Let’s face it. We love what we love.
But sometimes our attachments to what we love can lead to stalled progress and a smaller and smaller return on our investment in the gym.
Even worse, sometimes we have done thousands of reps of these exercises, joint-cycle after joint-cycle, and not always in great form. And, so now, our joints hurt.
Clearly, that is never going to stop most of us from picking up a barbell and doing something we shouldn’t do, once in a while.
Luckily, any slight variation in grip or position changes fiber recruitment, which essentially changes the exercises.
You might be good in a traditional back squat, but place those feet a little bit wider and you’ll be surprised to find a little bit of unfamiliar soreness.
Therefore, old dogs can always learn new tricks in this game, and that is why we love it.
Here is a nice random collection of common exercises we love that can be slightly modified in ways that allow us to keep doing them!
Mod #1: The Australian Back Squat
Whether it’s because they bring pain to our poor, abused knees, or because we are victims of cursed anthropologies, the traditional back squat is reluctantly removed from the programs of many. Not that squatting is bad for anybody afflicted with low hip sockets or retroverted hips. Squatting can be great for any individual having adequate cartilage- if it’s modified correctly.
One such example of this modification is the Australian Back Squat¹, which I learned about from JP Catanzaro years ago. Where the heck he got it from? Who knows, I still have no clue. If you even try to google the thing all you get are smiley, boyish pictures of the King (I guess Australian sounds like “Austrian”) and I’ve not heard of the exercise since.
He had come to Extreme Fitness and hit us with his “Science of Strength Training” lecture. I remember this well, as afterward I had discovered the huge many pages of notes he provided (aka my training bible, stolen when I had left my bag in the change room for ten minutes). That was a lesson that I learned the rough way. Life leaves scars, I tell ya.
Let’s take a brief look at the above mentioned issues and look at why this modification is a good alternative.
Let’s address knee pain first. When we look at compressive and shearing forces on the knee in the back squat, we can see that they share an inverse relationship. But both of them peak and culminate on the knee at parallel⁴, which is 90 degrees of knee flexion.
At this point both the hip and ankle are both flexed to the same 90 degrees and the knee is “caught,” between them, bearing compressive forces coming from the joints directly above and below. Therefore, shortening the ROM of your squat may not be the best solution for you. It might hurt you even more.
In many cases, efficient deep squatting could prove to be better for your sore knees. It unloads the quadriceps tendon while also bringing about greater glute activation. This evokes a decrease in the amount of work that the PCL and ACL have to do and a decrease in the amount of compression at the patella-femoral joint.
The Australian Back Squat is performed with the hips abducted, similar to a sumo squat (but not as wide nor with feet as everted). Its special feature though is that the trunk maintains about ten degrees of flexion through the entire ROM.
So sore knees do not have to experience the often problematic knee-to-shin angle where the knee travels too far forward. The tibia remains knee-friendly and vertical, and the forward trunk makes it easy to keep them that way.
Shallow sockets and retroverted hips (hips not designed to perform well with internal rotation²) are structural problems and if you’re one of the poor souls who has them, you know the deal. Hips that are in retroversion do not like to be placed in strict narrow stancesᶾ in the same way that anteverted hips do not like to be forced too wide.
It’s less healthy for the retroverted hip type to squat at or within the shoulders. J.L Holdsworth of Elite FTS had a great quote, “With athletes you must allow for the individual expression of skill. Don’t ‘fix’ an athlete in order to make them worse!” In other words, there is no status quo or “correct” anthropological orientation. Not everything needs to be fixed on everyone.
Attempting to try might hurt their performance. And what would be the point of that? Instead, rejoice. Accept that you perform and feel better when using a wider stance, and stick to it!
As for those who have femoral heads located a little bit more deeply within the hip socket, going ATG might not be comfortable for you. You might get a lot of irritation that feels like bony restriction when you hang out at the bottom. This could just be the way it is no matter how many days and nights you perform hip thrusts to strengthen your better cheeks.
Australian Back squats will keep you from the social temptation to squat too deep for comfort, but may still allow you to honorably break parallel.
The trunk flexion makes the load vector slightly less axial, so the erectors are a greater limiting factor than usual. With your hips at a higher angle at the bottom of the movement, attempting to break parallel by more than five degrees or so would place too much tension on them to maintain form.
So with it, you get the double whammy of still breaking parallel (or getting close enough to look like it), without causing bone-on-bone irritation in the hips.
Lastly, this squat variation is great for tall guys with femurs that might be more disproportionate to their trunks. Now they are allowed to get forward with a load that their erectors can actually handle, and they can simulate more traditional depth because of the abduction at the hips.
For guys who are taller this will also do them the solid of getting more adductor magnus activation- as this important muscle’s full development is missing in many of them.
This squat variation comes with more lumbar loading, but who cares! It is a solution to four common squat problems. As an added bonus it will help to build a strong set of erectors and quadratus lumborum, which will go a long way to improving your deadlift numbers and your overall strength.
As a quick tip to make the erectors less of a limiting factor if you find the lumbar loading to be a bit too much, use a “low bar” type bar position (not shown here). This will slightly shorten the moment arm, placing the load just a little bit closer to the fulcrum (the lumbo-pelvic region), and thereby requiring the erectors and their synergists perform less work.
Mod #2: Raised Hack Squat
Heel elevated squats (typically, narrow-stance and hack squat variations) sometimes get flack because they let the knees go too far past the toes for most people’s liking. However, as they say, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. These types of squat variations can do a lot for quadriceps development.
Plus, it’s a squat variation that is great to use with lighter loads and high volume, and we don’t have to feel guilty about nor justify why the barbell isn’t bent over our back in a rainbow,
“Shut up, bro. It’s light because I’m doing narrow squats!”
The barbell hack squat is known for having developed more than a handful of impressive VMO’s. This is thought to be because its reps begin and end in the end ranges of knee extension which hit our teardrops the most. Also, because it is loaded from the bottom as opposed to on our backs, there are less straight-axial compressive forces on the knees.
The trouble with this squat variation? As said earlier, starting from a position that is usually just at or below 90 is the point of greatest stress on the knee. So for some of us, hack squats can hurt.
If hack squats hurt, try the quick fix of placing them on low pins in a power rack as opposed to the floor-but a pin or two higher than its lowest level. Because the VMO is most active in the final 30degrees of knee extension, this is still a great exercise to make it grow.
The adjustment to be made if hack squats generally make your knees sore, is to follow the recommendation above while also lowering the intensity of the exercise, and greatly increasing the eccentric tempo. Your quads will “shed tears”, but not because of joint pain.
Mod #3: Pronated Dumbbell Flies
I feel like DB flies are one of those great, albeit misused, and underrated exercises that still lingers hanging to its reputation by a thinning thread. Why do I think it is seen and spoken about less and less? Well, that’s because it can be a difficult exercise to establish a mind-muscle connection with.
However, these are precisely the reasons that I also say the exercise is misused or poorly applied. People use the exercise to build the pecs- and that’s fine, because it can do that. However, it shouldn’t be loaded up to the maximum you can handle for anything less than 12 reps or so.
The exercise focuses mainly on the sternal fibres of the pectoralis major and involves their weakest action (transverse adduction), with the longest lever of all our main chest movements. In other words, some exercises are better designed to be used eccentrically and dumbbell flies are one of them.
The purpose of the exercise is to build the pecs through the micro trauma of its slow-twitch fibers. These have important potential for growth. Perform the exercise with a very slow eccentric tempo.
However, none of the above transforms the exercise into anything more than what it essentially is- a boring dumbbell fly. As a fix, try performing this exercise with a pronated grip for as much of the movement as you are able.
It will feel a little awkward at first, but the internal rotation is more conducive to the orientation of the pectoralis fibers (just like when pronating during the concentric phase of a dumbbell press).
The use of this grip type will also force you to be honest about the amount of weight that you can use with the exercise while maintaining an appropriate mind-muscle connection. More fibers and more concentration? Grow not, how could you?
Mod #4: Off-Set Biceps Curls
Biceps curls, ah, yes. All I ever hear people say about biceps curls anymore is that we don’t need to do them. That when we put on mass, it generally happens globally. That we hit biceps every time we pick up a plate, bar, or dumbbell and every time we pull something.
That it is not worth the reward-to-risk ratio to hit its higher threshold fibers because whatever weight we load our pipes with, our elbows feel three-fold. Yeah, that’s all true, but what bodybuilder could you ever find to agree that isolating a muscle, however small, doesn’t help it to grow at a faster rate?
None of them would say that.
But here is a suggestion I received from my colleague, Mr. Carlyle, to help make them more challenging and feel more worthy of our time, efforts, and pending elbow damage. Imagining that the bar is divided into right and left halves, hold the dumbbell (that means squeeze the life out it) on the side of the bar that is furthest from you.
Since the biceps are involved in supination of the wrist, holding the dumbbell like this creates a line of pull more akin to the fiber orientation of the biceps. In order to keep the bar straight you will have to apply supination throughout the ROM. The further out from the midpoint of the bar that you hold it, the harder it is for your wrist and biceps to control the load.
This technique works especially well with single-arm barbell curls. Albeit, using the barbell is a painful, advanced, immediate-doms inducing progression.
Mod #5: The JM and California Press
Skull crushers can be a great way to add some mass to the almost entirely elbow-extension dependent triceps. But they get ripped on a lot for the same reason the biceps do. Too little reward-to-risk ratio in regards to both the elbow and the wrists. Plus, doing isolated triceps work is a waste of time.
Once again, au contraire. However, I tend to generally agree that pushing around light stuff isn’t as much fun as pushing around heavy stuff.
Instead of triceps extensions, why not try the next-best-things to triceps isolation? The JM and California presses. The JM press is performed with a close-grip with your knuckles pointed straight upward to ensure more joint-stress is transferred to the elbows. The bar is then brought down toward the clavicular/neck area with the elbows wide and kept from dropping below the level of the ribcage.
Tricep Trifecta: 3 Power Exercises For Tricep & Bench Strength
The California Press is performed in the same way, except that once the bar is brought to the clavicular region, you bring it down toward the sternal area before pressing it back up. The eccentric portion of the California Press is traditionally performed with the suicide or flat-wristed type of grip that you would see with most skull-crushers.
But years ago, I started using it with the JM Press grip-type instead. With it, I didn’t have to work as hard to keep my wrists from falling into extension. As a result the wrist joint became less of a limiting factor. It also allowed for more contribution from the deltoid, which lowered the stress on the elbow as well.
Admittedly, the JM and Californian style presses are not really a modification (except for the Cali Press having the JM style grip. Oh boy, it’s a classic). They’re more like awesome underrated ones. But if you aren’t doing them, it’s likely because you’ve never heard of them nor tried them before. In which case, say hello to the next bigger T-shirt size.
Mod #6: Soleus Raises
This one is simple. Lie on the leg press machine and set the pins to a level low enough to allow the balls of your feet to rest on its edge with the knees bent. Your knees can be bent to varying degrees depending on how many pin levels your leg press allows, but make sure it is bent to less 120degrees in order to ensure you hit an adequate number of the soleus’ fibers.
The benefit to this? More load and mechanical ease, plain and simple.
Why should you train your lower legs, anyway? Well, if you want to know how much of a difference they can add to your lower body and overall physique, just ask Arnie.
Mod #7: Long-Head Triceps Extension
The cable machine is an alternative choice for many who wish to do single-joint work for their arms, but still spare their elbows from the carnage sometimes laid by barbells. So how can you use the cable to improve on a basic triceps extension even more? Well, for one, try involving more fibers of the long head of the triceps.
Traditional triceps extensions focus only on extension of the elbow. However, the long head of the triceps also has an attachment at the scapula and plays a role in shoulder extension.
Try a triceps extension on a high cable and/or a pulldown cable. If you cannot get the cable high enough to perform this while standing, you may kneel during the exercise. Grab the cable with your arm fully extended as if you were going to do a pulldown with a supinated grip.
Pull down the cable handle and at the point in the ROM when both the shoulder and elbow are flexed to between 75-85 degrees, fully extend the elbow, and then bring it back in. Finish the pulldown and then at the bottom, fully extend the elbow again like a regular supine-grip triceps extension.
The triple contraction gets the long head of the triceps more fully involved from its proximal (supraglenoid tubercle of the scap) to its more distal (olecranon process of the elbow) fibers. There remains a constant tension on the fibers nearest the scap attachment.
Performing the exercise in this way cannot be done with as much loading, but it will recruit some potentially untapped fibres in the triceps and provide them with a more robust, full appearance.
- When squatting, especially for those with retroverted hips and deeper hip sockets, stay in your anthropometric comfort zone
- Some exercises are simply better suited for eccentric training. Appreciate this! Don’t try and work around it.
- There is more to triceps than elbow extension
- Applying a supinating-force when doing biceps curls can help to shock your pipes into new growth
- Dumbbell Flys should be done with a pronated grip as well as a neutral or supinated grip.
- The California and JM Presses can be joint-savers for those who want to isolate the triceps
- Set the leg press lower on the pins for soleus development
- Advanced Strength Training Lecture, JP Catanzaro
- Talking About Hip Retroversion, Brian Reddy
- Retroversion of the Acetabulum- A Cause of Hip Pain, Reynolds, et al.
- The Adult Knee Volume 1, Callaghan, P.95,96