Bodybuilders, strength athletes and general fitness enthusiasts can become creatures of habit. This is both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, they have the sense, perseverance and fortitude to stick with exercises which have a time tested reputation for delivering results: squat variations, deadlift variations, bench pressing variations, overhead pressing variations, chin-up/pull-up variations and rowing variations (what I like to call the "Big 6"). In other words, they know what works, are not easily swayed by newfangled "fancy" exercises, and they stick to their roots.
However, on the other hand, serious trainees can also be stubborn and become "married" to certain exercises.
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They refuse, even in the face of a plateau, to remove any or all of the "Big 6" from their programs for a period of time, or, at the very least, de-prioritize them in favor of other exercises which could spur new growth. It's almost as though they fear they'll experience a type of separation anxiety if they take squats or bench presses out of their workouts.
The reality is, the best program is the one you are not on, and the best exercises are the ones you are not doing. While the "Big 6" I spoke of above are certainly the pillars of any productive strength and size building program, they are not the only "tough kids on the block". Grinding out mediocre workouts and hitting plateaus using "sacred" exercises makes little sense. Most trainees could stand to remove some or all of the "Big 6" from their training for awhile (or at least de-prioritize them) and tackle some fresh movements. Often times, this is all that is needed to kick start new gains.
There are plenty of movements which have been forgotten about, neglected, or, for whatever reason, have just simply fallen out of favor with most trainees. There is really no good reason for this, as the eight exercises I'm going to highlight below all pack a serious punch, recruit a ton of muscle, and can be worked heavy and hard.
Dumbbell or EZ Bar Pullovers (or pullover machine)
Growing up, this is a movement I commonly saw the biggest guys in the gym performing, and for good reason: the pullover provides a great deal of stimulation, over a huge range of motion, to some of the largest and most important muscles in the upper body. Why WOULDN'T you want to perform an exercise which hits the lats, pecs, triceps and even the abs hard? There is a reason many golden age bodybuilders and strongmen referred to the pullover as the "upper body squat."
I rarely see pullover variations being performed nowadays, but several months ago, I started incorporating this exercise into my own workouts, and, not surprisingly, my chin-up and bench press performance skyrocketed, and my upper body became noticeably larger. While the dumbbell version is great, I prefer to perform this exercise using an EZ curl bar while lying on the floor on a slightly elevated surface in order to get a consistent and safe range of motion. (I lightly touch the plates on the ground on each rep.)
Here is the dumbbell version:
Also, if there is one strength training machine I would invest in, it would be a well-designed pullover machine. If you can find an older Nautilus 2ST model, use it. You get all of the benefits of a bar or dumbbell pullover while taking the sometimes cumbersome set up out of the equation (and your grip won't tire).
Parallel Bar Dips
The dip is a somewhat controversial exercise. On one hand, no one can argue its effectiveness: it hammers the triceps, chest and anterior shoulders about as well as anything out there. On the flip side, if you have cranky shoulders, elbows or wrists, they can be problematic. Most guys use dip bars that are either way too wide and/or go through a range of motion which isn't safe. Going too deep with dips places the glenohumeral joint in excessive extension, and this can bother a lot of guys, especially if they have a history of shoulder pain (AC joint problems for example).
Have no fear though. If you use dip bars which are moderately spaced, are a little thicker (you can even slide fat grips over the bars), and pay great attention to not going too deep, they are a perfectly safe exercise for most. What's more, if you place this exercise later in your workouts, they feel a lot better as you will be adequately warmed up and the fatigue from earlier exercises will necessitate a lighter load. I would certainly caution against using dips as a max effort exercise and attaching a ton of external weight around your waist, but if they are used and placed intelligently in your routines, you can reap all of the benefits while experiencing none of the negatives:
Standing Barbell Curls
Now, don't get me wrong, curls are far from a "forgotten exercise." They are probably one of the most commonly performed exercises at any gym. However, how many guys do you see working this exercise HEAVY, early on in a workout? Not many.
Standing barbell curls have been unfairly labeled and pigeon holed as an "isolation" exercise, but, if you really examine it, it's far from it. For one, you are standing on your own two feet, and anything ground based, in my opinion, is great. Two, gripping the bar hard while using an appreciable amount of weight does wonders for rotator cuff strength and stability through irradiation. Finally, the spinal erectors and glutes are highly recruited and take a real beating while curling heavy. As you can see, heavy barbell curls (and I love using a fat bar or fat grips) is far from a "froo-froo" exercise:
(Modified) Upright Rows
Much like the dip, upright rows are a controversial exercise. Actually, done the traditional way, I think it's fair to say you'd have a hard time finding a half way knowledgeable coach or trainer who recommends them. Performed the traditional way, with a close grip and pulling all the way to chin level (or beyond as I've seen many times), the upright row is a shoulder wrecker. The combination of extreme internal rotation, abduction, and elevation will cause your shoulders to figuratively "flick you off."
However, if you move your grip out to shoulder width, really engage and use your traps, and only pull to about nipple level, the modified upright row is a great ground based exercise which can pack serious mass on your traps and delts:
If you use a bit of a hip hinge and explosively pull, you can use a bit more weight and turn this into a form of a high pull, increasing the demand on the target muscles even more.
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Several years ago, barbell and dumbbell shrugs became demonized. The phrase "upper trap dominant" became all the rage among trainers and coaches who wanted to moonlight as wannabe physical therapists, functional assessment experts, and orthopedic doctors. If you had your clients or athletes performing any type of scapular elevation exercise, you were doing them a disservice and making them "dysfunctional." It became all about getting the shoulders "down and back," and low trap exercises became very trendy.
Okay, that may have been a little harsh. Most of the trainers and coaches who jumped on this bandwagon had great intentions, and I think it is efficacious to prescribe a lot of low trap exercises. But that doesn't mean FULL RANGE shrugs cannot be part of a program, especially if they are being balanced out with low trap strength and activation exercises and the rest of your program is comprehensive. Scapular elevation is a primary function of the upper traps. They are "allowed" and supposed to do that from an anatomical perspective. It's not as though we are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole by having people shrug. It's a normal function of the upper traps.
What's more, if you are combat/collision sport, MMA, or strength athlete, adding "armour" and mass to your traps is a great way to protect your cervical spine. For bodybuilders, aesthetically, you can't walk on stage with puny little traps. Bottom line: full range shrugs are perfectly safe and serve many purposes for strength and physique athletes. If the program is balanced out to include adequate low trap work, there is no problem with including them in a program.
Like some of the other exercises I've already discussed, I like shrugs because they are ground based, you can use a ton of weight, and you have to grip the bar hard. If you want the "look of power", shrug:
If an overhand/pronated grip bothers your shoulders, try the heavy dumbbell version using a parallel grip:
Or a hex/trap bar:
High Box Step-Ups
When's the last time you saw someone at your gym with a 225 lb. barbell on their back, or 80-100 lb. dumbbells in their hands, performing strict high box step-ups, in perfect alignment, with no push off the back leg? I don't know about you, but I can't recall one. I can immediately recall plenty of people doing low box step-ups, and other bizarre variations of them, with little bitty dumbbells and butchering the exercise (often times trying them on a BOSU ball), but I can't recall anyone working them heavily through a full range of motion.
To me, step-ups are the red headed step child of single leg exercises. Lunge and rear foot elevated split squat variations get all the love, and that's a shame. Done properly through a challenging range of motion (higher box) and with heavy weights, step-ups, in my opinion, are second to none. What's more, from a trainer's perspective, they are a much more scalable exercise (adjust box height), are easier to teach, and are easier on people's knees than lunges.
Loaded step-ups onto a 20-24 in. surface will take your hip and knee joint through a huge range of motion. Put your foot up on a 24 inch box and then take a look at your hip and knee joint: it looks a helluva lot like an "ass to grass" squat, doesn't it? The keys to getting the most out of step-ups are the following:
- Use a challenging box height (this is relative based on current strength and fitness level)
- Drive through the heel of the working leg
- DON'T push off AT ALL with your trail leg
- Control the descent back to the floor
- Go heavy for no more than about 8 reps per side (technique starts to suffer in my opinion)
Here is what it should look like:
And here is the dumbbell version:
I've always found the name of this exercise rather ironical because, if you do them correctly, you'll have anything but a good morning(s) the next day or two. I LOVE GOOD MORNINGS! If you are looking to bring up your squat or deadlift, look no further. Here are the benefits of the good morning:
- Can be loaded heavily (it's really just a Romanian deadlift while eliminating the grip) and crushes the entire posterior chain
- Excellent exercise to teach the hip hinge pattern
- The bar position is almost identical to a power squat and therefore carries over beautifully
- You can get an accentuated eccentric, which is great for injury proofing and adding size to the hamstrings
- Once again, it's ground based and just metabolically challenging!
Here is what it looks like:
Another great variation is what I like to call Anderson good mornings. These are basically a paused good morning, which eliminates the stretch shortening cycle. If you are weak off the floor during a deadlift or out of the hole during a squat, give these a shot. All you need to do is set the pins in a power rack to the bottom position height of your good morning, lower down and pause your rep on the pins for a full second, maintaining full body tightness at all times, and then explode back up. You'll either have to lower the weight or cut your reps down a bit for this one.
Barbell Hip Thrusters
Made popular by strength coach and biomechanist extraordinaire Bret Contreras, the barbell hip thrust may just be the best glute exercise in existence. While squats, deadlifts, various single leg exercises, etc. all work the glutes hard, the force vector and direct loading of this exercise makes the glutes work even harder.
Initially, this can be a very cumbersome exercise, but, after a few sessions, it will feel smooth and you'll get the hang of it. Here are a few tips:
- Put the bench up against a power rack or something sturdy so it does not move around on you
- Use a large bar pad (I like the one from Hampton) or airex pad for comfort, otherwise, the bar will dig into your hips. If you are a trainer prescribing these to clients, this will be the biggest complaint you'll get!
- Only thrust up to a level position and do not hyper extend your lumber spine. Make sure to contract your glutes progressively harder as you rise up.
- Control the eccentric portion of the lift and transition smoothly from the eccentric to the concentric. During extremely heavy low rep sets, a brief pause on the floor to realign yourself is acceptable.
Here is what it looks like:
I challenge you to set aside your squats, deads and presses for awhile and knock the dust off of some or all of the forgotten mass builders I featured above. I can almost guarantee you you'll jump start some new gains, have a new found enthusiasm for your training, have a helluva lot of fun, and, ultimately HAVE GREAT WORKOUTS! Once you re-introduce your squats, deads, presses and other members of the "Big 6" into your program, you can expect to start hitting some PR's again. Train hard!