Article by Greg Merritt on Applying Bulgarian Methods to Bodybuilding:
We think of muscles as parts. But skeletal muscles themselves consist of many thousands of tiny parts called fibers. Crucially, fibers - which are one to four inches long - rarely run the length of any muscle you train. Therefore, an exercise that stresses fibers near a muscle's top won't activate fibers near the bottom. Diverse angles of attack are necessary to stimulate as many fibers as possible and goad them toward growth, and no methodology hits your muscles in more ways each workout than Small-Angle Training.
Over the past four decades, Charles Glass has established himself as bodybuilding's preeminent trainer with what is popularly called angle training. This is a constantly morphing assault using subtle changes in the positioning of bodies and equipment. But what if you took that idea and cranked it up to 11? What if no two sequential sets were ever alike, and your overriding mission was to hit fibers from as many angles as possible?
With small-angle training, each set of an exercise is performed differently in a sequence of typically four to six sets. You might change the grip, the stance, the angle of a bench, or the positioning of equipment, like the height of a cable pulley. Ideally, this is a progression from harder to easier, such as dumbbell chest presses that go from a high incline to flat to a low decline to a high decline. In that way you can use the same weight as you progress, and with adequate rest between sets, you can get the same or more reps each time.
Let's go over a small-angle progression for pulldowns. Start with a wide grip. The next set use a shoulder-width grip. Then switch to a parallel grip on a medium length bar. Finally, clip on a V-handle for your final set. The changes in hand and arm position will work the upper back in a subtly distinct way each set and activate more fibers than four sets performed in the same way.
What follows are some of the best small-angle methods for diversely attacking each body part.
From narrow to sumo-style, barbell squats can be done with a variety of stances. Hack squats, Smith machine squats, and leg presses can be performed with both different stance widths and your feet positioned anywhere from under your hips to far out in front. You can arrange your toes in, out, and straight during leg extensions, leg curls, and any calf exercise.
Pulldowns and cable rows can be done with a variety of grips, from very wide to parallel and narrow. Similarly, you can also alter your grip on barbell rows from shoulder width and underhand to wide and overhand. By progressively raising a cable's height and using a rope, you can go from a low row to a medium row to a face-pull to a pulldown. With a progressively raised Smith machine bar, you can crank out inverted rows (like lat ladders) at a sequence of angles.
From narrower than shoulder width to very wide, barbells can be pressed with a variety of grips. For dumbbell presses or flyes, an adjustable incline or decline bench can be positioned to work pecs from the uppermost edge (incline) to the lower cliff (decline). Cable crossovers can be performed from low to high and all the positions in between.
From narrow to wide, overhead barbell presses and upright rows can be done with a variety of grips. You can alter your hand position during dumbbell presses from palms forward to palms facing each other to palms facing backward. One-arm side laterals can be done leaning toward the floor, standing straight, and leaning away from the floor. While lying on an adjustable bench set in many positions, you can perform front raises. Shrugs can be done with two low cables held behind your back, straight down, and in front.
Pushdowns and cable triceps extensions can be subtly changed each set from an underhand grip with a straight bar to overhand grips with a variety of bars or a rope.
Barbell curls can be altered from a very narrow grip to a very wide grip with multiple stops in between. You can also change the angle of curls. For example, go from a 45-degree preacher curl to a Scott curl to a regular curl.
Do crunches, situps, and leg raises on an adjustable incline bench set in any position from highest to lowest.
Small-Angle Tip Sheet
- A portable, adjustable bench can be positioned at a variety of angles for exercises you may not have considered, such as pulldowns (facing away from the cable).
- A Smith machine bar set at varying heights is great for bodyweight inverted rows or triceps extensions.
- A kind of dropset can be done by repeatedly changing the angle but not the resistance. For example, progress from dumbbell presses on an incline tot flat to a decline without resting.
- To work all fibers of a muscle, hit it from a multitude of angles.
- Vary exercises for each body part, such as one with a barbell, another with dumbbells, and a third with a machine or cables.
- Change your grip, stance, or the position of the bench or body angle on each set.
Example of a Small-Angle Chest Routine
Bench Press, 1 x 8-10 each
2 inches narrower
2 inches wider
4 inches wider
6 inches wider
Dumbbell Flye, 1 x 10-12 each
45 degree incline
20 degree incline
20 degree decline
45 degree decline
Cable Crossover 1 x 12-15 each