Once you’ve been bodybuilding for a few years, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of doing the same exercises and routines over and over without considering worthwhile alternatives. Sometimes a new set of exercises can stimulate growth and can actually be more productive and even safer than the old standbys that you’ve relied on. In a recent conversation top competitive bodybuilder Dan Decker had some insights on that very subject that you can put to use in the gym.
DY: Where do you think most trainees go wrong when they design a routine for building maximum mass?
DD: They make a basic mistake in believing that every routine has to include certain exercises, or the whole thing goes up in smoke. It’s a mind-set. If you say, for instance, I’ve got to include squats and leg extensions or skull crushers and barbell curls, then you’ll have to do them. You need to consider that there are dozens of ways to do “the basics,” just as there a dozens of ways to organize your routine.
DY: That makes sense, and it makes it more interesting.
DD: Exactly. You want as much variety in your training as you can possibly get. If you get on a training program where you do the same exercises, sets and reps day in and day out, month after month, your body becomes so accustomed to what you’re doing that muscle growth will stop altogether. I will change my entire training program every six to eight weeks. Often I’ll change the grip or foot position or the order of the exercises within that six-to-eight-week period. Try different sets, different reps. That can generally shock you into a new growth range.
So often trainees will use a certain hand or foot position because they discover that’s where they’re the strongest. What they really may need to do is find out where they’re the weakest and train with that position, then mix it up. Soon they’ll find they’re balancing out their strength, and lo and behold, their physique is getting better as well.
DY: So getting one’s ego out of the equation is a good thing, right?
DD: There’s a time ego is helpful. It can help you challenge yourself to lift heavier and push yourself. But now and again you have to put your ego in the backseat to help train your weaker points and bring them up. Remember, the body is built to survive—that’s all it knows. If you put it under pressure, like with a new exercise or a new way of doing an exercise, it has to adapt and get stronger and bigger. That’s how it reacts to the stress. But wait a second—just because you do the exercise doesn’t mean the muscle is going to grow.
Does your body know you’re squatting to get big legs? It just knows that you’ve been knocked down and you need to stand up because the weight you’re squatting with is bearing down on you.
DY: Stand up or get knocked on your butt—now, that’s survival. Why else do you think people don’t make appreciable progress?
DD: The first thing potential clients often say to me is, for example, “Dan, my arms won’t grow. I’ve tried everything, and my arms won’t grow. What should I do?” If that’s the way you think, every time you pick up a barbell and curl it, they won’t grow, because you’re programming them not to grow. Your muscle doesn’t have a brain. Your mind controls the muscle. So you’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m going to work my arms, and my arms are going to grow.” You have to change your attitude about your training because if you don’t, nothing you’re doing in the gym will work.
Everything you do in the gym has to be done with positive expectancy. You must condition your subconscious to know with certainty that you’re getting bigger and training with more intensity, and your body will respond accordingly.
DY: How do you break out your training week and does that change?
DD: Sure it changes, but it doesn’t have to. There has to be some constant, and in general that’s the part I keep consistent.
My split is:
Monday: Chest, abs
Tuesday: Back, calves
Thursday: Shoulder, abs
Saturday: Quads, hamstrings, calves
In general, the first exercise on any given bodypart gets three to four warmup sets and then three to four work sets of about eight to 10 reps per set—as heavy as possible. I’ll do five to six exercises for each bodypart. Sometimes straight sets, sometimes super-, tri- or even giant sets. It’s all productive.
DY: Let’s talk about some of the lost exercises that you practice. What’s first on the list?
DD: I want to point out that most of these were taken out of Bill Pearl’s Keys to the Inner Universe. Bill offers some really nice choices in that book [available at www.Home-Gym.com].
The first exercise is wide-grip barbell front raises. A narrow grip works the front delts more, but a wide grip is great for building the middle head of the delts. I love doing this first in my shoulder workout in a superset with wide-grip Smith-machine upright rows. Since both movements hit the middle head of the delts, doing them in a superset really blows my delts out for width.
Another delt movement is angled seated dumbbell front raises. Sit on a bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Raise both hands to 45 degrees above parallel to the floor—or 135 degrees up from the down position—with the inner plates of the ’bells angled higher than the outer plates. Then return to the starting position. Pick a weight that’s as heavy as you can handle with full control and that you can get up without having to use momentum. You get a direct front-delt movement that I love.
DY: What about something for the pecs?
DD: How about decline around-the-worlds? They’re for low-outer and lower pecs and help give that illusion of a wider upper body and a nice separation from the pecs to the abs. Lie on a decline bench holding a dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length above your groin area with your palms facing. Keep your elbows locked with a slight bend as you bring the weights out and around in a circular motion to the sides of your torso, chest and head until the dumbbells come together behind your head at arm’s length. As you bring the dumbbells to the position behind your head, you should turn your wrists so the palms are facing upward at the halfway position. Return the dumbbells in the same path in which you brought them behind your head. Inhale as you commence the rep, and exhale as you bring the weights back to above the tops of your thighs.
DY: Wow. That really gives a nice stretch. How about a biceps movement?
DD: Pronounced supinated alternate dumbbell curls. They’re for the outer biceps, the part that makes your arm look great while hanging at your sides or from a back double-biceps pose. Start at the bottom with your palms facing back and your little fingers away from your body. As you curl the weight with one arm, twist the hand so that the little finger ends up pointing toward your ear at the top of the stroke.
DY: I don’t know why that’s become a forgotten movement. Arnold used to love supinating his hands on dumbbell curls.
DD: I think it’s because you have to lighten the weight a little to do it. Guys let ego get in the way of progress sometimes.
DY: Ya think? [Laughs] Okay, what’s next?
DD: Reverse incline Flexsolate cable crossovers. It’s an exercise I came up with to help bring up my chest. It’s an excellent one for bringing up the middle area. The move is just like normal cable crossovers, but you’re facedown on a 45 degree bench with your chest hanging off the end of the bench, as in the photos on page 98. The Flexsolate straps make it much easier to bring your hands across. It’s a great finishing exercise.
Pick a weight with which you fail at 15 reps. By the way, I like the Flexsolate straps. They’re excellent for adding a lot of variations to a lot of exercises. [Note: You can find them at www.Home-Gym.com/flexsolate.html.]
Another exercise I like is decline hands-over-head weighted situps. Man, this is a killer and really hits the entire abs plus the intercostals.
Lying high leg crunches are a very basic, but very brutal, ab exercise as well. You keep your legs elevated to keep the hip flexors completely out of the exercise so it’s all in the abdominals. Keep your legs elevated, with your feet propped against a wall or some other piece of equipment. As you crunch, keep your hands slightly elevated toward your sides and bring your body and shoulders up off the ground. You won’t be able to come up that far, but you’ll really feel it in the abdominals.
DY: On to legs. I know you do some killer squat variations.
DD: You bet. Front box squats—great for building the front quadriceps. You can vary your stance from wide to narrow, depending on where you want the focus. A narrow, feet-parallel position hits the outer quads for sweep, whereas placing your feet out and your toes pointed out hits the inside of the quads harder. I like to pick a bench or an item I can sit on that allows me to go just past parallel. Remember, you’re only going to touch the bench, not actually sit on it.
This is an exercise that should be done toward the beginning of your leg workout for power or near the end if you want to preexhaust the quads first. Be sure to have the weight under control when you touch down. These are also great for building strength if you’re weak at the bottom of a squat.
DY: My legs are already burning just thinking about doing them.
DD: Oh, yeah, baby. Wait till you try this one: advanced sissy squats. My favorite for slicing up the quads and giving them a great stretch. These burn like crazy.
Using a dip belt, attach it to a post in front of you at waist level. You may need an extension chain to attach to the chain on the belt. You’ll want to have your toes slightly turned out and up against a board. This is a very difficult exercise and will take some practice. You lean all the way back till your back touches the ground. You’ll find it very challenging to bring yourself back up. If you’re a beginner, you may have to start your leg workout with this movement till you get used to it. I find it a good finishing exercise.
DY: Yeah because it’ll finish most people off.
DD: That it does, my friend. Here’s one for back: one-arm barbell rows. It’s great for the lower lats and one of my personal favorites. Place the empty end of a barbell bar in a corner or against an object that will keep it stable. The other end of the bar should have plates on it. Straddle the bar, and, keeping a slight bend in your legs, bend over until your upper back is parallel to the floor. Grasp the barbell just behind the plates with your right hand and place your left hand on the upper knee of your left leg for support. Inhale as you pull the bar straight up, with your elbow in, until the plates touch your chest about in the middle of your pec. Lower the bar back to starting position, and exhale. Do the prescribed number of repetitions on the right side, and then change positions, repeating on the left side. Keep your back flat, and don’t let the weight touch the floor once you begin the set.
DY: I remember seeing pictures of some of the bodybuilders from the ’50s and ’60s doing that one. They all had great lower lats. Since we’re on the back, keep it going.
DD: Behind-the-head Flexsolate pulldowns. These are just like standard pulldowns, but the Flexsolate straps make them more focused on the lats.
DY: Any more pulldown variations?
DD: Doing wide-grip and close-grip pulldowns facing out and leaning back add strictness to the movement because you’re already in the reclined position. Either grip will add some nice thickness to your back.
DY: Anything for triceps?
DD: Here’s a great one: one-arm cable concentrated pushdowns. Sit on a bench for these and keep your elbow up against your inner knee. Drive the cable all the way to the down position, and flex your triceps hard at the end of the movement. These are great for isolating the lower part of the triceps close to the elbow.
For outer triceps I love incline face-forward reverse wide-grip pressdowns. Position an incline bench in front of a lat machine [as shown in the photos], and use a bar attachment on the cable. Lie face forward on the incline bench and grasp the bar with a palms-up grip. Bring your upper arms to your sides and keep them there throughout the exercise. Your forearms and biceps should be touching. Press the bar down in a semicircular motion to arm’s length, and then, with control, return to the starting position following a similar path, and exhale. Be sure to keep tension on your triceps while pressing down and returning to the starting position.
DY: Cool. Give us one last killer to wrap it up.
DD: Lying high-bench reverse-grip EZ-curl-bar curls. This one is great for the lower and outer biceps. The name is pretty self-explanatory. You’ll have to find a bench that’s high enough for you to extend the bar all the way to the bottom. It’s a great exercise for bringing up lagging biceps.
DY: Thanks for all the great tips. I can’t wait to get to the gym to try some of them on for size!
Editor’s note: Visit Dan Decker’s Web site at www.DanDecker.net. IM