Advanced Muscle Recruitment
by John Paul Catanzaro T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• We all perform exercises a certain away, but a slight adjustment in technique can be enough to stimulate new growth.
• Using an offset grip, switching from dumbbells to kettlebells, and elevating the toes during deadlifting movements are all effective techniques.
Give a guy a set of dumbbells and tell him to curl them. Without thinking, he'll grip the 'bells in the middle of the handles and with his palms facing upward. Now, tell him to lie back and press them. I guarantee that his palms will be facing forward.
That's the norm for those two exercises. It's almost as if we're hard-wired to do them that way.
But what if during the curls you offset the grip by a few millimeters so that you're not gripping the handles right in the middle? During the press, what if you rotate the grip a few degrees, so instead of the palms facing forward, they face each other?
Would these slight adjustments make a difference? You better believe it.
Here are seven exercise modifications to stimulate new muscle growth.
#1 – Start With A Neutral Grip
A dumbbell press is often performed with a pronated grip (palms forward). To maximize the range of motion, try starting the press with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) so that your arms form a "W" at the bottom of the movement.
Then, as you press the dumbbells upward, rotate your thumbs in so that you end up with a pronated grip at the top of the movement.
This movement pattern offers three advantages:
1. The neutral grip at the bottom allows for greater range of motion and is a much safer position for the shoulder.
To prove it, try positioning yourself on the bench with a pronated grip as you normally would for a lying dumbbell chest press. Then, rotate your thumbs outward to achieve a neutral grip. What happens? Your arms should sink a bit deeper and you should feel a greater stretch across your chest.
2. Since the pectorals horizontally adduct and internally rotate the arms, by going from a neutral grip at the bottom to a pronated grip at the top, you're performing both functions of the pectoralis major in one movement.
3. Since this particular movement pattern is uncommon to many trainees, it will provide a variation, which is helpful for continued long-term progress.
#2 – Uncock The Wrists
Hyperextending the wrists during biceps curls (basically keeping them cocked back while curling) is called an "advanced technique" by many experts. This method serves two purposes:
1. By stretching the wrist flexors, you reduce their involvement, thereby increasing the activity of the elbow flexors.
2. At the top position, there's still tension on the elbow flexors. If the wrists are straight, the load would simply be transferred straight down and tension on the working muscles would disappear.
The problem with this technique is wrist pain. Fortunately, there's a solution.
As you can see in the photo, the position of the kettlebell is outside the forearm. It constantly tries to pull your forearm down into extension so there's tension throughout the entire movement. There's also no strain on the wrists since they're straight throughout.
If you extend the wrists back on neutral-grip dumbbell flyes, it will have a similar effect as above: increase tissue stretch, decrease activity of the forearm flexors, and constant tension on the muscle. But again, wrist pain may be an issue. In this context, kettlebell flyes are an effective alternative.
#3 – Use An Open Grip
Fat-bar training increases grip and overall strength in short order. You can purchase training tools to create a wider/open grip or you can just use kettlebells, just not in the traditional manner.
Instead of using the handles, grasp the cannonball part of the kettlebell and curl away. You can only perform supinated (palms-up) curls with this method, but what a burn! Try them standing, seated, in an incline position, or on a preacher bench.
One word of caution: always implement thick-grip work slowly and gradually. Guys often buy fat-grip attachments and then rush to the gym to try them out on anything they can get their "hands" on. And what happens only days later? Tendonitis, and it takes a while to heal.
Don't be overzealous. Be a tortoise with these things and you'll win the race over time.
#4 – Offset The Grip
An effective technique to increase the activation of the short (medial) head of the biceps during arm curls is to use an offset grip, sometimes referred to as an "off-center" grip.
The same principle can be applied to lateral raises. By using an offset grip where the thumb and index finger are positioned against the front plate of the dumbbell, you get greater recruitment of the posterior (rear) head of the deltoid.
A common instruction for this exercise is to pronate the arms while raising the dumbbells as if you were pouring a pitcher of water, but this can lead to subacromial impingement or shoulder pain. However, by using the offset grip, you can effectively alter the loading without adjusting the mechanics or motion.
In simple terms, the back end of the dumbbell becomes a little heavier, forcing the back part of your shoulders to work a little harder. Typically this area is very weak in most individuals and requires greater attention. Balanced shoulder development and strength will improve stability, thereby enhancing the integrity of the joint and decreasing the likelihood of injuries while helping build bigger and fuller deltoids. It'll give them more of that "3-dimensional" look.
To take it a step further, attach a PlateMate to the rear plate only (closest to your pinky). This will make the back end of the dumbbell even heavier.
#5 – Roll Over The Big Toe
You can alter recruitment in a similar way when performing calf raises. Rather than turning your feet out to target the medial (inner) head of your calves, try rolling over the ball of your foot towards the big toe.
In other words, shift your weight towards the inner part of the foot to target more of the medial calf fibers. Works with standing or seated calf raises.
#6 – Extend The Arm
A single-leg squat is basically a rear-foot-elevated split squat with the rear foot resting on a high surface like a bench rather than a step. It's a great exercise to stretch out the hip flexors, but you can heighten the effect by extending the arm on the same side as the elevated leg and holding a weight. I call this the "statue of liberty" squat.
A kettlebell works well for this. To really impose a stretch on the entire fascial line, place the top of the foot on the bench (where your shoelaces are) and **** back the elevated wrist. It may not correct years of spending a third of each day sitting, but it sure won't hurt.
#7 – Raise The Forefoot
During squats, elevating the heels on a plate or wedge board can direct more stress to the quadriceps and help guys with tight hip flexors and calves go deeper and stay more upright. You can use the same type of trick for posterior chain work.
Elevating the forefoot on semi-stiff-leg deadlifts or good mornings will encourage the weight over the heels and increase the stretch on the calves and hamstrings.
Slight Changes, Big Results
Sometimes a change is in order, and it doesn't have to be drastic. Even a minor change, like how you grip the dumbbell or roll over your toes, can be enough to stimulate new results and prevent overuse injuries.