MUSCLE SHAPING: MYTH OR REALITY?
By Eric Broser
In my 20+ years as a professional trainer/coach one of the most frequent questions I receive is in regards to “muscle shaping.” This is an interesting, complex, hotly debated topic, and depending on which “expert” you ask, you are bound to get a myriad of different answers. There are some trainers/gurus/coaches/science-geeks that say you cannot do a damn thing about the shape of your muscles, as this is 100% genetically determined. Others believe that by “targeting” certain areas of a muscle, you can in fact, change its shape. Well, I personally fall somewhere in between these two distinct thought processes. While I do not believe we can change the actual genetic “map” we have been provided for each of our body parts, I do believe that we can utilize certain specific exercises, angles, and grips to bring out the full potential of each muscle. In other words, when someone is lacking upper chest development, I do not necessarily feel that it’s simply because genetics is “dictating” that the lower pec dominate the upper, but rather that the upper pectoral is not receiving the proper stimulation in order for it to grow to its maximum potential. While some insist that an incline press does not target the upper chest, but rather the entire chest, this is where I disagree. Yes, it is true that you cannot completely isolate one area of a muscle from another no matter what exercise you utilize. However, you can affect certain groups of motor units more than others in a single muscle by using specific grips and/or planes of motion (as EMG studies have proven) This can then lead to accelerated growth in a particular “head” or section of a complex muscle. It is interesting to note that there are certain common “flaws” that seem to appear over and over again amongst so many trainees. I do not feel this is always a result of a genetic limitation but rather a function of unbalanced training. I have “altered” the basic shape of several muscle groups on my own physique greatly over the years, and have also done so with countless clients. The take home message here is, before you take the easy way out and blame faulty genetics for your disproportionate physique or lousy muscle shape, make sure you are doing everything possible training-wise to address the problem. In other words, the genetics might be there (“in waiting”), but many are simply failing to actualize the potential of each individual muscle group.
With that in mind, here are my top-10 favorite (rarely utilized) “muscle-shaping” movements:
Smith Machine Bench Press to Neck…Use moderate weight, keep elbows out wide and work through a full range of motion. However, do not bring the bar down so low that you stress your shoulders.
Reverse Grip Bench Press…This can be done with free weights or on a Smith machine. Bring the bar to the low pecs and press up and slightly back. EMG studies show this exercise to activate the upper pecs even better than incline presses.
Target: Mid Thigh:
Free Standing Sissy Squat…This exercise is NOT for sissies because taken to failure and performed (think deep stretch) through a full range of motion it will burn like few other quad movements - and the pump is outrageous.
Seated Concentration Hammer Curl…Because of the fixed position of the upper arm and the hammer grip this exercise gives the brachialis a “double-hit.” Increasing the size of this muscle, which lies underneath the biceps, will help to augment the coveted “peak” of the arm.
Target: Mid Traps:
Behind Back Shrug/Upright Row Hybrid I prefer to do these on a Smith machine, but a free BB can also be utilized. The key to this movement is to not only shrug the shoulders, but to also attempt an upright row. While the bar will not actually travel more than a few inches, the added effect will be dramatic when it comes to hitting the mid-traps.
Target: Lateral Deltoids: Incline Side DB Lateral…Performing side laterals while lying back on an incline bench set to about 60 degrees will give the exercise an entirely different feel than the basic standing/seated versions. It will also provide a much greater stretch on the muscle, while also forcing extremely strict form.
Target: Triceps Long Head: Elbows Flared Smith CG Bench Press…This exercise feels very different from the standard version where the elbows remain tucked into the sides. To make this movement most effective you will have to almost “palm” the bar rather than wrapping your hands around it. This will allow you to flare the elbows directly out to the side and focus on pushing with only triceps power. Set your torso so that the bar comes down to just under the chin, and do this exercise slowly and carefully.
Target: Biceps Short (Inner) Head:
Arms Rotated Incline DB Curl…Many people do incline curls, but few rotate the arms into an exaggerated supinated position, which not only crushes the inner biceps, but also puts an extreme, growth-inducing stretch on the entire muscle in the bottom position.
Target: Upper Lats:
Stiff Arm Pulldown…I like to do these with a short straight bar and a slight forward lean in the torso. I recommend keeping the arms completely straight and using a “false grip,” which is where the thumb is on the same side of the bar as the other fingers. Make sure to begin with the arms high enough so the lats are stretched and at the bottom, squeeze and contract the muscle hard.
Target: Anterior Deltoid:
Hammer Grip Seated DB Press…While standard seated DB presses hit the anterior deltoid, the hammer version isolates this head much more intensely. Key points are to keep your elbows directly under the DB’s; to press from a position where the DB’s are directly in front of the anterior deltoids; and to avoid full lockout, which will over-engage the triceps.