MuscleMag - March 2004 / Issue 261
"Exercises for Each Bodypart, and by God they Work!"
I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has told me I should write a book on training. One of these days I just might do it. My big fear concerning book-writing is that I don't know where to start. Then, from there, I wouldn't know how to progress. I'd probably have trouble coming up with an ending, too! So much for the book idea! For now anyway.
Until then the occasional article and the "Tip of the Month" on The Dungeon's Web site will have to do.
The problem with writing articles is simply deciding what I want to write about. The idea for this article came from an old training partner of former AAU Mr. America Jeff King. (Remember him? He had quads that rivaled those of Tom Platz!) Jeff's former training partner is Jim Farley, and he's become a good friend through The Dungeon's Web site.
Jim recently e-mailed me with the suggestion, "Why not do a piece on your favorite exercises for each bodypart, and why?" He even came up with a title - "Poppa Knows Best." It sounded good to me, so here we go!
Everyone does seem to have his or her own list of favorite exercises. People often favor certain movements for silly reasons like "ya get to lie down when you bench press!" Far too many folks gauge their favorite exercise simply by what lifts they do well. What makes an exercise a favorite of mine is the results it can produce. I don't care whether it's fun to do, easy to do, or doesn't take much effort to set up for. It just has to have a good track record for producing results.
Let's consider each bodypart and pick some of the best exercises for it. Now, be forewarned. When I split the physique up into bodyparts, I really split it up! For example, pecs turn into upper, lower, inner and outer pecs. So get comfortable. This is gonna take a few minutes.
We'll start with the legs. Squats are without a doubt the granddaddy of all exercises, especially for working the fronts of the thighs, the quadriceps or quads. Squats will put muscle on the thighs like nothing else. There are several variations of the squat. My personal preference is safety squat bar squats. They allow for great form with minimal strain on the rest of the body, the lower back in particular.
Squats have built more outstanding legs than any other single exercise, but the benefits of squatting go far beyond the legs. They metabolize the entire body for better overall muscle growth. You can also give the heart one heck of a workout when you squat. The problem is that not many people can really pour on the coals when they squat. Squats, done correctly, are no fun.
Years ago one of my clients said, "If you squat correctly, and you're scheduled to squat on Monday, you'll start feeling sorry for yourself Saturday afternoon." I've repeated that sentiment to everyone who's walked into The Dungeon since about 1983. No one has ever argued with me after squatting here.
For the outer thigh sweep I like hack squats. I mean machine hack squats here, not bar hack squats. The hack squat done with a bar is not an exercise known to most trainees. It's an old-timer's exercise, and although it can be effective, it's also very "techniqueie," as well as difficult to do and dangerous. Machine hacks can be tough on your knees, so you need to be careful. Don't overuse them, and don't depend on them for size. They're for outer thigh sweep. You can do them in several different ways, so you'll need to experiment. Add to this variety the fact that hack machines vary a great degree from one to another, and you've got your work cut out for you.
For example, the hack machine at The Dungeon is a pretty rickety-looking contraption. It's about half the size of the modem versions, but it's safe and incredibly effective. Many trainees can't budge the dam thing, even without weight on the carriage, so nobody needs a lot of weight to make it work. It gets used only for precontest mode to emphasize the outer thigh sweep. Usually it's a storage spot for the 1 55-pound plates we use for squats and leg presses. For the inner and outer thighs we have adductor and abductor machines, but if you're really working the major thigh movements hard, you shouldn't need them.
Although squats can go a long way to developing good hamstrings, the backs of the thighs, or leg biceps, qualify as separate bodyparts from the quadriceps, so we need to find a separate exercise for them. My favorite is the stiff-leg deadlift. I'm not referring to standing on a bench or a block for a super stretch, which can lead to lower-back problems. I mean deadlift from the floor with minimal bend in the knees, back arched, head up and a short range of motion. Done this way, stiff-Ieg-deadlifts can pack plenty of meat on the hamstrings. If you do them correctly, the stretch to the leg biceps in the bottom position has to be felt to be believed.
Another good exercise for the hamstrings, the dumbell leg curl, is one you don't hear about too much these days. Lying face down on a flat bench with your knees off the end of the bench, you hold a dumbbell with your feet by squeezing the handle between the arches. This very seldom-used exercise can be difficult to get into position for, as well as to perform, but you can't duplicate the feel to the leg biceps and the work to the stabilizing muscles with any other exercise.
These are really worth a try. Just be sure to hang onto the bench!
I have to mention another little-known hamstring exercise. Hamstring hack squats are tough to get used to, but they are worth the extra effort. With the toes pointed out slightly, you have to throw your pelvis away from the back pad as you actually pull the weight up with the strength of the hamstrings. Sound weird? Don't pass judgment until you've given them a fair shot.
For the calves I honestly would pick donkey calf raises for the gastrocnemius muscles as the number one movement. This exercise sets you up for great muscle stimulation because of the bent-over position at the waist. If you compare donkey calf raises to standing calf raises, you'll feel the difference in the stretch. I cannot stress enough the importance of the stretch position in all calf movements.
For the soleus muscles of the calves the standard seated calf raise is really hard to beat. Just remember the importance of the stretch at the bottom of the movement. In all calf exercises try to roll up onto your big toes and the balls of your feet at the top of each rep. This elevation makes for a great contraction in the muscles. Don't worry about the "toes in/toes out" stuff you always hear about. I don't believe there's much merit to it, and I've worked a lot of lower legs in my day.
How about the shins, the fronts of the lower legs? Usually referred to as the "tibs," which is short of tibialis anterior, these much-neglected muscles can be worked in several ways. Fully developed tibs give the lower legs a much more dramatic look when viewed from the front. Several tib machines are available, and they are all pretty straightforward in their workings. We have one at The Dungeon, but if your gym lacks this equipment, you can find alternatives.
The DARD, which stands for Dynamic Axial Resistance Device, is a neat little gizmo that was invented by 1966 Mr. America Bob Gadja. This man is a true training genius! If I remember correctly, he's also the originator of circuit training. I've had the honor of picking his brain a few times on the telephone, and I always learn from him. Anyway, Bob's DARD is one of the best ways to hit those tibs. The device costs only about $50, and is well worth the investment. Talk about muscle burn! Let's just say I've got a decent pair of tibs going for me, and I developed them long before buying the tib machine. We also have a pair of straps that connect to a low cable to work the tibs. This method is quite good, but it's kind of a pain to hook up since you need a block for your heels.
Let's move up to the abs. My favorite exercise for the abs is the ab bench crunch. This little angled seat with a humped back, a strap and a weight carriage fulfills all the requirements for complete abdominal development. It allows for a full range of motion, the lower back is supported, the hip flexors can't bully the motion, and you can vary the resistance. No other exercise comes close to putting all these important features together. It's a great little bench. It's even comfortable. If it had a headrest, I'd put it in front of the TV!
I believe in a minimal amount of work for the abs. The upper and lower abs contract at the same time, so trying to work them separately is a waste of time and energy. Most "lower-ab" exercises work the hip flexors much more than the abs. The result can be lower-back problems as well as a pelvic tilt which creates the impression you have a pouch over the abs. Not good!
As for the oblique muscles on the sides of your waist, working them too much will give your midsection a thicker or wider look. Who wants that?
Moving farther north, let's skip up to the neck. You really don't need to do very much to develop the neck, as the muscles of the neck often seem to respond to training faster than other muscles. Neck bridges (or wrestler's bridges) are often used to develop the neck. They work, but just be careful. One slip could mean permanent paralysis.
The neck harness is popular for working the neck muscles, but it is such a pain in the butt when used the way it was designed to be used. The weights hang freely from the harness as you bend over to work the neck. If the weight starts to swing, you might wind up with a nasty bruise on your knees. I don't like the free-hanging weight, so my choice exercise for the neck is the neck harness attached to a low pulley system. You can move a bench or seat over to the low pulley and work the neck from a lying or seated position. Much better! You may have to alter your harness for this technique, but the result is worth the effort.
For the Cadillac of neck harnesses, Lifeline USA makes a great neck harness. We have one at The Dungeon, and it is by far the preferred equipment for neck work. (By the way, Lifeline USA is the same company that makes what I believe to be the best jump ropes on the market.)
Since we're already at the neck, let's just move over a bit to the traps. Your upper traps are similar to your neck muscles in that developing them is not that big a deal. They respond to proper exercise very well. Several forms of shrugs will get the job done, but many trainees insist on rolling their shoulders either forward or backward when shrugging. My choice for traps is dumbbell shrugs behind the back. In this version of the shrug you hold two dumbbells behind you at a 45-degree angle. Press the backs of your hands against your glutes. From this position you simply shrug straight up and down, using a full range of motion. Really squeeze the traps at the top of the movement. Get your shoulders up to your ears as high as possible. At the bottom of the movement let the weight stretch you. As for the middle and lower aspects of the traps, they get their workout when you train your back with rowing and pullup/down movements.
Shoulders! Now we get to what I consider the fun stuff! We're going to separate the shoulders into their three separate heads for the different exercises. The shoulders are notorious for being able to take lots of punishment with very little (if any) soreness afterward. I'll bet in about 30 years of training my shoulders have been really sore maybe 10 times.
My choice exercise for the front delts is the alternate front dumbbell raise. You alternate side to side because to properly line up the plane of motion, you need to lean over to the side of the dumbbell you're lifting. The proper sequence is bend, raise, lower. Bend to the opposite side, raise, lower. This format will isolate the front delts very well.
Now, I want you to read this next paragraph twice. It's that important. The front delts get plenty of work as you train other bodyparts, particularly the chest. They can easily be overtrained, overdeveloped and injured. I condone specific work for the front delts only for a bodybuilder who needs more development for the right visual effect or a powerlifter whose front delts are the weak link in his/her bench press. Both of these scenarios are very rare.
The rear delts are a fairly straightforward muscle group. They get loads of stimulation when you work the upper-back muscles, but to give them the extra edge they often need, nothing beats bent-over lateral raises. Standing or seated, the trick is not to let the dumbells travel back toward the waist. You need to keep your elbows out to the sides and your forearms slightly forward. Allowing the elbows to move to the rear brings in too much trap and lat involvement. Also, make sure you're bent over parallel to the floor. Having the torso in the wrong plane throws everything off.
Working those all-important lateral (or side) heads of the delts really trips my trigger! These muscles give width to the upper torso. They determine the widest point of your physique, so you want to develop them to the max. Most trainees think lateral raises are just the ticket to get the most out of this aspect of the shoulders. The problem is that when you do lateral raises with proper form and strictness (as is necessary to get the best results from the movement), you'll be very limited in how much weight you can use. After all, you can always press heavier dumbells than you can use for laterals. It's too bad that presses don't concentrate their focus on that outside part of your shoulders. The answer to this dilemma is to make a pressing movement focus on the lateral deltoid heads.
Put the fingers of your left hand on the side of your right shoulder. Now raise your right hand in front of the right side of your chest... as if you were raising your hand to answer a question in school. Your elbow should be at about a 90-degree angle. From that position pull your right elbow back and up. These two motions will give you a hint of how you want to do your dumbbell presses for the side delts. You can actually feel that side dealt head pull your arm up and back.
We do this exercise sitting in a slightly angled seat. When I say angled, I mean angled! Both the seat back and the seat have a slight angle to them. The seat is angled up in the front so that as you press a heavy weight overhead, your butt won't slide forward. The seat back is angled slightly to protect the lower back.
Let's try these lateral presses, as I call them. Start with a pair of dumbells that are easy to work with. (You need to learn how to do this exercise properly before you pile on the weight.) Hold the dumbells with your little fingers right up against the inside of the weight on one end. Raise them to shoulder level so that your little fingers are higher than your thumbs. Move your elbows slightly forward. Now press your dumbells, but only about three-fifths of the way up. As you press them, pull your elbows back as if you were trying to click them together behind your head. Take your time, and feel the movement on those lateral heads of your delts. "Sweet," as my granddaughter, Gabbie, would say! This exercise will take some effort, but you'll get it. You can also do the same motion on a machine seated press, such as the station on a universal machine. The open bar allows for the torso to move in as the shoulders pull the elbows back.
The third aspect of the delts is the posterior or rear heads. Bent-over lateral raises are the best way to isolate these little fellas. You can also give them a decent shellacking with seated barbell presses behind the neck, which are great for overall dealt development and strength. I don't condone pressing a bar to the front as it hits too much of the front heads of the delts, and I've already told you my thoughts on that.
From the deltoids let's move on to chest. Nearly everybody's favorite chest exercise is the flat bench press. That's kind of a shame, since it really isn't the best exercise for pectoral development, and muscular development is the bottom line here. (MuscleMag is still a bodybuilding magazine, isn't it?)
There are several good exercises for slapping slabs of meat onto your chest. The most popular is the flat bench press, but as I said, it's not the best one. You need to have some, shall we say, genetic advantages to get decent chest development from the bench press. Arnold S. (you know who I mean, and I'm too lazy to look up the proper spelling) was one of the lucky few able to bench press his way to good pecs. But great pecs came only with the addition of other exercises. One former bodybuilding great who would tell you he never got much of anything from benching is Kenny Waller. (If you don't remember him, you must have missed the movie Pumping Iron.) He had to stick pretty much with dumbells to get the development he wanted.
My favorite chest exercise is chest dips. This isn't your standard body-straight-as-aboard up/down dipping movement. You can do chest dips on either parallel dip bars or V dip bars, but to affect your pecs, you need to do them correctly. Your palms have to face out away from the body, and you have to be bent over at the waist with your knees slightly bent, feet held up, and your chin on your chest. As you rise from the bottom position of the dip, you have to lever your elbows together (forward) as if you want them to meet in front of your body. Dips done in this manner will build the pecs on the outside, giving you a wider, deeper-looking chest. These dips also work great when supersetted with the flat bench press to the neck with the elbows back toward the ears. (Do the presses first.)
Doing the presses on the Smith machine is a good way to go, but you have to be careful with this type of pressing movement, whether you use a regular straight bar or the Smith machine. Some trainees can get by with neck presses forever, while others will quickly learn their shoulder joints just won't put up with them. If you fall into the second group, don't do this exercise. Your gains won't be worth the stress in the long run. If you can do this great exercise, you'll have to keep your elbows pulled back toward your ears to make if effective. That means the bar will lie across your palms diagonally.
If you lack development in the upper portion of your chest, the incline dumbbell press is hard to beat. The mistake most people make when doing incline presses with dumbells or with a barbell is that they use too steep an incline. Most stationary incline benches are set at a 45-degree angle, which is way too steep and hits those pesky front delts more than the upper pecs. You'd be much better off to use an adjustable bench and set it for approximately 20 degrees, and no more than 30 degrees.
Lower pecs are best served with decline flyes, decline bench presses and decline dumbbell bench presses. You won't see too many trainees, though, whose lower-pee development lags behind the upper chest.
The inner pecs usually seem to work themselves out, but when you need to emphasize cleavage, like before a show, cable crossovers are just what the doctor ordered. Make sure you squeeze, squeeze, squeeze! In fact, you wanna do that on all of your chest sets. What am I saying? You wanna squeeze the target muscles every set of every rep in every exercise for every bodypart in every workout you ever do!
Let's move around the torso now to the back. The muscles of your upper back have two basic functions. One is to pull your shoulder blades together, and the other is to make your shoulder blades rotate. The pulling of the shoulder blades together is a rowing motion. The rotating of the shoulder blades is the pull down motion.
Starting with the rowing type of movements, you can hardly beat the standard bent-over barbell row. Done correctly - that is, with a good shrug of the shoulder blades toward the ceiling before bending the elbows - this is a great overall back-builder.
A variation of this exercise is the 70 degree reverse-grip bent-over barbell row. . As the name implies, you do these rows with the torso bent over to the floor at about 70 degrees, and with a reverse (i.e. supinated) grip. For my money these two variations of rowing are by far the best back-builders with the 70-degree version being my favorite. You'll want your hands a bit closer for this version than for the regular rows.
As for the pull down motion of the back, which rotates the shoulder blades, let me start by saying you would be smart to avoid pulldowns behind the neck and wide-grip pull downs. Behind-the-neck pulldowns rotate the shoulder joints in a way that tends to cause rotator-cuff problems. Plus, they aren't that effective. The wide-grip pull down is not a very effective exercise either since the wide grip will shorten the range of motion to a large degree. Remember, the greater the range of motion the target muscle is worked through, the greater the muscle stimulation. I tend to lean toward two movements for the pulldown, just as I do for rowing.
The first of these two exercises is the reverse-grip pulldown. Using a straight bar, you grip at about shoulder width with your palms facing you. Get a good, meaty grip right from the start, and don't let it deteriorate into one of those Mickey Mouse finger grips where your palms aren't even in contact with the bar. Jeez, that irritates me! Holding the bar like that takes so much away from the exercise.
For the second pulldown exercise, 45 degree close-grip pulldowns, you'll need a 45-degree close-grip handle. (Makes sense to me!) When you hold this handle, the first knuckles of your thumbs will be touching. As in all pulldown movements you need to get as much shrug out of the shoulders as possible before you ever bend your elbows. Similarly, as with all pulldowns, you have to arch your back as you pull, but the arch will be a bit exaggerated with the 45-degree handle version.
I differentiate pullups and chinups like this: It's a pullup when your palms face away from you, and it's a chinup when your palms face you. Both versions, using various grip width, are great exercises, but let's be realistic. Most folks don't do them very well. They're tough to do in any case, and as you gain muscular bodyweight they're gonna get harder. Don't worry if you can't master them. Just stick to the pulldowns. Done correctly, they'll work for you.
Triceps! One of my favorite bodyparts! Fun to work and beautiful to view! These guys can take more crap than you've probably been giving them. The triceps thrive on punishment, so punish them! Close-grip bench presses are good for adding overall size. In fact, the first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott, claims this exercise is responsible for most of his triceps size. Be aware that your triceps should account for two thirds of your upper-arm size.
Remember the triceps consist of three heads. To hit the long head, which is the biggest of the three, you need to prestretch it. Seated two-arm dumbbell triceps extensions are my favorite way to do that. I also like lying triceps extensions with an EZ-curl bar. Forget that skullcrusher stuff. You need to have the bar over your forehead in the extended position and bring it down to touch the top of your head at the bottom. This way your triceps never get a break because your arms won't be pointing straight up to the ceiling, putting all the stress on your bones.
Another great builder for the long head is high-cable bent-over triceps extensions. I discovered this excellent exercise very early in my training career, but for several years I did it bent over in a standing position. I later discovered it works much better when you do it with your elbows on a small bench close to the floor. At The Dungeon we have a bench just for this exercise. It's called a V bench, and I've seen them in only a handful of gyms. Larry Scott markets a bench built specifically for this triceps exercise - a very nice one at that!
For the lateral head of the triceps, the long skinny head on the outside of the arm, triceps pressdowns do a good job as well as bent-over triceps kickbacks. The problem with kickbacks is the weight limitation due to the vulnerability of the elbow, but you'll notice those lateral heads get a bunch better after doing kickbacks for a while. You can handle a bit more weight in this exercise by using a bar, but with a bar you can't rotate your palms to face the ceiling at the top of the movement, and that really contracts those long heads.
The medial head of the triceps is the one in the middle that tucks into the arm and disappears above the elbow. It gets enough work with any triceps exercise, and with any pressing movements you do. Some trainers and writers talk about isolating the upper or the lower triceps. I'm sorry, but I don't buy into that idea. Isolating a straight-line muscle somewhere along its length is like stretching one end of a rubber band. Good luck!
Okay, I've been avoiding the biceps long enough. As just about the showiest muscles for any trainee, the biceps are also probably the most popular muscles to train. Not for me, though. I hate training biceps. Oh, I train them, and I give them their due, but unlike the vast majority of iron heads, I hate to train them.
The basic standing barbell curl is the granddaddy of all biceps movements, and I hate them most of all. I'm sorry. I don't know why. I just don't like doing them. They hurt. When I curl in good form, I get the feeling someone is trying to push the eraser end of a pencil into my biceps, right into the peak of the muscle.
"Good form" when you're talking about barbell curls, can include a little - shall we say? - body English. Arnold what's-his name would be the first to tell you the best way to do this exercise when you're trying to add size to the muscles (and when is that not the case?) is to add a tad of thigh bump to the start of the movement. Technically this is cheating, but occasional cheating on barbell curls is the best argument for cheating you will ever make. After that initial boost from the body the rest of the movement should be very strict. Don't be one of the many trainees who turn barbell curls into a lower-back exercise by swinging the entire body and hardly putting a bend in the elbows while doing them. That's more likely to result in small biceps and lower-back injury than in big, muscular biceps. But don't count strict barbell curls out altogether. I'm just saying that a little cheating can have a place in your training in relation to this particular exercise.
Close-grip chins are also excellent biceps builders. You'll want to grab the chinning bar with your palms facing you and your grip just wide enough to put your head between your hands. Once you can do 12 strict reps with your bodyweight, it's time to strap some extra weight on.
Reverse barbell curls are the best choice for hitting the brachialis muscle, which lies between the biceps and the triceps of the upper arm. When well developed, the brachialis appears in two ways. First, it shows up as a lump on the backside of the flexed upper arm, and second, it will actually push the biceps up, making them appear larger and more peaked.
If you're one of the lucky - that is to say, genetically gifted - trainees who can get enough forearm stimulation from just gripping hard in any exercise that requires holding onto something with your hands, well. . more power to ya! Most of us need to do some direct exercise for the forearms. Usually they don't take too much. The first consideration is to squeeze the stuffing out of anything you grip while training. That will get you at least some development, as well as a great deal of improvement in your grip strength.
Among the best exercises for the forearms are wrist curls and reverse wrist curls. Doing them from a small, well-padded bench about the size of a milk crate is ideal. You can squat down behind this little bench so that your hips are lower than your forearms as they lie across it. You'll be able to use substantially more weight that way. I also like barbell wrist curls behind the back. As I recall, this was a favorite of eight-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney. They seemed to work pretty well for him! You can hit those lower arms in several other ways, like grip machines, but these three exercises have proven to be more than adequate. Keep in mind that weak forearms will limit your biceps-training, and therefore your biceps size.
Last but not least are the spinal erectors the lower back. The regular deadlift is one of the best builders for the low back, but to isolate these very important muscles more, I prefer reverse hypers. For this exercise you need a special bench that you lie across with your legs dangling off from the waist. A strap connected to a swing arm that you load up with weight goes around your ankles, and you pull your locked legs up until they are parallel with the floor. I've seen this simple but hard exercise add 100 pounds to someone's squat in a very short period of time. It'll also give you a butt you can bounce a quarter off.
Stiff-leg deadlifts are also very good for the lower back, as well as good mornings, a largely forgotten exercise. You do good mornings by mounting a straight bar across your upper back as if you were going to squat with it, bending over so that your torso is parallel to the floor, and returning to the starting position. Be sure to keep your head up and your back straight.
Well, there you have it ... the individual bodyparts and the best ways to get the most out of them. You can go to The Dungeon's Web site at www.poppasdungeon.com to obtain more detailed instruction on how to do some of these exercises. If you go back every month, you should find new advice to help you in your quest for that perfect physique. I'm sure I've left out one or more of your favorite exercises for
various bodyparts, but these are my favorite exercises, the ones I've found over the years to be the most effective for the highest percentage of people.
Don't limit yourself to what you read here or in any other article. Experiment and find out what works best for you. Just make sure you train hard and train smart!
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