Last week you were decked out in a new bench shirt and wrist wraps while cranking out three-board presses.
The week before you were bodybuilding, hammering guillotine presses and post-set stretching to emphasize maximum chest development.
Now, it’s all performance.
After all, you need to protect your shoulders from getting obliterated by the non-functional bench press.
That means it’s all floor presses, dumbbells, and pushups from now on.
A lot of lifters fall prey to the logic that they need to train every training variable at once to develop a shredded, strong, and athletic body.
After all, you need the best of all worlds, right?
Most lifters change variables too frequently and as result stay weak, small, and un-athletic. With constant change they never allow their body to reach a saturation point in progressive overload to be successful.
Don’t be that person and drive progressive overload instead.
There are Two Primary Adaptations That Drive Progress
There are two responsible mechanisms to driving progress in the gym: You get neurologically more efficient, or your muscles grow (physiological) to create a bigger cross-sectional area that produces a stronger muscular contraction.
1. Neurological: Improvements of the central and peripheral nervous system improve intermuscular and intramuscular coordination. Since your body is becoming more familiar with a given movement pattern, the rehearsal of the exercise and muscle unit recruitment improves to drive progress. Also consider technique and form improvements under “neuromuscular” efficiency.
2. Physiological: Changes in tendon, ligament, and muscular strength that allows you to generate more force, have a greater muscle cross-sectional area, and withstand heavier loads.
The consensus is that neurological gains are the primary driver of your initial progress in the gym.
Say you went into a deep depression after your team choked in the playoffs. You locked yourself inside and hid from the gym for two months. After a two-month lay-off from squatting, you'll see a rapid increase in strength.
This happens primarily through improved intermuscular coordination, intramuscular coordination, and motor unit recruitment rather than greater muscular size.
Fast-forward six weeks and you’re still getting more efficient (neurally), but you’re also building lean mass to aid in your progress.
Eventually, progress stalls as you hit an inevitable plateau. The dreaded dead zone that leads most lifters to throw caution to the wind and hop onto a new program every 4-6 weeks.
Obviously this is a problem.
Changing too many variables in training is essentially starting over. It will rob you of meaningful long-term progress. By changing major training parameters you never allows your body time to neurologically and physiologically adapt for long-term gains.
Therefore, Instead of monumental changes make micro-progressions: Small changes in grip, stance, hand position, and foot position to drive progress in the gym.
Micro-progressions are small tweaks in exercise technique that keep a movement pattern constant while preventing training plateaus. That means rather than switching from a bench press to a floor press, make smaller changes like adjusting hand position or grip when you begin to hit a plateau.
Below are popular lifts and their micro-progressions. Use them to drive progress and prevent plateaus in the gym.
Solomonow, et al concluded that over 200 muscles are activated during squat performance5. With a stat like that, we understand why the squat is considered the king of all exercises. Excelling in the lift is essential to building serious strength and mass.
There are tons of variations you can use, but I’d recommend the front squat or back squat, making small changes as needed to drive progress.
High Bar position: The high bar position has the barbell sitting on-top of the traps and keeps the torso more vertical. A high bar position is often paired with a shoulder width stance and a quad dominant focus.
Low Bar: Low-bar squats are used with a wider stance and often results in you leaning further forward and keeping a more vertical shin position. This is conducive to using the hips, lower back, and glutes to a greater extent with less shear stress on the knees. This can also decrease range of motion, helping some lifters use heavier weight.
It’s imperative to consider anatomical differences with each athlete. A 6’6” basketball player is going to squat differently than 5’6” powerlifter. Play around with a variety of stances for well-rounded strength development.
Wide Stance: Considered more hip dominant, a wider stance decreases the range of motion needed to reach parallel and stresses the glutes, hips, and adductors. Over time, these can be tough on the hips.
McCaw et al reported a wide stance significantly increased activity of the gluteus maximus and adductor longus, with greatest activity seen at 140% shoulder width4. If you’re looking to blast a new PR or focus on your glutes, hamstrings, adductors, then a wide squat is worth a look.
Shoulder Width Stance: A narrower stance keeps the hips closed and limits the involvement of the adductors. Considered a more quad dominant squat, this variation may have more simularities to weightlifting movements like the clean than a wide squat.
Most lifters who squat narrow keep their feet pointed neutral, whereas wide stance squatters use a foot flare to help “spread the floor”, prevent knee valgus, and maximize involvement of the hips. Play around with combinations of each for different muscle recruitment patterns and comfort.
Pullups are bare-none one of the best indicators of relative strength around. They're paramount to building the coveted V-taper as well as a set of thick, veiny, triumphant biceps. In addition, a number of muscles aid in shoulder stabilization such as the rear delt, teres minor, infraspinatus, and even the pec minor. Develop pulling strength with a variety of techniques.
Supinated: A supinated, underhand grip turns the pullup into a chin up, where most lifters are stronger. This makes the chin up a better option for beginners to build volume and overall saturation in a vertical pulling movement.
Interestingly, Bret Contreras did some excellent work on with EMG studies a few years back and found chin ups and wide grip pullups to be pretty close for lat development, while chin-ups provide more stress to the biceps.
Pronation: An overhand grip is referred to as the pullup and is a greater challenge to the rear delts, rhomboids and traps to help stabilize the shoulder while the lats go to work.
Overall, there is less focus on the elbow flexors leading most lifters to be weaker than an underhand grip. If you’re focusing on pure back development, an overhand grip should be incorporated.
Neutral: If your shoulders feel like trash, the neutral grip is probably a better way to go. The neutral grip allows for a more natural motion for the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The neutral grip may decrease crowding of the shoulder capsule, thus minimizing rubbing of ligaments and possible shoulder impingement.
Plus, like a hammer curl, the neutral grip works the brachialis rather than the biceps, stimulating some sweet ole’ upper arm gains.
Wide (outside shoulders): A wider grip places a greater emphasis on the upper portion of the lats, rear delts, rhomboids, and mid-lower traps and is often coupled with a pronated grip.
With a wider grip the shoulders have a greater degree of abduction, which decreases the range of motion on the lats and may be problematic for some lifters’ shoulders. This uses a shorter range of motion, but is still important for overall back development.
Shoulder width: A shoulder width grip is the most common pull-up grip and provides a good stimulus to the lats, traps, and biceps. This is more of a classic “pull-up position” and should be the sweet spot for most of your vertical pulling work.
Narrow (slightly inside shoulder width): A closer grip creates a greater amount of shoulder extension. Since the range of motion is greater, the lats and biceps are both stimulated a bit more to complete the rage of motion.
In a study by the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning", EMG studies with both wide and close grip pull ups measured the force of contraction of the lats in both movements and found a narrow grip is the best way to maximally recruit the latissimus dorsi 2.
There's no right or wrong grip or width, just use a variety of pulling movements for well-rounded development. Doing so will balance muscular development, prevent overuse injuries, and strengthen all pulling patterns.
Barbell bent Over Rows
Barbell bent-over rows are great to attack trunk stability, static strength in the hinge position, and pulling weights to develop a thick back. Where you pull the bar itself can create big change in muscle recruitment. Pulling higher to the chest creates a greater rear delt, mid trap, and rhomboid dominant exercise. Pulling lower to the rib cage enables greater lat dominance.
Supinated: A supinated or underhand grip requires tons of work from the biceps and provides higher direct loading than any isolation exercise. For many lifters, this is enough to spur new biceps growth. Further, a supinated grip is generally narrow, which creates a greater range of motion to hit the lats.
Pronated: A pronated grip allows for less weight and activation of the biceps, while challenging the forearms, traps and mid-back to a greater degree. If you're pulling lower towards the bottom of the rib cage, lat involvement will increase as well.
Wide Grip (outside shoulders): A wider grip forces the shoulder into greater abduction, hammering the upper back. That creates a greater stimulus for the middle and lower traps, rhomboids, and posterior deltoid.
Narrow Grip (shoulders or inside): A narrow grip keeps the elbows tucked closer to the body, a prime function of the lats. This creates a bigger stretch and subsequent contraction when rowing the bar back.
This is all fine and dandy, but use caution when pulling the bar back towards midline. Pulling too far back can cause the humerus to jam forward into the socket, known as anterior humeral glide and leading to potential shoulder issues.
Use a variety of grips and grip widths’ with bent over rows, just note the differences in loading and where you “feel” the movement working.
Like the squat, the deadlift reigns king in terms of total body training stimulus. For the sake of clarity, I’m referring to the conventional deadlift, but the sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlift, and snatch grip deadlift are all excellent variations that should have a place in most training programs. Just pick one and stick with it for a while.
Pronated or Overhand Grip: Use the overhand grip as long as possible to build grip strength. Unfortunately, most lifters can hardly squeeze water out of a sponge, leading their grip to fail before the prime movers of the lift. Use an overhand grip, but you may need to switch when entering near-maximal weights.
Mixed Grip: A mixed grip uses one supinated and one pronated hand to provide a stronger grip on your deadlifts. This is great for heavier phases, but can lead to muscular imbalances if hands are not switched.
Further, if the elbow on the supinated arm is not locked out there is immense tension on the biceps, increasing the risk of a distal biceps tendon tear. A mixed grip is great for heavy weights, just alternate arms for balance and make sure the elbows stay locked.
Hook: The hook grip is most common in Olympic lifting, but works well with heavy pulls. By wrapping the thumb around the bar and fingers around the thumb, you create a very strong grip.
The caveat? Pain.
Most lifters never stick with the hook grip long enough to become desensitized to the discomfort. In this case, suck it up. The hook grip is the best grip for training balance and grip strength on your deadlifts.
Straps: Straps do an excellent job at masking a weak-grip to allow both heavy weight and high reps. Still, they’re a crutch than diminishes the benefits of forearm and grip strength during the deadlift. Use them on occasion for high-rep sets or hypertrophy-based protocols, but don’t have them as a staple.
Hip position is often determined by anatomical differences and training age. Beginners often starting the hips too low like a squat. Instead, think of hip position as a ¼ squat position, which allows the hips to sit back and shins to stay vertical, helping improve posterior chain tension for better pulling strength.
Individuals with longer femurs will have the hips a bit higher, whereas the stumpier amongst us will sit the hips a tad lower. Regardless, play with a variety of hip positions a few inches lower and a few inches higher to change muscular demands.
The lower the hips, the greater the knee flexion and demands on the quads at the initial pull. Plus, your shins will shoot forward, leading you to batter you shins against the barbell. The higher the hips, the greater demand on the lower back, hips, and hamstrings. Just brace the abs to prevent lumbar flexion, keep the bar below the shoulder and tibias vertical to set up your deadlift.
Jump Position: If you are having trouble finding a comfortable foot position, try this: perform a vertical jump and note your foot position. This is an ideal stance for a lot of lifters and makes for a pretty sexy pre-deadlift routine.
Neutral Foot Position: Neutral foot position is more common with shorter, more mobile lifters. By keeping the feet neutral, adductor movement during pulls is limited.
Slightly Externally Rotated: For lifters with long femurs or those with limited mobility, pointing the out at 15 degrees can be more comfortable. This will help push the knees out slightly on the bottom to avoid the shins while engaging the adductors during the pull.
Technique is paramount with the deadlift and much of it will be determined by your anatomy and mobility. Find what’s comfortable and occasionally make slight changes for different muscle stimulation.
Ahh, the Monday special. Most guys tend to bench press the same exact way for years on end, yet scratch their head when they plateau or their shoulders feel like they’ve been stabbed frantically with an ice-pick. Try these tweaks to grip style and hand width.
Wide Grip: For many lifters bench press performance improves as grip width increases, possibly due to a shorter range of motion3,6.. Further, a wider grip increases activation on the pec major at the sternal head. For most meatheads, a wider grip is tougher on the shoulder, so proceed with caution.
Close Grip: Often paired with tucking the elbows closer to the torso, a closer grip may be better for your shoulders. In 2005, Lehman found that close grip presses increase triceps activity by 210% compared to wider grip bench presses 1.
This makes sense, as there is a greater range of motion and work required by the elbows to reach full extension. Move your hands to shoulder width or slightly inside.
Please, don’t be one of those idiots with his hands touching in the middle, that murders your wrists.
Thumbless/False: A false or thumbless grip involves not wrapping your thumb around the barbell. I’m not a huge fan for safety reasons (always use a spotter, folks) but the change results in you holding the bar a bit lower in your hand. This helps you align the wrist and elbow into a stacked position for better pushing power.
It’s not necessary to scrap a program when the going gets tough. Instead, focus on micro-progressions: small tweaks to technique to continue building strength.
Every change, no matter how small is a different exercise. This creates unique muscle recruitment and resulting in slightly different adaptations. But, If a movement pattern feels stale, even a slight change can bust you out of a rut without completely changing a program.
- Lehman GJ (2005). The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper body myoelectric activity during the bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 19(3): 587-591.
- Lusk SJ, Hale BD, Russell DM. Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(7):1895–900. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddb0ab.
- Madsen N, McLaughlin T (1984). Kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; 16(4): 376-381.
- McCaw, ST and Melrose, DR. Stance width and bar load effects on leg muscle activity during the parallel squat. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31: 428-436, 1999.
- Solomonow, M, Baratta, R, Zhou, BH, Shoji, H, Bose, W, Beck, C, and D'Ambrosia, R. The synergistic action of the anterior cruciate ligament and thigh muscles in maintaining joint stability. Am J Sports Med 15: 207-213, 198
- Wagner LL, Evans SA, Weir JP, Housh TJ, Johnson GO (1992). The effect of grip width on bench press performance. International Journal of Sport Biomechanics; 8: 1-10.