Here's what you need to know...
- After a while, even the best lifts can get stale.
- Continuous growth requires variety, but you don't need wholesale change. Just a simple tweak in exercise form can spark new gains.
- Old-school training gear like gymnastics rings and inversion boots can be used to reinvent classic exercises.
No one can dispute the wisdom of a steady diet of the basic exercises. After a while, though, even the best lifts can get a little stale, which is when you need to add a wrinkle or two to keep the forces of adaptation at bay. Here are eight killer variations of some classic muscle-building exercises.
1. Neutral-Grip Chin-up
It's a good idea to vary your chin-up grip to avoid stagnation, promote balanced strength and size development, and possibly avoid recurring injuries. But what happens if you only have a straight chin-up bar? Supinated, pronated, and mixed-grip chin-ups are doable but what about neutral-grip chins (palms facing one another)? Here are three options:
• Triangle Handle. Simply drape a triangle handle over the chin-up bar and you're good to go. You'll need to shift your head over to one side as you go up so you don't hit the bar, so make sure to switch sides each rep to keep it even.
• PVC Pipes. Go to the hardware store and buy a 2-inch PVC pipe. Cut two pieces about the width of your hands (around 3.5 to 4 inches wide) and wrap the pieces with some hockey tape. Next, loop an ankle strap through each piece of pipe and secure them onto your chin-up bar. The cool thing is that you can position the handles as wide or narrow as you wish. Another option is to use Fat Gripz instead of PVC pipes.
• Wood Grips. The ones I use are called Metolius Portable Power Wood Grips. Unlike the previous options, these grips allow for some rotation of the arms and shoulders, and the asymmetrical design offers a different hold profile on each side. They can even be flipped over for two more unique holds. All said they're great for developing grip strength along with the big "show" muscles of the upper body and core.
2. Ring Dip
Dips are fantastic for building upper body mass. Considering the physiques of top-level gymnasts, you can appreciate what dips can do for you. Most lifters progress parallel dips by simply adding weight, but switching to rings is a far more challenging way to up the ante.
Be warned: going from the rigid parallel bars of a dip station to unrestricted gymnastic rings is a serious shock to the stabilizers. The key is to start with just your body weight and try to make each rep look smooth. The cool things is if you train on the rings for a while and then go back to parallel bars, you'll notice a strength increase, and along with the strength comes size.
3. Tiger-Bend Push-up
Get in a push-up position with your shoulders directly above your hands. Now lower the forearms and elbows down toward the floor. Your biceps should make full contact with your forearms at the bottom. Take note, this is not as easy as it sounds! Most don't get it right the first time, so I get them to start from the bottom with their forearms resting on the floor before they "push up."
To decrease the difficulty, pivot from the knees instead of the feet. To make the exercise more challenging, elevate the feet onto a step. If your wrists bother you with this exercise, try positioning your hands on the edge of a step.
4. Inverted Sit-up and Squat
Another gadget that attaches to a straight chin-up bar is those relics of infomercial days gone by – inversion boots. Doing sit-ups on the floor or on a slant board isn't a problem for most experienced lifters, but try doing them hanging upside down. Prepare to be humbled!
Another cool exercise you can do with inversion boots is inverted squats. Instead of just bending at the hips as you would with sit-ups, try bending at the hips and knees. You can assist yourself if necessary by pulling on yoga straps suspended from the chin-up bar on either side of you, or simply by pulling on your thighs. Make sure to lower yourself down to the start position under control without any assistance. Sequence this movement between sets of squats or deadlifts for the best effect.
5. High and Low-Platform Wrist Curl
To take wrist curls a step further, try doing them seated on a platform. An adjustable step unit such as the Atlantis Leg Platform is great for this. Adjusting the height of the platform can influence the overload – a high-platform position where the hips are higher than the knees will overload the contracted position, and a low-platform position where the hips are lower than the knees will overload the stretched position.
6. Cable and Leg Curl Tibialis Raise
Everyone does work for the back part of the lower leg (the calves), but hardly anyone works the front. The tibialis anterior, the major shin muscle, is often neglected, which is a shame because a significant discrepancy between this muscle and your calves can limit growth.
Several loading options exist for the tibialis raise. Some people have access to a dynamic axial rotation device (DARD), but most can just use a resistance band. I offer two other options that involve a cable and a prone leg curl machine.
7. Half Foam Roller Calf Raise
Performing calf raises on a rounded platform will increase the range of motion and give you a greater stretch at the bottom and a greater contraction at the top, and as an added bonus, is more comfortable.
You could spend a few bucks and pick up a calf block platform made by Body Solid or you can try this inexpensive method. It involves a firm, half-foam roller and a yoga mat. Wrap the foam roller with a yoga mat to prevent slipping and then place it on just about any calf machine with a flat platform. That's all there is to it! Reduce the weight a bit and do them in bare feet. You'll love the feeling.
8. Cable Crossover with a Twist
Try this cable crossover variation for a serious pec contraction. Instead of D-handles, use two independent rope attachments on a cable crossover unit. Grab them with a supinated (palms facing forward) grip and then basically rotate your arms from a thumbs-up to a thumbs-down position as you bring your hands together. Don't go too heavy!
On the Road to Growth
You don't need to reinvent the wheel – just add a new tweak or two to your everyday staples. It's a fresh stimulus that will pay off in some much-deserved gains in size and strength.