Strength training isn’t as complicated as people think. In fact, a relentless focus on the basics—squat, deadlift, press, pull—can produce eye-popping results. But understanding the basics of how the game works only gets you so far. Eventually, you need to level up your knowledge and attack your goal from a different angle. When it comes to challenging your muscles or stimulating them in various ways, if you’re not training your muscles at different angles, you’re leaving precious gains on the table.
One of the best examples of the importance of angles is the video game Angry Birds. Conceptually, it’s an easy game to understand. And anyone from the age of 4 to 92 can pick up the basic gameplay mechanics:
- Aim the bird
- Pull back on the bird
- Release, and watch it destroy its target
While watching my nephew play Angry Birds, I realized he was missing one of the key mechanics to the game. And because of this, he wasn’t getting the highest score possible, nor was he able to advance to the next level. He simply didn’t understand the role that angles play in getting the best shot possible. His progress stalled, and after a while, he got fed up with the game and quit.
The key to making progress as a beginner in the gym is to master the basics. And by mastering the basic lifts, you’ll need to build a base level of strength that improves your physique, health, and quality of life.
In order to advance and continue progressing in the gym, your muscles need new stimulus. And when it comes to stimulating your muscles, like Angry Birds, you need to hit them from different angles if you want to continue leveling up your strength and size.
Changing Angles of the Main Lifts
Your muscles exist for one primary reason: to move the skeletal frame of your body. So if you think of them in terms of Angry Birds, your bones are like the slingshot, and the rubber band you pull back to release the bird is your muscles.
By changing the angle at which your bones move, you’ll alter the muscles, or parts of the muscle used to move your skeleton. Like Angry Birds, this leads to more muscular damage. And the more muscle you can break down, the more you can create.
Changing the angle of an exercise means you’re changing how your body moves the weight through space. And small changes, even a few degrees or so, can alter tension and the range of motion of muscles.
The Angle of Squats
To alter the squat and target more of your quads, all you need to do is place your heels on a 2.5 or 5 pound plate. Elevating your heels, even by a few inches, increases the range of motion at the knee. Because of this extended range of motion, you increase the neural drive of your central nervous system, and your CNS tells your quads to recruit more muscle fibers. The more muscle fibers you work, the more damage you do to your quads, and that leads to more muscle gains.
Elevating your ankles isn’t the only way to change the angle of your squat. Modifying the width of your stance can have a drastic effect as well. Wide stance squats alter the angle at which your femurs and hip move the weight on the bar. If you have knee problems, a wider stance produces less stress on the knee by recruiting more of your glutes. Thanks to a more vertical shin, wide stance squats are easier for anyone who has limited ankle mobility.
The most beneficial angle change you can make to your squat regimen is to perform front squats over back squats. The anterior load of the bar takes pressure off your lower lumbar spine, which for older lifters or lifters with long femurs is more manageable.
Front squats also recruit more muscle fibers in your quads and glutes. Bigger legs, more bodacious booties, and less sheer pressure on the spine, what else do you need?
The Angle of Deadlifts
Like squats, you can change the angle of deadlifts by placing your feet on a weight plate. But instead of elevating your heels, you elevate your toes with deadlifts. Putting your toes on top of a weight plate increases the stretch on the hamstrings. This increased stretch equals more tension, and when it comes to muscle gains, the more tension you create, the more muscle you build.
Another way to change the angle of deadlifts is to perform a staggered stance deadlift. A slight five to six-inch stagger means your front leg is forced to work a little harder than the rear leg. It’s not a huge difference, so you can still use slightly heavy weight, but it does allow you to challenge your muscles differently and build strength in your posterior chain.
Like squats, wide stance deadlifts, or sumo deadlifts, change the angle at which the hips initiate the movement. Using a sumo stance with your RDLs or cable pull-throughs will add increased tension to your hamstrings.
The Angle of Bench Press
We know from science that your body will be stronger (or weaker) at certain joint angles, and you can use those angles to your advantage. For instance, a high incline bench press targets more of the clavicle insertion of your pecs. They’re also an excellent substitute for lifters who struggle with overhead movements; they still recruit your front delts, but they also hammer more of your pecs than a seated (or standing) overhead press.
If you want to hit more of the sternal part of your pecs, the decline bench press is your go-to exercise. The angle on the decline aids in disengaging your shoulders and requiring your pecs to work harder to push the bar. This was Dorian Yate’s favorite way to build more mass in the chest.
Your shoulders can be hit at angles as well. But here’s the thing about the shoulders: the small stabilizer muscles of your shoulder girdle, the ones that assist your deltoids (I’m looking at you supraspinatus) steal tension from your delts.
The front and the rear delts are important, the latter more so in my opinion, but when people look at your shoulders, what they often see is the lateral delts bulging out. Traditional lateral raises have one major drawback: the first 15-30 degrees of the movement engages your supraspinatus and not your lateral deltoid. That means you’re not getting as much time under tension for your lateral deltoid.
But you can eliminate the supraspinatus, while increasing your time under tension and your range of motion, by changing the angle at which you raise the dumbbell. Leaning lateral raises help isolate and hammer more of your lateral deltoid than the standing version.
To perform this exercise: Grab a dumbbell and a stable post, you can use a pole or the leg of a squat rack/cable machine. Place your hand the pole around shoulder height and lean away until your arm is fully extended. Perform a side lateral raise the same way you would while standing.
Perform the leaning lateral raise at the end of your workout. Aim for sets of three with 8-12 reps per set.
The Angle of Pull
Pulling motions happen both vertical and horizontal—pull ups/chin ups, barbell rows, and dumbbell rows. You can use angles to change the pulling motion of rows as well—incline rows, seal rows—or you can simply change your hand positioning to change the angle at which you pull your arms toward your body.
So in a way, by varying up your horizontal and vertical pulling motions, you’re already using angles to build your back. But there’s one pulling exercise where angles play a major role in what muscles get worked the most: the face pull.
Face pulls are one of the most beneficial exercises you can perform for long-term shoulder health, increased upper body strength, and improved posture. Most people use this exercise to target their rear delts, a weak point for many desk jockeys and strength athletes. But face pulls also engage your traps. You can target different parts of your traps by changing the angle at which you pull the band or cable.
The standard face pull, executed at eye level, recruits a pretty even amount of your rear delts and traps. But if you place the resistance higher and pull it down towards your face, you’ll activate more lower traps. And if you sit on the ground and perform a low-to-high cable face pull, you’ll engage more of your upper traps.
Now, we can’t forget the most important of all pulling motions: curls. You can coach and train all the functional stuff you want. But curls are the greatest thing ever invented. As much as I love hammer curls, concentration curls, or repping out 21s, if you want to build a Rocky Mountain-sized peak on your biceps, you need to use angles.
Incline curls place your arms behind your body, stretching the long head of your biceps that runs over the shoulder joint, and this angle change creates massive amounts of tension that builds the peak of your bicep.
Keep the weight light. Control the eccentric, and squeeze as hard as you can at the top of each rep. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.
Angle Birds: The Game of Gains
Progressing your game in the gym isn’t always about lifting heavier weight or doing more reps. Sometimes the best stimulus is to perform an exercise from a different angle. New angles create new stimulus (tension) and, like Angry Birds, will allow you to gain a higher score and unlock next level muscle growth.