head and remember that other day and how great you felt."
2. Inch Your Way Forward
Tiny goals work for increasing weight too. Robert Herbst, a powerlifter who has set 38 world records, says he's increasing his bench press by only 2.5 pounds at a time as he progresses toward the world record for his age group, 60 and older. "Break it into gaining five pounds per month or how much you want to accomplish in a year," he says, instead of thinking of just the final number. "If you're realistic and patient, and you're diligent, it's going to happen."
3. Choose Exercises That Fit Your Body
Don't feel pressured to perform certain exercises just because they're deemed "the best," says Thienna Ho, the world record holder for longest wall sit (11 hours, 51 minutes) and the most weight sumo squatted in an hour (104,836 pounds). "Know your body, and then train for it." For example, while many people prefer front squats, Ho says the movement doesn't work for her. But she can perform sumo squats — lots of them — without losing form. For you, maybe practicing a stiff-legged deadlift may be easier and more natural than a traditional deadlift. If a specific movement pattern works better for you, focus on getting stronger in that one, and see if a trainer or coach can help you understand — and potentially fix — the one that isn't working.
4. Don’t Waste Energy Tensing Muscles You Aren’t Using
Thienna Ho's secret to holding a wall sit for more than 11 hours? Spending energy only where it's immediately needed. "You have to learn how to relax your arms and your whole body," she says. The same can work for you: Concentrate your force and contraction on the muscles needed to perform that exercise, and save your arm contractions for moves that need it.
Walter Urban, the world record holder for most weight sumo deadlifted in one hour, most weight squatted in one hour and most weight sumo deadlifted in one minute, says the same is true for dynamic exercises. When he's performing squats, for instance, "I'm relaxing my upper body as much as I can," he says. Start with your grip: Don't hold the bar with a white-knuckled death grip. Hold it in place and concentrate your force on the muscles needed for the move.
5. Get Your Legs Involved in the Bench Press
Sometimes there are more muscles involved in an exercise than you realize, and the bench press is a great example, says Robert Herbst, current holder of the American record for bench press for ages 55 to 59. "If you're 'tap dancing' with your legs during the lift, you're not driving from the legs," he says, which lessens the amount you can lift. The bench press isn't just a chest exercise; it involves the entire body, he says. Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground to create more power. "Hold the bar with your hands, [place your feet flat on the floor] and drive the floor with your heels. Feel the pressure with your quads and your butt," Herbst says. Continue driving through your feet as you push the bar up and perform your bench press rep.
6. Start by Just Holding Heavier Weights
Even if you can't lift your goal weight, get used to simply holding it, says powerlifter Robert Herbst. "When I squat, I'll add 50 pounds to the bar, then just walk back with it," he says. So if he's currently squatting 325 pounds, he'll put 375 on the bar, then lift it off the rack and just feel it on his shoulders. Herbst says this can help train the receptors in your tendons to get used to holding a heavier weight and not shut you down when it comes time to actually lift the weight (which they've been designed to do to prevent injury).
7. Focus on Eccentric Movements First
To take your lifts a step further, once you've gotten used to the feel of the weight, Robert Herbst recommends performing a spotted set with your goal weight. Lower the weight slowly on your own (this is the eccentric part of the movement), and then ask your spotter to help lift the weight back up. You'll not only get stronger from the lowering portion of the lift, he says, but you'll acclimatize your body to know what it feels like to lower your goal weight, so you practice half the lift while you strengthen.
8. Build Your Mental Toughness
How long can you hold a plank? A minute? Maybe three? George Hood has you beat — by nine hours! "The first 45 minutes or an hour is really just getting comfortable on the mat," says the 60-year-old director of fitness at the Indian Boundary YMCA in Downers Grove, Illinois. "After that, there are walls that I go through. You just have to have the mental toughness to push through those walls."
9. Focus on Shorter, Better Planking
George Hood can hold a forearm plank for more than nine hours. But he says that to hold to a plank that long, he focuses on shorter planks — and more of them. Break up your planking into a number of shorter reps, focusing on quality, he says. "The plank, in and of itself, is a total-body exercise." So get everything involved! So instead of one plank of three minutes, try nine rounds of 20 seconds each. Do each one with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders, your hands not touching and a straight line from your head to your heels. Maintain that posture by engaging muscles throughout your whole body. Rest for a few seconds in between, and then get back at it. Over time, you'll find that the three-minute plank you used to struggle with is a breeze.
10. Strengthen Your Core to Squat and Deadlift More
You may have read that if you're squatting and deadlifting you don't need direct core work because those exercises already use your abs. But if you don't have the strength to brace your core during those moves, you won't get the benefit of that work. And many people who are performing these moves have a weak core, says Walter Urban, holder of three world records. "There is nothing more important than your core, in my opinion," he says. Being able to brace your core protects your spine during heavy barbell movements. During rest periods between sets, Urban says he performs crunches and other ab moves — up to 250 reps per day, four days per week. He says it's made his deadlifting stronger. "If your abs are really strong and your back is strong, then your body is in balance," he says.
11. Have Someone Else Count Your Reps
If you're trying to set a personal record for reps or time with an exercise, record holder Walter Urban recommends having a friend or training partner count your reps. "If you don't focus on counting, you can focus on the lift," he says. "Don't think about the number. You can do more than you think!"
Doing more reps won't just help you set personal records, either — it's a good way to build muscle without changing the amount of weight you're lifting. In one 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, men who lifted just 30 to 50 percent of their one-rep maximum (the amount you could lift just once) for 20 to 25 reps per set gained the same amount of strength and size as those who lifted 75 to 80 percent of their one-rep max for eight-rep sets.
12. Invest in Your Goal Mentally
Wendy Ida says that when she meets a goal, she already knows how she'll feel because she has practiced feeling that way. Ida says she did this while working to set the record for most burpees in a minute, mentally rehearsing the move in her mind and how she would feel throughout the minute of work. "Get graphic with what you've set out to achieve," she says. "The more mental energy you invest in your dream, the more likely it is to happen."
13. Strengthen Your Mind-Body Connection
Visualization isn't just feel-good mumbo jumbo: Science has shown it can make you stronger. In a 2014 study from the Journal of Applied Physiology, people who mentally went through wrist exercises for a month gained strength in their wrists — even though the joint was in a cast for the entire time.
"If you envision the movement, the same nerves fire [that would if you did the actual exercise]," says Robert Herbst, who also performs visualization exercises for his heaviest lifts. He says because lifting a really heavy weight — whether it's your record or a world record — is about recruiting the right muscles, practicing mentally can help your neural pathways be more prepared to do their jobs when the weight is really on the bar.
What Do YOU Think?
Did you know about all these fitness record holders? If you were to set a record, what would you attempt? Are you impressed by these feats of strength and endurance? What advice resonated with you? What's the most helpful thing when setting and reaching your goals? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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