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Marc’s Bag of Tricks – Part I by: Marc McDougal

I’m opening up my bag of tricks and pulling out some quick things you can apply immediately to your workouts to make them more effective. No need for big changes or restructuring what you’re doing, just throw these tips into your current plan and reap the rewards.

1. Harder, Slower, More

For hypertrophy purposes, you’re better off finding ways to make a given exercise harder, as opposed to the typical method of the masses involving finding the easiest possible way to get the load from point A to point B. Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting…different story. Body comp training, if you’re making an exercise easier you’re making it less effective. As a qualifier, I’m not talking about making exercises so difficult and weird that it looks like something you picked up at Clown College, or Bosu Ball University. Earlier today I went to 24 Hour Fitness (an excruciating rarity) and spent the first 10 minutes trying to find my way out of the Kids Club day care and get into the gym…then I realized that I was in the gym, and all the toys and balls laying around were being used by full grown adults. Madness, I tell you. What I am referring to, is taking an exercise and making a slight adjustment that forces you to initially make a 10-20% reduction in load. Note the emphasis on slight and initially, which is different than huge and forever. When done properly, this load reduction will result in more muscle growth instead of less. A large, chronic reduction will encourage less growth. However, if you plan on usurping the inflatable lawn castle wrestling throne at your nephew’s annual birthday party…you may want to incorporate some one leg/one arm bosu ball overhead presses and curls. As long as the kids don’t weigh over 20-30lbs you’ll be all set. A prime application of this method is the Kneeling Tricep Pressdown. During a typical standing pressdown, it’s a slightly easier position to cheat from than when your spouse is in a coma. Most people stop about halfway through the eccentric phase (90 degrees of elbow flexion) then try to lean into and climb over the bar as if they were trying to force an unwilling partner into fellatio. This turns the whole movement into an ineffective exercise for the sternal head of the pecs, and it’s an embarrassment to us all. This movement is performed just like a standing tricep pressdown, just done on the knees and with a full range of motion. Some stations are poorly designed so that from a standing position you can’t even achieve full ROM when you’re trying too, this eliminates potential problem as well. When breaking the 90 degree plane in the eccentric phase, decelerate the weight until your forearm is completely impeded by your bicep, take a slight pause, and press the weight down. Do not allow the elbow to drift forward of the torso at any point. Avoid any sort of rebound at the top of the movement to optimize both elbow health and efficacy of the exercise. Performing this movement from a kneeling position eliminates cheating, incorporates a far greater static activation of the torso/midsection musculature for stabilization (unlike a standing pressdown which ends up activating the abdominals dynamically for leverage/cheating), and forces the triceps to work quite a bit harder. The other alternative is to perform the exercise lying back at about 60 degrees on an incline bench, facing away from the weight stack. This will eliminate lean-cheating, but also requires less postural control during the movement. It’s a great way to do it, and better than standing, but performing it on the knees provides a whole new dimension to the movement.

Keeling Tricep Press Down Start

Keeling Tricep Press Down Finish

2. Spread the Floor Apart

This trick is pulled from the world of powerlifting, and something that I rarely get through a training session without having to verbally cue. When deadlifting and squatting, beginner, intermediate and even advanced trainees tend to get a case of “lazy knee” which is basically the knees diving inward during exertion. This is a quick way to counteract that tendency.

Gluteus Medius insufficiency is typically the root of this problem, as the weak and or inhibited GM allows the femur to rotate internally during the difficult parts of the set. This is often exacerbated by tight illiopsoas and adductor muscles which are very common. By envisioning spreading the floor apart and pushing outward on the sides of your shoes during the difficult parts of the eccentric and concentric phases, you force your nervous system to pick up the slack and improve recruitment of the gluteus medius, and your knees will stay in proper forward alignment. This is a quick fix, and typically a sign of bigger problems that need to be addressed. Pre-set activation techniques for the GM are extremely valuable here as well, for more on this read my article Neural Enhancement Training HERE.

Knees Diving Inward

Knees Nuetral

3. Stretch or Train the Antagonist

I discussed this concept in the Inner Circle a while back…here’s the scoop, adapted from that discussion:

The question pops up from time to time, so I thought I’d address it.
Antagonistic Pairing is a concept that I use almost all the time, I’d say 80% or more of my programs are designed with this method on some level..
So what’s the big deal?
Well, it allows you to use heavier loads, execute more reps, increase workout density (amount of work done per unit of time), and provides the opportunity to strategically select equipment next to multiple hot women instead of one.
Let’s say you want to train Bench Press for 4×6 (four sets of 6 reps). In a straight set fashion, you might perform a set, rest 2min, repeat.
In an antagonistic double station training (lets call it ADS, even though by doing so I’m risking the pharmaceutical industry trying to find a cure for it), you’d perform a set of bench press, rest 45 sec, then go to Seated Row, or some other horizontal pulling movement (Bent Over Row, One Arm Row, etc), rest 45 sec, and repeat.
Aside from the obvious fact that you’ve done twice as much work in the same time (12 sets instead of 6), you should also be able to increase performance on both exercises compared to what you were capable of had you had just rested an equivalent time.
So if straight sets looked like this:
Bench Press: 1> 275lbsx6 2> 275lbsx6 3> 275lbsx5 4> 275lbsx4
With ADS, you could expect something like this:
1> 275×6 2> 275×6 3> 275×6 4> 275×5
Total Volume for the first method = 5,775lbs
Total Volume for ADS = 6,325lbs
Over time, this increased TV can lead to significant gains in strength and size.
Same goes for the seated row. This is just one very simple example; you may notice many parameters improving.
So where does the magic come from?
It has a lot to do with inhibition from the antagonist muscle when using straight sets. Over time, one of the ways the nervous system adapts to weight training is to allow for continued strength gain is by decreasing antagonist inhibition.
As a simple example, a novice performing leg extensions will have quite a bit of hamstring activity during the set, pulling the opposite direction. Over time, the nervous system dampens this contribution, this is one of the numerous ways we become stronger with continued training and experience. However, even the most advanced trainees will still have some degree of antagonist inhibition.
So, when you perform ADS, you’re fatiguing the antagonist enough to significantly dampen that contribution, as the muscle is busy trying to recover and manage fatigue. This will also allow you to activate more motor units in the prime mover due to increased ability to accelerate the resistance.
And theory aside, it just plain works. If you can harness the power of ADS, you’ll have a hard time training any other way.

The other option is to apply static stretching techniques to the antagonistic muscle (as long as you’re not training it in that workout). This minimizes neural drive and unwanted counterproductive contribution, working in a similar way as the above method. This comes in handy for times when you don’t want to apply the same training volume to an antagonist muscle but still reap the benefits of ADS.

While the stretching method works, it won’t cause the same passive enhanced motor unit activation as ADS. To really maximize this method you’ll have to focus on explosiveness and trying to move the weight as fast as possible during your sets.

4. Train Arms with High Frequency

We’re looking for 2-3 sets each of elbow flexors and extensors towards the end of your workouts, 3-4 days per week. Being a relatively small muscle group, arms recover fast and can take it. Performing a full arm day once or twice a week gives them too much recovery for optimal growth. This method keeps the arms more full and vascular all week long, and let’s face it…that’s pretty much what we’re all after anyway. I like to organize splits like this:

Upper Body– Horizontal Push and Pull + Arms (2×6, 1×12- one exercise each for biceps and triceps)
Lower Body– Hip Dominant Legs
Upper Body– Vertical Push and Pull + Arms (2×6, 1×12- one exercise each for biceps and triceps, different arm angle in relation to torso from first upper day)
Lower Body– Quad Dominant Legs


Different Strokes for Different Folks

Most people will do well off of a 2×6/1×12 protocol with arm isolation work when structured into a high frequency program, alternating between bicep and tricep double stations. Here’s an example of how this should look:

D1: Incline DB Curl (45 degree bench): 1×6 @ 50lbs
D2: Incline DB Extension (30 degree bench): 1×6 @ 50lbs
D1: Incline DB Curl: 1×6 @ 50lbs
D2: Incline DB Extension: 1×6 @ 50lbs
D1: Incline DB Curl: 1×12 @ 32.5lbs
D2: Incline DB Extension: 1×12 @ 32.5lbs

You should look to use around 65% of your 6RM for your set of 12. If you fall well short of 12 reps, you’re better off sticking to a lower rep protocol. If you get more than 12 reps, you may want to bump the rep scheme up a bit. Examples:

  • Lower rep scheme: 2×3, 1×6
  • Higher rep scheme: 2×10, 1×20

That being said, many people need to keep the reigns on total volume, and should stick to 4 total sets, and a 2×10-12 scheme. If you’re sleeping less than 7.5 hours a night, under a lot of stress, or experience significant soreness after workouts, you should probably stick to two sets per exercise. Experiment. Or hire me. Check back next week for Marc’s Bag of Tricks round two, at this point we’ve just opened up the bag and started peeking in…


Marc’s Bag of Tricks – Part I

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