You can learn a lot about building muscle when your car runs out of gas.
Visualize what your body position was like the last time you had to push a car. You probably started out in a very good position: arms extended, body rigid, legs flexed appropriately.
Then the fun began. You bent your arms, pushed with your forearms, hips, back, and shoulders. Your body, which is wired to be efficient, altered your leverage both consciously and unconsciously, to allow you to endure. Without knowing it, you made use of bigger muscles as the smaller ones fatigued.
Taking note of this simple process, maybe we can add a new tool to our training.
With Leverage Alteration Training you shift into a stronger, safer position as muscles fatigue that allows you to extend the movements for greater hypertrophy, strength, or endurance.
Advantages of Leverage Alteration Training (LAT)
- Focuses primarily on compound exercises. Big lifts = big gains.
- Exhausts the target movement and motor units thoroughly.
- Allows the body to get used to handling more weight safely for longer periods of time.
- Provides a healthy dose of variety, thereby extending the adaptation curve.
- Opens up a huge potential for creativity (boredom is a killer!).
Ways to Successfully Employ LAT
- The A & B standard. Do two exercises back to back. An example is the front squat-to-back squat combination below.
- The A & B staggered. Do sets of exercise A till exhausted, then do sets of a more mechanically advantaged exercise B. The old school method of starting off a chest workout with sets of incline presses before moving onto flat and decline exercises is an example.
- String together a chain into a conditioning giant set. Complexes are the rage today in the met-con world. Combine LAT principles with giant sets for conditioning workouts that make sense.
- Alternate opposing muscles. Classic push-pull. A set of presses alternated with opposing sets of rows, or sets of dips combined with chin-ups.
Some scenarios where LAT training is ideal.
- When bodyweight-only training is the only option. Stuck at home or only have access to a crappy hotel “fitness center?” Use LAT principles to devise kick-ass bodyweight-only exercise combinations, like the push-up to scapular push-up described later on in this article.
- Shorten rest periods for conditioning. Smart bodybuilders have figured out that shortening the rest interval between sets increases the calorie expenditure of workouts. LAT principles make it possible to do this and still train with effective loads.
- Lengthen rest periods for size and strength. To lift more weight, you need to rest more between sets. Alternating opposing muscle groups (pushing and pulling) allows you to double the rest time between sets of the same exercise, while still maintaining the same total number of sets per workout.
For example, perform a set of 3RM bench presses, rest two minutes, and then perform a set of 3RM chin-ups. Rest two minutes before returning to another set of 3RM bench presses. The rest between work sets is two minutes across the board, but the rest between sets of the same exercise is actually four minutes. More rest usually translates into increased strength.
- Focus on a weak muscle group or movement. LAT techniques are a fantastic way to thoroughly trash a lot of motor units to bring up a stubborn weak point.
- Recondition an injured area. Often you can’t go “guns blazing” into an injured bodypart or muscle group. While a set of heavy shoulder presses may make your shoulders scream, rear deltoid raises to front deltoid raises to lateral raises may allow you to blast shoulders pain-free.
- Focus on extended endurance for your specific sport. Condition-heavy sports like MMA, grappling, and judo require athletes go full tilt for several minutes at a time. Extended set LAT workouts mimic these conditions better than the standard 30-45 second time under tension.
But the real beauty of Leverage Alteration Training is that you don’t have to “ditch” your current training split to incorporate a few extended sets. LAT can fit seamlessly into any program to provide much-needed variety or stimulation.
Here are a few favorites.
- Front squat to back squat: This method is hopefully self-explanatory. The front squat is performed first for a predetermined number of repetitions. Watch for weakened form or fighting for stability, at which point you simply re-rack the weight and with little rest, move into back squats. You should feel safer, more stable, and able to continue training your legs. There’s no need to go to failure here – you won’t need it!
- Sissy squats to front squats: The late Vince Gironda popularized the sissy squat. The barbell is held on the front of the shoulders, usually with the heels elevated on blocks. With the hips kept locked, slowly bend the knees, allowing the upper body to lay back like a bodybuilding limbo contest. The stress should be felt on the front of the thighs. Flex your quads hard and return to a vertical position. Repeat this effort until the targeted number of repetitions is reached.
Now shift to a front squat, lowering your hips and sitting back, keeping your shins vertical. Go from lockout to stretched position in one smooth movement. The front squat will feel different because your posterior thigh will be relatively fresh, while the frontal thigh will be fatigued and warm.
- Sissy squats to front squat to back squat: This is a three-step process combining the two methods above. After the sissy and front squat combo, re-rack the weight and move to a back squat. Expect some ridiculous soreness.
- Back squat to box squat: The idea here is to take advantage of the massive systemic stimulating effects of the squat, then have some training partners set a box behind you to finish off with some box squats. Sitting back onto a box forces good technique; relieving tension on the frontal thighs allows you to continue this valuable motion. The reduced tension also forces you to recruit your posterior chain as you lean forward to get off the box to the standing position, not unlike a fat guy getting off a couch.
- Stiff legged deadlift (SLDL) to Romanian deadlift: The SLDL is usually done with a slight bend in the knees. The weight is lowered towards the ground and sometimes the trainee stands on a small bench or block to increase the range of motion. This deadlift variation puts the hamstrings and entire posterior chain at a leverage disadvantage, while grip failure, something that usually occurs in the traditional deadlift, is less of an issue.
Perform SLDL’s until form becomes even mildly compromised, then reset with a wider stance. The trick is now to “force” the butt back as if trying to touch the other side of the room with your behind. The back should remain flat and the knees bent. Keeping mental composure along with flawless form is of the utmost importance.
- Bulgarian split squat to walking lunge: Here’s another combo that uses a sub-maximal weight for dramatic effects. The traditional Bulgarian split squat requires elevating the rear leg on a bench and squatting on one leg. Carrying dumbbells at your sides as opposed to a barbell on your back keeps the center of gravity lower, thereby increasing the safety.
Train each leg individually, starting with the weaker leg. The emphasis should be on keeping the torso upright, and forcing the action at the hip more than the knee. Upon completion, keep hold of the dumbbells and reset for walking lunges. The distance is up to you, but now the lever is less severe and the balance significantly better.
- Dumbbell fly to dumbbell bench press: The dumbbell fly to dumbbell bench press is a classic example of altering levers to get more “value” out of an exercise. We’ve all heard stories of athletes using too heavy a weight in the fly and hurting their shoulders. Here’s a chance to retain the value of the exercise while reducing some of the potential risks associated with it.
Using a flat bench or incline and holding a pair of dumbbells, bend the arms to 90 degrees and perform the dumbbell fly motion until you reach a point where the bottom or stretched position becomes unwieldy and unstable. Now it’s time to lock out the ‘bells and regroup. Take a breath, reset, and start doing the dumbbell bench press. Conclude the exercise when you’ve hit the prescribed range of repetitions.
- Incline to flat bench press: There’s nothing magical about this combination. Years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Venice Beach gang would precede the standard bench press with inclines after they discovered that super heavy benches alone didn’t lead to balanced pec development. This combination can be done on an adjustable bench or two separate benches if you have the equipment available.
- Wide to narrow grip press: This was a strategy used by Dorian Yates and scores of athletes before him. Simply start with a wide grip on the barbell and move your grip in a bit each set.
- Dips to pushups: Dipping can be done on rings or a standard dipping station. Moving from dipping to any type of pushup changes the leverage significantly.
- Pushup to scapular shrug: A simple set of pushups usually is finished when your triceps get fatigued, but you should still be able to maintain the lockout position. It’s in this position that you can do scapular shrugs. Relax the serratus muscle and allow your torso to ratchet down and inch, then tighten it again to a strong aligned position.
- Pull-ups to lat shrugs: Failure in pull-ups or chin-ups is usually failure of the elbow flexors. You can continue to exercise the lats by shortening the distance between the upper arm and torso by performing a series of shrugs. Simply focus on tightening the muscles around the armpit and it will incline the body slightly, allowing you to stimulate the largest muscles of the upper body more significantly.
- Hammer row to lat shrug: This exercise requires the use of a Hammer machine or similar apparatus. Having the chest supported is a big plus and allows you to drive the pulling muscles of the upper body to a more thorough level of stimulation. Once the upper arms become fatigued, the shoulder structure can be pulled back in a type of shrug to isolate the function of the latissimus muscles.
- One-armed dumbbell row to shrug: Similar to the previous Hammer row example, the arm flexors may be the first to fail, but the shoulders can be shrugged back for several repetitions. Bracing your knee and arm on a strong bench helps protect the low back.
- Straight-arm pullover to bent-armed pullover: Keeping the arms straight during the pullover severely limits the weight that can be lifted due to the increased lever length. Bending the arms will allow repetitions, and stimulation of the latissimus and pectorals, to continue. Depending on your strength levels, you may fail because of triceps fatigue. Feel free to experiment.
- Pull-ups to inverted rows: These are best performed in a power rack. Set the pins in the rack so that the barbell is slightly higher than arms length if you were laying supine on the floor. At a chinning station, perform standard chin-ups to exhaustion, return to the power rack, lie on the floor, and perform inverted rows to exhaustion.
- Bent over row to shrug: This one’s a natural. When you reach your limit on bent over rows, recover to an upright position and continue with a set of shrugs. The low back stress will be minimized and the muscles of the upper back can continue to be hit even though the elbow flexors are fatigued.
- Straight-arm laterals to bent-armed laterals: Simply shortening the lever arm by bending the upper arm will allow you to continue lifting the dumbbells in good form. The bend should be at ninety degrees to ensure some moderate level of uniformity. Always begin with the arms nearly straight; when good form becomes impossible or hazardous, shift to the lever-optimized position.
- Press behind the neck to military press: The behind the neck press isn’t appropriate for trainees who lack shoulder flexibility, but for others it’s a great exercise. Perform the behind the neck press strictly, and when you sense your form degrading, lower the bar to the front of the chest and continue the set with military presses.
- Military press to upward shrug: Moving from an overhead press to an overhead ‘shrug’ is a progression that’s best started with a lighter weight. Don’t work to failure – stop when form is diminishing. Lock out the barbell and continue with a slow, controlled set of vertical shrugs.
- Wide grip upright row to overhead press: Elevating a barbell by pulling it in an upright rowing motion is not an advantaged position. Before form breaks down (and injury risk increases), clean the weight to your shoulders and continue to exercise the deltoid muscles with an overhead/military press.
- Rear deltoid raise to front deltoid raise to lateral raise: Isolating the deltoids by performing raises in various directions has been done for years. The raise to the rear, while folded over at the hips, is usually the weakest position, and should be done first. The second motion would be raises to the front with the thumb pointing up. The last motion is the standard lateral raise (to the side).
- Hammer curl to dumbbell curl: The biceps are strongest in the supinated (palms up) position. Starting your biceps session with hammer curls means you’re slightly disadvantaged while the muscle is fresh. With the onset of fatigue, supinate the palms and activate the muscle more fully.
- Scott curl to body drag curl: This is an old Vince Gironda favorite. The elbows are braced with the Scott curl, forcing the biceps into an unfavorable position. When fatigue sets in, step away from the Scott bench and do body drag curls.
- Reverse curl to barbell curl: Again, the elbow flexors aren’t in an optimal position with a fully pronated (palms down) grip. When form becomes an issue, set the barbell down for a brief second and re-grip with a supinated grip. This stronger positioning will allow you to extend the set significantly.
- Triceps extension to close grip bench press: The lying triceps extension is a very strict movement that requires keeping the elbows pointed at the ceiling and focusing on the controlled extension of the lower arm. Maintaining proper form can be difficult, so shifting to a position where you’re stronger is not only more effective, but safer.
As you fatigue, lower the weight to sternum level and position your arms laterally beside your rib cage. Now continue to do a close grip press, being sure to lock out the elbow at the top of the movement.
- Behind the back wrist curl to finger curl: This is a cool one. Hold a barbell behind your back in a pronated grip. Keep your fingers clenched and do slow wrist curls. Your forearms will fatigue and your range of motion will decrease. Now let the bar roll down and unclench the fingers. Curl the weight with just the strength of the fingers until near failure.
- Standing calf raise to donkey calf raise: This exercise requires a dipping belt across the waist. Attach a dumbbell to the belt for resistance and start with the standard calf raise. The knees should be kept locked and loaded and focus on keeping the weight on the big toe side of the foot. When form begins to fail, bend forward and continue with the heel raises, unlocking the knees slightly as well. Continue while moving slower and pausing longer in the stretched position.
The Wrap Up
Obviously, there’s no way any sane individual would want to use all of these techniques in the same program. But if your training has been lagging or a certain bodypart in particular just isn’t responding, give Leverage Activation Training a shot.
Granted, LAT is nothing new, and it certainly isn’t fancy. It’s simply an old school tool for increased efficiency and oh-so important variation. As they say, variety is the spice of life – not to mention long-term training success.
Extend your sets. Extend your results!