How do you know when you're going too heavy on an exercise? The answer is simple and obvious: When you lose the feel for the target muscle group'the innervation'and when you're forced to bring other muscle groups into play to complete the set.
I'm not saying you should never cheat. On the contrary, I believe you should cheat on nearly every exercise'except squats, deadlifts and a few potentially dangerous ones. All I ask is that you not cheat until you've performed every possible strict rep that you can and it's impossible to lift the weight anymore without a little body English or assistance from your training partner. You should not cheat to make extra repetitions easier, only to make them possible. You cheat to overload an already very fatigued and stimulated muscle group. You cheat to force the target muscle to work harder. You cheat to prolong or extend a set. You cheat to increase intensity.
I discussed the bench press and how to set up for that exercise for best pec stimulation in Part 1 of this discussion, but that isn't the only movement on which you should position your body and align your muscles before you begin. Take dumbbell rows for the lats. Most people row the dumbbell on a straight-up-and-down plane. They shouldn't'at least they shouldn't if they want complete lat stimulation from origin to insertion.
If you do one-arm rows on a straight-up-and-down plane, you work mostly upper lats, plus some rear delts, rhomboids and traps. To work the lower lats and the real belly of the lat muscle, you should move the dumbbell in a sawing-wood motion. Kneel with one leg on the bench, the other leg stretched out behind you. Pick up the dumbbell and use a little sawing motion to get the weight moving. Try to reach down and forward as far from your body as possible until you feel a strong pull or stretch on your lats. At that point twist your hand from a thumbs-up hammer curl position to a knuckles-up'palms-down'position. That little twist gives the lats a slightly stronger stretch.
When you reach maximum stretch, pull the weight in an upside-down semicircle, from near the floor to up and in toward your lower lats. Pull back the elbow of your working arm as far as possible. Pause to tense and squeeze your lats, and then prepare for the next repetition. That's how to do one-arm rows that work the entire latissimus muscle.
Bent-over barbell rows performed with either an overhand or an underhand grip are another exercise that moves on a tilted plane. The plane of motion is not as severe as the one for one-arm rows, but the bar should move down and away from the body as you lower the barbell into the bottom position. Don't stop moving the barbell down and out until it won't go any farther. That increases stretch on the lats. Then pull the bar back upward and into your abdomen. Pause for a hard squeeze to increase the contraction, and then lower back to the bottom position for your next repetition. For maximum lat stimulation make sure the bar travels on a slanted plane of motion looking something like a backslash () when you do underhand, or curl-grip, bent-over barbell rows and a little less slanted for overhand bent-over barbell rows.
Remember, you're training for maximum lat isolation, innervation and stimulation, not to see how much weight you can heave up. Too many bodybuilders ruin bent-over rows and T-bar rows by standing up with the weight, dropping their head and letting their butt come up higher than their head or dropping their chest to meet the bar. That shouldn't happen if you set your body and use a working weight that lets you train your lats without resorting to cheating or sloppy exercise form. You want to row with flexed knees, a slightly arched back'not rounded'with your head up and your torso just above parallel. Stay in that position throughout the set. You never want to lose the arch in your lower back. The lats cannot contract when the back is rounded. Sensible bodybuilders will use weights that enable them to maintain the position. You know the weight is too heavy if your head ducks down, your glutes rise higher than your head, and your back rounds. And if you have to raise your torso to a semi-erect position as you row, that's another sure sign.
The same is true for T-bar rows. Your back should be slightly arched, your knees flexed and your torso down and over the weight at all times. If you have to stand up with the weight, you're using too much. If your back rounds over, ditto. If you stop feeling your lats working and you're using a lot of lumbar, trap and delt assistance in lifting the weight, it's too heavy.
The lat pulldown to the chest is another exercise that you should perform on a tilted plane. The plane of motion should be slanted toward the body like a slash (/), not straight up and down. Arch your lower back, thrust your sternum and chest forward and upward, and pull your shoulders down and back, similar to setting up for bench presses. As you pull the bar down to your chest, pull your elbows back as far as possible and try to pinch your shoulder blades together. Then slowly return to the starting position, feeling the stretch all the way back to the top.
Another key to good form for lat pulldowns is the grip. You should drape your thumbs and fingers over the bar, not wrap around it. Draping deactivates the biceps and pulls the lats out for better stimulation.
Do reverse-grip pulldowns with your hands closer on the bar, but maintain an arched lower back for maximum lat stimulation. Pull your deltoids down and back, and it again angles the plane of motion for best results. Pull your elbows down and back as far as they'll go. Many champs also find it helps to tilt your head back as you pull the bar down into your chest, then tilt your head forward as the bar returns to the overhead position. That small motion gives you a better lat stretch.
I'm not a big fan of behind-the-neck pulldowns for building lats because the natural tendency is to hunch over as you fatigue and to put most of the mechanical advantage on the traps. You don't have to discard the exercise altogether, however. I use behind-the-neck pulldowns as a trap exercise and to work the trap-deltoid tie-ins. They also help bring out cuts, separation and density in the upper back. With trap pulldowns, as I call them, you can hunch over as much as you want because the more you hunch, the more you involve your traps.
If you insist on doing behind-the-neck lat pulldowns, try sitting backward, facing away from the machine. That way you can pull the bar down straighter, without having to hunch forward. This is one exercise that does move on a straight-up-and-down plane of motion for best results. Use the palm grip'thumbs and fingers draped over the bar'and arch your chest and drop your shoulders down and back before you begin.
Overhead-press movements also involve a slightly slanted plane. On behind-the-neck presses the plane tilts backward at the top'or at least it should if you do a full movement. If you do short, partial constant-tension reps that travel about a foot or less, then the bar probably does go just straight up and down, but on full repetitions you should press your hips forward and push the weight slightly back as you lock out, without arching your back. That helps isolate the deltoids better. If you use a wide grip, it's possible to push the bar to full lockout without straightening the arms completely and still maintain constant tension on the delts. In fact, anatomically it's impossible to straighten your arms when doing wide-grip presses to the chest or to the neck.
The dumbbell press done Larry Scott style is another exercise that doesn't move on a straight-up-and-down plane. Larry holds the dumbbells off-center so the inner plates tip down, making his little fingers higher than his thumbs. Then he pulls the dumbbells wide and back in line with his shoulders. Larry discovered years ago that by not pressing to full lockout and not lowering the dumbbells to his shoulders, and by doing what he calls the middle three-fifths of the range of motion, he could better isolate and put almost all the overload on the side-, or medial-, delt heads, the heads that give you width. That was one of Larry's secret exercises, and along with heavy laterals, he used it to develop some of the greatest deltoids ever.
The trick to doing Scott-style presses is to imagine you're trying to make your elbows hit behind your head'a physical impossibility but a good mental image to retain'and to hold the dumbbells so your little fingers point almost straight up and your thumbs point almost straight down. As you press the dumbbells, remember that you never lock out your arms and the 'bells never touch your shoulders. They move on a severely tilted plane of motion. This is nothing like regular dumbbell presses, so start light until you get the action down and increase the weight as long as you can maintain form and put all the overload on the side heads. If you lose the feel of the side heads or feel the stress on some other part of your delts, then you know you're doing the exercise incorrectly. If you do them properly, Scott-style presses put almost all the load on the side heads, so let innervation be your guide.
You can even do some exercises in different ways for different effects. Take bent-over dumbbell laterals, for example. If you let your arms bend at the elbows and lift the dumbbells in a straight line, while pinching your deltoids together at the top, then you work your rhomboids more than your rear delts. If you keep your arms relatively straight, however, with just a slight bend at your elbows, and you lift the 'bells in a smooth arc up and out to the top position, then your rear delts do most of the work. So, if you need more rear delts, lift the 'bells in an arc. If your rhomboids are a priority, lift the dumbbells straight up and pinch your scapulae together.
You can do lying triceps extensions in one of several ways to throw more stress on a particular head of the triceps. If you keep your elbows in, pointed toward the ceiling, and lower the bar to your nose, forehead or behind your head, it becomes more of a shaping exercise, good for bringing out that nice horseshoe. If you allow your elbows to splay out to the sides as you lower the bar to your chin or throat and push the bar up on a straight plane of motion, it becomes a mass builder, as it really targets the long head of the triceps, the head that creates mass and size.
The same is true for pushdowns. If you keep your elbows in tight to your sides and move the bar in a semicircular arc, the pushdown is more of a shaping movement that brings out the horseshoe of the triceps. If you splay your elbows wide and push the bar straight down and out a little at the bottom, you target mostly the long head, which is why that version is such a good mass builder. The plane of motion looks about like this: . You'll even get better results on the close-grip bench press if you do it on a tilted plane. Mohammed Makkawy showed me that back in 1984, when he was a top contender for the Mr. Olympia crown. Mohammed said that when doing close-grip bench presses, I should feel as though I was pushing the bar upward and slightly toward my feet. It added mass to the outside head of the triceps, he said.
Last, but not least, curls require special body alignments to get the most out of your effort. On barbell and dumbbell curls it's vital to arch your chest and pull your shoulders down and back before you begin. Keep your elbows in close to your sides, and keep your wrists flat. Use your biceps to curl the weight to the top position. If you use a weight that's too heavy, you'll find your shoulders and elbows moving forward and your delts and traps will get involved, helping drive the bar past the sticking point and depriving the biceps of work.
I hope you're now thinking about taking that extra second to align your body and muscles before you begin a set and moving weights on certain arcs, angles and planes of motion. The name of the game is muscle isolation and stimulation, leading to muscle growth. A weight is just a tool that allows you to work a muscle to make it bigger and stronger. Make optimal use of that tool by discovering the best arcs and planes of motion for each exercise you perform, and you'll go a long way toward increasing muscle stimulation and growth.
As I said last month, make the most out of each repetition to get more out of each set at every workout. IM