Welcome to the 2nd installment of Marc’s Bag of Tricks, the series of articles providing you with quick tips you can take to the gym and notice immediate benefits from. And of course, a few sprinkles mixed in of that sexy little thing we call science.
1. Work the Hard end of the Strength Curve
After completing all the work sets for a given exercise, add an extra set of the same exercise, only using the hardest 1/3 of the movement. Perform a set of 10-12, with a 3 second eccentric, explosive concentric, and a pause at the stretch position. Taking the preacher curl as an example, you would perform a set starting at about 120 degrees of elbow flexion, lower it over 3 seconds to a fully extended 180 degrees, pause a full second, then raise it back up as fast as possible to 120 degrees.
You’ll have to play around with the weight depending on where your weakness lies. Many people cheat their way through or completely avoid the hardest parts of the strength curve…so you may have to lower your weight significantly in order to perform this set.
2. Spice up Calf Training
Most peoples calf training tends to be about as exciting as listening to Ben Stein read the lab report of Paris Hilton’s STD exam. I like to see people mix it up a bit, not just for the sake of avoiding the lifeless monotony of machine calf raises but also for an increased training effect. First let’s take a brief look at calf anatomy to understand why traditional calf training may be missing something.
If I were to take my high heels off and dissect the calf, this is what we would be looking at. Notice that the soleus is the deep muscle (lies closest to the bone), and runs from the knee to the posterior ankle. Its main function is plantarflexion of the ankle (as well as keeping you from falling over when you’re standing, but that’s not what we’re focusing on here). Also notice that the gastrocnemius (cut away) attaches above the knee, unlike the soleus. What this means to you is that to allow for greater untapped contribution from the gastrocnemius you want to involve both the ankle and the knee joint in some of your calf movements. Some of the more physiology adept of you may already know that due to attachment locations, the soleus is better recruited when the knee is maintained in a flexed position (seated calf raises where the knee is bent to 90 degrees), and the gastrocnemius is better recruited when the leg is in a straight position (standing calf raises). This is due to the 2nd function of the gastrocnemius being knee flexion. When in a seated calf raise position, the gastroc is already preoccupied with knee flexion to enough of a degree that the soleus gets a better crack at the action. It may seem like a passive knee flexion, but it isn’t…put your hands on your hamstrings next time you perform a seated calf raise and you can certainly feel the contraction. The gastroc is still working, just not as hard as when the leg is straight. So what’s the point? Try out the following calf exercises and you will be optimally recruiting everything below your knee.
- Siff Lunges:
Named after one of the greatest contributors to the advancement of our field, Mel Siff. Performed as a normal lunge, with a simple twist…you stay on your toes the entire set. I recommend performing all reps with one leg, lowering your heels and resting for 15 seconds, then switching legs. This is a hybrid exercise that allows you to sneak some calf training in with your leg work. A great way to get some extra time under tension for the lower limb.
Siff Lunge – Start
Siff Lunge – Finish
If you have good knees and good flexibility, you should be performing (or at least working towards) full lunges, pictured below. Just watch knee alignment, make sure your patella points straight ahead, same direction as your foot.
Siff Lunge Full: Knee can continue forward until hamstring covers calf
- Biarticular Calf Raises:
This movement takes a few times to get the hang of. From the top position, lower your body to a full stretch, bend your knees to 20-30 degrees, then explode up to the start position. The key is keeping the knee straight through the whole eccentric phase until your heel hits the bottom point. This can be done on a standing calf raise machine, or with a dumbbell as pictured below.
Biarticular Calf Raise – Top
Calf Raise – Bottom
Biarticulate Calf Raise – Midpoint
- 2 Up 1 Down Calf Raises:
Like the bi-articular calf raise, this movement can be done on a standing calf raise machine or with a dumbbell and a step. Go up with 2 legs and pause at the top, tuck one foot behind the other, then lower yourself all the way to a full stretch with just the one leg. Slide the other foot back onto the platform and raise up on both legs again. Perform all negative reps on one leg before switching to the other. Rest 20 seconds and switch legs.
2 Up 1 Down Calf Raise – Top
2 Up 1 Down Calf Raise – Bottom
- Hop on One Leg:
Seriously. Often when I show a client a new exercise, they’re certain that I’m making it up on the spot for my own amusement and as an experiment in the degree of their gullibility. Of course that frequently is the case, but this surprisingly isn’t one of those exercises (the Inverted High Cable Prison Pull, however, is purely done for my amusement). This is as simple as it sounds, and should be done at the end of all other calf work. Starting out, just jump about half as high as you potentially could, and allow for 10-20 or so degrees of knee flexion upon landing. As you build up the protective musculature and connective tissue around the ankle and bones of the foot, you can work towards maximal jump height. Shoot for 2 sets of 20 jumps on each leg your first workout, then add a few jumps each workout. Pick a goal; shoot for 100 in 6 weeks. 2×20 doesn’t sound like a lot, but after other calf training you’ll probably feel like you’re about to fall over after this is done.
3. Perform Lateral Raises Seated, and for Individual Arm Length
Much like the Tricep Pressdown, people love to cheat their way through this exercise. In fact, most people have better squat depth in their standing lateral raises than they do in their acutal barbell squats. A lateral raise is a single joint shoulder movement; keep the jumping around for push presses.
Typically when I make somebody sit down and do these their weight drops by at least 30%. This is because now the shoulders are actually doing the work on both the concentric and eccentric phase for the first time. That decrease in load will soon recover and the resultant training effect on the medial deltoids will be more than noticeable. Sit at the edge of a bench with a very slight forward lean; don’t lean back into a support. Raise the dumbbells under control up to slightly above horizontal, take a slight pause and lower them back to the start.
Depending on your arm length, making an adjustment at the elbow angle can add serious life to your shoulders. You don’t have to get a tape measure out, just put yourself into one of three categories…short, medium, or long arms. Short arms; bend the elbow to about 170 degrees, medium; 140 degrees, and long; 110 degrees. Not only will the medial delt be better recruited, but you will also significantly minimize cumulative damage to the shoulder joint.
170 Degree Elbow Angle
140 Degree Elbow Angle
110 Degree Elbow Angle
4. Multi-Function Bicep Training
What does your current bicep routine look like? Barbell Curls, preacher curls, cable curls, and a grand finale of flexing so hard when an attractive girl walks by that your diaphragm drops below your elastic waistline? If you’re really savvy, you might add in a compound movement like a close grip chip up, or close grip pulldown. You damn well should, as the biceps brachii cross the shoulder joint and are optimally recruited with multi-joint movements. I’m not going to tell you that isolation work for the elbow flexors is a waste of time, because for most people it isn’t. But you really should include something more than an array of 18 curling exercises if you’re interested in optimal strength and hypertrophy.
For those strong enough, you should use close grip chins (weighted if possible) as a staple in your upper arm programming. Secondarily (or primarily if you can’t pull your fat ass up to the bar) you should be using close grip pulldowns. Use a grip matching or slightly narrower than your bi-acromial width, and keep your torso vertical. No leaning back, as this will encourage excessive lat contribution. These movements involve elbow flexion coupled with simultaneous saggital plane shoulder extension, which will help to recruit a larger pool of motor units than elbow flexion alone, particularly in the oft-neglected long head. In addition, they allow you to subject your biceps to much greater loads than you could with a single joint movement which also enhances motor unit activation and overall training effect.
A less obvious choice for a multi-joint bicep movement is the Bi-Articular Cable Curl. Much like having sex sober, this takes some getting used to. The bicecps brachii and the coracobrachialis both contribute significantly to saggital plane shoulder flexion, but only during concurrent elbow flexion. What this means, is that when you’re performing a dumbbell bench press you’re performing a degree of saggital plane (technically oblique plane, as the movement crosses through the saggital plane) shoulder flexion, but during this movement your elbow is extending, hence no contribution from the bicep musculature. But when you involve elbow flexion and shoulder flexion concurrently, you maximize the reason God/Bhudda/Joseph Smith gave you bicep muscles. Perform a normal cable curl with a straight bar, pause at the top of the contraction, step back with one foot, drive your elbows up to shoulder level while focusing on flexing your biceps the entire time, step forward again, lower your elbows back to your side, then lower the bar back to the start position. Sounds confusing, but that’s what we have our lovely model for:
Biarticulate Cable Curl – Position 1
Biarticulate Cable Curl – Position 2
Biarticulate Cable Curl – Position 3
Biarticulate Cable Curl – Position 4
To optimize this movement, think of driving the weight up with the pinky side of the palms while simultaneously trying to push your hands together. This takes advantage of the supination function of the biceps as well as the humerus adduction function of the corachobrachialis.
That’s it for the 2nd installment of Marc’s Bag of Tricks, now get to work.