Of all the tools at your disposal to help change your body, there’s one vital technique that is dramatically overlooked: exercise selection. Typically, people think that adding variety is just a way to prevent gym boredom. But boredom isn’t your concern. Frankly, if you’re bored, go home.
No, the idea of changing exercises is so that you can submerge your body in as many growth environments as possible. Remember, your body is extraordinary and it adapts fairly quickly to the stresses you subject it to. So even though your typical routine resulted in marked changes and improvements at one time or another, rest assured that even the “best” exercises could become less than effective from overuse during the course of a yearly split.
By adding exercises you’ve never tried, you’ll automatically force your body to adapt in new ways. The mere fact that you’ve made it to this point on the page is a good indicator that your system is in dire need of a wrench. Indeed, the neurological adaptation and mind-muscle connection required to perform brand-new moves, coupled with the altered angles that recruit muscle fibers in various new ways, makes the following list an invaluable buffet to the hungry bodybuilder.
Thus, the exercises we’ve highlighted this month are definitely not your run-of-the- mill moves. On the contrary, by adding any or all of these moves to a particular bodypart attack, you’ll surely draw the attention of the familiar crowd doing all the familiar moves. But like they say, “To have what you’ve never had, you must do what you’ve never done,” and if you’re ready to start growing again, that time is now.
#1 Barbell Hack Squat
Target: Quads, hamstrings, glutes primarily; back secondarily
Best In Workout: Perform the barbell hack squat early in your workout. Because it’s a full-body move, it’s best done with heavy weight. Plus, it’s tough on the lower back, so you want to be as fresh as possible on each set.
Sets & Reps: Perform 3–4 sets with 6–12 reps.
Stance: Space your feet shoulder-width apart and firmly plant them on the floor; then, drop into a squat position. You want a firm foundation and it starts with your feet. If you’re new to this move, or deadlift-type exercises in general, you might notice that your heels tend to rise off the floor at the start. Work to keep your feet flat — this will get easier as you warm up and become more accustomed to the move.
Arms: With your arms fully extended, grasp the bar using a pronated grip just outside your legs, locking your thumbs around the bar. This position should resemble the start of a deadlift, only with the bar behind you. Many guys make the mistake of trying to use their arms to pull the bar up. If you bend your arms in an attempt to raise the bar, you won’t be nearly as strong as you could be. Your arms should act as hooks, attaching yourself to the bar.
Breathe: Inhale deeply, holding your breath as you begin the move. You want to hold your breath at the start of the move. Not only are you stronger when you do so, but it’ll also increase the intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize your spine while protecting you from injury. As you begin the descent toward the start (bottom) of the move you’ll also naturally and necessarily hold your breath.
Legs: Drive through your heels, extending your hips and knees simultaneously until you’re standing erect with the bar, exhaling at the top of the motion. At this point, the bar should be just under your glutes. The barbell hack squat is very similar to the deadlift in that it’s a pressing move for the legs. Again, if you try to pull the weight up with your upper body without concentrating on the legs, you’ll defeat the purpose of the exercise, not to mention risk injury. Remember to squeeze the quads, hams and glutes at the top as you catch your breath. Use pulling straps, since the amount of weight you can press with your legs will probably exceed how much weight you can hold in your hands.
#2 Standing One-Arm Overhead Press
Target: All delt heads, with emphasis on front and middle heads
Best In Workout: Great as one of your first exercises, not only because it’s a compound move for delts, but it also brings your stabilizers into play, and you want those fresh. You can also precede this move with front and lateral raises if you wanted to pre-exhaust the delts. However, if you do so, your weight selection will be drastically reduced.
Sets & Reps: Perform 3–4 sets with 8–12 reps.
Dumbbell: Stand holding a dumbbell at shoulder level. Don’t worry about holding the dumbbell at a 90-degree angle at the start; just ensure your elbow is pointing down at the start, with the dumbbell just above your shoulder.
Opposite Hand: Your non-working hand should be on the same-side hip. By not holding on to a stable post with your opposite hand, you automatically call upon your core musculature to a higher degree and this will cause you to be stronger in every aspect of your training. As you fatigue, holding on to a stable post like a power rack or Smith machine is fine and can allow you to bust out a few more reps.
Body English: You don’t have to be “perfect” throughout each rep. In other words, your upper body doesn’t have to remain perfectly straight. Go ahead and allow a bit of a dip in your shoulder as you lower and press the dumbbell overhead. This will happen naturally, especially since you’re using a heavy weight.
Stance: With your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your abs tight, press the dumbbell straight overhead to full arm extension. You can vary how far apart your feet are, but having a wide, solid base will help you during the move and also alleviate lower-back stress. Be sure to keep your knees unlocked and your legs flexed. Many guys think they’re stronger on the seated version, but actually, if your lower back and core are fit, you’re capable of lifting more weight overhead from a standing position. Ever see an Olympic lifter seated? Nope.
#3 Decline Cable Crunch
Target: Abs with emphasis on the upper abs
Best In Workout: In general, always do abs last in your workout, following your major bodyparts. But within your ab-specific training, put this weighted crunch before your bodyweight moves.
Sets & Reps: Perform four sets with 10–15 reps.
strong>Bench: Place a decline bench near a low pulley (your head nearest the stack). Most gyms have portable abdominal benches, so drag or carry one to the pulley station. Place it a couple of feet away from the stack so that when you grasp and place the rope in place, the weight rises off the stack and won’t touch down between reps.
Rope: Hook a rope attachment to the cable and hold the handles tight to your body outside your ears. You can also grasp both ends of the rope and hold them on one side of your head. The emphasis isn’t altered all that much and could be more comfortable and practical depending on the attachment. But if you do so, be sure to transfer your hands to each side of your head from set to set.
Range Of Motion: Crunch up as high as possible, bringing your elbows toward your quads. Because you’re holding a cable that provides constant tension, you can raise your body as high as possible. In other words, you don’t have to stop short of perpendicular to the floor as you do during the bodyweight version to keep the abs engaged and stimulated, but come up as high as you can go. Try not to pull through your quads to lessen the engagement of the hip flexors
Back To Start: Squeeze your abs hard and then slowly lower yourself to the start position and repeat. Feel free to come all the way down until your head touches the bench, but if you want to make it more difficult, stop just short of letting your shoulder blades touch the bench. Either way, don’t let the weight plates touch down at the bottom of each rep.
#4 Smith-Machine Drag Curl
Target: Biceps, with emphasis on the long (outer) head or “peak”
Best In Workout: You can place the drag curl anywhere in your training repertoire, just as long as you precede or follow it with moves that hit the short, inner head as well as your forearms.
Sets & Reps: Perform 3–4 sets with 12–15 reps.
It's A Drag: Stand holding a bar in front of your upper thighs, with your chest up, shoulders back and eyes focused forward. Begin the move by pulling your elbows back as you raise the bar toward your upper abs/lower chest. With the drag curl, you’re forced to eliminate as much deltoid involvement as possible. This means you want to keep your elbows back and pull your elbows behind you as you drag the bar up your abdomen, which is why the range of motion is so limited.
Range Of Motion: The bar shouldn’t come any higher than your upper abs. If it does, it means you’re allowing your elbows to travel too far forward, engaging more delts than desired. Make sure those elbows move backward not forward.
No Balance Required: Because you’re using the Smith machine, you don’t have to worry about balancing the bar. Therefore, you can probably lift more weight than you’d typically lift with the free-weight version. Don’t be afraid to overload the muscles.
#5 Reverse-Grip Bent-Over Barbell Row
Target: Lower lats
Best In Workout: Because you’re so much stronger during this move and because it’s a bent-over move that taxes the lower back to a great extent, perform this early in your training.
Sets & Reps: Perform four sets with 6–12 reps.
Stance: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, grasp a barbell with an underhand, shoulder-width grip. A firm, solid foundation will help you get the most out of the row. The reverse grip will automatically allow you to be stronger (than the overhand-grip version) because you’re engaging your biceps.
Bent Knees: Keeping your knees slightly bent, lean forward at your waist until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor. You want to have a little “give” in your knees throughout the set. Slightly opening and closing the angle of your knees will allow for just enough body english on each rep while also alleviating your lower back from undue stress.
Barbell: The barbell should hang straight down and very close to the front of your shins. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up toward your lower abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. You can actually drag the bar up the quads to your lower abs. By dragging the bar, you’re sure to fully engage those lower-lat fibers with better accuracy because it’ll keep your arms in line with the sides of your body.
At The Top: Hold the bar in the peak contracted position for a brief count then slowly lower along the same path. When the bar is near your abdomen, your elbows should actually be behind the plane of your back. It’s at that point that you can squeeze your lower lats with incredible intensity. Try holding that point for up to two seconds before lowering the bar to full arm extension.
#6 One-Arm Low (Or High) Cable Crossover
Target: Pecs, with emphasis on the upper and middle chest fibers
Best In Workout: You can use this move as a pre-exhaust exercise preceding the compound presses necessary for mass, or you can put this last in your workout to flush and pump the muscle full of water, blood and nutrients.
Sets & Reps: Perform 3–4 sets with 15–20 reps.
D-Handle: Grasp a D-handle attached to the low cable and place your non-working hand on the same-side hip. Similar to the single-arm overhead press, using only one side of the body will help engage and recruit more stabilizer activity than you typically experience. As your core fatigues, you can hold the opposite handle in the non-working hand, helping you anchor and balance yourself.
Stance: Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and tighten your abs. Standing equidistant between the two low cables with a wide stance provides a stable foundation.
Slight Bend: Stand up straight and keep your working arm slightly bent. You should work to keep that slight bend in your elbow fixed throughout the entire set. Doing so will help focus the attention on the chest fibers. If you open and close the bend in your arm, you’ll lessen the effectiveness and shift some of the focus off the chest and onto your arm.
Range Of Motion: Pull the handle up and across your body. Bring the handle all the way across so that at the end of the range of motion, the handle is in front of the opposite shoulder. During the typical cable crossover, the handles meet in front of your chest or face, but working one side at a time allows you to cross your body, engaging more pec fibers for a longer ROM before returning to the start position and repeating.
#7 Three-In-One Triceps
Target: Triceps, all three heads with emphasis on long and lateral heads
Best In Workout:This three-in-one move is so brutal that it’s best to put it early in your routine. Follow this move with reverse-grip pressdowns to exhaust the medial head.
Sets & Reps: Perform three sets with 10– 15 reps.
At The Start: Lie down on a bench with your head at the very edge and have a partner hand you a loaded barbell. If you don’t have a partner, you can place the loaded bar at the very edge of the bench, then lie down and grasp it.
Wrap Those Thumbs: Hold the bar with an overhand grip, slightly inside your shoulders. Wrap your thumbs around the bar for safety. Because you’re bringing the bar over the face, it’s imperative that you completely wrap your thumbs around the bar. Your hands will sweat, and you don’t want to drop the bar at any point during the move.
First, The Skull: The first part of the move calls for a traditional skull-crusher, in which you bring the bar to your forehead, stopping an inch or so away from your head before pressing it back up to full arm extension. You can also do a modified skull in which your upper arms remain at a 45-degree angle to the floor, but it’s your preference. The 45-degree skull will not affect the other portions of the move.
After The Skull: Lower the bar down toward the top of your head and all the way down to the floor. On the way down, the bar should just miss the top of your head/bench. You basically want to think about reaching toward the spot where the floor meets the leg of the bench.
The Pullover-To-Press: After a good stretch, keep your arms bent and pull the bar directly over your face to your lower chest. To keep the bar an inch or so above your face as you move it to your lower chest takes incredible triceps strength. From your lower pecs, press the bar straight up as you would during a close-grip bench press. Squeeze the triceps hard and go right into the skull-crusher and the sequence continues. All three moves constitute a single rep.
#8 Incline Barbell Front Raise
Target: Front delts
Best In Workout: Perfect as a finishing move for the front delts, following the bigger, compound exercises such as overhead presses or upright rows.
Sets & Reps: Perform three sets with 15–20 reps.
Set The Incline:
Grip: Hold a barbell with an overhand (pronated) grip about shoulder width apart. To start the move, raise the barbell a few inches above your quads, keeping your arms as straight as possible. The “start” of this move feels as though you’re right in the middle or the end of the exercise because to raise the barbell off the quads takes a lot of effort, so start out light. You’ll quickly realize you don’t need a lot of weight on this isolation move to elicit results. Many of you may have tried the version of this move in which you face the incline bench, however, the supine version doesn’t allow the lower traps to assist in the execution.
At The Top: Raise the bar up over the face until your arms are just short of perpendicular to the floor (not shown). If you raise the barbell too high, your arms will reach a straight up-and-down angle to the floor, which will all but release any tension on the front delts. A point of reference might be to stop the bar when it’s in direct line with your line of sight.
Constant ension: Squeeze your delts hard, then lower the bar under control to a point just above your quads without letting it touch your legs. By stopping short of touching your quads, you automatically force your delts to continue working. Only after you fatigue should you allow the weight to momentarily touch.