Symmetry and Exercise Funk

by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D.

All bodybuilders have their favorite exercises. Trying to pry you away from yours would be like taking your favorite teddy bear away from you. Y’know, funky 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. Maybe you HAD learned the exercise in this mag, maybe from the big guy in the gym. Or, maybe you made it up and it “feels” good.

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. Isn’t that the name of the game?

The BEST Way To Do ALL Exercises:

Every muscle in your body has an origin and insertion point. 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. There are exceptions. One inparticular is pullups, where the origin moves closer to the insertion instead of the other way ‘round. Generally, though, 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 damned bar! Don’t get cute!

What To Do About Poor Genetics Hampering Your Symmetry:

A lot of bodybuilders have problems with symmetry. One arm bigger or more shapely than the other, an unequal lat spread, pectoral development that’s uneven, or a gap between bicep and forearm. Those are four common sources of asymmetry, but there are others.

Asymmetry problems aren’t necessarily restricted to size differences occurring bilaterally. Shape differences are also sources of consternation to the perfection conscious bodybuilder. The big question is, “Can anything be done about asymmetrical development?”

As I see it, there are five options open to you if you’re one of the unlucky ones who, upon conception got a swift kick in the proverbial “genes.”

  1. You can apply electrostimulation to the offending muscle. Your individual muscle cells each have their own excitation threshold — the level at which they’re stimulated to contract. Some can be easily stimulated with as little as a couple of millivolts of “juice” from your central nervous system. Others, especially the highly fatigueable, explosive white fibers, need as much as 15 – 20 millivolts of electrical current in order to stimulate them to respond contractively. With a lagging muscle, it’s important to get maximum excitatory stimulation in order to force previously unreached muscle fibers to contract. Doing so may be just the ticket you were looking for to get that muscle to grow to the proportions of the opposite side.
  2. You can have deep fiber massage performed. Theoretically, by freeing the individual fibers which comprise a muscle — they stick together because of injury-prompted adhesions and scar tissue — it will assume a normal shape and size. Think of it as a liberation therapy — a release of bound-together muscle cells. Neuromuscular re-education, myofascial release…there are other names this technique goes by. Check it out!
  3. You can apply a system of unilateral exercise. Exercising the offending muscle and totally ignoring the “good side” is perhaps the most commonly applied remedy for asymmetrical development. All that technique will accomplish, in my opinion, is to create two “bad” sides instead of one. Instead, try exercising your good side as you normally have in the past. But apply exercise to the offending side with a totally different form of stress. For example, if you’re used to doing sets of ten reps, continue that form of stress on your good side, but do explosive sets of 5 or 6 reps to the bad. Also, try doing sets of 30-40 reps with slow, continuous tension movements to the bad side. Theoretically, as the cellular elements respond to this new form of stress, you may spark new growth there. It may be that your muscle has already adapted to the level and type of stress you have been applying, and is in need of a new level and type of stimulation.
  4. You can go to a neurologist or a chiropractor to determine whether your problem is rooted in nerve damage or impingement. I have seen many bodybuilders, athletes and powerlifters with asymmetrical development resulting from nerve damage. Most typically the damage has occurred in the spine and has impinged or damage the nerve which services the offending muscle. The three most typical asymmetry problems — lats, arms and chest — have nerves servicing them which emanate from the cervical spine. It may be nothing more than an adjustment problem, though that’s unlikely. More commonly it’s a disc that’s damaged. Not being a physician, I hesitate to go beyond that meager description of a potential remedy. See a neurologist if you suspect this to be a potential problem.
  5. You can hide it through creative choreography in your posing routine. Get with a good choreographer and structure your posing routine in such a way that your good points are emphasized and your bad points are hidden. But today — with bodybuilders nearing perfection — I doubt that taking this tack will prove effective enough to get you to Olympian stature. You’re going to have to do more than hide a bodypart from the scrutiny of the vigilant judges.

What Are The Best Exercises For Each Body Part?

Then again, you can simply forget about your (largely hereditary) symmetry problems, and — for love of what you do — lift the damned bar! Excepting for marginally improved symmetry (or appearance of symmetry) through the use of the five techniques mentioned above, there are some rather simple exercises that will give you all the development you’ll ever be able to get regardless of the “funk” you’ve injected into your movement patterns and technique.

Heres how I recommend that this seemingly simple task be accomplished…in my humble opinion.

CHEST

  1. Bench Presses With Scapular Pads Built Into The Bench: With a regular bench, your scapulae are pinned and immobile, creating stress in and about the shoulders, causing biceps tendinitis and rotator cuff problems. The scap pad bench alleviates this problem.
  2. Dumbbell Benches With Scapular Pads Built Into The Bench: I like dumbbells best because the synergistic and stabilizer muscles benefit moreso than with a straight bar.
  3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Presses With Curved Back Pad: The curved back is a more natural position which most people gravitate to anyway…the curved back pad affords unusual support.

SHOULDERS

Dumbbell Raises (Front, Lateral And Inverted For All 3 Heads Of Deltoids): You could just as easily use cables, but I prefer the dumbbells because the synergistic and stabilizer muscles benefit more so than with cables.

TRAPS

  1. Upright Barbell Shrugs (Trapezii I & II): For bodybuilders, this’ll work. However, under ordinary circumstances, I’d opt for high pulls or cleans for most athletes because of the added benefits provided by such compound movements.
  2. Barbell Shrugs While Bent Forward About 30 Degrees (Trapezii III & IV): Most bodybuilders are deficient in trapezii III and IV, so I assume they never heard of this exercise.

LOWER BACK

Back Extensions With Hips Immobilized Beforehand: Normal back extension machines are totally inadequate for erector development because your back is merely stabilizing your torso while the glutes and hammies rise your body. To make the erectors the prime movers, simply eliminate your hip extensors by bending at the hips . Then, with a weight behind your head, flex your spine and then extend (or slightly hyperextend) your spine against trhe resistance. This is the ONLY low back isolation exercise I’d EVER recommend to ANYONE. No shear, no compression.

UPPER BACK

  1. Bent Over Rows With Dumbbells: Some of the oldies are still the best.
  2. Lat Pulldowns (Separate Cable For Each Hand): With regular pulldowns, your range of motion is severely limited by your wide grip. Also, if you’re using a narrow grip bar, your biceps relative weakness tends to limit the extent of overload you deliver to the much stronger lats.
  3. Lat Shrug-Downs (Close Grip With Arms Kept Straight): Use 2 or 3 times your normal load with this exercise, and DO use lifting straps! Get your partner to assist you in getting into the position. You will be amazed at the quality of overload delivered to your lats!

BICEPS

  1. Barbell Curls: Some of the oldies are still the best. Actually, I prefer alternate dumbbell curls.
  2. Incline Dumbbell Curls: Some of the oldies are still the best. Be aware, however, that while you may get a small amount of differentiation between inner and outer heads, the average bodybuilder will never experience a significant improvement in separation or fuller development beyond what normal curls will deliver. Mostly, this is for variation to avoid habituation.

TRICEPS

  1. Pushdowns: Some of the oldies are still the best.
  2. French Presses: Some believe this exercise targets the long head more effectively.
  3. Nose Crushers: Middle head (?). Be aware that while you may get a small amount of differentiation between the three triceps heads, the average bodybuilder will never experience a significant improvement in separation or fuller development beyond what normal extensions will deliver. Mostly, this is for variation to avoid habituation.

MIDSECTION

  1. Weighted Prestretched Crunches: You prestretch every other muscle before stressing it, right? So why not the abs? By the way, this is my patented exercise technique, and I’m sorta proud of it! As for targeting the lower vs the upper, well forget it! The minute you opt for greater overlaod, the differentiation disappears.
  2. Weighted Russian Twists: Your left and right abdominals alternately contract statically while your inner and outer obliques alternately bear the load. A phenomenal oblique strengthener (you will NOT develop “love handles” with this exercise!)
  3. Sidebends Left & Right With A Dumbbell: I like this exercise because it’s easy to do, and requires no special apparatus. It’s great for your quadratus lumborum (lateral flexor of the spine) as well as your internal and external obliques.

QUADRICEPS

  1. Safety Squats (Also Targets Hamstrings And Gluteals): Most of the knee and lumbar shear is eliminated when you can use your hands to hod an erect position while squatting.
  2. Leg Extensions: I like this exercise, but it should not be a mainstay. Too much knee shear.
  3. Twisting Squats (Also Targets Sartorius, Adductors, Hamstrings And Gluteals): Normally restricted to use by down-linemen and shot putters, this is also an excellent exercise for bodybuilders seeking variation in their leg training.

HAMSTRINGS

  1. Weighted Glute/Ham Raises (Also Targets Gluteals): Made famous by Dr. Mike Yessis, who worked off an old Russian design, this is “THE” exercise for sprinters. It’s also the best hamstring exercise ever conceived for bodybuilders.
  2. Keystone Deadlifts: Prestretching your hammies by tilting your pelvis will ensure that greater overload stress is being delivered to your hamstrings. Don’t go below your knees, as that would require flexing your spine.
  3. Full Range Single Leg Curls (Also Targets Gluteals): Sorry…the machine hasn’t been developed yet. But think about it for a moment. Start with your leg out in front of you (you’re standing). Push down with your heel until your leg is straight down, and then curl the weight upward by bending your knee.

CALFS

Donkey Calf Raises: I like this variation for the simple reason that it targets all of the gastroc muscle, including those fibers that span the knee joint. Seated calf raises do not. Different foot positions simply do not provide the much-believed advantage for inner vs outer gastrocs.

FOREARMS

Forearm exercises are often neglected by bodybuilders because normal lifting — gripping the bar — yields great forearm development without having to resort to specific forearm movements. If you have a deficiency, however, or if you’re an athlete for whom great wrist, hand and gripping strength is vital, do the four below.

  1. Thor’s Hammer (Pronations And Supinations)
  2. Wrist Curls (Flexions)
  3. Reverse Wrist Curls (Extensions)
  4. Ball squeezing
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