From beginner gym goer to competitive bodybuilder, every weightlifter can use these tips to build muscle.

  1. Smarter Training

In the gym, you’ll often hear, “This is what works for me so I do this exercise this way.” While that lifter may have seen gains by doing things his/her way, there are certain exercises and positions they may be neglecting to build a stronger, more proportionate and symmetrical physique. While it’s true that everyone is physically different, there are bodies of research dedicated to discovering the best ways for weightlifters to get bigger and stronger. Functional anatomy is the study of how body systems cooperate to perform certain tasks and in this article; we’ll discuss the human body in relation to lifting weights.

“Your position anatomically influences how muscles are recruited and you can alter muscle recruitment patters by changing your position,” says Jason B. Winchester, Ph.D, C.S.C.S., assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of the Incarnate Word. “The choices we make from an exercise programming perspective have to interact with the biology of the individua,l which directly influences the adaptation the person will make.”

In the quest to build more muscle, you may learn bits of knowledge that translate into more gains. We’ve got the ones you definitely need. Use these 10 anatomy facts and tips to train smarter and develop stubborn muscles.

      2.Squatting is Core training 

The term “core” takes on several meanings in scientific literature. According to the NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, “the anatomical core is the axial skeleton and all of the soft tissues with proximal attachments that originate on the axial skeleton. The soft tissues include the articular cartilage, ligaments, tendons, muscles and fascia.” The axial skeleton consists of the skull, spine, and rib cage. The muscles we’re concerned with during training are ones you might be familiar with.

“I define the core as the musculature of the trunk and hip region: the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques and spinal erectors such as the multifidus and longissimus,” says Winchester.

To best train these core muscles, Winchester suggests the barbell back squat.

“There’s some pretty good data that you see higher levels of recruitment in the small muscles of the low back during a deep back squat than an isometric maximum back extension,” Winchester says. “That said, the squat won’t work the obliques very much because the obliques twist and rotate or lean side to side.”

3. You Can Prevent Obliques From Getting Bigger

One of the few muscle groups a bodybuilder, especially a men’s physique competitor, may not want to hypertrophy is the obliques. The reasoning is that judges tend to favor a “V-Taper” look, where the back appears wider than the waist. While not everyone may see drastic gains in their obliques by training them, it’s worth noting that they can grow.

“The obliques are capable of hypertrophy but they tend to be slow-twitch because of their job,” says, Winchester. “Their role is postural, being used at a constant low intensity and because of that, they’re going to be very aerobic in nature.”

Winchester suggests sticking to a rep range outside of hypertrophy when training the obliques, so instead of 8-12 reps, use 5 or 20 reps, for strength and local muscular endurance respectively.

4.Short Limbs = More Weight 

There are two main stances for performing a deadlift: a sumo deadlift, where feet are outside of hands, and traditional deadlift, with hands outside of feet. Without getting into too much biomechanical jargon, the formula for mechanical work is force x distance. By using a sumo deadlift stance, the distance the bar travels vertically is decreased.

“If your goal is to move as much weight as possible while deadlifting, as in powerlifting, there’s a lot to be said about a sumo-style deadlift because it keeps the lever shorter,” says Winchester. “If the goal of the deadlift is to train the musculature of the glutes, hamstrings and low back, then a more traditional stance where the feet are closer together is a better choice because you’re going to do more work and see greater muscle adaptation as a result.”

Winchester says a person with shorter levers, if everything else equal, is going to be able to deadlift more weight than someone with longer levers, whichever stance they may take.

Layne Norton, Ph.D., bodybuilder and powerlifter, suggests a lifter should find their stance based on trial and error.

“It may seem logical that a tall lifter should do sumo deadlifts because it shortens the distance, however, sumo is a less powerful position as the feet are further away from the body and less able to generate power,” Norton says. “If a tall lifter has a short torso and long arms, they will likely be able to stay relatively upright during a deadlift. Many of the world’s best tall deadlifters pull conventional. In the end, lifters should experiment with both and see which one works for them.”

5. A High Bar Squat Works the Quads More 

M&F has covered the difference between a low bar squat and a high bar squat before, but here’s an interesting point about squatting from Norton. If your low bar squat is significantly heavier than your high bar squat, it may result in more recruitment of your quadriceps, comparatively.

“My best low bar 5-rep squat is over 600 pounds but my best high bar 5-rep squat is under 500 pounds,” says Norton. “Thus, it could be possible that even though I recruit a greater percentage of my quads verus hamstrings and low back during the high bar squat, the low bar squat will recruit more overall quad muscle compared to the high bar because the load is so much greater.”

Norton adds that most lifters are stronger in a low bar position but that bar placement preference is individual.

“Use whatever position allows you to complete the lift in a safe manner with the most weight,” Norton says.

6. Sit and Stand to Train the Calves

Calves are often the most stubborn body part for bodybuilders to bring up. Lifters turn their ankles in and out in an attempt to target different areas of the muscles, thinking this will help them grow. The notion of rotating the ankle for training different parts of the calf isn’t well studied.

“In general, a neutral foot position is optimal during calf exercises is best,” Winchester says. “Turning the foot in and out isn’t the safest thing to do since you can move a lot of weight on calf raise. I’m not aware of a lot of data on foot position to support turning the toes in and out.”

The two heads of the gastrocnemius fuse insert into the Achilles tendon. The soleus is another part of the calf, which is positioned behind around at the sides of the gastrocnemius. The position you’re in can affect the recruitment of the gastrocnemius vs. soleus.

“If I do a seated calf raise, I get more soleus development whereas a standing calf raise emphasizes the gastrocnemius,” adds Winchester.

7. You Can Target Long and Short Head of Biceps

The biceps brachii is commonly called the peak, and it consists of two heads: the long and short head. If you’re really focusing on developing the peak, be sure to vary your biceps exercises. Specifically, include seated preacher curl, standing barbell curl and seated concentration curls.

“The one thing the long head of the biceps does that the short head of the biceps doesn’t is cross the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint and adding shoulder flexion can change the recruitment between the long and short head,” says Winchester. “A seated preacher curl includes some shoulder flexion which will target the short head more than the long head. The standing straight bar curl will recruit the long head of the biceps more.”

A 2014 American Council of Exercise study found that seated dumbbell concentration curls result in significantly more biceps activation compared to cable curls, chinups, barbell curls, incline curls, EZ bar curls and preacher curls. Be sure to include these into your routine if you’re serious about getting big biceps.

8. Don’t Use a False Grip 

Called a false, open or “suicide” grip, holding a barbell so the thumb doesn’t wrap around the bar can be dangerous, especially during a bench press. Some lifters may find that they feel more activation in the chest and triceps using the false grip but it’s not stable. Even with a spotter, (which you should always have during the bench press), the thumbless grip can go awry.

“I’m not aware of any reason to use a thumbless grip on a bench press,” says Winchester. “I’ve seen people get seriously hurt where the bar has slipped out of their hands during a thumbless grip bench press.”

If you have wrist issues, buy good wrist straps and use them during heavier sets on bench so you don’t feel that pressure while using a closed grip.

9. Yes,  You Can Train the Lower Chest  

It may look silly and sound like a gym myth, but there really is such thing as training the lower chest. The pectoralis major is the biggest chest muscle while the pectoralis minor extends from the shoulder to ribs 3-5, underneath the pectoralis major. Targeting both the lower part of the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor may result in the bottom part of your chest looking bigger.

“The pectoralis major is one of the few muscles where you can argue training upper and lower fibers,” Winchester says. “Doing a flat, incline, and decline bench press is a well-founded idea. The decline bench lets you recruit the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior more than the flat and incline bench press. Parallel bar dips also target the lower chest.”

When it comes time to do their programmed incline/decline chest press, lifters often just use whatever angle the previous lifter used. Or, they just don’t know the best angle.

“There is no clear cut answer for the best chest angle for hypertrophy however the likely answer is that a small incline/decline are preferable to a large incline/decline,” Norton says.

Winchester agrees with this sentiment, adding that advanced bodybuilders can use more extreme angles because of the size of the muscles and the need to move it into a different position.

“People who have been lifting for a year or two should use a 20-30% incline or decline,” says Winchester. “If you’re a bodybuilder, a 45% angle works because your chest is large.”

10. Try the Machine Lateral Raise for Shoulders 

Shoulders are another stubborn body part for many lifters, likely due the fact that there are three parts of the deltoid to develop. A common shoulders exercise is the lateral dumbbell raise, but if you’ve ever done a machine lateral raise, you know the latter really fries the muscle.

“The lateral raise, is a good example of when a machine can provide a better stimulus than a free weight because a single arm cable lateral raise provides resistance throughout the range of motion,” says Winchester. “If I’m using a dumbbell, I’m not moving against gravity until I’m at the top of the rep. When the dumbbell is on the bottom, there’s no resistance because gravity goes down and I’m moving it out to the side.”

When doing the single arm cable lateral raise, start with tension on the weight stack, meaning you’re standing far enough away that you feel tension in your shoulders before beginning the rep.


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