One of the keys to making progress in the gym is, surprise, progression. Continuously challenging your body to do a little bit more than it did last year, last month and even last week.
The most obvious way to progress your workouts is to add more resistance to your exercises; take knee pushups to your toes, add dumbbells to your lunges, move the weights from the side of your body to shoulder height during your squats. [Incidentally, if you've been doing the At Home Beginner Strength Workout I shared a couple of weeks ago, it's time to start making at least a few of the exercises a bit more challenging ].
But progression doesn’t always mean upping the load.
When we focus on increasing the weight that we can move while performing a particular exercise, we’re still stimulating the same group of muscle fibres through the same range of motion. While this approach will initially reward you with strength gains, at some point you may plateau due to weakness in the adjacent muscle fibres and the smaller muscles that assist and stabilize the lift.
Two simple ways to jumpstart progress (or just keep it interesting if you’re easily bored by your workouts )? Vary your grips and angles.
Get a (new) grip
‘Grip’ refers to how you hold the weight. Do your palms face up (below on the left) or down (on the right)? Forwards or back? The same way or in different directions (a ‘mixed’ grip)? Switching your grip is the easiest way to work your target muscle from a different direction; both engaging more muscle fibres and recruiting stabilizing muscles to assist.
Take, for example, the dumbbell bicep curl. The basic movement requires that you start with dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forwards. As you curl the weights up towards your shoulders, palms will be facing the ceiling (and eventually, you). This exercise is great for building the largest muscle in your upper arm, the Biceps brachii, but not so great for building the smaller, Biceps brachialis and Brachiradialis. Change the grip to ‘neutral’, or palms facing your sides (aka a ‘hammer’ curl) and presto, the Brachiradialis get a chance to shine, as do your forearm flexors (which, for most women, are quite weak and often limit the loads we can press and pull). Combine both into a ‘supinating’ bicep curl (start with palms facing in at the bottom, rotating to palms facing up at the top) and you’ll hit all three. Win-win-win!
Other examples of exercises that can benefit from a change in grip?
- shoulder presses (palms facing forward vs. palms facing your ears)
- barbell bent over rows (palms facing up vs. palms facing down vs. mixed grip)
- lat pulldowns (palms forward vs. palms facing one another; you’ll need the triangle attachment to make this one work)
- barbell dead lifts (palms up vs. palms down vs. mixed grip)
I like to vary my grip from workout to workout and often find that the weight I’m able to lift varies with the grip I’ve chosen. Try it yourself and feel the difference!
What’s your angle?
Many traditional strength training exercises are performed on a flat bench, either face up (chest press, lat pullovers, tricep skull crushers) or face down (reverse flys, YTWL’s).
Increasing your load on flat bench exercises will certainly increase the size and strength of the target muscle, but because the ‘line of pull’ remains the same (the force of gravity always pulls the weight directly downward), your muscles will only get stronger at this particular angle (fitness peeps call this the ‘principle of specificity’).
By simply changing the angle of your weight bench, you can target your muscles from a different angle, recruit adjacent muscle fibres and stabilizer muscles and promote a more balanced, symmetrical physique (which, in addition to looking great, also functions better during the activities of daily life).
Most benches offer a variety of inclines, ranging from 30 to 60 or 70 degrees. Make sure you choose an angle appropriate for the particular exercise you’re doing to get the most out of the exercise while preventing injury. Always ensure that your feet are placed firmly on the ground and your back remains in contact with the bench throughout the entire exercise. If you find your back arching away from the bench or your feet lifting up off the floor, try perfecting the move with a lighter weight.
Other exercises that can be performed on an incline?
- chest press and chest fly (a moderate incline, 30 to 40 degrees, shifts the emphasis to the upper chest)
- reverse fly (a 45 to 60 degree incline can reduce the lower back pain some people experience while performing this exercise in the fully bent over position)
- bicep curls (try a 45 degree incline to shift the focus to the long head of the Biceps brachii; you’ll also be able to extend the range of motion of your curls in this position)
I alternate between flat bench and incline bench with my own upper body workouts. The incline sessions, although performed with slightly lighter loads, are helping me to progress my workouts and improve my upper body strength through a bigger range of motion.
When was the last time you changed your ‘grips’ or your ‘angles’?
Do you have a favourite incline bench exercise?