Here’s a general rule of thumb we’re sure you’ve heard before: the smarter you train, the bigger you’ll get. But what does that exactly mean? Well, it basically means that if you understand the functional anatomy of your body, i.e. the way your body systems cooperate to perform certain physical tasks, you can alter muscle recruitment patterns and get more bang for your buck by changing your position accordingly. In the quest to build a stronger and more symmetrical physique, different weightlifters rely on different exercises and positions because something that works great for one guy won’t necessarily work so well for the next one.
However, by fixating on ‘doing things your way’, you might be missing out on some great moves that could significantly enhance your muscle building efforts. So in this article we’ll try to discuss the general prepositions about how the human body works when lifting weights with the hope of shedding some new light on your favorite bodybuilding strategies. After all, the choices you make when programming your workout routine directly influence the quality of the gains you’ll get, so you might want to consider certain bits of scientific knowledge when making your decisions to ultimately train much smarter and better!
#1. Build a stronger core to improve your lifts
According to The National Strength & Conditioning Association, the anatomical core is the axial skeleton and all of the soft tissues with proximal attachments that originate on the axial skeleton. In much simpler words, the core is a collection of muscles which stabilize and move the spine, including the inner core (diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidus, cervical flexors and transverse abdominis) and the outer core (the rectus abdominis, spinal erectors, the obliques, quadratus lumborum and hip flexors). Needless to say, efficient core training requires understanding the core’s main function, which is to stabilize and protect the spine mainly by creating rigidness that limits excessive movement in any direction. Therefore, the stronger your core is, the better you get at stabilizing your spine and the better you’ll be at moving your limbs more forcefully. Exercises such as the squat, deadlift and bench press can help you with core development because they involve maintaining a rigid spine position so that the hip and shoulder joints can move with force, and according to many studies, the barbell back will help you get the best results in the shortest period of time.
#2. Learn how to use the correlation between lever length and weight to your advantage
Some people have lever lengths that give them a big advantage in terms of a potential for increasing strength over those with unfavorable body proportions, and this is especially true in powerlifting. When it comes to the bench press, short arm are considered ideal, while having a short torso, long arms and short legs works better for deadlifts and squats. Those lifters who have favorable lever lengths simply don’t have to move the weight as far as the less lucky ones, which means that they can lift much heavier weights.
So here’s a simple piece of advice: If your aim is to move as much weight as possible while deadlifting, the sumo-style deadlift where the feet are outside of the hands is a better choice because it keeps the lever shorter and the distance the bar travels vertically is decreased. But if your goal is to build your glutes, hams and lower back, go with the traditional stance where the hands are outside the feet because that way you’re going to do more work and achieve superior muscle growth.
That being said, most trainers advise lifters to discover which stance works best for them by employing the good old trial-and-error method. While it’s true that a tall lifter should go for the sumo-style, this position can also be less powerful because the greater distance between the feet and the rest of the body leads decreases the lifter’s ability to generate force. Therefore, don’t be afraid to experiment with different positions and stances until you find your own sweet spot.
#3. Hit your quads with the low bar squat
Some people think that since performing a low bar squat simply means moving the bar 2-3 inches farther down your back, its effects don’t differ much from those of a high bar squat, but that’s not the case. Mechanically speaking, the high bar squat recruits a greater percentage of the quads vs. the hamstrings, but low bar squats typically get more love because most bodybuilders can squat 5-10% more weight when they position the bar lower.
Since you have to extend your knees and hips in order to stand up from the bottom of a squat, your quads, glutes, hams and adductors magni have to contract hard enough to produce the required knee and hip extension torque. And if you are able to squat a significantly greater weight with the low-bar style, that will inevitably lead to a greater recruitment of muscle fibers in your quads, which ultimately means more growth. So even though theoretically the high bar squat hits your quads better, the low bar position allows for a greater load placement on the quad muscles and therefore results with more overall quad muscle recruitment than the high bar position. However, safety should always come first so stick with the variant that allows you to complete the lift with most weight but keeps the risk of injury minimal.
#4. Proper foot placement is the key to building huge calves
Everybody wants a set of nicely developed calves but those bad boys can be so reluctant to grow that many people end up skipping lower leg workouts entirely. You’ve probably heard that rotating the ankles helps training different parts of the calf, which is true but only to a certain extent. For example, based on collective experience as well the rules of biomechanics, it’s true that having your feet pointed straight ahead will train the inner and outer heads of your calves almost equally, turning the feet out will place more emphasis on the inner heads, and finally turning the feet in will shift the focus to the outer heads. However, this notion hasn’t been studied well enough for us to take it without a grain of salt. In addition, you don’t have to turn your feet in or out more than an inch to get those different benefits. Turning them in or out too much isn’t the safest thing to do while performing calf raises because it will prevent you from achieving optimal calf activation and put your ankles and knees at a higher risk of injury due to an excessive amount of stress. That’s why you should avoid performing calf raises with your toes at extreme angles and satisfy with turning them an inch in or out or just maintain a neutral foot position.
It’s also important to note that a seated calf raise will allow for a greater soleus (the part of the calf positioned on the back of the lower leg) activation, while a standing calf raise places more focus on the gastrocnemius muscle. Also, a common reason for slow calf development is overtraining or using too much weight. Consider that 80% of the muscle fibers in the soleus are slow-twitch and have a slow contraction velocity and low tension capacity so it’s not the brightest idea to go heavy when training them.
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