The basic correlation between a type of exercise and the muscle group it trains isn’t exactly rocket science. For instance, one must do bench presses and pushups for the chest, squats and lunges for legs, curls and chin-ups for biceps, and lat pull-downs and deadlifts for the back. All other exercises revolve around these core moves. But they must be complemented with secondary lifts and pulls, as well as conditioning and flexibility work. And even after all this, one must constantly introduce new variations to keep the routine fresh and to continue to challenge the muscles.
You also need to get the most out of those basic exercises, so that doing them over and over again does not lead to boredom. This is where some tweaks in form can help you, and here are five variations you can make in your routine for better results.
Lateral raises: One of the most popular shoulder exercises, the lateral raise hit the deltoids, a small muscle which needs decent technique to be activated. It can be surprising how easily, by just changing the angle of your body and wrist, you can do so.
One old trick is to rotate the wrist in a way that the little fingers are pointing upwards when your hands are approaching shoulder height during a lateral raise. However, this can lead to impingement issues in the shoulder. So instead, leaning your body slightly and then externally rotating the shoulder during your raise is a much better way.
Another excellent variation for lateral raises is to hold a solid post with one hand—preferably one of the legs of a cable machine or a squat rack—and hang your body at a 45 degree angle and then perform basic lateral raises. This will maintain the resistance on the shoulder throughout the move.
Bicep curls: Your biceps will always tell you when they’ve reached their maximum rep range. The advice is to usually lift a weight with which you can do 15-20 reps. Once you’ve exhausted yourself with good reps, your back involuntarily comes into play, as it begins to help your tired arms to swing the weights back up. Here’s where you can cheat smartly. Science has shown that eccentric movement—that of the weight being lowered during a bicep curl—puts the most amount of stress on the muscle. By using a slight swing of the back to get the weight up, you can then slowly lower it down to extend the time the bicep is in eccentric tension.
Another trick you can use while executing hammer curls is to change its angle so that there’s more stress on the most ignored part of the bicep: the brachialis muscle. It lies slightly deeper than the other arm muscles, and it is responsible for elbow flexion. Add a set or two of cross-body hammer curls, where you raise the wrist inside towards the chest, rather than the standard movement, to hit the brachialis and keep those muscles working as well.
The dip machine: The dip machine provides incredible stimulus to not just the triceps, but even to the chest and the abs. The machine is often ignored, because it’s difficult to operate, and because there are many other alternatives to training triceps. But you should try it for its versatility.
If you keep your arms close to your body, look up, maintain a strong core and a straighter posture while performing the exercise, then most of the load will be taken by your triceps. But if you change the angle of your body to lean downwards and keep the chest activated, then most of the load will be taken by the chest. The last variation is one of my favourites, where I add a tiny twist at the end of every rep, mostly using the core while doing this. This just adds an extra bonus for the ab routine later on.
Side movement on leg day: While chasing beefy quads and springy calves, we often forget that legs don’t just move forward and backward, but also side-to-side. So, adding some sideways movements to any exercise on leg day is going to increase your flexibility, balance and stability. This will also work on your adductor muscles, which are usually ignored.
A leg day will usually involve squats and lunges. Lunges are usually overloaded by adding the lunge walk, in which you are walking forwards with or without weights. Squats are usually stationary or done standing in one place. But if you add a side shuffle at the end of every squat (without weights), then it immediately works the inner thighs for a more balanced workout. The inner thighs are used for internal rotation of the leg and also make up for the base of the pelvis which in turn affects core strength. Add plié squat walks, jumping jacks, and alternating side lunges to work this area.
The dead bug: This one is for the core muscles, and it’s more about stability and strength than building a six-pack. The dead bug is a move which forces the core to remain stable as you lie on your back and move one hand and one leg away from each other for one rep. Not only does this exercise get your core ready for compound lifts and tougher ab exercises, but it also helps improve running stride due to the coordination it needs.
The advantages are that since it’s done lying on the back, the lower back is protected and it’s easier than a plank, for beginners. As you advance, add weights to make it more challenging, but this is one exercise whose benefits you cannot ignore.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.