“Variation is the key.”
How many gurus have uttered those words? How many times have you heard them? Or repeated them? I bet that next to “pass the ketchup,” they’re the most repeated words in the English language. Well, maybe not, but close.
It seems as though everyone is so hell bent on mixing things around that no one ever makes any progress. Why? They never stay with anything long enough to give it an honest shot!
Not here, though. Not you. You’re a T-man. You’ve gotta know better than that… don’t you? But, don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge proponent of allowing for diversity, and it’s really no surprise that most “gurus” are. The body is, after all, a dreadfully adaptive organism. Knowing this, we try to switch things up in an attempt to keep the gains coming by staying ahead of the body’s so-called learning curve.
If you’ve been at this whole weightlifting thing for a while, you likely learned long ago that you make better progress when you add some variety to your overall scheme. Chances are many of you regularly incorporate a little of “the spice of life” into your program in some form or another.
It could be a strict periodization method you follow, allowing for cycles focusing on either strength or hypertrophy. Or maybe you have a core group of exercises you never change, only making the occasional slight variations. Could be you’d rather manipulate the number of sets and reps you perform in order to achieve a “different” stimulus. Perhaps you switch programs completely every 6-8 weeks in order to “keep the body guessing,” as is the current trend.
Maybe you’ve become a virtual expert on variations and alternate exercises to “hit the muscle from every possible angle” as the world’s greatest pseudo-scientists – gym rats – often advise.
Hell, mess around with iron long enough and you’ll likely give all of these options a shot. You possibly already have – and why not? They’re all effective methods, both tried and true. But there are others.
Let me ask you this: Have you ever tried adding some of the spice during an exercise? Switching gears right in the middle of a movement? I bet it sounds a little strange; that’s probably because it is. However, it’s also a highly effective way to add a kick to your training, as well as a few pounds of muscle to your body.
No, that’s not a typo, you read it correctly. What exactly is a compound-isolation movement, you ask? One part oxymoron, two parts kick-ass training method, a CIM is an exercise that begins as a compound, multi-joint movement and then – right smack dab in the middle – switches to an iso to hit a desired body part. Depending on the actual goal of the training, the movement could start out with the isolation movement first, and then finishing off with the compound. In either case, the transition occurs in the pause between the eccentric and concentric portions of the whole movement.
I recently tried to show some of these movements to a guy at my gym. He responded by looking utterly pissed off and asking, “Why in the name of bloody hell would anyone DO that? Just do the exercise, kid. Do you have ADD or something?”
That’s a direct quote. At first I was a little offended about the ADD thing and the fact that people are always trying to pass me some Ritalin. Anyway, I decided to explain my madness, hoping I could elucidate it properly. It’s not really all that complicated once you’re thinking about it. It all has to do with mechanics.
The first factor to consider is the number of muscles involved. Unless you have some very bizarre strength imbalance, you’ll be able to use much more weight for a compound movement than you could for an isolation movement, assuming that both lifts use the same primary move. Exactly how much more weight will depend on exactly what muscles you’re working, as well as the individual in question.
Another factor that we must take into account is eccentric or negative strength. Poliquin has written that eccentric strength can be up 175% greater than concentric strength; although for most trainees the difference is much lower than that (depending on training age, etc). It’s been shown that, generally, eccentric strength is roughly 50-75% greater than concentric strength in most non-elite trainees.
Compound-isolations come as a result of the two above factors. We know that you’re stronger in a compound movement than an isolation movement. We also know that you’re stronger negatively than you are positively. So, in order to put this knowledge to some muscle-building use, we “change it up.” That is, you perform a compound movement concentrically, and then switch in the middle and execute the eccentric portion of an isolation exercise which relies on the same primary mover. Because of the mechanical advantages inherent to each part of the lift, you’ll hopefully be able to use a weight that is significantly challenging in both the positive and negative phases of the exercise.
The Sweetest Things You’re Not Doing (aside from that blonde at the gym)
Up, Up, and, um… Down – The Modified Fly-Away
The Fly-Away is a Jerry Telle exercise that crosses a dumbbell press and fly. You begin the movement by pressing the weight up, just as you would during a normal dumbbell bench press. Once you reach the top, pause for a second, and lower the weight with the eccentric motion of a dumbbell flye. Remember to focus on flexing the pecs throughout the entire movement, as it’s very easy to allow the anterior deltoid to take over. Using only a slight (no more than 10 degrees) angle may help. If you don’t cry uncontrollably after your second set, you’re not using enough weight.
My Big Fat Greek Deadlift? – Another “RDL”
When I was playing football, I had a coach who was Greek. As such, he insisted that anything worth anything had originated in Greece; all evidence to the contrary was simply the result of an idea having been stolen from the Greeks and passed off as someone else’s achievement. That includes just about everything that had to do with strength training.
I, of course, maintained than many cultures – such as my own, the Romans – had contributed much to the world. Although he staunchly refused to listen to a damn word I said, my coach did teach me a pretty kick-ass lift, which he called a “Spartan Deadlift.” I have no idea where it originally came from, but I demand that if you decide to use it, you must call it a Roman Deadlift – specifically to piss him off. Anyway, here’s the lift:
As you can imagine, it starts off much like a regular deadlift. Load up a bar, drop down and do your deadlift thing. Here’s where it gets “tricky.” Rather than just dropping the bar to the floor, lower it – under strict form – using the eccentric motion of a stiff-legged deadlift. Obviously the deadlift is the compound movement and the SLDL is the isolation part of the lift, as it primarily targets the hamstrings (although it’s not an “isolation” movement in the strictest sense of the word).
My own personal addition is this: I also want you to use plates no larger than 25-pound Olympic plates. The smaller plates will force you to squat lower to the ground, increasing the ROM and as well the involvement of the quads.
Go in with Guns a’blazin’ – Enter the Zottman Curl
I have no funny story for this exercise. I stole it from Poliquin – sue me. (I’m kidding, Charles. Don’t sue me. No, seriously; please don’t.) For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, here’s a rundown of the exercise. It begins as an offset dumbbell curl just as mundane as any other; but suddenly – without warning – it changes! Scary, eh? At the top of the movement, pronate the hand, and lower the weight using the eccentric portion of a reverse curl.
If you have a training partner, you have a variation of this movement available to you: the barbell Zottman curl. Simply curl the weight to the apex of the movement and have your partner hold it while you quickly “spin” your hands. Then take hold of the bar with your hands pronated and reverse curl it down. When I’ve got a spotter, I much prefer this version because it allows you to use a greater load.
This is an ‘unusual’ CIM in that the isolation movement, the biceps curl, is a “stronger” movement than the compound reverse curl. Regardless, the Zottman still allows us to take advantage of appropriate load and mechanical advantage.
Learning from the Master – TC’s California Skull-Crusher
Here’s a bit of vintage T-Mag for ya. This movement was introduced in the first installment of the “Poetry in Motion: The Testosterone Exercise of the Month” series from an early edition of Testosterone from, I don’t know, 1952 or something. Rather than try to describe it myself, here is a quote from the original article to explain it for you.
“To do these properly, get in the same position as you would for a close-grip bench press, using either an EZ-curl bar or a standard Olympic bar. Press the bar directly over the chest, keeping the elbows close to the body. Then, instead of lowering the bar back to the starting position, lower the bar to your forehead as if you were doing a skull crusher, or the eccentric portion of a lying triceps extension.
“Here comes the tricky part. After you lower the bar to your forehead (or a half-inch above it so you don’t cave the sucker in), pull the bar back to the starting position of the close-grip bench press and do rep number 2.
You’re going to be much, much stronger in the close-grip bench press part of the movement than you are in the skull-crusher part of the movement, but that’s okay. To fatigue your triceps big-time, use a very slow tempo for the lowering part of the movement. By the time you reach your fifth or sixth rep, the close-grip bench press part of the movement will get progressively more difficult.”
See? I’m not the only crazy bastard who proposes CIMs. Obviously, the close grip bench press is the compound movement as it hits the chest and tris, and the skull crusher is the isolation and hits only the latter.
By using movements like the above, we’re able to take make full use of the advantages of both compound and isolation lifts. You also take advantage of the mechanics of the body to use a weight that is truly appropriate.
Think about this for a moment: in a standard movement, the load may be suitable concentrically, but is really far too light eccentrically. Consequently, each whole rep allows for much greater total fiber recruitment and overall muscle stimulus.
Hybrid lifts, like compound-isolation movements, are designed to make use of certain mechanical advantages of the body by changing in the middle. However, while the following lifts have many characteristics similar to the exercises listed above, they are not true CIMs. As mentioned earlier, CIMs rely on the same primary mover for the duration of the entire rep. This is not the case with hybrid lifts, and because they are missing this important component, a different classification is necessary.
No one Home? Tri-Back Later
It seems very odd to me that more people don’t intentionally pair back and triceps together when making up a split routine. While it may not seem so, many exercises for the back also work the tris; that is, although not the prime mover of humeral extension, the triceps (especially the long head) is a synergist to the lats. To take advantage of this, you can use various movements, such as the following hybrids to fully hit both.
This is one of my favorite hybrid lifts, albeit a bit simple. Attach a lat bar to a high cable pulley and begin with the concentric movement of a cable triceps pressdown. Seems easy enough, right? Okay, keep reading. At the bottom of the movement, as your triceps lock out, you switch it up and execute the eccentric portion of a straight arm pulldown. This is a strange one and you’ll have to toy around with the weight a little bit. Chances are you may be able to handle more concentrically with the tris than you can eccentrically on the pulldown, as this movement places your lats in a mechanically weak position. Again, it really will depend on individual strength levels. To solve this, simply use a slower concentric on the triceps extension.
While I really enjoy and get good results from the Tri-Rise, there are some trainees who maintain that they don’t feel that their triceps are getting enough stimulation. Because of a tendency to do more pushing than pulling (quite often resulting in strength and/or size imbalances), many people will have to use a load that is too light to really work the triceps, even concentrically.
This may be a problem for you; if that is the case, or if the Tri-Rise simply doesn’t seem like it would be challenging enough, this next exercise should suit your fancy.
This is a variation of TC’s Cali ‘Crusher movement that involves the back. It seems complicated at first but it’s an amazing lift and a great way to beat the crap out of yourself. Here is a breakdown of the movement.
1) Begin in the “finished” position of a close-grip bench press with the bar on your chest and perform the concentric portion of the CG bench.
2) While you’re in the lockout position of the above, bring your arms slowly back and perform the negative phase of a barbell pullover.
3) From the bottom of the pullover position, allow the arms to fully bend, and then execute a “wrong-way” pullover (triceps extension).
4) When you lock out, bring your arms slightly forward, until the bar is resting over your head. Then, slowly control the weight, touching your forehead with the eccentric motion of a skull-crusher.
5) Pull the bar back to the starting position of the close-grip bench press.
The California Complex is very effective and solves the potential problem presented by the aformentioned Tri-Rise. While this too is a movement which places the lats in a mechanically weak position, keep in mind that the triceps are performing three separate lift to the back’s single eccentric movement. Your triceps – while they may be able to handle more weight (even concentrically) in any of the exercises individually than the lats could perform in the eccentric pullover – will be exposed to a greater total workload. The net result is that you can choose a load that will likely be appropriate for all phases of the exercise.
It’s not just a dance – the Funky Chicken
This is another bizarre goody that was first described by TC back in issue #68 of T-mag. The Funky Chicken, while probably in the running for the most strangely-named exercise, ever, is an effective shoulder hybrid that also involves the biceps. It’s a four part movement that’s executed in the following manner:
1) Begin by performing a standard dumbbell hammer curl
2) When you reach the apex of the curl, flare your elbows out in the motion of a bent-arm lateral raise.
3) From this position, straighten the arms until they are fully extended
4) Slowly perform the eccentric portion of a normal straight-arm lateral raise
The hammer curl is really just a method of getting the dumbbells to the correct height; chances are you won’t be able to use enough weight to really challenge the biceps. By executing the bent-arm lateral raise from a higher starting point, we remove the part of the range of motion in which there is the least resistance to the deltoids, shortening total TUT and allowing you to perform the movement with greater weight. Also, you can use a considerably greater load during the bent arm raise concentrically than you could with your arm straight, due to the effect that lever length will have on the ability to handle the load in question.
Again we’re able to take advantage of greater eccentric strength by performing the concentric portion of a bent arm raise concentric with a weight that’s challenging, and then performing the negative phase of the straight arm. The main effect is that it will allow us to create unbelievable overload on the medial deltoid during the straight arm eccentric. I promise you, your shoulders will hate you for this… until they get huge, that is; then they might send you a thank you card, or maybe a lovely fruit basket.
As we’ve seen, both hybrid lifts and compound-isolation movements have several aspects which can be of great advantage in terms of muscle growth. After all, by actually making a muscle work in both phases of a lift, we create a significantly greater amount of microtrauma as compared to normal lifts. Properly applied, this can lead to phenomenal gains in muscle size. Here’s why:
1) In addition to reaping the benefits of both compound and isolation exercises, using variations like those presented above also allows us to profit from heavy negative training, which has been shown to allow for tremendous increases in strength; often significantly greater than heavy concentric training in which the load is only moderately challenging eccentrically.
2) The increased microtrauma that accompanies heavy eccentric training leads to a greater release of some of our favorite hormones; namely IGF-1, Growth Hormone, and Testosterone. Essentially, the eccentrically challenging portion of compound-isos and hybrids helps us create a more anabolic environment in the body.
Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest. If so, and enough of you express interest to the editors, I’ll submit a program that incorporates all the movements you just read about. Regardless, try to start using some of these exercises. They’re damn effective, and at the very least, they’ll cause you to start thinking about how to modify other lifts to your advantage.
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5) Checking references is for losers!
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