Update: I have no doubt this approach leads to more efficient exercises, but it’s not complete. For example, you simply can’t activate the clavicular or upper chest without targeting this area specifically. A flat press may stretch the upper chest but won’t activate it much.
To advance in any field, you need both theory & practice.
Yet for bodybuilding especially, truth often reveals itself when we figure out what really works through productive training. At once both simple & complex enough, we then devise rules to support reality.
If fortunate, we find a principle with broad applications.
I noticed that both the rear & front delts were just as worked after rows & bench presses as on bent-over lateral raises & overhead presses. Why did I need the latter exercises with no weaknesses to justify double the work?
In my routines, I also think to balance agonists with antagonists, even if this process isn’t flawless or always followed.
I came to realize that rows, done right, addressed the whole rear thickness of the upper torso.
Why then did the front need 4 exercises: flat presses, incline presses, front raises & dips?
Was there a movement, like rows, that would develop the whole frontal thickness of the upper torso, so the lower, middle & upper pecs alongside the front delts, pec minor, and serratus anterior?
The shallow incline press set between 10-20°, or a flat press aligned with the middle chest, hits them all.
I believe I found a useful concept: balancing force vectors for efficient bodybuilding.
Understanding Force Vectors
A force vector has both magnitude & direction, represented by an arrow in diagrams.
When you have 2 force vectors pointing somewhere within 180°, the resultant force will exist between these extremes.
I believe this explains why choosing the middle ground between 2 exercises may consolidate both effects: the muscle forces can reconcile from each side.
For great effort, the body would involve as much muscle as possible, not just the middle fibers most aligned with the resistance.
Between a flat and incline press, you get a low incline press.
The clavicular or upper head of the pectoralis major generates force angled upward alongside the front delts. The sternal & abdominal portions of the chest produce force downward.
This also explains why lateral raises don’t involve the whole shoulder beyond the middle fibers. Since the other heads pull in opposite directions, the summation equals zero. The nervous system has no incentive to waste energy here beyond stabilization.
Efficient Bodybuilding Exercises
3 exercises come to mind to “split the difference” here:
- A shallow incline or abducted flat press replaces flat, incline, overhead & decline work.
- Any row aligned with the lower ribcage area replaces low (rows to belly) and high (bent-over lateral raises) work. The former would hit the upper lats, rhomboids & lower traps. The latter would hit the rear delts, middle traps & rotator cuff muscles (teres minor & subscapularis). This may not, however, address the upper traps as well since we don’t pull too high. (Classic bodybuilding usually ignores direct work for it, to support the illusion of shoulder width.)
- The wide-grip pull-up, with adduction to at least 45°, replaces the need for targeting upper lat thickness on close-grip rows like the T-bar row. It would also replace any vertical movement focused on the upper range of shoulder motion. However, we’d still need rows for other rear thickness muscles while possibly compensating for a harder-to-achieve low adduction angle. (Pull-overs internally rotate the shoulders to work the outer chest instead of the lats, so they never belonged here.)
For simpler joints & muscles, there’s a natural balance.
Heel raises with fairly straight knees address both the medial & lateral heads of the gastrocnemius. For biceps, both the short & long heads get hit with elbow flexion using a supinated grip. Knee extension hits the vastus lateralis & medialis about evenly.
A head may get a tad more stretched, depending on a wide or narrow grip/stance and pointing the toes in or out, but the overall growth from a combination of active & passive tension is the same.
So long as you achieve enough stimulating reps, or those with full motor unit recruitment, all the muscles involved at a relatively high level will develop.
Here’s a heuristic I found for establishing the ideal middle exercise: choose one allowing the most range of motion.
You’ll notice a large range of motion for a shallow incline press. On rows pulled to the ribcage area, you’ll move further versus higher or lower.
This doesn’t mean you must use the fullest range of motion, just that it helps determine that middle ground. This may also explain why the low incline press allows less weight than the flat press, beyond the mechanical disadvantage for many fibers, hopefully…
Balancing Force Vectors for Bodybuilding?
This is only a theory. It defies bodybuilding lore, in that you get as specific as possible to bring out a muscle. You then add these up for a complete physique.
With an imbalance, the middle approach doesn’t make sense. If you have a weak upper chest, then perform incline presses or flyes at higher angles.
However, I’d argue to focus on a 20-30° incline press. It lets you emphasize the upper chest yet not ignore the lower portion. This strategy also burdens the joints less.
Most of us are fairly balanced though, and we just need more overall muscle!
Ultimately, my lingering fear regarding this principle is due to the body’s complexity.
When it can’t balance force vectors, which may be complicated on some movements, perhaps it simply fails to involve each side much.
Fewer exercises decrease volume as well, if you don’t add sets to what remains. Volume plays a role in disrupting homeostasis, and you may need more to spur growth depending on your training status.
Consider the exercises mentioned to balance force vectors for bodybuilding. It’s worth a try to make your workouts more efficient, and therefore I believe, more effective!