If you’re in the gym and you’ve noticed your progress has started to slow, chances are workout variety may be an issue. There are very small changes one can make to the most basic exercise moves in order to make them both safer and more effective in reaching goals. Here are a few exercise upgrades to take your program up a notch – safely.
1. What You’re Currently Doing: Stiff-Legged Deadlift
While this is a great move for building hamstring and lower back strength, the position of the knees in this move — having your legs fully locked out — can put undue stress on the back and cut off circulation between the heart and the legs. As a result the force you create diminishes with each rep, meaning less efficient work and minimal results.
Swap It With: Romanian Deadlift
Keeping the knees soft in the Romanian Deadlift, or RDL, takes pressure off the back and actually promotes good circulation between the heart and the legs, meaning you’re able to maximize force production for each rep of the exercise. And more force means more strength, which results in more muscle. “The RDL allows the lifter to go heavier so you get better glute activation,” says David Larson, CSCS, strength coach at Pulse Fitness in Scottsdale, AZ.
2. What You’re Currently Doing: Behind-the-Neck Seated Military Press
While this exercise might appear to be an effective shoulder developer, it has two prominent flaws. First, it puts your shoulders in a vulnerable position linked to impingement syndrome, says Morey Kolber, PT, CSCS, professor at Nova Southeastern University, an injury and condition that can keep you out of the gym for long periods of time. Also, being seated means less core stabilization and less force production — therefore, less muscle-building potential.
Swap It With: Standing Barbell Overhead Press
Moving the bar in front of your neck puts the shoulders in a safer position, meaning far less chance for injury. Also, standing up recruits more muscle fiber overall, and the more fibers you recruit, the more testosterone and growth hormone get released into the bloodstream. These two hormones together translate into huge gains.
3. What You’re Currently Doing: V-Grip Seated Row
Often a go-to “back day” exercise for many lifters, this move has proven its worth in helping lifters develop greater musculature in their backs. However, the narrow grip restricts full retraction of the shoulder blades and does not allow your elbows to go back behind the rib cage. The V-grip seated row is basically a partial rep that can end up being more of a forearm builder than anything else.
Swap It With: Wide Grip Seated Row
Placing the hands wider than shoulder width in a seated row allows a lifter to pull his or her elbows back further than in a traditional seated row. Full range of motion with the shoulder blades allows for greater muscle activation. The more muscle activation there is, the more testosterone and growth hormone are released, leading to more strength and muscle gains long-term.
4. What You’re Currently Doing: Push-Up
There’s no question that push-ups are essential for developing a defined chest, cannonball delts and powerful triceps. However, one of the less-known benefits of the push-up is core work. This move hits your core harder than any crunch variation out there, so while there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing a push-up, if you can do three sets of 20 with ease, it’s time for a change.
Swap It With: Val-Slide Push-Up Reach
You know those sliding plastic disks at your gym that are the newest craze? According to Larson, “The Val-slide push-up reach is a great way to challenge both the core and increase the difficulty for the push-up at the same time, saving time on separating core work from the rest of your workout.” In addition to adding another core stability element to the basic push-up, the Val-slide push-up reach is a great way to work your lats while working your chest. Plus, it hits your shoulders way harder than the standard push-up ever will.
5. What You’re Currently Doing: Decline Bench Press
Bodybuilders have long known the benefits of working the chest from different angles. Doing so helps develop certain parts of the chest that need more attention. The decline bench press specifically targets the lower chest area — an area that most people have difficulty bulking up.
Swap It With: Low Cable Crossover
While the decline bench press is a good option for lower chest development, it lacks one essential part. In order to activate all the muscle fibers of the chest, especially the lower ones, the elbows need to be able to come together and a barbell limits motion. Using cables and really forcing the elbows together at the end of the movement enhances the contraction, recruiting more muscle fiber. Larson adds that, “while they are both good exercises, doing the low cable crossover promotes more metabolic stress and more tension at the peak of the movement.” The result: more muscle activation, leading to bigger gains in shorter time.
Did you give these swaps a try? Are you seeing results? Tell us in the comments below.