Time to Get Violent
You wanna get big, punk? Then you gotta get violent! What do I mean? I mean you have to put some effort and mental intensity into your training. Not only that, but you have to embrace the idea of variation.
In our particular domain of interest, not only will variation provide for a much needed change of pace, but for most people it's actually necessary for continuous growth. Your body will always adapt to a certain training stimulus. If you fail to change the stimulus at that point, muscle growth will come to a screeching halt like TC in front of a Victoria's Secret.
Variation can be provided by changing the exercises, the training methods, and the load/volume/density relationship. This article will cover exercise variations, giving you a few new ideas to try out today in the gym!
Variations for Common Exercises
Obviously, we have dozens of effective exercises to choose from, and regardless of what people say, not one of them is a "miracle growth" exercise. The training method you use and the effort you put into your training are much more important for maximum growth stimulation.
However, having a lot of exercises to choose from can help relieve boredom and help with continuous progress. Furthermore, it's true that some exercises might be great for some people but useless for others. Depending on your body structure, each exercise might have a different impact on your gains. These are two of the reasons why adding a few more quality exercises to your arsenal can be important.
Here are some violent variations to knock you clean out of any training rut:
Let's start with everybody's favorite: the biceps! I have three exercises for you, most relatively unused by people training today. These are old classics that once reigned supreme as biceps blasters. Let's dust them off and put them to work!
The Gironda Perfect Curl
This may be the best biceps building exercise, bar-none. It really places maximum tension on the muscles during the whole movement and the result is fantastic gains!
You start the exercise like you would for a regular standing barbell curl; you can use a straight bar or an EZ-bar (hey, more variation!) Before starting the movement, you bring your upper torso backward (shifting your weight toward the heels). Note how the shoulders are aligned behind the hips and knees in the starting position.
Now slowly curl the weight up from that position. As you lift the weight you're going to slowly bend the upper torso forward so that in the end position the shoulders are in front of the hips and knees.
You lower the bar using the opposite motion. Start in the torso forward position and as the bar is lowered, bring the torso to the backward position.
This change of angle during the movement really places a huge tension on the biceps during the execution of the whole exercise.
Note: Perform the exercise under control; it's not a cheat curl! And don't "swing" your upper torso into the new position – it's a slow movement. Lift the bar in 2-3 seconds, squeeze hard at the top for 1-2 seconds and lower it in 3-4 seconds. Start using a relatively low weight as it's much harder than a regular curl.
Devastating Drag Curl
This is yet another great exercise to improve the size of your guns, yet it's rarely used, mostly because it doesn't allow for a lot of weight to be lifted and some egos just can't deal with that! Also, this exercise requires perfect form and control – things the average trainee doesn't have.
Once again, you start as if you were going to do a standing barbell curl. This time you must keep your shoulders, hips and knees on the same line. Start with the bar in contact with your upper thigh area. As you curl the weight up, the bar must be kept in contact with the body at all times and the elbows should be kept as close to the torso as possible.
The possible range of motion for this exercise is shorter than a regular curl, especially if you have big arms. Don't worry; just compensate by squeezing extra hard in the peak contraction position. You lower the bar the same way, by keeping it in contact with the body at all times. Both a regular and reverse grip can be used effectively.
For this exercise to work you should also use a controlled tempo. Don't forget the powerful squeeze in the top position of the movement!
Pulverizing Preacher Curl
This is basically a steep preacher curl. This exercise was once the favourite of Larry Scott (the first Mr. Olympia, known for his fantastic biceps) yet you'll be lucky to see it performed in a regular gym nowadays.
It first requires ten seconds of effort by changing the position of the preacher bench (oh no, more work!). What we want to do is use the steep, vertical portion of the preacher bench to rest our arms. Compared to a regular preacher curl, this will almost double the tension placed on your biceps!
Be sure to emphasize a full range of motion and squeeze hard in the peak contraction position. This exercise can also be done using a regular or reverse grip.
The upper back muscles are my favourite. I find nothing more impressive than a thick, wide, well-developed upper back. A big back gives you that powerful look and confident walk that can be so intimidating (or seductive depending on how and with whom you use it!).
Various rowing exercises are fantastic back builders; so are chins and pull-ups. We all know that, so it would be redundant of me to talk about these well-known exercises. I'd rather talk about slightly less popular exercises that might provide you with a developmental spark. Understand that I still believe a hefty regimen of rows, chins, and deadlifts is the key to a superman back; however, the exercises I'm about to give you are very effective back builders too!
Killer Cable Pullover
In my opinion there are two good machines in the world: the reverse hyperextension and the old Nautilus pullover machine. Sadly, the pullover machine is all but extinct and very hard to find, so I've experimented with various types of pullovers in the past – barbell, dumbbell, you name it. None of these had quite the same feeling of a good pullover machine, which was unparalleled in making you feel your lats intensely working. That is, until I found the decline cable pullover!
The set-up for this exercise is a bit tricky. You'll have to set up a decline bench in front of a low pulley station with a triceps rope attached. Lie down on the bench so that the rope is above your head.
The starting position has you in a fully extended position. You perform the exercise by executing a pullover motion (keeping the arms straight) focusing on your lats the whole time. Really emphasise a wide pullover arc; this will hit the lats the hardest.
You lower the weight slowly, again in a wide arc, and return to the fully stretched position. Hold the stretched position for one or two seconds to get rid of momentum and to increase hypertrophy stimulation.
Sizzling Standing Pullover with Cable (Straight Arm)
This exercise is similar to the decline pullover but it uses the high pulley station with a straight bar. Grab the bar, bend your trunk forward, and try to keep your arms as high as possible to get a good lats stretch.
You're going to bring down the bar in a wide arc while keeping the arms straight. On the way up you return to the stretched position. The torso angle shouldn't change during the movement. This is critical!
Traps make you look strong and powerful. Basically, if you have huge traps you look like an animal! Barbell shrugs are good trap builders, but they can get old real fast! Furthermore, cheating is too easy on this exercise, often making it hard to really isolate the traps. Here are a few of my favourite alternative traps exercises:
Hideous Hise Shrug (Using a Calf Machine)
Quite simply, there isn't a better exercise to isolate and stimulate the traps. It's so simple, yet used by about one trainee in two million! It's loosely based on the original Hise shrug which consists of shrugging a barbell placed on the shoulders.
You're going to use the standing calf raise machine, but you keep your feet on the floor, not on the elevated platform. Set the pads a little bit lower than usual, then simply shrug the stack using only your traps. As you lower the stack back, make sure to get a good traps stretch. To make this exercise even more effective you'll want to squeeze hard for two seconds in the peak contraction position.
I find this exercise especially good when supersetted with heavy barbell shrugs. Go hard and heavy on the barbell shrugs and then lighter, more focused and with higher reps on the Hise shrug.
Infernal Incline Dumbbell Shrug
This is a great exercise to build both the upper and middle portions of the traps, giving you that thick look. To execute this exercise, lie facedown on an incline bench, grabbing a dumbbell in each hand. Let the arms hang down perpendicular to the ground. From that position you're going to shrug the bells in a straight line. As you lower them back down, again try to get a good traps stretch.
Most of the time I recommend a 45 or 60-degree bench angle, but any angle will be effective and work the muscle a little differently.
Outlandish Overhead Shrug
You may remember this bad boy from my Power Look article. Hold the bar overhead as if you'd just completed a shoulder press. Stretch your traps by bringing your shoulders down. Keep the arms locked and the bar overhead. The trunk must be kept tight.
While keeping a tight posture, bring the shoulders up by contracting the traps; the shoulders must go up in a straight line. Hold the highest position for two seconds, squeezing your traps as hard as you can.
Hamstrings and Lower Back
Except for leg curls, the hamstrings and lower back are synergists in most training movements, so I decided to group these two muscles together.
In my opinion, the Romanian deadlift and arched back good morning are the two best hamstring and lower back exercises around. I rarely remove them from my programs. However, having some variety might help from time to time! Here are some cool options:
Sizzling Split-Leg Good Morning
This is a killer! Stand as if you were going to perform a regular good morning, but have a block or bench in front of you. Place one foot on the block, keeping the leg almost straight.
You're going to perform a good morning motion until you feel a powerful stretch of the front leg. At that point you reverse the motion by pushing against the block with your leg.
Scorching Sumo-Romanian Deadlift
This is performed exactly like a regular Romanian deadlift except that you're going to use a very wide stance, with the toes turned slightly out. This variation will hit the semitendinosus and semimembranosus portions of the hamstrings better than a regular Romanian deadlift, while hitting the biceps femoris to a lesser extent.
Big round shoulders are impressive no matter how you put it. In fact, shoulders can make or break your physique. Narrow shoulders depreciate an otherwise nice physique while wide shoulders can make even an average body look fantastic.
I've always had narrow shoulders myself, so I had to do a lot of deltoid work to bring them up to par. Now I'm proud to say that my shoulders are my strongest point. I believe that overhead pressing is the best way to get big shoulders. No way you can build bowling ball shoulders with laterals alone! (Raises can be a good addition to a pressing-dominant shoulder workout though.)
Here are a few more variations to try out:
Ass Kickin' Ahrens Press
Chuck Ahrens is relatively unknown to most modern trainees, but in his time he was considered to have the strongest shoulders and arms in the world. He was so wide he looked unreal!
In his prime, Ahrens could do reps with 200 pound dumbbells in the shoulder press (some people even claim to have seen him press a 300 pound dumbbell with one arm), perform 28 reps with 405 in the bench press, and perform a slow and controlled concentration curl with a 115 pound barbell.
One of his shoulder exercises was very peculiar: he'd do overhead dumbbell presses, but instead of pressing them straight up he'd press them up and away laterally (basically doing a "V" with both arms). He had no choice to press in this matter because he used special loadable dumbbells that were very long; pressing them straight up was thus impossible without the bells hitting each other.
What this exercise does is place the shoulders, especially the medial portion of the deltoid, under greater tension as the movement gets completed.
You can perform this one seated or standing, up to you. Beware that you must do this exercise slowly, with moderate weight at first, until you get the groove down perfectly.
Sadistic Straight-Arm Cuban Press
This exercise can effectively hit all the portions of your deltoids. Start with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms hanging by your sides. You start the movement as a front raise and as you pass neck level you rotate your arms while continuing to lift them up. Also widen the arms as you go up so you're once again in the "V" position at the top of the movement.
In the next article I'll cover the pectorals, quadriceps and triceps. Hopefully you'll get to try some of these powerful exercises. Once you try them, it's hard to go back!