Sometimes I have been criticized for being too analytical about training. People say I nitpick about the fine details of exercise and performance. They say I should emphasize using heavy weights, most intensity, and proper form. I have to admit that some champion bodybuilders do seem to train in a loose manner and they don’t use great form. I once watched Bertil Fox, a three-time NABBA Mr. Universe champion and one of the strongest bodybuilders ever, go through a workout at Brian Moss’s Better Bodies gym in New York. He cheated every rep of every set of every exercise. He even went only half way down on standing calf raises yet his calves were full and muscular.
John Brown, a two-time NABBA Mr. Universe champion, was also strong and used heavy weights in loose form. John was so strong he could actually superset 500 pound bench presses for 6 reps bouncing the bar off his chest, with 405 pound incline presses for 6 reps, bouncing the bar off his chest. Fox and Brown seemed to cheat everything and yet who can deny it didn’t work for them?
I think the argument that form is not important doesn’t hold water, at least for most people. To me it’s like somebody saying they never studied yet got A’s in school. Of course my response would be if they studied they would have gotten A+’s. Who know if Fox and Brown might have developed even better physiques had they used better form on their exercises? We’ll never know. For most people, using stricter form works the muscle better. This results in better muscle stimulation, innervation, a better growth pump. Hence, better results and more muscle growth.
When I talk about the importance for better form, I am not just talking about not cheating excessively or not using speed, momentum, and inertia to help lift the weight, and bringing secondary muscle groups into play. All these things reduce the productivity of your training and your workouts and should be eliminated. It’s about trying to work a muscle as hard as possible. As I have said many times in previous articles, when most bodybuilders train, they focus on working the muscle, not on lifting the weight. The weight is incidental. Recreational bodybuilders in trying to use the heaviest weights they can, focus on lifting the weight and not working the muscle. Champs know when and how to cheat to put extra stress on the working muscle. While wanna-be bodybuilders cheat because it’s the only way they can move a weight.
What many bodybuilders do not realize is that while good form is important for working a muscle, it does not guarantee that you’ll work the muscle to the max. You should not use the wrong plane of motion or the wrong arc or angle of attack when performing an exercise. In nearly every case, each exercise has an optimal plane of motion, arc, or angle which is essential for maximum muscle stimulation. It also increases innervation, which is your ability to sense or feel the sensations in a muscle. Innervation is the point at which the muscle works hardest. Innervation means the muscles are controlled by nerve impulses, which are sent from the brain via the neuromuscular pathways to the muscles during a set telling the muscle to contract.
Canadian personal trainer Scott Abel, says to train for innervation, realize that it takes great concentration to work a muscle. It takes as much mental energy and effort as physical energy and effort as you do your exercises. Innervation asks a simple question. As you do an exercise do you feel the intended muscle working or not? That’s the bottom line. If you do you’re doing an exercise correctly. If you don’t you’re not. It’s really that simple folks.
Many do not understand that most free weight exercises are not straight up-and-down motions. This is the common perception. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “Motions means nothing.” If it does not result in muscle stimulation and innervation, it’s not as good. Many exercises should actually move on a tilted plane of varying degrees. Most readers have never given this concept much thought. I can guarantee you it is true and essential if you are to work a muscle as hard as possible. I have found that nearly every exercise that you might think is performed in a straight up-and-down motion is not. It’s actually best performed on some kind of tilted plane of motion.
Take the bench press, for example. If you don’t arch your back off the bench, bounce the bar off your chest, or you do your reps slowly, that’s no guarantee you’ll work the pectoral muscles properly. Even if you keep the elbows wide and pulled back in line with the shoulders, it does not mean your pecs get worked hard. It’s possible to bench strictly and not work the pecs much at all–if you flatten your pecs at the top of the movement and push the bar through with the anterior deltoids and triceps—something I was doing and which is why my pecs were not as full and thick as they should have been.
It was John Parrillo who taught me that in order to work the pecs properly when bench pressing you must pre-set your pectoral girdle before you begin a set. This is done by working and pushing the rear deltoids down and back towards the glutes while arching the sternum throughout the set. He showed me how to push the bar through at the top with the pectoral muscles and not the deltoids. He also showed me that the plane of motion when bench pressing is tilted back. The bar finishes over the eyes each rep, not over the chest. Benching this way allowed me to put the mechanical advantage on to the pecs instead of pushing the bar to the top using the front deltoids and the triceps.
I find that it helps to sort of shuffle your upper body back and forth as you lay on the bench. This gets the rear delts under your body as much as possible before starting a set. Arch the sternum upwards; it is this pre-setting of the pectoral girdle that allows you to bench press for better pectoral stimulation. You should do the same shuffling back and forth on incline presses as well. This helps increase pectoral stimulation—especially those hard to work upper pecs. You should properly position your body and align your muscles before every exercise for maximum muscle stimulation and innervation. You should also think of the optimal plane of motion for every exercise.
TILTED PLANE OF MOTION
Another exercise that should be done on a tilted plane is one-arm dumbbell rows. Rick Valente told me during an interview to row the dumbbell as if I was sawing wood. This is how Sergio Oliva did his one-arm rows when I went to Chicago in 1984 for three days to watch him train. This works the lower lats, while rowing straight up-and-down works mostly the top of the lats, traps, and rhomboids. I’ve found that rowing the dumbbell as if sawing wood, plus rotating my hand 180 degrees at the bottom of the range, works the lower lats hard. As you reach out at the bottom the lat stretches, and then when you pull it in towards the lower abdomen at the top it contracts.
Even bent over barbell rows and reverse-grip barbell rows should be done on a slightly tilted plane. This helps to isolate and work the lats better. The bar should be lowered down and away from the body at the bottom of the range of motion. This stretch the lats (I tell people not to start up until you have finished going all the way down). Then the bar should be pulled into the waist to make the lats contract. There should be no dropping of the chest to meet the bar, no heaving or yanking with the arms. If you have to do these things the weight is too heavy for proper rowing. As Vinnie Comerfort once said to me, “There is a big difference rowing with 225 pounds and snapping up 315.”
When doing bent rows the head should be up, the knees bent, the lower back arched, and the upper body just above parallel. Think of the hands as hooks and row with the lats, not the arms. Rowing in this fashion ensures a fuller range of motion. It gives the lats more stretch at the bottom and a better contraction at the top. There is a general rule in bodybuilding: the harder a muscle is stretched at the bottom of an exercise, the harder it can contract at the top. I tell bodybuilders to say the words in their minds “stretch” as the lower the bar and “squeeze”as they pull the bar into the abdomen each rep.
Wide-grip chins and wide-grip pull downs are also best done on a tilted plane of motion. It’s subtle but it’s there. You want to drop your shoulders down and back and chin until your chest or chin hits the bar. I find that a neat way to work lower lats when doing any kind of chin is once you hit failure to lock the arms straight and try to touch your chest to the bar. You won’t get that high but it is the raising of the body with the arms locked that works the lower lats, even on wide-grip chins.
On pull downs you want to tilt the head back, drop the rear delts down and back, and pull the bar to the upper chest to contract the lats. To give the lats extra work when doing any kind of pull down, change your grip. Make sure the hands are no more than six inches apart, palms forward, knuckles back. Shift your butt a bit off the seat, then lock the arms and just rock back and forth. You will feel a strong pull on the lats and a burn too, and these are burns for the lats. I just go until my fingers start slipping from the bar—which is usually 12 to 15 burns for me. You definitely work and innervate the lats better when doing burns after each set of pull downs.
RANGE OF MOTION
If there is one exercise I see bodybuilders doing wrong a lot it is seated cable rows. Many bodybuilders just row the handle back in forth in a one foot range of motion. That’s not how the pros do it. They allow the weight to pull their upper bodies forward almost until it touches their thighs, but they keep lower back arched. It is never allowed to round over. As the bar is pulled into the abdomen they arch their chests and drop the shoulders back to contract the lats. To give the lats extra work when doing seated cable rows is once you hit failure, lock the arms straight and do burns. Lean forward as much as you can and just rock back and forth. You will feel a strong pull in the lats and a burn too. You should consider these burns for lats. Just do as many as you can until your fingers start slipping from the bar.
Close-grip bench presses, triceps dips, and narrow parallel bar dips should be done on a tilted plane. When I wrote Mohamed Makkawy’s Variable Angle Training courses for him back in 1984, Mohamed told me on close-grip bench presses to press the bar slightly toward the feet as the bar goes up (three or four inches is enough). This helps contract the triceps harder. On triceps dips, Mohamed told me to press up and then lean back to contract the triceps harder. Mohamed had hams for triceps, so he knew what he was talking about.
Even on triceps push downs you should push the bar down and away at the bottom to contract the triceps harder. Tony Pearson told me about doing triceps push downs this way. Always drape the thumbs and fingers over the bar and hold the bar in the palms so you are pushing the bar down. Or you can hold the bar in the palms, with the elbows flared to the sides, and push the bar straight down (rather than in an arc as with regular push downs.) John Parrillo says this type of pushdown is best for triceps mass.
Lying triceps extensions can be done in several different ways to work the triceps different. You can lower the bar to the forehead in typical “skull crusher” style, with the elbows pointing upwards. The bar moves in wide arc and is a better triceps shaper as far as bringing out the much desired horse shoe. EZ-bar lying triceps extensions on a decline bench allows a greater range of motion. Plus it’s easier to keep the elbows pointing up. This is especially true if you lower the bar behind the head, not to the forehead in skull crusher style. You can lower the bar to the neck, with the elbows splayed to the sides, and push the bar straight up (as if doing a close-grip bench press.) Larry Scott did his triceps extensions this way and said it was a better triceps mass builder because heavier weights could be used. Larry could use 250 pounds for six reps in this manner.
Mike Christian had a unique way of doing lying triceps extensions. As he lowered the bar behind his head he extended his arms until they were locked—sort of a lying kickback. This really brings out the much desired horseshoe of the triceps.
Even on seated behind-the-neck presses the bar should not pressed straight up and down. It should be pressed up and slightly back at the top of the range of motion. John Parrillo taught me that, and pressing this way involves more traps, and gives bodybuilders a thicker, fuller, upper back. John says you should press the hips forward and push the weight slightly back as you lockout, without arching the back.
UP-AND-DOWN PLANE OF MOTION
Sometimes things work the other way. Exercises you thought should be performed on a tilted plane are best done up-and-down. Wide-grip barbell rows Vince Gironda-style are best done in a piston-like motion, with no shrugging of the traps. I find it best to do wide-grip upright rows on the Smith machine. This machine promotes that up-and-down piston-like action. Hold the bar with a wide grip, keep the elbows forward, and the palms facing back. Doing 45˚ cable upright rows allows a bodybuilder to work both medial and rear deltoids at the same time with some traps too. Stand back several feet from the weight stack so you can pull the handle up at a 45˚. This was a favorite exercise of Kalman Szkalak, 1976 AAU Mr. America and 1977 IFBB Mr. Universe, who had a fantastic upper body.
When doing drag curls for biceps, the bar moves straight up-and-down. You drag the barbell up the body to a point below the lower pecs to make the biceps contract. Vince Gironda was a big fan of this exercise and so is John Parrillo. He calls them “peak” curls because they do increase peak on the biceps. On barbell and dumbbell curls it is important to drop the shoulders down, back, and arch the chest forward. This keeps the elbows in to the sides of the body, not letting them drift back, forward or away from the body. The bar should be curled in a wide arc using the power of the biceps. Do not shrug the bar up using the deltoids and traps.
TOO MUCH WEIGHT
One exercise that can be wrecked by using weights too heavy it is dumbbell flyes. Flyes are flyes, they are not presses. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said, you want that “hugging a tree” action. The dumbbells should go down and back and outside the shoulders. If done properly you should feel a strong diagonal pull on the pecs. If you try to use dumbbells too heavy you end up doing a straight up-and-down motion. You’re doing dumbbell presses instead of flyes.
Or what happens is bodybuilders do only half reps. They never lower the dumbbells all the way down. They can use heavier dumbbells this way, which may be satisfying to the ego, but you won’t work your pecs as effectively as you would doing full reps. They’re focusing on how much weight they can lift rather than how hard their pecs are working. To work more inner pecs try to touch your elbows together as the bells come over the chest. Mike Christian used to do flyes this way. It is the way John Parrillo recommends bodybuilders do their flyes. Or you can do dumbbell flyes like Larry Scott. When Larry did dumbbell flyes he rotated his hands outside his shoulders with the palms and undersides of the forearms facing forward. This is as they would be if doing pec deck flyes. Larry felt this type of flyes gave his upper pecs more stretch.
I notice that at the gym where I currently train, that doing half reps is a common trend. I see guys all the time doing half reps. Some even do half reps on pull downs. Yes, they can use more weight this way but they aren’t working the muscle as effectively. It’s what I have been telling people for years, they are focused on lifting the weight, not on working the muscle. I have watched a lot of professional bodybuilders train and if they do half or three-quarter reps it is always from the bottom up to one-half to three-quarters to maintain constant-tension, never just half way down.
WITH A TWIST
Even dumbbell side laterals should be done leaning forward about 15 or 20 degrees. Larry Scott, a lateral master as well as a preacher curl master, said if you cannot see your rear delts as you do side laterals you are standing too upright. At the top, the little fingers should be higher than the thumbs to work the medial or side deltoids. If the thumbs are higher than the little fingers you shift the stress to the stronger anterior or front deltoids. This defeats the purposes of doing dumbbell side laterals.
A lot of guys do a little twist with the hands to get that “pouring Coke bottles” action. This gets the little fingers higher than the thumbs. Larry Scott had an ingenious method to get the little fingers higher than the thumbs: hold the dumbbells off-center. The little fingers and fleshy part of the outside of the hands should be pressed against the outside plates of the dumbbells. This makes the dumbbells tilt, and the little fingers will be higher than the thumbs in the top position. Gravity does the work for you.
This works on dumbbell curls to make the wrists supinate, and dumbbell presses too. Larry Scott had a way of doing dumbbell presses that put almost all the stress on the medial deltoids. I call these “Scott” presses. Lean into a dumbbell rack about 15 degrees while holding two moderately heavy dumbbells at the shoulders. Again, hold the dumbbells off-center so the dumbbells tilt. The little fingers should point up and the thumbs should point down. With this grip the elbows will point out to the sides. Pull the elbows back in line with the shoulders and start to press the dumbbells. With this off-center grip the dumbbells do not go up and down in a straight line as with regular dumbbell presses. They will travel up but inwards above the head. If you can imagine a triangle formed by your shoulders and a spot a few feet above your head, you press the dumbbells along this triangle. The dumbbells never touch the shoulders in the bottom position and they are never locked out at the top. With this grip it is impossible to lockout. There is always constant-tension of the medial deltoids. Larry did only the middle three-fifths of the range of motion, so the dumbbells never stop moving until the set is over.
EFFECTIVE ANGELS FOR RESULTS
Another medial deltoid that has a unique plane of motion are W-presses, an exercise most bodybuilders have never heard of. This was one of the “secret” exercises performed by many of the champions who trained at Vince Gironda’s famous North Hollywood gym back in the 1960’s. Men like two-time Mr. Olympia Larry Scott, 1967 IFBB Mr. America Don Howorth (and one of the widest bodybuilders ever), Dan Mackey, Bill McArdle and Dan Howard. I first learned about W-presses from an article written in IronMan back in the late 1970’s by Bob Greene, who trained at Vince’s Gym. W-presses are usual because the dumbbells are not pressed in a straight up-and-down motion; they are pulled upwards in a large arc until they meet overhead. You might say W-presses are the medial deltoids as dumbbell flyes are the pecs.
Here’s how to do them. Hold two moderate dumbbells at shoulder height. Weight should be about what you use on dumbbell side laterals. Use a curl grip outside the shoulders. The palms should face toward the ears. With the arms in this position they form a W–hence the name. Pull the elbows back in line with the shoulders. Then in a large, smooth arc raise the dumbbells until they meet overhead. Tilt your head back as the dumbbells come up. Pause to contract the medial deltoids and slowly lower back to the starting position using negative resistance. Fight gravity all the way down. Never just let the dumbbells drop down. Because you are using the biceps to raise the dumbbells, W-presses are excellent to superset with dumbbell presses, Scott presses or seated behind-the-neck presses. W-presses will make the medial deltoids burn and pump.
I haven’t the space to cover every exercise, but I hope I have made you think about aligning your body before you begin an exercise. And think about optimal planes of motions and proper arcs and angles. Remember, your ultimate goal is to work the muscle, not to see how much weight you can toss around. Do anything to make a muscle work harder and you increase both intensity and exercise effectiveness. If you start to think about optimal planes of motion for each exercise, you will increase muscle stimulation. You can make your workouts more effective, and ultimately develop more muscle mass. And isn’t this why we go the gym?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Zulak has been working in the bodybuilding industry for well over 30 years now. He has written over 700 articles published since he began free-lance writing for Bob Kennedy in 1982. His articles have been published in MuscleMag, IronMan, Flex, Muscle & Fitness and Muscular Development. Many of my articles have been published in 19 different language around the world–even Japanese.
He’s currently in the midst of writing about what’s been going on with him for the past 14 years and he is giving away his latest eBook on Lat Training via his website: www.GregZulak.com.