Bodybuilding tricks of the trade, as described here, modify exercises to…
- manipulate the length or internal moment arm of a muscle.
- shift the strength curve to make the exercise more difficult at a certain length.
- use a different function of the muscle, addressing other regions and synergists compared to another function (ex: hip extension vs. knee flexion for the hamstrings).
Many of these techniques have been passed down through the ages, originating with the classic bodybuilders, though at risk of being forgotten.
Without knowing why they work, it is all too easy for modern trainees to dismiss them.
Consider these tricks of the trade, along with the explanations on why they are so effective, for better results.
Some Bodybuilding Techniques
Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.
– Albert Einstein
Explore and learn everything you can about exercise and training procedures that can help you to succeed.
– Gene Mozee
- Use an offset grip for curls.
An offset grip means holding a dumbbell closer to one of its bells instead of in the middle of the handle.
On curls, by holding the handle closer to the bell on the thumb side, you can resist the supination action of the biceps, or when you twist your wrist to have the palm face the ceiling.
This is useful since the medial fibers of the biceps brachii are emphasized during wrist supination, while the lateral fibers are emphasized during elbow flexion. Combining these movements further emphasizes this whole muscle versus other elbow flexors, especially the central regions of the biceps.
This has often been mentioned by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the key to developing his mountainously-peaked biceps.
This also explains why dumbbells remain an essential tool for biceps development, surpassing barbells.
- Include wide-grip overhand pull-ups, perhaps going behind-the-neck as well.
Many fail to notice the subtle difference that a wide-grip overhand pull-up has compared to conventional pull-ups/chin-ups.
A wide grip when vertical pulling overloads shoulder adduction instead of shoulder extension. This is a completely different action that addresses muscle regions uniquely and even muscles otherwise unaddressed.
The internal moment arms, or the various groups of fiber orientations, differ among the upper, middle, and lower regions for the latissimus dorsi. This also extends to the intramuscular nerve branches, perhaps corresponding with these regions.
It appears that adduction allows the superior region of the latissimus dorsi to be better stretched than shoulder extension on closer-grip pull-ups. This stretch provides a unique growth stimulus due to additional sarcomeres in-series that develop when working a muscle at longer lengths.
Adduction also allows the middle and lower portions of the latissimus dorsi to grow better via active tension. Vice versa exists for shoulder extension though, showing that overloading each function provides unique value.
Shoulder adduction also works the corachobrachialis, which ties in the upper arms with the delts, chest, and lats. It also hits the subscapularis to grow the upper chest alongside the pec minor, inflating it via these deeper muscles.
Other functions often ignored along with adduction include depression (dips/decline movements) and protraction (horizontal pressing/flying without the shoulder blades fixed or push-up plus).
Finally, training wide to be wide is an old-school concept that has been abandoned today. Pulling at the clavicles through wide grips may spread out the shoulder blades structurally. Perhaps this just improves posture somehow, but keep an open mind without dismissing it outright as many trainees do.
- Place your weight on the big toe for heel raises.
We know that both inversion and eversion is possible for the gastrocnemius.
Eversion or inversion, also encouraged by pointing the toes out or in during heel raises, will stretch the medial/inner head of the gastrocnemius or the lateral/outer head of the gastrocnemius, respectively.
Since the inner head is really what creates the impressive diamond shape in well-developed calves, placing your weight on the big toe allows this head to stretch more deeply throughout the movement.
Vince Gironda went further, having you remove shoes for perhaps that little extra range of motion.
The lateral head seems less dependent on inversion to stretch it, so continues to play a strong role despite the position slightly favoring the inner head.
- Round or twist the lower back when pulling.
Though the primary actions of the lats are to perform shoulder adduction, extension, and internal rotation, they also assist with trunk extension and lateral flexion.
This means the lats stretch further when rounding or twisting the back, helping to elongate the middle and lower regions respectively during shoulder extension on exercises like seated cable rows (central) and one-armed dumbbell rows (lower).
Lateral flexion helps during adduction to stretch the upper region when pulling vertically, on an exercise like the behind-the-neck cable crossover.
This once again creates longitudinal growth due to working the lats at longer lengths than usual.
A close grip when using both hands helps further by stretching lats through greater shoulder extension, while also overloading its internal rotation function.
- Lean back or stay upright on squats.
This allows the quads to stretch while facilitating pure knee extension for deeper ranges of motion and fuller muscle development.
Sissy squats, an unusual exercise that has you drive the hips forward when lowering, leads to an incredible stretch in the rectus femoris that forms the V-shape defining the middle of the front thigh.
The sissy squat can really bring out this two-headed muscle, likely by encouraging unique growth only possible via overstretch.
- Try an incline bench for one-armed lateral raises.
Many perform only standing lateral raises, though a deeper stretch for the side deltoids could encourage more growth too.
Performing these on a 15-60° bench allows the middle deltoid to get stretched while still maintaining a favorable internal moment arm.
Otherwise, the supraspinatus can dominate abduction with a flatter bench.
You can also achieve a similar effect by using a cable pulley set at 45° to smooth out the strength curve. Make sure to go behind the back to really stretch out the middle deltoid.
- Consider overstretching all muscles.
Keeping the knees fairly straight on stiff-legged dead-lifts will lengthen the hamstrings, which also have a larger internal moment arm versus the glutes on this exercise.
Imagining that you are hugging an enormous tree trunk on dumbbell flyes allows an ascending strength curve that achieves the deepest stretch possible.
An overhand grip on curls will stretch the brachioradialis.
Overhead arm extensions will stretch the long head of the triceps, especially if you lean back, though many trainees find that bent-arm pull-overs across a bench, using a dumbbell, works well too.
Elbows flared on arm extensions will stretch the single-joint lateral and medial heads of the triceps, which seems to emphasize the medial head due to its deeper attachment.
Behind-the-neck overhead presses and incline lateral raises will elongate the lower portion of the serratus anterior, bringing out impressive detail that ties in the core muscles with the chest and lats.
Leg curls while standing with hips extended, or leg raises with straight knees, can stretch out and work the sartorius. This long muscle separates the inner thigh from the quads, all the way from the hip to the knee. It develops thigh girth without creating turnip thighs, or when the upper inner portion overdevelops for an unaesthetic result.
Bodybuilding Techniques for Better Muscle Development
Various lengths, strength curves, and functions all hit muscles differently. Every possibility represents a potential that can be addressed for more development.
Variety accounts for sarcomere non-uniformity, as the optimal lengths for these contractile units differ throughout the range of motion. It compensates for different motor unit activation as shown via EMG, and various internal moment arms representing muscle compartments even within muscle heads.
This makes it clear that muscles, muscle heads, and muscle fibers exist on a continuum that shifts based on subtle changes to a movement. Range of motion adjusts this too along with accounting for the optimal lengths of non-uniform sarcomeres.
If this all seems a bit much, know that rotating exercises allows you to manage this variety, and progressive overload remains most important.
This doesn’t remove the need for individual differences either, since we all have strengths and weaknesses to consider toward a better physique.
I’m optimistic that by studying internal moment arms, the nervous system, and the degree of sarcomere nonuniformity within muscle regions, we can better design bodybuilding programs targeting specific areas.
Even as we continue to learn, we know enough to embrace that variety is essential for bodybuilding.
Finally, I would encourage you to think in terms of principles.
For example, if supination works the medial fibers of the biceps, perhaps overloading inversion during heel raises can work the medial fibers of the inner gastrocnemius?
Transfer what you know about why an exercise works well for a target muscle to others for experimentation.
These bodybuilding tricks of the trade will make your training more effective. Ultimately, try to extract the principles of changing lengths/internal moment arms, strength curves, and functions to achieve fuller development for any muscle.