by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D.
All trainees eventually develop their favorite exercises –and exercise apparatus — for each bodypart. Trying to pry you away from yours would be like taking your favorite teddy bear away from you. Often, however, some of the exercises I’ve seen some folks doing in the gym are about as useful as a teddy bear! Y’know, movements that are “comfortable,” “familiar,” or which somehow perpetuate some real or imagined “mystique” you’ve ascribed to yourself and to your social “station” within the gym.
The simple truth is, you just “like” certain exercises. As to the notion that your favorites are better than others, well, maybe and maybe not.
So, rather than forcing you to give up your teddy bear, let me offer some advice that you may find very useful. Maybe you can keep your teddy bear (it’s probably not hurting anything for you to do so), and at the same time, begin doing some of the tried-and-true permutations of all of the bodypart exercises in such a way that you will derive maximum benefit.
The BEST way to do ALL exercises:
Every muscle in your body has an origin and insertion. The practice of twisting and turning which way and that while doing an exercise is generally not effective in affecting the shape a muscle will eventually assume. Your genetic predisposition will determine each muscle’s shape.
But you CAN get each muscle bigger! Then, having done so, hope that the good Lord was being nice to you when the genes (your lineage — your family) were doled out.
Your muscles’ origin is usually the connection closest to the midline of your body. That means its the non-moving end of the muscle. Your job is to force the insertion point of the muscle toward the origin point — through the “belly” of the muscle — while placing it under adaptive (overload) stress. Most often, that means that you should just pile on a lot of pig iron and lift the bar! Don’t get cute!
SOME EFFECTIVE PERMUTATIONS OF COMMON EXERCISES
Your trapezius muscles (called “traps”) elevate and support your shoulder girdle (i.e., pull your shoulders toward your ears). Simply hold a bar in front of you and “shrug” your shoulders straight upwards. You don’t have to rotate your shoulders — just shrug.
An alternative method is to shrug with heavy dumbbells while either seated or standing. The straight bar must be held out in front of you, while seated dumbbell shrugs allow the arms to hang naturally at your sides. This makes dumbbell shrugs a bit more comfortable and definitely easier on your low back. Holding a heavy bar in front of you requires strong contraction of your erector spinae muscles.
Normal shrugging technique (as explained above) activates the two upper portions of your trapezius (i.e., trapezius I and II). By leaning forward (about 20-30 degrees), and then shrugging straight up — not toward your ears, but vertically toward the ceiling — you will activate trapezius III and IV. You may wish to support your upper body against a padded surface (like a preacher curl bench) in order to alleviate unnecessary stress on your lower back while leaning forward.
SEATED PRESS BEHIND THE NECK
Despite its popularity among bodybuilders, I’m “mildly” opposed to this exercise for at least two reasons. First, assuming that you wish to do “complete” presses to lockout, seated dumbbell presses accomplish the same thing without the same “interference” from having to “crunch” your upper back muscles in order to get the bar down to your neck. Having to contract your rhomboids, trapezius III and IV, and your posterior deltoids only serves to limit the amount of adaptive stress being delivered to your middle deltoids.
Secondly, after the bar has passed the top of your head, your deltoids are no longer the prime movers in the movement. The deltoids are statically contracting at that point, and the serratus anterior and triceps muscles take over to finish the press to lockout.
Actually, you can press much more weight to a head height position than you can press completely overhead. The reason for this is that your middle deltoids are much stronger than the combined strength of your triceps and serratus. Does it not therefore make more sense to use a heavier weight and do “partial presses?” I think it does, and the simple reason is that it will deliver a greater adaptive stress to your middle delts.
The traditional method of exercising your frontal deltoids is to raise either dumbbells or a bar upwards and to the front of your body with slightly bent elbows. If dumbbells are used, they can be raised alternately or simultaneously.
I think there’s a “better” way.
Using dumbbells, alternately raise them upwards and to the front as described above, but with one significant difference. Before raising the dumbbell in your right hand, lean 20-30 degrees to the right. And, before raising the left one, lean to the left in a similar fashion. The dumbbells are raised to about head height to arm’s length in front of your face.
The rationale for this departure from traditional technique is that your frontal deltoids originate and insert at about that angle from the vertical plane of your body. Bending sideward while performing the dumbbell raises places the targeted frontal delt perpendicular to the floor, thereby making its contraction (force output) more efficient. Do that, and the adaptive stress is improved.
Your pectoral muscles (“called “pecs”) are developed with bench presses. It’s potentially dangerous, so have a spotter close by at all times. NEVER bench press alone! Have your spotter help you lift the bar out of the uprights and to a position directly over your chest. Lower the weight to your chest and press it back up to arms’ length again. Then, after performing the required number of reps, have the spotter assist you in placing the bar back on the uprights. You can emphasize your “pecs” more if your elbows are away from your sides (perpendicular to your torso) during the movement, and your front deltoids more if your elbows are kept close to your sides during the movement.
Much of the danger inherent in this exercise can be eliminated by using a “Monolift” machine. This new device allows you to position the bar directly over your chest BEFORE you unrack the bar. While bench pressing, special spotting platforms ensure that, should the bar be dropped accidentally or should you miss the lift, the weight will not come down on you. Then, rather than your training partner helping you rack the bar, he rotates the cradle hooks under the bar while it’s still held over your chest.
There are two particularly troublesome techniques I see all too often among bench pressers. One is the dangerous practice of using a thumbless grip. The notion that a thumbless grip will somehow alter the angle or quality of stress you’re delivering to your pecs is outrageously dumb. Keep your thumbs around the bar!
The second practice is just as outrageous. I’ve heard benchers say that by keeping your feet off the floor — suspended over the bench or resting on the bench — somehow improves the isolation of the pecs and therefore the adaptive overload being delivered to your pecs. The truth is that while your feet are off the floor, you’re always slightly off balance on the narrow bench you’re lying on, and various stabilizer muscles are attempting to keep you from falling off the bench. This superfluous muscular activity is detracting from the stress you can deliver to the pecs. It is certainly NOT improving it! Besides, being off balance while a heavy weight is hovering over your face and throat is downright asking for trouble!
But these two troublesome techniques pale in their potential for disaster in comparison to the design of the bench itself! Consider: Lying on your back with 300-400 or more pounds in your hands pressing your scapulae into the flat bench beneath. You lower the bar to your chest. But the scapulae are pinned to the bench and cannot slide inwards as you lower the bar. And neither can they slide outward as you raise the bar off your chest. This is not good! It causes undue stress on the tendons of the long heads of your biceps. The results?
- Nagging long-lasting pain from biceps tendonitis
- You can’t lift as much
- Far less strength is developed
- Poor sports performance.
On top of that, all benches are made to be around 16 or so inches off the ground. Just because the rules of powerlifting dictate it. This is downright dangerous for shorter athletes who have to go into spinal hyperextension in order to keep their feet flat on the ground for better stability. The results?
- low back trauma
- less stability during training and therefore greater exposure to injury and less weight being lifted
- poor sports performance, or (worse)
- ruined sports career from unnecessary injury
Now picture this: Same weight, same bench. But with a little patented gizmo built into the bench that allows your scapulae to slide in as you lower the bar, and back out as you press it back upward. This is how Mother Nature intended for your shoulder girdle to operate. The results?
- Far less chance of biceps tendonitis or rotator cuff trauma
- Up to 10 percent more weight lifted
- greater strength is developed
- no unnecessary trauma to the lumbar spine
- better sports performance, not only because you’re stronger but because you’re healthier!
You just won’t believe it until you’ve experienced it! You and your clients are gonna LOVE it!
DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
I favor dumbbell bench presses over benching with a bar because you can achieve greater adaptive stress with dumbbells. Dumbbells will tend to force you to keep your upper arms perpendicular to your torso while lowering them. Many benchers will allow their elbows to drift inward toward their sides while using a straight bar. This happens because there’s a natural tendency to use the anterior (frontal) deltoids to assist in moving the bar, thereby robbing the pecs of some stress.
Also, dumbbells allow you to employ a technique that will improve the adaptive stress being delivered to your pecs even more. By carefully (under total control) allowing the dumbbells to drift slightly off balance toward the outside, you will have to “fight” harder to raise them. This controlled outward drift allows you to use superior weight while getting the same benefits afforded by regular flyes. Regular flyes are done with very light weights, whereas modified dumbbell benches employ far heavier weight. Again, here’s a little technique that tends to improve the quality of adaptive stress.
With a wide grip on the overhead pulley bar, pull the bar straight down as though you were pulling the bar straight through the middle of your head. Of course, you can’t do this, so simply flop your head back out of the way. Don’t lean backwards while doing lat pulldowns, as this will tend to involve other (non-targeted) muscles of your upper back. This exercise is done exactly like chin-ups, except the bar comes down instead of your body going up. It’s great for developing your lats, and NOT so great for developing your other back or shoulder muscles.
Some bodybuilders like to do pulldowns behind their neck. I’m not convinced that this is a wise technique. Doing so requires that you contract all of the non-targeted muscles of your upper back (i.e., all four aspects of your trapezius, your rhomboids and your posterior deltoids) in order to get the bar down behind your head. Why do this? It tends to rob you of maximum overload for your lats (your “targeted” muscles).
Also, pulling the bar so far down that your forearms are not perpendicular to the floor, but instead almost parallel to the floor, involves the inward rotators of your upper arm (rotator cuff muscles). Again, this tends to rob your lats of maximum overload.
One variation to lat pulldowns that I introduced a few years ago while training a few strength athletes is catching on in a big way in bodybuilding circles. It’s called “lat shrug-downs.” Using more weight than you can pull down to your chin, attach your hands to the bar with lifting straps and have your partner pull you down so you can hook your legs under the thigh pads. Then “shrug” downward with the weight by activating the lats. Do NOT pull with your arms; leave your arms totally uninvolved. I believe this variation to be more effective than the traditional “full range” pulldowns at developing mass and strength.
And, here’s another one! Has it ever occurred to you that the technocrats — the “Denizens of the Drawing Board” who have until now ruled the sports training equipment industry — have been pulling the wool over your eyes? You have two hands right? Two arms, two lats. Two sides of your body. So, ummm, how come you only have one handle to pull down on? And only one weight stack?
Good question, right? It’s like this: Some sports movements require that one limb or single-limb movement be stressed at a time. Also, greater overload can be delivered to one side as opposed to two sides simultaneously exercising (a neuronal input difference is involved). I believe that this one-at-a-time technique should be more the rule than the exception. When you do pulldowns for your lats using a conventional bar (tapered at each end), your hands are what? Three feet apart? What does that do to 1) your range of motion, 2) your flexibility, 3) your lats (the biceps are the weak link in the pulldown), and 4) your sports specificity? ZILCH! Or nearly so. The same holds true for doing low rows ( sometimes called seated long cable pulls). Needed: Some double-sided twin weight stack machines!
Picture this: The great Olympic weightlifter Vasily Alexeev’s ponderous body draped over a gymnastics long horse with his feet wedged between the stall bars of an unbelievably archaic training gym in Moscow’s Lenin Institute of Sport. With four hundred pounds precariously perched behind his head, he explodes for five reps of back raises. There is virtually NO hip extensor involvement, only pure erector spinae contraction. That means 1) tremendous low back limit strength and speed-strength is developed far beyond what any other low back exercise could possibly accomplish, and 2) virtually NO trauma to the tenuous intervertebral discs of the lumbar spine, which is something no other low back exercise ever conceived can claim.
By far the biggest muscles of your lower back are the “erector” muscles. They’re also the most visible. Your erector spinae muscles are designed to extend (and hyperextend) your spine. They do NOT act on your hip joint, so there’s no reason to engage in exercises which require hip joint movement (i.e., traditional “hypers”).
The best way to target your erectors is with “back extensions.” This exercise requires the use of a specialized bench quite unlike the ones you’re probably used to seeing around the gyms (the “hyper” benches you are used to seeing are, in my opinion, relatively worthless). The bench of choice is called (by its inventor, Dr. Mike Yessis) a “glute-ham-gastroc machine.” He called it that because those muscles are the ones the Soviets target with a similar exercise which Dr. Yessis improved upon. Glute-ham-gastroc raises are discussed in the section (below) dealing with leg and hip exercises.
To use this device to target your erectors, your feet are secured by the two foot pads which are backed by a metal plate that prevents your feet from slipping through. Your “belly button” is placed in the middle of the padded support. Your knees are bent. Then, your feet push against the metal plate in order to “lock” your upper legs against the padded bench. All of this ensures that only your erector muscles are targeted, and NOT your hip extensors (gluteals). Simply assume the described position and flex your spine (round your back downward). Hold as much weight behind your head as you can, and extend your spine (straighten it back out again). You should not raise way up by arching (hyperextending) your back, as doing so places too much strain on the intervertebral discs of your lumbar spine. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
This exercise is quite probably the ONLY low back exercise you will ever have to do. It is that effective.
Noted exceptions are deadlifts, squats, glute-ham raises and explosive high pulls, all of which involve the lower back muscles as either stabilizers or synergists. However, none is done for the express purpose of developing your lower back, and are probably unsuitable for most trainees outside clinical and sports-specific applications.
Sometimes the old way is the best way. But sometimes it’s not. Sport scientists agreed way back in the 50’s that “sit-ups” were bad for your back, and that “crunches” performed with bent knees were better. Many different abdominal exercise devices have been marketed over the past fifteen years, all of which simulated the “crunch” technique.
But that was then. “Better” replaced “good.” In conventional crunches, you are able apply resistance to your abdominal muscles for only 50 percent of your potential range of motion. And crunches performed in the ab machines currently on the market usually require naught but static contraction from your abs while your hip flexors move the resistance.
Compare that to the 100 percent greater range of motion afforded by pre-stretching your badominal wall. For each crunch you perform, you do twice the work. That means twice the effect. Putting it another way, twice the work means the same effect in HALF THE TIME! Partial movements have their place in sports training. Yet, incredibly, full range ab work has been virtually overlooked by training experts over the years.
This variation of crunchers is by far the most effective abdominal exercise there is. I developed this variation during the seventies, and patented the first abdominal machine ever. The patent was successfully protected when a large equipment company tried to infringe upon it. That’s why you don’t see this particular design element incorporated into any of the dozens of different designs of abdominal machines.
But you can do it with no specialized equipment. Simply follow the directions given for regular crunchers, but do so with about 6-8 inches of padding under your lower back. When lying back, your shoulders have to go all the way back until they touch the floor or bench, thereby “prestretching” you abdominal muscles prior to contracting them during the crunch movement.
This prestretch offers the advantage of having to contract through roughly double the normal range of motion afforded by regular crunchers or other ab machines. That equates to roughly double the adaptive stress and double the benefits.
A few more points to remember:
- It’s a myth that you can “isolate” the upper from the lower abs — electromyographic studies show that the minute you apply resistance, both your upper and lower abdominals kick into action together
- Other ab machines on the market are difficult to get into and out of, are principally hip flexors (the abs are forced to statically contract while the iliopsoas concentrically contracts to bring your torso forward or your knees toward your chest), and — if at all — involve only a half range movement capability
- It’s a myth that you should do hundreds of reps of crunches — your abs, like all other muscles in your body, respond best to PROGRESSIVE RESISTANCE training
- Full range crunches are twice as productive than half range crunches
The Russians are famous for their great athletes. One of the exercises that all Russian athletes do for the abdominal muscles, the internal oblique muscles and the external oblique muscles has become known as “Russian Twists.” Every time you twist, swing a bat, or throw, you use these important muscles. As for its usefulness to bodybuilders, this exercise tightens the entire midsection in a “girdle” effect.
Study the accompanying photo of this exercise. Notice that your lower back remains in contact with the ground (or, better yet, in contact with an “SI pad” for your sacroiliac, or lower back), and your feet are positioned close to your buttocks (knees bent). Holding a small weight directly over your face at arms’ length, twist all the way to the right and then to the left several times. Do not allow your torso or shoulders to come in contact with the ground while twisting back and forth. This is a difficult exercise — it’s great!
Now here is a GREAT way to do squats right! The specially designed bar makes it easier to get deep enough into the squat position, easier to keep your back straight, and with far less danger of injuring your lower back or knees.
Safety squats are also more comfortable because of the padded yolk that’s resting on your shoulders. This special bar is called a “safety squat bar,” although it has become widely referred to as the “Hatfield Bar” because of my longstanding endorsement of its benefits. It allows you to use your hands to both hold yourself in a perfect, upright squatting position as well as “spot” yourself if the weight becomes too heavy. In my opinion, every bodybuilder should do squats this way.
STIFF LEGGED DEADLIFTS
A lot of bodybuilders use stiff legged deadlifts to exercise their lower back. Because your lower back is more efficiently and effectively developed with back extensions, there is no need to do any other exercise for your lower back, and ESPECIALLY not stiff legged deadlifts!
Stiff legged deadlifts are particularly effective for developing your hamstrings (the back of your upper legs).
The traditional way of performing this exercise is to lower the weighted bar all the way down to your bootstraps while standing on a platform or bench with stiff legs (or knees slightly bent). In this way, it’s believed, you’ll get maximum effect on your hams. This may be true to a degree, but you’re also going to unnecessarily expose your lumbar spine to injury. Those intervertebral discs down there come loose all too easily!
I believe that I’ve developed a better way. With barbell in hand, poke both your butt and belly outward. In this position, you look kinda like one of the “Keystone Cops” you see in the 1920s movies. This variation of stiff legged deadlifts has thus become known as “Keystone Deadlifts.”
This seemingly strange position will prestretch your hamstrings because of the forward tilt of your pelvis the position entails. Then, while maintaining this position, slowly lower the barbell to around your knees, keeping the bar close to your legs during the descent and ascent.
You must NOT go more than an inch or two below your knees. By the time you reach your (slightly unlocked) knees, your hip joints have fully flexed, and further lowering of the bar is accomplished ONLY through hyperflexion of your spine — a NO-NO!
You will feel a decided “burn” in your hams and glutes when keystones are done correctly. You should feel virtually no discomfort or stress in your lower back. If you do, experiment with the movement until you feel no discomfort at all.
The nice thing about doing stiff legged deadlifts this way is that you can use a far heavier weight, thereby getting better adaptive stress applied to the target muscles. All without any low back trauma at all!
One more important caution: NEVER do this exercise explosively! You’ll risk pulling a hamstring or blowing out a lumbar disc. Bodybuilders are well-advised to steer clear of heavy deadlifting movements, as they are potentially dangerous to the lower spine.
STRENGTH SHOE TRAINING
Sneakers with special “platforms” attached to the soles keep your heels off the ground while running, jumping and walking. Most of you may remember Boyer Coe used to endorse this strange looking footwear. Wearing these strength shoes around for an hour or so each day while you’re running, jumping and walking will make your calf muscles incredibly strong and put meat back there better than any calf exercise I’ve ever seen.
Be careful, though! You must gradually work up to an hour. Begin by wearing them only 5 minutes a day. Add 5 minutes every third day or so. Don’t rush it! You’ll find that these shoes will put at least a couple inches of size and ad up to 5 inches to your vertical jumping ability in 3-4 months!
Picture this: Valery Borzov, the great Russian sprinter (Olympic gold medalist in 1972) in the same archaic setup doing explosive hip extensions followed by an immediate bending of the knees to simulate the glute-ham pull characteristic of sprinters in full stride. He carries 7-0 pounds behind his head. That means 1) far greater gluteal and hamstring speed-strength, which is something no other sprint training exercise can claim, and 2) almost one hundred percent injury-proofing against hamstring pulls, which is also something no other sprint training exercise — or any exercise for that matter — can claim.
Your “butt” muscles are called the gluteus maximus (or “glutes” for short). Your hamstrings (“hams”) are the backs of your upper leg. And, your calf muscles are called your “gastrocnemius” muscles (or “gastrocs”). So, a “glute-ham-gastroc” exercise is one that sequentially strengthens all three of these muscles in one movement.
This is an exercise developed in Russia, and perfected by an American sports scientist named Dr. Mike Yessis. It is the single best weight training exercise there is for improving speed and explosiveness in running and jumping.
Bodybuilders can also benefit markedly from this exercise for the same reasons cited for explosive high pulls. You use your “glutes” to raise your body to a straight (horizontal) position. Then, your “hams” continue the movement to pull you up to a bent-knee level, and the “gastrocs” help the hams finish the movement.
You will need the specially-built machine described in the section above on back raises in order to do this exercise.
THE SQUAT HARNESS
There are many variations to the squat movement. One extremely important one for athletes is the “lunge” squat. Lunge squats can be done to the left, right or forward, placing the weight on the lead leg. The quad muscles of the lead leg are targeted with both front and side lunges. Side lunges also target the groin muscles (especially the adductor gracilis of the opposite leg).
Also, from a front lunge position, you can “twist” while ascending from the lunge position. This is an exercise which I had originally developed for athletes like down-linemen or shot putters who are required to explode laterally out of a lunge or squat position. All other benefit too, in that fuller leg development is achieved in the sartorius and adductor muscles of the upper leg. Remember, almost every sport requires explosive twisting motions — throwing, hitting, exploding laterally off the line, and so forth.
“Twisting squats,” as they’re called, require a special squat harness to wear on your chest and shoulders to hold the short bar in place. DO NOT attempt to do twisting squats with a long bar, or with the bar placed on your shoulders! The squat harness is built for safety, but a short bar or EZ curl bar must be used.