Saturday, March 14, 2015

Arcs, Angles and Planes of Motion - Greg Zulak (2015)

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Greg Zulak:
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Greg Zulak (2015)

I have been criticized on occasion for being too analytical about training. People say I nitpick about the fine details of exercise performance instead of emphasizing heavy weights and maximum intensity -- proper form be damned. I have to admit that some champion bodybuilders do seem to train in a very loose manner, without using great form.

I once watched Bertil Fox, a three-time Mr. Universe champion and one of the strongest bodybuilders ever, go through a workout at Brian Moss' Better Bodies Gym in New York. He cheated every rep of every set of every exercise. He even went only halfway down on standing calf raises, yet his calves were full and very muscular.

John Brown, a two-time Mr. Universe champion, was also very strong and used very heavy weights with loose form. John was so strong he could actually superset 500-lb bench presses for six reps (bouncing the bar off his chest) with 405-lb incline presses for six reps (again bouncing the bar). Fox and Brown seemed to cheat everything, and yet who can say that it didn't work for them.

The argument that form is not important doesn't hold water, in my opinion, at least for most people. It's like saying that someone never studied yet got As in school. My response would be, it that person had studied, he or she would have gotten A-plus grades in everything. Who knows if Fox and Brown might have developed even getter physiques had they trained with better form? For most people, though, using stricter form works the muscle better and results in better muscle stimulation and innervation and a better pump -- hence, better results.

When I talk about the importance of exercise form, I'm not just warning against excessive cheating and using speed, momentum and inertia to help lift the weight. All those things reduce the productivity of your training and should be eliminated. It's about making your number one goal to work a muscle as hard as possible during a set. As I have frequently pointed out, when most champion bodybuilders lift weights, they focus on working the muscle, not working the weight, while most recreational bodybuilders try to use the heaviest weight they can and focus on lifting it, not working the muscle. The champs also know when and how to cheat to put extra stress on the working muscle, while wanna-be-bodybuilders cheat because it's the only way they can move a big weight.

Innervation is the Key

What many do not realize is that while good form is important for isolating, stimulating and innervating a muscle, it does not guarantee that you'll work the muscle to the max if you use the wrong plane of motion or the wrong angle of attack. Nearly every exercise has an optimal plane of motion, arc or angle that is essential for maximum muscle stimulation and innervation -- your ability to feel the sensations of ache, burn, fatigue and contractions in a muscle, as well as a pump -- and that works the muscle the hardest.

To train for innervation, says Canadian personal trainer Scott Abel, is to realize that it takes great concentration to work a muscle maximally, and that it takes as much mental energy and effort as physical energy and effort. 

Innervation asks a simple question.
Do you feel the muscle working as you perform an exercise?
That's the bottom line.

The Angle on Bench Pressing

Many do not understand that most free-weight exercises are not straight up-and-down motions. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, "Motions means nothing." Many exercises you may have thought of as straight up-and-down motions should move on a tilted plane. You may not have given that concept much thought, but I can guarantee you that it's essential if you are to work a muscle as hard as possible.

Take the bench press, for example. Just because you do not arch your back off the bench or bounce the bar off you chest and you do your reps strictly is no guarantee that you're working the pectoral muscles properly. It was John Parillo who taught me that in order to work the pecs properly when benching, you must set your pectoral girdle before you begin a set by working and pushing your rear deltoids down and back toward your glutes and arch your sternum throughout the set. He showed me how to push the bar through at the top with the pecs and not the delts. 

Parillo also showed me that the plane of motion is tilted back on bench presses. The bar finishes over the eyes on each rep, not over the chest. Benching that way I was able to put the mechanical advantage on the pecs instead of pushing the bar to the top using the front delts and triceps. 

The Right Motion for Rows

Another exercise that should be done on a tilted plane is one-arm dumbbell rowing. Rick Valente, in an interview we did in the early '90s, said to row the dumbbell as if I was sawing wood. That's also the way Sergio Oliva did his one-arm rows when I went to Chicago for three days to watch him train. It works the lower lats, while rowing straight up and down -- the way most bodybuilders do one-arm rows -- works mostly the top of the traps and the rhomboids.

I have found that doing the sawing-wood movement and also rotating my hand 180 degrees at the bottom of the range of motion works the lower lats very hard. As you reach out at the bottom, the lat stretches, and then when you pull the weight in toward your lower abdomen at the top, the lat contracts.

Even bentover barbell rows and reverse-grip barbell rows should be done on a slightly tilted plane. That helps to isolate and work the lats better. You lower the bar down away from your body at the bottom of the range of motion. Don't start pulling up until you have finished going all the way down. Then pull the bar into your waist to make the lats contract -- no dropping your chest to meet the bar, no heaving with your arms. If you have to do those things the weight is too heavy. As Vinnie Comerford once said to me, "There's a big difference between rowing properly with 225 and snapping up 315."

Rowing in such a fashion ensures a fuller range of motion, giving the lats more stretch at the bottom and a better contraction at the top. There is a general rule in bodybuilding that the harder a muscle is stretched at the bottom of an exercise, the harder it can contract at the top.

Wide-Grip Chins and Pulldowns Redefined

Wide-grip chins and wide-grip pulldowns are also best done on a tilted plane of motion, albeit a subtle one. You want to drop your shoulders down and back, and chin until your chest or chin hits the bar. A neat way to work lower lats when doing any kind of chin is, once you hit failure, lock your arms straight and try to touch your chest to the bar. You won't get that high, but raising your body with your arms locked that way works the lower lats, even on wide-grip chins.

On pulldowns you want to tilt your head back, drop the rear delts down and back, and pull the bar to your upper chest to contract the lats. A great tip for giving the lats extra work on any kind of pulldown (triangle bar, narrow bar, wide bar, or parallel grip bar) is to change your grip so your hands are no more than six inches apart, palms forward, knuckles back. Shift your butt a bit off the seat, and then lock your arms and just rock back and forth. You will feel a strong pull on the lats and a burn too. These are burns for the lats. I just go until my fingers start slipping from the bar -- which is usually 12 to 15 burns for me. You definitely work and innervate the lats better when you do burns.

More Rows -- Lat Work Angles

If there is one exercise I frequently see bodybuilders doing wrong, it's seated cable rows. Many just row the handle back and forth in a one-foot range of motion. That's not the way most successful bodybuilders do it. They allow the weight to pull their upper body forward until it almost touches the thighs, but they keep the lower back arched and never round over. As they pull the bar into their abdomen, they arch their chest and drop the shoulders back to contract the lats.

A little tip for giving the lats extra work on seated cable rows: Once you hit failure, lock your arms straight and do burns. Lean forward as much as you can and just rock back and forth. You will feel a strong pull and burn in your lats. Just do as many as you can until your fingers start slipping from the bar.


Arcs for Triceps Work

Close-grip bench presses, triceps dips between benches, and narrow parallel bar dips need a tilted plane. When I wrote Mohamed Makkawy's Variable Angle Training courses back in 1981, he told me when doing close-grip bench presses to press the bar slightly toward the feet as it goes up (three or four inches is enough). That helps contract the triceps harder. On triceps dips between benches and narrow parallel bar dips he said to press up and then lean back to contract the triceps more strongly. Mohamed had hams for triceps!

Even on pushdowns you should push the bar down and away at the bottom to contract the triceps harder. Tony Pearson told me about that trick. Always drape your thumbs and fingers over the bar and hold the bar in your palms so you are pushing it down. Or you can hold the bar in your palms, with your elbows flared to the sides, and push it straight down, rather than in an arc, as you would on regular pushdowns. Parillo says that type of pushdown is best for triceps mass.

There are several different variations of lying triceps extensions you can use to work the triceps better. You can lower the bar to your forehead in typical "skull crusher" style, with your elbows pointing upward. The bar moves in a wide arc and is a better triceps shaper as far as bringing out the much sought after horseshoe. Doing lying triceps extensions on a decline bench gives you a greater range of motion, and it's easier to keep your elbows pointing up. Or you can lower the bar to your neck, with your elbows splayed to the sides, and push it straight up, as if you were doing a close-grip bench press. Larry Scott did his triceps extensions that way and said that it was a better mass builder because he could use heavier weights. Larry could use 250 pounds for six reps like that.

"I like to do this exercise in a combination close-grip bench press/supine tricep press style. I personally do not like to do this one real strict, that is, with the elbows pointing to the ceiling. I think it is too hard on the elbows. Besides, I like to really stack on the weight on this exercise and get a good power pump. Look closely at how I have my elbow position at the bottom of the exercise. Remember, I am not too concerned about form on this movement, but more with the pumping feeling I am getting. Remember, I do not want to injure my elbows." -- Larry Scott.

Straight Talk on a Few More Moves

Even on seated behind-the-neck presses you should not press the bar straight up and down but, rather, up and slightly back at the top. Parillo taught me that; it involves the traps more and can give you a thicker, fuller back. John says to press your hips forward and push the weight slightly back as you lock out, without arching your back. 

Sometimes things work the other way. Some exercises you thought should be performed on a tilted plane are best done up and down. Wide-grip barbell rows, performed Vince Gironda style, are best done in a piston-like motion, with no shrugging of the traps, while 45-degree cable upright rows enable you to work both middle and rear delts at the same time, with some traps too. Stand back several feet from the weight stack so you can pull the handle up at a 45-degree angle. 

On drag curls for biceps, the barbell essentially moves straight up and down as you drag it up your body to a point below your lower pecs to make the biceps contract strongly. Gironda was a big fan of those, and so is John Parillo. He calls them "peak" curls. On barbell and dumbbell curls it's important to drop your shoulders forward, and arch your chest forward, keeping your elbows in at your sides, not letting them drift back, forward, or away. You curl the bar smoothly in a wide arc using the power of the biceps, not shrug it up using the deltoids and traps. 

One exercise that can be wrecked when you use too much weight is dumbbell flyes. They are flyes, not presses. As Arnold said, you want that "hugging a tree" action. The dumbbell should go down and back and outside your shoulders. If you do these properly, you should feel a strong diagonal pull on your pecs. If you try to use dumbbells that are too heavy you will end up doing a straight up-and-down motion -- meaning dumbbell presses instead of flyes. Often bodybuilders using very heavy weights only do half reps. They never lower the dumbbells all the way down. That may be satisfying to the ego, but it doesn't work the pecs as effectively as doing full reps would.

The Right Way to Work Delts

Many trainees don't realize that they should be doing dumbbell laterals while leaning forward about 15 or 20 degrees. Larry Scott, a master of laterals as well as preacher curls, said that if you cannot see your rear delts as you do laterals and one-arm lateral, you are too upright. 

Everyone knows that the little fingers should be higher than the thumbs at the top in order to work the medial, or side, deltoids. If the thumbs are higher than the little fingers, you shift the stress to the stronger anterior, or front, delts.

A lot of trainees do a little twist of the hands to get that "pouring water" action and get the little fingers higher than the thumbs, but Larry had an ingenious method of doing it: Just hold the dumbbells off-center, with the little fingers and fleshy parts of the outsides of your hands pressed against the rear plates of the dumbbells. That makes the dumbbells tilt, and the little fingers will automatically be higher than the thumbs.

Scott had a way of doing dumbbell presses that put almost all of the stress on the medial deltoids as well. I call these "Scott Presses." Lean into a dumbbell rack about 15 degrees while holding two moderately heavy dumbbells at your shoulders. Again, hold the weights off-center so they tilt, angling down toward your head. The little fingers should point up, and the thumbs should point down. With this grip your elbows will point out to your sides. Pull them back in line with the shoulders, and start to press the dumbbells. Do not go up and down in a straight line as you would on regular dumbbell presses. They should travel up but inward above your head. Imagine a triangle formed by your shoulders and a spot a few inches above your head, and then press the dumbbells along that triangle. The dumbbells never touch your shoulders in the bottom position, and they are never locked out at the top. In fact, it's impossible to lock out with this grip. There is constant tension on the medial delts. Larry made sure that the dumbbells never stopped moving until the set was over.

Another middle-delt move that has a unique plane of motion is the W-Press, an exercise most bodybuilders have never heard of. It was one of the 'secret' exercises performed by many trainees at Gironda's gym in North Hollywood back in the 1960s. I first learned about W-Presses from an article in IronMan that was published in the '70s and written by Bob Greene, who trained at Vince's. W-Presses are unusual because you don't press the dumbbells straight up and down; you pull them downward in a large arc. You might say that W-Presses are to the medial delts what dumbbell flyes are to the pecs.

Here's how to do them. Hold two moderate weight dumbbells outside your shoulders with a curl grip -- about what you'd use on dumbbell laterals and maybe five pounds more. Your palms should face your ears. Your arms should be forming a W -- hence the name. Pull your elbows back in line with your shoulders. Then raise the dumbbells in a large, smooth arc until they meet overhead. Tilt your head back as the dumbbells come up. Pause to contract your medial delts, and lower back to the starting position. Because you're using your biceps, and not the triceps, to raise the dumbbells, W-Presses are excellent for supersetting with dumbbell presses, Scott presses or seated behind-the-neck presses. W-Presses will make your medial delts pump and burn.

The Angle on Efficient Training

I haven't the space to cover every exercise, but I hope I've made you think about aligning your body before you begin a set, and about optimal planes of motion, arcs and angles. Remember, your ultimate goal is to work the muscle, not to see how much weight you can toss around. Do anything within reason you can to make a muscle work harder, and you increase intensity, exercise effectiveness, and therefore growth.    

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