Straight up, you’re a soldier.
You tirelessly show up at the gym as scheduled for your four, or even five workouts per week — and you’ve built a pretty damn impressive physique to show for it.
The 160-pound, ACE certified personal trainers at your gym, daunted by your presence, approach you when no one’s around and ask questions about what muscle group your current exercise is good for, and why it’s more effective than their one-legged dumbbell stiff deadlift-bent-over row/triceps kickback while standing on the BOSU abomination.
Long story short, at your gym, you’re the man. The hard work and consistency combined with good, intelligent, Testosterone-ish programming has paid off.
So what’s the problem?
You’re your own worst critic, and you’re running out of ideas and tools to bring your body one step closer to the “freak” category. As my last article pointed out, applying some specific exercises to a few small muscle groups can improve the effectiveness of your lifts, resulting in not only more strength, but also more muscle-building potential. So you’re doing it.
For my new “weak links” article, I took things from a different perspective. Improving performance in your workouts is paramount, but what about looking at things from a strictly cosmetic angle?
Maybe you just feel you can’t get that coveted, full V-taper? Or maybe your delts, rather than look like bowling balls, look more like something you’d find on a pool table?
These kind of issues plague many an intermediate (and even advanced) bodybuilder, so it’s time to conquer them once and for all with some crisp ideas to take your physique to the next level.
And yes, I mentioned intermediate and advanced lifters, so I’ll say this now: If you’re a skinny bastard, move on to the next article. This stuff doesn’t apply to you. Eat, sleep, and follow any of the quality beginner routines found on Testosterone. It’s amazing how many “weak points” magically disappear after you gain 30 pounds of newbie beef.
The “V-taper” I’m referring to is the ratio of width between the shoulders, chest/ribcage, and waist.
Many aspiring bodybuilders will seek out exercises to build the shoulders and lats specifically while following a “clean” (read: starvation) diet to ensure the waistline stays small.
Not a great plan for most of us.
Generally, eating a “get ripped-stay ripped” diet is a bad idea when addressing a weak point. Muscles need nutrients to grow, and unless you’re exceptionally gifted, trying to maintain your 8-pack all year round is a one-way trip to the dreaded zip code of Physique Stagnation, USA.
Try playing the “illusion game” from the other side: Instead of dieting your midsection down to achieve that coveted V-shape, work on developing your shoulders and upper back to give the illusion of being wider up top.
After you’ve added a few valuable pounds of physique-altering mass, you can always hop back on your favorite fat-loss diet to drop whatever scant amounts of unwanted flab that may have found a home around your obliques and lower back.
With that little bit of business out of the way, here are the routines to get those forgotten muscle groups growing.
Neglected Muscle Group: Rear Deltoids
A solid set of rear delts can do wonders in bringing up the size of the shoulders, not to mention expanding shoulder-to-shoulder width.
They also help improve posture by externally rotating the arm, something that not only makes your chiropractor happy, but also contributes to an overall more impressive-looking physique by making the chest appear more prominent.
Reverse flies, wide grip rows, and high pulls all may be good choices to hit these bad boys, but it’s time for a couple of new ideas.
Remembering the muscle’s action can lead us to make some good choices to target a stubborn muscle group. Here’s a great combo to try out:
A1) Seated DB power cleans, 10 reps (see video on right)
A2) Face pulls, 10 reps (Make sure to keep the elbows high and pull the fists right over the head!)
A3) Blast strap wide grip rows w/external rotation, 10 reps (See photos on right.)
Note: There is a strong rotary component to all of the above exercises. Conventional rear delt movements like wide grip rows, reverse flies, and high pulls all maintain a fixed position of the humerus during the movement (from a rotary perspective), therefore not giving the rear delts the most bang for their buck.
Perform 4 rounds of this tri-set to finish your shoulder workout and let the gains begin.
Another thing to think about is whether the rear delts are actually firing during other compound movements.
For instance, the correct finish position of a regular grip lat pulldown will require the rear deltoids to be active in keeping the elbows pushed under the bar, rather than flared back behind the body.
Simply thinking “elbows under” while keeping the shoulders depressed at the end of the movement can help achieve this.
Neglected Muscle Group: Serratus
The serratus anterior are located just under the arm on the ribcage and are embedded within the lats. Developing the serratus can be a huge asset for bodybuilders seeking greater upper body width: just watch bodybuilders do a classic lat spread and notice the added density a developed serratus anterior brings. In a very lean bodybuilder, they look like a bunch of ripe bananas covered in Pro Tan.
Truth is, unless you’re a boxer, MMA fighter, or some kind of athlete that does explosive pressing, throwing, or punching movements, most training neglects the use of this muscle group.
The serratus elevates and protracts the scapulae, and nearly every upper body movement in the weight room asks for the scapulae to be depressed and retracted (“shoulders set” position) in order for the movement to be performed correctly.
Most people wouldn’t think there are many ways to specifically target this muscle group, but I came prepared:
Serratus Front Raise — Set up an incline bench in front of a cable machine. Set the pulleys at the bottom and sit down in the bench, facing the machine. Begin a front raise movement, except don’t focus on the deltoids being the prime movers. Keep your elbows slightly bent and let the serratus pull your shoulders apart and upwards.
Don’t pull too high — level with the face should be the correct landmark for the finish position. (See video on right.)
Serratus Push Ups — Perform a standard pushup, except at the end of each rep, “unlock” your shoulder blades and allow them to move away from one another, bringing your chest as far away from the floor as possible.
Kettlebell Windmill — Another option is the Kettlebell Windmill. Relax Joe Hardcore, this ain’t no steenking functional training lift — just an exercise where the KB is the right tool at the right time. (See video on right)
So you’re wide as a barn door and someone looking at you from straight on would say that you have some good development. Problem is, you virtually disappear once you turn sideways.
The “two dimensional” look is something I personally battled for ages before realizing just what was going on. The reason you’re still not filling out those XL T-shirts is simply because you have no trunk volume.
In other words, regardless how wide you get, if there’s no volume or density from front to back, you’ll be stuck in the “slim bastard” category at Men’s Wearhouse for life.
Getting more trunk volume can come from expanding the ribcage along with thickening the fibrous properties of the muscles on the front and back of the body. Any takers?
If so, here are some prescriptions for what ails ya’.
Olympic Lifts for an Olympia Body
If you’ve ever watched a weightlifting competition on TV, you might’ve notice something in common with the athletes’ body types: they all have relatively small arms but a ton of bulk through their torso (abdominals, lower and mid back).
This makes sense as the abdominals are responsible for rapidly recruiting and transferring the energy required to move the bar up to the roof. In English, lifting heavy stuff fast will potentiate a muscle to grow.
We all know Oly lifts aren’t performed as arm movements — the abs are dominantly involved in projecting the bar up into the finish positions in the clean, split jerk, and snatch.
Throwing any of these exercises into your program can help give you that added depth or density through the torso that you long for, not to mention adding inches to your traps almost overnight, thanks to the explosive nature of the lifts.
(For a refresher on performing these lifts, check out this classic from Coach Thibs.)
Turn Up the Volume on Your Ribcage
The intercostal muscles lie in between each rib in the ribcage. Increasing their size can result in “widening” the ribcage, so to speak.
Pullovers with a heavy dumbbell are a great exercise to hit the intercostals, and they play a double role because they pre-stretch the pec minor; often a tight muscle on many lifters I’ve worked with.
It’s important to really allow the weight to “open up” the ribcage at the bottom of each rep, and then “pull through” with the lats and abdominal muscles.
For God’s Sake, Just Deadlift!
If you’re expecting some long-winded paragraph on why deadlifts are important for trunk thickness, you must be new to this site. They involve so much of everything that it’s almost a crime not to do them. The entire back gets a ton of thickness, and from a physiological level, the hormonal response is tremendous for packing on appreciable size, FAST.
Here’s another way to look at it: How many 600lb-plus deadlifters can you think of that have skinny torsos that lack fullness? End of discussion.
So what would a “trunk volume” exercise combination look like? I’ve always been a fan of the vertical push/pull scheme, so ideally I’d scheme things in a “3 to 5 sets of 5 reps” framework to ensure the high threshold motor units (HTMU’s) are getting sufficiently hit.
Here are a few effective options:
A1) BB Deadlift, 3-5 x 5 reps
A2) BB push press, 3-5 x 5 reps
B1) BB hanging snatch, 3-5 x 5 reps
B2) Dragon flags, 3-5 x 5 reps
C1) Pullovers, 3-5 x 5 reps
C2) Zercher squat, 3-5 x 5 reps
In all supersets, rest as long as necessary between sets.
Adding these supersets to the beginning of your workouts will provide the added volume needed to build some size on your ribs.
Of course, make sure you’re not doing the same movement as your actual workout (i.e., don’t choose my “Day 1” protocol on the day of a full deadlift workout).
Also, depending on the nature of your actual workout, I’d recommend adjusting the percentage of the load you lift. It may not always be fitting to use your actual 5-rep max, especially if you have lots of heavy lifting planned in your workout.
However, if your workout is a high volume, sub-maximal workout, by all means lift nice and heavy! It will also ramp up your nervous system for a solid performance going forward.
Full chest development is hard to come by. Many lifters shy away from doing as much incline chest work as they do flat, due in part to the flat bench being the most glamorized lift this side of the Atlantic.
As a result of this misguided fascination, the average North American lifter usually displays much greater development of the sternal pectoralis than the clavicular pectoralis (or upper chest).
Incidents of bodybuilders with too much upper chest and no lower chest are rarer than Lindsay Lohan acing a roadside sobriety test, yet the opposite can be found in abundance in any commercial gym. Remember how Arnold could balance a glass of beer on his pumped up pecs? Most lifters I see would struggle to support a shot glass.
So what can aid in getting the chesticles nice and balanced? Once again, I revert back to the tri-set.
A1) BB incline 1½ reps press, 8 reps
Lower the bar to the chest, then raise to the halfway point. Lower the bar again to the chest, then raise to full extension. This keeps the triceps “uninvolved” for each half rep you do, giving the upper chest twice the amount of work to do per set.
A2) Boyce cable fly, 12 reps (See video on right.)
A3) Suicide push ups, to failure
Make sure to keep hips high, and allow the head to travel as far towards the floor as possible. (See photos on right).
This can work wonders to bring up a lagging upper chest, and soon you’ll have a manly shelf to rest your iPhone/protein shake/female friend on when your hands are full.
As mentioned earlier, this isn’t an “Intro to size” article; it’s a look at a few little things to think about adding into the mix to take your already “good” body to the “great” level.
Yeah, it may make your workouts run a little longer; hell, it may even mean tweaking your program so that you’re in the gym an extra day per week.
At the end of the day, I’ll bet you’ll be glad you did it.