Don’t you just hate those stubborn body parts that never seem to grow? This “stubbornness” is usually caused by underlying issues, or more accurately, underlying muscles.
You may not have considered it, but you can improve a body part by training deep muscles that you really can’t see. And no, I’m not crazy! I call these the “pop ’em out muscles” since they aid in “popping out” the muscles we bomb everyday in the gym and make them look larger and more developed.
I only wish it was as simple as watching Angelina Jolie run in the movie Tomb Raider (and by the way, this is one of the only benefits of cardio as far as I’m concerned), but unfortunately it’s not that easy! The pop ’em out muscles that I’m referring to are the brachialis, pec minor and soleus, and if trained correctly, they’ll pop out your arms, your chest, and your calves.
Arms: Target the Brachialis!
The brachialis is a large muscle beneath the biceps brachii originating on the anterior shaft (lower half) of the humerus and inserting onto the coronoid process of the ulna. It functions to stabilize and reinforce the anterior surface of the elbow joint as well as flex the elbow joint (Hole & Koos, 1991).
According to Charles Poliquin in his book The Poliquin Principles, the brachialis is often a weak link in arm development. He states that many bodybuilders have found that adding specific brachialis exercises to their workouts can increase their arm size by as much as one inch in a month! So how do we target this bad boy? Read on!
Enter the Reverse Curl
During an arm curl, the biceps brachii and the brachialis share almost equal work in elbow flexion, yet as soon as you reverse the grip, the brachialis carries most of the load and is thus isolated (although the brachioradialis will get stressed as well.) However, pronation reduces biomechanical efficiency, thus only allowing you to reverse curl anywhere from 66 to 82% of a regular arm curl (Kostek & Knortz, 1980).
In other words, with your palms facing down, your strength drops by up to a third compared to your palms facing up. Obviously, you’ll have to use a lighter load (Siff & Verkhoshansky, 1999).
Speed also plays a role. One abstract revealed that velocity can influence elbow flexor recruitment (Kulig et al., 2001). The biceps brachii was found to be preferentially recruited during the fast protocol while the brachialis was found to be preferentially recruited during the slow protocol. Also, eccentric (negative) training influences the recruitment of fast twitch fibers – which have the greatest potential for hypertrophy (Antonio, 2000). This suggests that we should use a fairly slow tempo, particularly during the eccentric contraction.
1 – Change in signal intensity of biceps brachii and brachialis during
fast and slow exercise protocols.
When performing the reverse curl, it’s important to grasp the weight tightly (use an EZ-Curl bar to reduce wrist strain) and keep the wrists straight and firm throughout. The added bonus to performing the reverse curl in this manner is that the wrists and fingers work isometrically to maintain a neutral wrist position and hold the weight, thus leading to strength development of all the wrist flexors (Kostek & Knortz, 1980).
I.F.B.B. pro, Nelson Da Silva, demonstrates the seated EZ-Bar reverse
curl on a preacher bench.
I recommend using the preacher bench to maintain strict form and reduce cheating. Position your elbows shoulder-width apart about midway down on the pad. It’s not necessary to jam your armpits against the preacher bench; this position promotes rounding and could cause you to strain your upper back. Make sure to sit as tall as possible with your chest held high and start with your arms fully extended.
Grab an EZ-curl bar, hands shoulder-width apart and pronated (palms down), and curl the weight upward. Stop shy of reaching vertical to keep constant tension on the muscle. As explained above, this is one exercise where you want to emphasize slow movement. Use a tempo of 5010* which reflects the eccentric-concentric ratio (5:1) used in the Kulig et al. study. This exercise should be performed every four to five days (Nosaka & Clarkson, 1996).
[*Please see our FAQ section if you’re unfamiliar with tempo prescriptions.]
Hey, what about the brachioradialis and the biceps brachii?
Don’t think I forgot those bad boys. The mid-incline hammer curl is a great movement to stress the brachioradialis and the long head of the biceps. It will contribute quite nicely to adding some size to your arms.
To perform this exercise, simply lay back on an incline bench set at a 45-degree angle. Use a semi-supinated grip (i.e. a neutral grip where your palms are facing each other), curl the weight upward from a straight arm position (full extension) to as far as you can go (full flexion.) It’s crucial to keep the shoulders back and the elbows pointed down as long as possible (they’ll naturally rotate upward near the top of the movement). Another important point is to keep the head back and neck straight. Bending your head forward to check out your form in the mirror may compromise strength!
Elbow Flexor Prescription
Reverse EZ-Bar Preacher Curls
Rest: 120 seconds
Mid-Incline Hammer Curls
Rest: 90 seconds
Chest: Nail the Pec Minor!
The pectoralis minor is a thin, flat muscle lying beneath the larger pectoralis major. It extends laterally and upward, originating from the sternal ends of the upper ribs (3rd-5th) and inserting onto the coracoid process of the scapula. The pec minor pulls the scapula forward and downward and can raise the ribs, thus aiding in forceful inhalation.
The following tip is derived from former Ironman contributor and author of several strength books, Fred Koch. To increase chest size, you have to train both the pec major and minor. The minor tends to get overlooked since it’s not as glamorous as the major. Koch notes that the great upper-chest development of swimmers is due to the pec minor which is responsible for half of the freestyle stroke. So how do you train the pec minor without getting wet?
Perform limited-range dumbbell pullovers on a flat bench
According to Koch, the key to this exercise is to keep the elbows close to the head (within the lines of the shoulders) and to use a short range of motion (ROM). If you have a hard time getting into this position, consider Active Release Techniques (ART) for the following muscles: subscapularis, latismus dorsi, teres major, long head of the triceps brachii, and serratus anterior. Visit ActiveRelease.com to find a provider in your area.
Also, according to ART practitioner, Dr. Mark Lindsay, a sling pattern exists between the pectoralis minor and the short head of the biceps. In addition, Dr. Lindsay has noticed a tendency of the pec minor to adhere to the major. In order for the pec minor to function properly, you should free up any adhesions that may exist. If ART isn’t an option, you can always stretch your lats by simply hanging from a chin-up bar with one arm. (Scratching your armpit or eating a banana is optional.)
Keep in mind that in most shoulder exercises, the pec minor functions as a stabilizer for the scapula, and not as a prime mover. In the limited-range pullover, however, it acts as a prime mover. Traditionally, this exercise has been touted to improve winging scapulae, but in reality, it does the opposite. The lats are also involved in this movement, and they actually end up pulling your shoulder blades apart! (Poliquin, 1997)
Now, you often hear horror stories about the pullover exercise and, to a certain extent, they’re true. For instance, according to Durall et al: “…subacromial impingement can also be exacerbated by exercises that involve excessive flexion. The pullover exercise performed supine with free weights or on a machine forces the rotator cuff tendons and bursa against the undersurface of the acromion when the arms are hyperflexed. This exercise can be made safer by simply limiting flexion to the normal physiological limits or a comfortable ROM.”
What this simply means is that if you have any shoulder problems, you might want to avoid this exercise altogether. Yes, performing pullovers on a decline bench is a much safer option to reduce the amount of shoulder flexion, but unfortunately, the pec minor doesn’t get overloaded in this position. Okay, enough talk, let’s learn to do the darned exercise already!
Cup a dumbbell between both hands and lay back onto a flat bench. With your arms fully extended above your face, carefully lower the weight until your outstretched arms are in line with your body. Keep the small of your back pressed against the bench and brace the abdominals throughout to protect your lower back.
Make sure the elbows stay in (don’t let them flare out) or else the lats will kick in. Elbows should be directly beside your ears in the bottom position. Raise the dumbbell in an arcing motion only about six to eight inches, or 45 degrees from horizontal. Again, keep your arms straight throughout, and remember, this is a limited ROM exercise to emphasize the pec minor. You’ll actually feel the muscle contract under your chin!
I must reiterate: keep the abdominals tight! Don’t allow the back to arch excessively as this movement is notorious for abdominal herniations. The abs are recruited as heavy stabilizers in this movement–just another bonus!
limited-range straight arm pullover – raise the dumbbell only about
6-8 inches or 45 degrees from horizontal.
If you’re still not convinced about the importance of training the pec minor, then listen up. According to Koch, there are feedback systems within the body to protect you from developing serious imbalances. Subsequently, the body may slow down or even halt the development of the pec major if the minor is underdeveloped. Bottom line: training the minor will make a major difference!
Other Chest Exercises
Try the steep incline, close-grip bench press! It’s just another triceps exercise, right? Well, yes and no. It’s yet another unique movement offered from the Westside camp and the top part of the range will definitely work the triceps. But just like any other variation of the bench press, the bottom part stresses the pecs.
With a close grip, arms out at approximately 45 degrees from the body, and a steep incline, the clavicular fibers (i.e. your upper chest) take a beating! Do one and a quarter reps. Since the pectorals contribute more at the bottom of the movement while the triceps contribute more at the top, it makes sense to train the lower ROM (range of motion) if you want to develop a massive chest. One and a quarter reps means that you’ll lower the weight to your chest, come up only a fourth of the way, lower back down, and then come all the way back up. That’s one rep.
Give it an honest shot and I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the results. Combined with the pullover, you should experience some fantastic upper chest development.
(By the way, I’ve heard of using close-grip push-ups with the feet elevated to achieve the same goal. In this exercise, your thumbs and index fingers are touching, which forms a diamond shape between your hands. In my opinion, this places far too much stress on your wrists and detracts the emphasis from your chest. While this is controversial, I fully agree with Charles Poliquin that “close-grip” is a misnomer. With the steep incline, close-grip bench press, position your hands so that the index fingers are on the junction between the smooth part and the knurling of the bar about 16 inches away from each other.)
To round out the routine, perform low-incline, semi-supinated (palms facing each other) dumbbell presses. This should thoroughly exhaust the remaining fibers as well as call upon the sternal muscles for help. Try to use a low incline position set at an angle that you’re not accustomed to. That, coupled with the fact that this exercise is placed at the end of your chest routine instead of first, should provide a different set of stimuli for your body to adapt to. Make sure to get a good stretch in the bottom position.
Flat Limited-Range Straight-Arm Dumbbell Pullovers
Rest: 60 seconds
Steep-Incline 1 1/4 Close-Grip Bench Presses
Tempo: moderate tempo (pause at bottom and 1/4 rep)
Rest: 90 seconds
Low-Incline Semi-Supinated Dumbbell Presses
Rest: 75 seconds
Calves: Hit the soleus!
The soleus is a thick, flat muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius. It originates on the head and shaft of the fibula, as well as the posterior surface of the tibia, and inserts onto the posterior surface of the calcaneus (heel) via the Achilles tendon. The soleus functions to plantarflex the foot.
The soleus muscle is interesting in that it’s primarily composed of (85 +/- 3 %) Type I fibers (Trappe et al). To review, these fibers (also known as slow-twitch or slow oxidative) generally have a slow contraction velocity, low tension capacity, and high fatigue resistance, so it’s a good idea not to go really heavy when training them. But what you might not know is that the soleus comprises roughly 60% of your calf. That means most of your calf is made up of this muscle! Hmmm… I wonder if we should train it?
The ankle is a hinge joint that allows movement from a maximum of 20 degrees dorsiflexion to 50 degrees plantarflexion. However, unlike many other muscles, the calves keep working at full contraction – they don’t transfer the stress to the bones. Therefore, it’s vital to work the calves through a full range of motion from a full stretch to a full contraction (Stern, 1991). And, surprise, surprise, according to Trappe et al, calf muscle strength and size are positively correlated. So, you should aim to use more weight each and every session.
Sit and Grow: The Seated Calf Raise
The seated calf raise will emphasize the soleus (unlike standing calf raises, which tend to emphasize the gastrocnemius). This is a pretty basic exercise, but you still see guys doing it wrong in the gym, so let’s quickly review it. First off, set the pads comfortably over your lower quads (above the knee). If the pads are set too low, you risk them sliding off, and if they’re placed too high, the ROM and optimal line of pull will diminish, thus decreasing the effectiveness of the exercise.
Keep your upper body still; don’t swing or use your arms. Focus on lifting your heels as high as possible and getting a good stretch at the bottom. A good seated calf-raise machine will have a slanted platform, or even better, a rounded platform to accommodate a greater ROM. Many people are sloppy and lazy when they plantarflex, so keep the movement controlled and roll over your big toe to emphasize the often-neglected medial fibers. As opposed to the standing calf raise, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) indicates that foot position doesn’t change muscle action in the seated calf raise (Tesch, 1999).
for full ROM on the seated calf raise – lift your heels as high as
possible and get a good stretch at the bottom.
The general recommendation for the seated calf raise is to perform three sets of 15 to 20 reps (Stern, 1991) and that works fine for awhile, but in this routine I want you to try something different. Since type-I fibers can experience some hypertrophy similar to type-II fibers with a low-rep, high-load protocol (Antonio, 2000), drop sets may be a useful technique to elicit growth. In a way, you get the best of both worlds!
Here’s how it works. Set the machine with a weight that allows 10 reps max and go for it. As soon as you finish, drop the weight and do another 10. If you think it’s bad here, it gets worse! Once more, strip some weight off and finish off with 10 more grueling repetitions. Do this all with no rest in between. When you regain your senses, repeat this process two more times for a total of three sets and 90 repetitions. That’s plenty of volume with decent intensity, enough to induce some serious hypertrophy.
By the way, here’s yet another area where ART may help. A few years ago I sent an amateur bodybuilder to fellow T-mag contributor, Dr. Ken Kinakin, for some ART on his lagging calves. After only a couple of sessions, they exploded with growth! I consulted with Dr. Kinakin for an explanation. He offered the following:
“I remember that I separated the heads of the gastrocs as well as the peroneals from the soleus (on the lateral side of the calf) to achieve a layering effect when you flex the calf especially during a side pose. I also worked on the distal end of the gastroc to get that teardrop look.”
An associate of mine, Dr. Bill Wells, further revealed that not only is there a sheath between the two gastroc heads (medial and lateral), but also beneath the soleus and the three deep plantarflexors (tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus, and flexor hallucis longus.) If they’re bound, they can’t contract efficiently and will be weak. Moreover, by separating the superficial from the deep compartments, you’ll aid hypertrophy.
I believe this coincides with the theory of fascial stretching that John Parillo has proposed for added mass. In other words, stretch out the fascia (i.e. the balloon encasing your muscle fibers) and you have more room for growth. I’ve gotta tell you, I was quite impressed with the results.
Don’t train bi’s and calves on the same day!
Whatever you do, don’t pair the seated calf raise with the reverse curl mentioned above. Research indicates that high-intensity elbow flexion decreases blood flow to the calves and may hamper performance (Kagaya et al., 1996). And while we’re on the subject, check out this theory espoused by Gene Mozee many moons ago:
“According to Gray’s Anatomy, the intramuscular temperature of the calves is about four degrees lower than that of muscles elsewhere in the body. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature below the knee is 94 to 95 degrees, while that of the thigh is 97 to 98 degrees. This lower temperature in the calf muscle is, in part, the result of less blood circulation in that area – the pull of gravity makes it more difficult for blood to return to the heart as it travels uphill. Generally, the less blood circulation, the slower the muscle growth. The fact that professional dancers and athletes who train daily are constantly stimulating their blood circulation may be one reason why they develop such outstanding calves without using a great deal of resistance.” (Mozee, 1991)
Now, I’m not completely sure about the above theory and I’m not suggesting that you take up ballet, but we do know that the soleus can tolerate frequent bouts of training. This is in accordance with the “variable recovery system.” So, train it hard and train it often and watch those calves expand!
Don’t forget the other calf muscles!
MRI studies show that the standing one-leg calf raise hits just about every muscle below the knee. This exercise is usually performed with a straight leg. While in theory 180 degrees may be the optimal angle for maximal recruitment of the gastrocnemius, it’s been found that a straight leg generates less torque than when the knee is slightly bent (160 degrees.) (Trappe et al., 2000) To take advantage of this information, I want you to unlock your knee and keep it slightly bent throughout the exercise.
Note: The emphasis is on slightly – you only want to flex the knee about 20 degrees and then keep it fixed at that angle. To load, hold a dumbbell on the same side as the working leg; the other hand can be used for support. Watch your posture!
Seated Calf Raise
Reps: 10/10/10 reps (2 drop sets of 10 reps each with no
rest in between)
Rest: 120 seconds
Standing 1-Leg Calf Raise (knee unlocked)
Rest: 60 seconds
Hopefully you now see that training the “pop ’em out” muscles – the brachialis, pec minor and soleus – can whip those stubborn body parts into shape and bring your physique up to a whole new level! Give these exercises a shot!
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