Build Muscle With Less Popular Lifts
Most lifters live on a steady diet of traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises. Mastering these exercises and using progressive overload is mandatory if you want to build muscle.
But what got you where you are today likely isn't what you need to be doing to build more high-performance strength and muscle. Sticking points on your big lifts and years of pounding your joints with redundant movement patterns leads to plateaus, pain, and even injury. Mentally, you grow stale and end up with diminishing results.
If you've been in the lifting game for a long time, take an unconventional approach to get unstuck. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it'll get you started. Take a look.
Read the descriptions of each exercise below to get the full details.
The Safety Bar squat is a joint-friendly way to build big wheels. The hand position allows you to hammer your legs even if you have painful shoulders and the mobility of a pitchfork. Your torso remains more upright, which it's usually more comfortable for those with a history of low-back pain and poor hip mobility.
You won't initially be as strong using a Safety Bar because of the unfamiliar loading pattern. But over time, research has found strength, sprinting speed, and vertical jump performance with those using the Safety Squat bar almost identical to those doing a typical barbell squat. (1)
Add it to your training for 8 to 12-week training blocks, or use it next time you're dealing with an upper-body injury.
Even lifters with great form can struggle with low-back pain and stiffness from barbell deadlifts. So to reap the muscle-building benefits of heavy deadlifts and minimize low-back stress, add the trap bar Romanian deadlift to your training.
The trap bar deadlift lets you keep the weight in line with your body, reducing shearing forces on your spine. You may find yourself going much heavier than you could with a traditional dumbbell RDL.
Your lats also work double-time to stabilize the trap bar. Lat activation on hip hinge exercises is crucial since they aid in spinal stabilization primarily through the thoracolumbar fascia.
The Z-press is a seated overhead press. Make this a staple in your training and you'll optimize overhead pressing mechanics, build better trunk and overhead control, and add size to your traps, rhomboids, and delts.
Ideally, start with dumbbells or kettlebells, then work up to a barbell as your strength and stability improve.
- Sit with an upright torso and keep your chin in a neutral position.
- Extend your legs in front of you. They can be slightly out to the side but not full spread-eagle.
- Press the weights overhead slowly, aiming to prevent swaying through your trunk.
- Pause at the top of each rep in a joint-stacked position. The weights should be directly over the wrist, elbow, and torso, not in front of your body.
The Pendlay row is surprisingly lower-back friendly. Rather than performing each barbell row from a hang, the barbell rests on the ground. This eliminates the stretch reflex on the bottom of the rep and, overall, leads to a much "cleaner" rep execution than most barbell rows.
- Approach the bar like you would a conventional deadlift, but get your hips a little higher.
- Crush the bar with your grip. Brace your core.
- While holding the spinal position, aggressively pull the barbell to your sternum.
- Lower the bar to the ground, get tight, and repeat.
- Keep your torso parallel to the floor. As you load Pendlay rows heavier, you may get some elevation of your shoulders, but it should be kept minimal, and you must always keep a neutral spine position.
Barbell rows work best with heavy, low-rep sets (4 sets of 3-5 reps) and moderate rep sets (3 sets of 6-8 reps).
The standard barbell bent-over row tends to beat the snot out of most lifters' backs. The trap bar is a much better option for most, especially if you're rowing using classic muscle-building rep schemes where low-back fatigue becomes a limiting factor.
You can easily get into a row position with a trap bar even if you have the flexibility and mobility of a cinder block. Also, the resistance stays closer to midline with your torso, making it easier to hold position even as your body fatigues.
The neutral-grip position allows for a greater range of motion than a conventional barbell row. When you contract a muscle under a greater range of motion, it becomes a more effective muscle builder.
The wider handle placement on the trap bar creates a greater stretch on your posterior chain muscles. Your traps, rhomboids, lats, and rear delts are all under more tension and get a greater stretch throughout the entire rep.
The body saw is a hybrid between a plank and an ab wheel rollout. It works incredibly well because it's both an isometric and anti-extension core exercise. It helps you reduce back pain while providing a ton of muscle-building tension in your abs.
- Put your feet in a suspension trainer 6-12 inches off the ground. If you don't have a suspension trainer, you can put your toes on a towel over a smooth surface, use furniture sliders or workout discs.
- Start in a plank position with your joints stacked (elbows under your shoulders).
- Squeeze your fists and glutes to maximize tension from head to toe.
- While pushing your elbows into the ground, move your torso forward and back like a saw. As your torso slides back behind your elbows, you create a ton of tension in your abs. When your torso slides forward, your abs contract to create more stability.
The body saw is both an isometric and anti-extension core exercise, meaning it can help reduce back pain while providing tons of stretch to build your abs at the same time.
Try three sets of 30-45 seconds with 30 seconds rest, and let me know how it goes.
- Meldrum R et al. A Comparison of Back Squat & Safety Squat Bar on Measures of Strength, Speed, and Power in NCAA Division I Baseball Players. International Journal of Sport Science. 2018;8(5):137-144.
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