March 2, 2013

The Most Effective Exercises Popularized By Iron Guru Vince Gironda

Vince Gironda is best known as a guru in the bodybuilding world, having worked with some of the best bodybuilders of his time. He left his mark on the bodybuilding world by popularizing several high volume methods that he believed were most effective for building muscle. Among them were the 10 by 10, 8 by 8, 6 by 6, 10-8-6-15, and 15 by 4 methods.

But, being a bodybuilding oriented person myself, the one thing that stood out most to me when studying the many methods and techniques that he is known for, were the modifications that he made to various exercises to direct more tension onto the targeted muscle. While the modifications negatively affected how much weight could be lifted, percentagewise, they place a greater amount of the weight being lifted onto the primary muscle group being trained, which is what any bodybuilder would want to do in the first place.

The following are the most common exercises variations popularized by Gironda, with definitions of the modifications that were made. You’ll notice, the common denominator to almost all of the exercises, is that Gironda focused on increasing the range of motion to more thoroughly target the desired muscle group.

Bench Press

Traditionally one would grip the bar just outside shoulder width, and keep the elbows tight as they lower the bar to the chest. But, Gironda realized that performing bench presses in this manner results in greater levels of activation in the shoulders and triceps, than if you used a very wide grip and let the elbows flare out to the side, while lowering the bar to the collarbone or neck. Performing bench presses in this manner places a much greater percentage of the weight onto the pecs, but does so at the expense of increasing the risk of injury to the shoulder joint. Therefore, it is not expected that one use the same amount of weight as they’d traditionally use for bench presses, but as any bodybuilder will tell you, ‘it’s not about the weight’. To further isolate the chest, by default of eliminating the rest of the body from assisting in the movement, the legs were raised above the hips, and back resting flat onto the bench.

The wide grip, lower to the collarbone technique, that Gironda emphasized can also be applied to both incline, and decline, variations of a barbell press. Doing so will increase the involvement of the clavicular head of the pec, AKA upper chest.

3 Phase Sissy Squat

Gironda didn’t believe bodybuilders should squat, as he believed the squat itself placed more emphasis on the glutes than the quads, therefore throwing off their symmetry, so he modified it to make it more of a quad dominant movement by breaking it down into 3 separate movements: the knee drop, the burlesque bump, and the flush out (which is a combination of the knee drop and the burlesque bump).

The set up for the knee drop is the same as if you were performing a heels-elevated front squat, only instead of letting the hips travel back to allow you to remain upright the further you descend, you keep the hips directly above the heel, only bending at the knee, and letting them travel as far forward as possible, without letting the hips travel behind the heel, before reversing the motion back to the top. Basically, it looks like a top-half heels-elevated front squat.

If the knee drop is considered a top half range of motion movement, the burlesque bump would be the polar opposite. The execution is the same, only the reps are performed through the bottom half of the range of motion, as if performing a bottom-half heels-elevated front squat.

Typically the knee drop is followed by the burlesque bump, which is then followed by the flush out. This can almost be thought of as the lower body’s version of ‘21s’, in which a barbell curl is broken down into 7 bottom half reps, 7 top half reps, and 7 full range reps, only the reps in this case ought to be adjusted based on your goal.

Lying Leg Curl

The hamstrings, glutes, and erectors make up the brunt of what is referred to as the posterior chain, which functions to extend the hips and lower back. When lying prone to perform leg curls, many lifters will instinctively compensate by contorting their body to enable their erectors help them generate force to either use more weight, or complete more repetitions with subpar form. To isolate the hamstrings, Gironda modified the movement to eliminate the lower back from assisting by performing the exercise with the upper body suspended by the arms, resembling what would look like someone holding themselves in the top part of a push-up while performing leg curls. This variation could almost be thought of as the hamstrings version of a concentration curl.

Leg Extension

Three of the four quadriceps heads function strictly to extend the knee, but one head, the rectus femoris, functions as both a knee extensor, as well as hip flexor. When the hip is flexed, the rectus femoris is inhibited from functioning as a knee extensor, therefore decreasing the effectiveness of a traditional leg extension from a quadriceps recruitment standpoint. Gironda modified the leg extension, turning it into what would look like a whole body movement by having the knee and hip, flex and extend in synchrony. To do this, one would lean forward and flex at the hip as the quadriceps contracted eccentrically, and then lean back and extend at the hip as the quadriceps contracted concentrically. This enables the rectus femoris to play a bigger role in the leg extension, therefore leading to more thorough development of the quads.

Sternum Pull-Ups

Hanging from a bar, with an overhand grip, and pulling your body up until your chin touches, or passes, the bar would be considered the standard range of motion for a pull-up, by nearly anyone. Gironda however, believed that the movement was incomplete by stopping when ones chin touches, or barely surpasses the bar, so he modified the lift in such a way that a greater percentage of the musculature of the back would reap the benefits of performing the movement. By leaning back, as much as possible, and pulling yourself up until your lower chest, or sternum, touches the bar, the movement becomes a full blown back developer by more actively involving the rhomboids, and traps, amongst other muscles.

To go one further, by pushing yourself back and away as you lower your body, you will place the subscapularis muscle of the rotator cuff under a significant amount of tension, therefore leading to more complete development.

Standing High Pulley Cable Row

Seated cable rows limit one’s ability to get a full stretch in the lats, as one can only bend forward so much before their own body prevents them from going any further, or the weight stack touches the bottom therefore taking the tension off the muscles. To extend the range of motion, Gironda would perform a cable row while standing, and using a high pulley, to manipulate the way in which the body was positioned to get a greater stretch, as well as contraction. To get a greater stretch, one could simply bend forward at the hip and allow the weight to pull up and back on the lats, and to get a deeper contraction one could extend at the hip and become more upright while drawing the elbows back as far as possible.

The Dumbell Swing (Lateral/Front Raise)

The dumbell swing is a combination of both a lateral raise, and front raise, all in one. By performing a lateral raise with one arm, while simultaneously performing a front raise across the body in the direction of the arm performing the lateral raise with the other arm, the movement becomes a lot easier to perform without losing stability, which typically happens when performing front raises only, as the center of gravity moves forward away from the body, which places a lot more tension on the erectors to keep you upright. The added stability, as well as the ability to generate a little bit of momentum is why Gironda likely favoured performing lateral/front raises in this manner.

Overhead Cable Triceps Extension

The most common way to perform an overhead cable triceps extension is to grab the desired cable attachment (rope, ez-bar, straight bar), face away from a high cable, lean forward to counterbalance the amount of weight you are lifting, and perform strict extensions of the elbow joint. Gironda felt that this exercise could be modified to isolate the triceps further by performing the movement from a kneeling position, and pinning the back of the upper arms tight against a bench, that would be placed a foot or two away from the cable pulley. This variation could almost be thought of as the triceps version of a preacher curl.

Pullover And Press

Like the rectus femoris of the quad, the long head of the triceps has two functions: to extend the shoulder, as well as the elbow. The pullover and press takes advantage of this by dynamically working the shoulder from flexion to extension, as well as the elbow from flexion to extension. To perform the pullover and press, one would lay on a flat bench with the head suspended over the back of the bench, to allow the barbell to be lowered to a greater degree behind the head, before being pulled over onto the chest, and pressed above the chest. The biggest impression Gironda left on this lift was that the press should be performed with the elbows flared out, in line with the barbell as opposed to the traditional elbows tucked position for a close grip press. Also, the elbows should be tucked tight to the body as the bar is lowered back behind the head.

Bicep Curl Variations

Of all the major bodyparts, it is the biceps that Gironda left the greatest impression on. The barbell curl itself has two separate variations, as well as the preacher curl.

The modification to the preacher curl consists of using an extremely wide grip, with the elbows tucked as tight together as possible. This places a tremendous amount of stress on the elbow joint, so one should not attempt to use the same amount of weight they can preacher curl with traditional form. Gironda suggested that performing preacher curls in this manner, more effectively targeted the outer head of the biceps.

As far as the barbell curl variations, both the ‘perfect curl’ and ‘drag curl’ minimize the amount of body English one can use to complete the rep, therefore forcing the biceps themselves to take on a greater percentage of the work.

The drag curl is performed exactly how it sounds. You grab onto the bar, and keep it tight to your torso as you bend your elbows to perform the curl. The elbows will likely have to travel behind the body if a greater range of motion is desired.

The perfect curl is the complete opposite of what a cheat curl would look like. A cheat curl, as many can already imagine based on the name, is when one uses the muscles of their back to generate momentum, or cheat, to help propel the weight through a full range of motion. With a perfect curl, you actually lean into the lift as you curl the weight. This shortens the biceps at both the elbow, and the shoulder joint, therefore making it a more biomechanically intact lift than pretty much any other curl variation, since the biceps act as an elbow AND shoulder flexor.

Both the drag curl, and perfect curl, can be performed with more than just a barbell. For instance, a cable apparatus would be suitable for performing perfect curls, while a smith-machine makes a solid substitute for the drag curl, since the bar travels in a linear path.

The Gironda lifts above are not necessarily suggested for lifters that have below optimal strength levels, because the modifications to each lift above requires one to use less weight than if they were to perform each movement the standard way. Once optimal strength has been attained, modifying certain movements to direct more tension to specific muscle groups becomes more appropriate. But for those who have a lot of room to grow in the basic movements, performing modified variations in an attempt to make further progress is not the most efficient use of one’s time. Get strong first, and then manipulate the movements that are best suited to craft your body to look a certain way. I once read a very applicable quote by Nasser El Sonbaty, a rather successful, massive bodybuilder in the 90’s known for being one of the largest bodybuilders of his era, that said something like ‘if 25 lb. dumbells wwere gonna get you big, it would’ve happened a long time ago’.

If you have any questions about any of the exercises outlined above, and how to perform them, or even where to implement them into a training program, feel free to contact me at 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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  2. You left out most famous gironda exercise. The gironda dip is by far the best chest exercise I've ever done.