When you hear "workout challenge," you probably think of training that leaves you panting on the floor and panic-texting your therapist. There's a place for that. But you can also challenge yourself by skilling up. You can learn a new exercise or training method that challenges your mind and your muscles in a whole new way.
Try out one of these six exercise variations or training methods each week. Run through the list, and soon you'll have skilled up and expanded your toolbox. Some may not be for you, but a couple of them may become new favorites.
- A1. Reverse curl on EZ-bar, no rest
- A2. Wide-grip curl on EZ-bar, no rest
- A3. Narrow-grip curl on EZ-bar
The biceps are best trained using the metabolic stress pathway. Mechanical drop sets are a great way to do it. This method consists of combining three variations of the same exercise as a superset. You use the same weight for all variations.
Start with the weakest variation and finish with the strongest. When you can no longer get reps in the first variation, you'll still be able to get a few in the second movement, then a few more on the third exercise.
It's similar to a drop set, but you "drop" to an easier exercise instead of dropping the weight. More variations for biceps here: mechanical drop sets.
Set up with only your upper back on the bench and do an isometric glute bridge while pressing. This creates more stabilization work for your upper back. It's great for those who rely on a large arch while benching or suffer from pancake butt. Mohawk optional but encouraged.
Overhead shrugs are unique because they promote more upward rotation of the scapula. The upper trapezius is still heavily involved, but overhead shrugs will also train the serratus anterior and lower traps harder than other shrugs.
As a bonus, overhead shrugs should help to improve positional strength for your other overhead lifts. It can be done standing, but kneeling eliminates leg drive and hits the stabilizing muscles of the core harder.
- Set the catches or pins of a rack at a height that requires a small amount of elbow flexion to get under the bar. Kneel on a foam mat for comfort. Use a wide (snatch-width) grip.
- Straighten your elbows to get into the starting position.
- Raise the bar as high as you can by reaching through your shoulder blades.
- Keep your elbows straight and allow your shoulder blades to lower with control.
Need more work for your traps? Try these shrug variations.
A deadlift that builds your quads? Yes! The heels-elevated trap bar deadlift encourages you to chase the tension while also reducing low-back strain. It's a bit more squatty, which means it can build your quads.
By elevating your heels using a plate or heel-wedge, you'll automatically notice a more upright torso and greater knee bend. If you measured the knee and hip angle, you'd come pretty darn close to the high-bar back squat.
Pull-ups are great when you have healthy elbows and shoulders, plenty of relative strength, and excellent overhead mobility. Unfortunately, only about 5% of lifters meet those qualifications.
Without optimal form, most lifters cheat on pull-ups and chin-ups and turn this vertical pull into a glorified arm movement (or – gulp – a kip). They may race through their pull-ups to hit the right numbers but never even feel their muscles contract. This is terrible for muscle growth.
The jackknife pull-up solves these problems. It's a vertical pull that supports your feet. This reduces the load and gives you a ton of control over the movement. If you struggle with shoulder or elbow pain or can't do 10-12 controlled reps for chin-ups or pull-ups, this variation will be better for hypertrophy.
Program it like you would any vertical pull. Here's how to do them:
- Use a secured barbell in a rack, Smith machine, or rings.
- Elevate your feet on a bench or box.
- Bend your knees to 90 degrees.
- Engage the shoulders first by depressing them. This will make the pull-up a back-dominant movement.
- Pull yourself up while driving your elbows down.
Jackknife pull-ups give you an infinite number of options in adjusting your technique for optimal form. You can control the tempo and make slight changes in body angle to customize the exercise to you.
Pectorals have a fairly high ratio of fast-twitch fibers – around 60 percent – and they can easily be stretched under load. This makes both the mechanical stress and muscle damage methods very effective.
On several chest exercises (presses, cable flyes, crossovers, pec deck, dips), you can also keep a high tension on the muscle fibers for most of the range of motion.
You also have options where including a hold at the peak contraction will be effective. As such, the pecs are one of the easiest muscles to train since they'll respond well to most training methods.
Both mechanical and metabolic stress methods will work equally well. That's why one of my favorite methods for the pecs is the 6-12-25 method by Charles Poliquin. It uses both the mechanical and metabolic stress pathways.
It consists of a triple set (three exercises done in a row with minimal rest) for the same muscle group. First, you go heavy for 6 reps on one exercise, then you do an intermediate rep range (12 reps) with another, and in the last exercise you do high reps (25).
It would look something like this:
- A1. Dumbbell Bench: Do the eccentric or lowering phase fairly slowly (around 3 seconds). Exaggerate the stretch in the bottom by lifting the chest up and pulling the weights down. Do 6 reps.
- A2. Dumbbell Flyes: Don't go all the way up because there's no tension at the top. Go from the full stretch to around three-fourths of the way up. Exaggerate the stretch and hold the bottom position for 1-2 seconds per rep. Do 12 reps.
- A3. Cable Crossover: Do your reps with an isokinetic method: control both the way down and the way up, then squeeze at the peak contraction for a second or two. Do 25 reps.