October 23, 2011

A Twist To Some Common Exercises To Provide Variety To Your Training

While some movements may provide more bang for your buck than others as it relates to muscle activation throughout a given muscle, no movement will effectively stimulate all muscle fibers throughout a muscles entirety. Every little change you make to the mechanics of an exercise will ultimately affect the result of your effort. While some changes will produce more varying results than others, every little change that is made will result in a different outcome.

Below are some examples of modifications to common movements to help you stimulate your muscles in a different manner than they’re used to, which will undoubtedly stimulate continued growth. What these movements sacrifice in load, they make up for with variety.

If you are a beginner, intermediate, or athlete, than it is in your best interest to stick with the basics and focus on building a solid foundation of size and strength before getting cute by performing exercises that will not have as great an effect on increasing your overall size and strength. These exercise modifications are strictly for those who train for aesthetic purposes, and have years of training experience, but are looking for creative new ways to take their training to another level.

The only exception for an athlete, intermediate or beginner to perform any of the exercises below would be if they have an injury, and are trying to safely work around it, as many of the exercises below would be considered safe, due to the low level of coordination needed to perform them as many are done with cables or on machines.

Instead of displaying the exercises based on the bodypart they work, they are listed based on the piece of equipment they require.


Low-Pulley Straight-Arm Pulldown – Typically a straight-arm pulldown is performed while standing at a high-pulley station like a lat pulldown. Lying on a decline bench to perform this movement has a few advantages. First, by lying down, the nervous system can fully focus on performing the movement itself as the bench provides stability that would otherwise have to come from within. The external stability makes it considerably easier to mentally focus on squeezing the lat as hard as possible, resulting in a deeper level of recruitment. Second, the decline position combined with the low cable pulley extends the range of motion in which the muscles are under a considerable amount of tension. With the standing variation much of the tension is lost at the top half of the movement, as the resistance is not directly opposed to the line of pull of the lat.

CLOSE NEUTRAL-GRIP HANDLE (commonly used for seated cable rows)

Straight-Arm Pulldown – Another great variation of the straight-arm pulldown is to perform the exercise with the close neutral-grip handle. Though it’s difficult to keep the arms ‘straight’ due to the internally rotated position needed to hold onto the handle, the idea is to perform the same sort of isolated movement at the shoulder joint with little help from the arms. Performing the movement with the close neutral-grip handle hits the lat in a slightly different way than with a straight bar, or rope, the major different being the extreme internal rotation needed at the shoulder joint.

Triceps Pressdown – Typically a rope, straight-bar, or triangle bar is used for triceps pressdowns. Logically, no one ever thinks to use the seated row attachment to perform anything but a seated row, but with a little creativity, it can be used to perform pressdowns in a way which provides tension in a slightly different than any other piece of equipment in the gym. The close neutral-grip attachment locks the arms into full internal rotation, which limits the chest and shoulders from taking over by maximally pre-shortening them, and if the weight is light enough, you can hit your triceps in a completely different way than they’re accustomed to, which positively affects the stimulation of new growth.


Behind-Head Bicep Curl – The overhead pulley enables you to perform bicep curls with your shoulders in a fully flexed position, which is basically an extreme variation of a concentration, or preacher curl. The more flexed you shoulder joint is, which basically means the further away you raise your arm from your body, the shorter the biceps are at the shoulder joint which limits its ability to generate force, therefore the brachialis is under greater stress.

CABLES (as opposed to free weights)

Lying Triceps Extension – “Skullcrushers” are traditionally performed with a free weight (EZ-Bar), and are extremely stressful on the elbow joints, to the point where the pain can be intolerable in some cases. By replacing the barbell with a cable, the stress to the joint itself is minimized. Because the line of pull is coming from behind the head, a greater amount of tension will is placed onto the long head of the tricep, as the long head acts not only as an elbow extensor, but a shoulder extensor as well.

SEATED (as opposed to standing)

Triceps Pressdown – When seated (prone and facing the cable stack, or supine and facing away from the cable stack) stability is provided externally which enhances the level of muscle activation in the triceps. The stability, combined with the fact that you are limited from using a little body English to assist with the lift, makes this a superior choice for those looking to build up the triceps. This minor modification will provide a noticeably greater amount of recruitment to the triceps compared to the standing variation, making it a far better choice of exercise as far as muscular development goes.


Elevating the heel, regardless of whether you are performing a squat, split squat, step-up, etc, results in preferential recruitment of the VMO, whereas elevating the toe when performing deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, etc, has an opposite effect by placing the muscles along the backside of the body (posterior chain) in a pre-stretched position, thus leading to a greater level of recruitment during these movements. A more developed posterior chain increases the capacity to generate maximum power/explosiveness, while a more developed VMO will provide stable tracking of the knee, which facilitates power/explosiveness, while also minimizing the risk of knee injuries. Elevating the heels also allows those with poor hip and ankle mobility to perform squats, and get their muscles and joints accustomed to going through a full range of motion, so they can one day squat without the heel supported.


There are a few ways to modify the way you perform hammer strength chest presses, whether it be flat, incline, or decline to stimulate your muscles from angles that are completely different than anything they`ve ever seen:

1.    Hold onto the part of the handle that is furthest away from you (lateral handle that is NOT intended to be held onto). If you are grabbing the right part of the machine that I’m talking about, your hands will be facing each other (neutral grip). This technique is geared towards relatively larger/wider lifters, as smaller/narrower individuals will not go through a great enough range of motion to make this modification worthwhile. Holding onto the outer most handle will keep the tension on the pecs at the expense of the triceps, which is something that bodybuilders, or those training for aesthetic purposes, may want to do, especially if the chest is underdeveloped in relation to the rest of their body, and the shoulders and triceps take over their pressing movements.

2.    Slide your hips (butt) as far forward as possible, which will essentially decline the angle to a minimal degree, but that's not so much the reason as much as that when you slide your hips to the front of the seat you will be in a position that stretches your pecs further than they normally would if your hips were where they were supposed to be. Sliding your butt towards the front of the seat will basically place your shoulder girdle even further back into the pad which enhances the stretch of the pecs in the bottom position.

3.    The major benefit the hammer strength machines offer is that they are iso-lateral, meaning each arm works on its own. You can take advantage of this by sliding towards the side you are working, turning ever so slightly, which allows you to press across your body, and also allows the shoulder blade to move freely, as it is not pinned into the bench (thus making it a more shoulder friendly exercise). This enables the pecs to shorten under tension in a way that a free weight simply cannot provide, due to gravity. Essentially you would be doing a cross-body chest press, as in your right hand should be closer to the left side of the midline of your body, if done correctly (and vice versa if you are using the left arm).

If you have any questions about how to modify an exercise to make it more effective for you based on your goal, or possibly have some good ideas that I may not have covered and would be interested in, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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