Tweaking Exercsises For Greater Challenge
by Dan Trink T-Nation
It's a fact – sequels usually suck harder than that cool Dyson vacuum cleaner your in-laws bought you for Christmas.
While there are notable exceptions, such as The Godfather 2, Mighty Ducks 2 (yes, MD2 was better than the original), and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, most sequels just don't live up to the standards set by their predecessors.
Let's face it, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo just doesn't have the impact of the original Breakin'.
Not too long ago I wrote 7 Tweaks That Make Your Exercises More Evil which, if the stack of panties I received in the mail is any indication, seems to have struck a chord with T Nation readers. Now I'm attempting that rare feat of writing a sequel that exceeds the awesomeness of the original. Take that, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo!
In case you forgot the premise, I enjoy taking tried-and-true exercises and giving them a little twist by changing a grip, adding a pause, altering a stance – doing something to make them more challenging, effective, and just plain evil.
Enough jibber-jabber, here are 7 more tweaks to try in your next workout.
1. Dumbbell Biceps Curl
In bodybuilding, a big premium is placed on symmetry. No sane lifter tries to build their right quad to be twice the size of their left, just as you wouldn't put 22-inch rims on one side of your Eldorado and 14's on the other.
Therefore, it makes sense that we'd always load barbells with the same weight on each side, do as many reps for the right limb as the left when performing unilateral movements, and grab dumbbells in the middle of the handle during biceps curls, right?
By using an off-set grip – shifting your hand so that your thumb is pressed against the inside of the dumbbell plate – you increase the recruitment of the short head of the biceps.
And this isn't just window dressing – you'll notice immediately as the movement will suddenly feel more challenging than picking up a smoking hot, intelligent woman by telling her how much you bench. (I promise, she does not care.)
Start with a hammer (neutral) grip and supinate (twist) as you curl so you end in a palms-facing-up position. Don't worry if you have to decrease the weight or reduce the number of reps you can perform as compared to a traditional curl.
2. Seated Cable Row
I'm a big fan of seated cable rows as they offer many of the back and biceps building benefits of bent-over barbell rows without placing as much tension on the hamstrings or overloading the lower back.
However, in an effort to move as much weight as possible, many lifters use hip extension to complete the rep. If during your set of cable rows you look like you're sprinting the last 100 meters of the Olympic Rowing finals, you're one of these people.
Instead, I prefer to go against this tendency and actually lean into the row using hip flexion while driving my elbows behind me to complete the movement. The proper effect can be achieved either by isometric hip flexion (leaning forward throughout the entire movement) or dynamic hip flexion (leaning in and returning to neutral each rep).
As with most of these tweaks, performing the exercise this way will require you to use less weight. So drop your ego off at the gym door, amigo.
3. Dumbbell Chest Press
Early on in your training career you discovered the dumbbell chest press and fell in love, young Padawan. You found a way to get yet another chest press variation into your workout, which can be especially handy on Monday night when every barbell bench press across America is occupied.
Then, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, you got older and smarter and discovered the dumbbell chest presses' more shoulder-friendly sibling, the neutral grip (palms facing each other) DB chest press.
Now, to complete your Jedi chest training, allow me to introduce you to the highest level of shoulder-friendly, triceps-lovin' DB pressing – the supinating dumbbell chest press.
By supinating (twisting) the dumbbells as you lower the weight, a few great things happen. First, you increase your range of motion significantly over the typical pronated chest press. Second, for most people, you're putting less stress on the shoulder joint at the bottom position. Lastly, the required path of the dumbbells allows for greater triceps activation. In my book that's a win-win-win.
4. Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press
Lately it seems that everyone (myself included) has fallen in love with the Olympic lifts and their variations. This means guys who used to be locked down to the bench press as if they were on house arrest are now standing up and pressing overhead.
I see more push pressing, push jerking, and split jerking now than I've ever seen before. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that these trainees have taken the time to build a foundation of strength or even learned to press properly before hoisting a barbell overhead dynamically, which is a big problem. Furthermore, crippling muscle imbalances can't be addressed specifically when strictly training bilateral movements for power.
What I like about this tweak is that it addresses the need to develop unilateral strength in the overhead press while forcing you to address the common technical mistake of allowing the elbow to "bow out" as you press, creating a mechanical disadvantage at best and, at worst, putting your shoulder joint at risk.
Begin by standing directly beside the support pole of a squat rack. Grab a dumbbell with a neutral grip at shoulder height. The dumbbell should begin just in front of the anterior deltoid nearest the rack. Now, press the dumbbell overhead. The rack forces you to drive the dumbbell straight up, not allowing you to drive your elbow out.
5. Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarians are seemingly evil people, at least the ones in the weight lifting community. Some Bulgarian took the already challenging split squat, elevated the back leg and, voila, a movement that has your glutes, quads, and hip flexors screaming for mercy with every rep.
So how do you make an already Draconian exercise even more evil? By elevating the front foot as well. This allows you to increase the range of motion and get your front leg below parallel, something that's tough to achieve with a typical Bulgarian split squat.
Be forewarned, this increased range of motion puts a big stretch on the hip flexors of the rear leg. After your second or third rep you'll be cursing the entire Eastern Bloc and praying for a return of the Cold War.
6. Back Extension
I have pity for the poor back extension station. While everyone on the training floor is crunching, planking, and leg raising, it sits alone in the corner collecting a fine layer of dust and lifting chalk. At least it has the foam rollers to keep it company.
But considering you're a reader of this site, you're well aware that strictly training your abs while neglecting the musculature on the rear side of your body is a mistake. And when done correctly, the back extension not only works the muscles of the lower back, but the glutes and hamstrings as well.
Yet many people have a hard time activating all these muscle groups, particularly when first incorporating the back extension into their programs.
By tweaking this movement and putting a medicine ball overhead during the eccentric phase of the movement, it makes the back extension more challenging, which can force recruitment of these additional muscle groups.
Start with low reps and focus on squeezing your glutes at the top. Before you know it, you'll have the lower back strength of a power lifter and the glute and hamstring development of an Olympic sprinter. Or at the very least, your girlfriend will no longer be able to call you waffle-ass when she follows you up a flight of stairs.
7. Cable Chest Fly
Who doesn't love the cable chest fly? It's the perfect accessory movement for chest development as it does a solid job of isolating the pecs while providing less stress on the shoulder and elbow joints than the various pressing movements. Add in the fact that you can perform them from a variety of angles and you have a great addition to any hypertrophy phase.
This tweak is my absolute favorite version of the cable fly and is, in my opinion, the most intense and isolating chest movement you can perform – yet I never see anyone performing them in this manner.
This means you can be the first guy to bang these out at your gym, which will turn you into a local legend. Which will insure you date the hottest girls. Who are also incredibly rich.
Drag a flat bench over to the cable crossover and place it directly in the middle and slightly in front of both weight stacks. Lower the cables to the bottom setting and attach a D-handle to each. Grab a handle in each hand, sit on the far end of the bench and lie back (resist the force of the cables sliding you back on the bench). Extend your arms overhead into a giant "V".
With a very slight bend in your elbow, pull your arms up and over until your hands are just below your belly button. You'll have to use less weight than you usually use for standing cable chest flyes.
Until Next Time
And with that, you're all set – 7 more evil tweaks to add to your repertoire. Hopefully you enjoyed this sequel more than Speed 2: Cruise Control (even Keanu knew to stay out of that one) and that these tweaks help pave the way to some new gains at the gym.
Give these variations a try and let me know how they're treating you in the LiveSpill.