Thursday, November 26, 2015

Two Compound Shoulder Exercises to do with a bar - tips on them

     Hi guys! Today I want to show you two neat compound shoulder exercises you can do with any bar or dumbbells. With these, you will be able to hit your anterior (front) and lateral (side) deltoids very well. By compound, I mean that they are going to engage more than just these muscles, and they are going to be pushes and pulls that engage your universal pushing and pulling muscles: triceps and biceps, respectively. Therefore, you can perform one while waiting to recover from the other.

1. Shoulder Press (Front)

     Shoulder presses are likely the best known and performed compound shoulder exercise ever. Although claimed to hit at least two heads, and sometimes even all three, the shoulder press only really works the front, anterior deltoid, the pushing part of the shoulder. An unnatural excessively wide grip can be applied to gain access to the side deltoid as well, however, for our purposes, we will apply a closer grip, because those side delts will have their turn. The rear deltoid is not worked in the slightest. The reality is, the shoulder press is the compound movement of the front deltoid. No matter how wide or narrow you go, your front deltoid will follow and always be in charge of the movement.
     Shoulder presses can be done sitting or standing, and as a press, you instantly know they will train your triceps as well. Here, we will focus on the military press (brought down to upper chest). I want you to think about using a bar, even if you have dumbbells. This is because a stereotypical dumbbell press will look something like this:
Thanks to
      Not a terrible exercise, but this is not what we want. The dumbbells are held unnaturally wide, which is bad for your rotator cuff. By extension, this creates a limitation on your range of motion. The lowest you can go is maybe just a little below perpendicular, as you see here. When you do dumbbell shoulder raises, do you start with the weight in mid-air? Of course you don't. In contrast, look at this: 
Thanks to
     Here, the weight and elbows are held in front of the body. The girl is able to bring the weight all the way down to her chest, and create a full range of motion of the front deltoid as well as the tricep. You can go wider or narrower on the grip as long as you can still reach your chest. For our purposes, let's not go too wide. We just combined all the benefits of a front shoulder raise with all the benefits of an overhead tricep extension!
     Also, do not press perfectly above you. Press at a slight incline. We really are built to lift things in front of the body (Note the design of almost any shoulder press machine: a small incline). This way, our pectoralis minor can aid us a bit as well, letting us go heavier, and we can bring the bar down to the chest for our great range of motion. If you don't have a means of sitting, this lift can always be performed on your feet, however, this may take significantly more of a toll on your lower back. To help ease this pressure, at the starting position, hold the bar with your elbows pointing forward more, and "hanging" on your wrists. Not how the girl is doing, but like this (note the wrists and forward elbows):
Retrieved from
     You will instantly notice a difference in the amount of pressure being exerted on the lower back.

     It is up to you how many reps you want to do. If you're primarily after strength and size, try about 3 to 8.  But because these are pretty small muscles doing the work here, you would still benefit strength-wise from doing a higher rep count, such as 8 to 12. Personally, I like to go heavy, but I never really count my reps anyway so what do I know :).

 2. Upright Row (Side)

     The upright row is the much-debated compound exercise of your lateral deltoids. It is very much like a lateral raise with your biceps added. It is also a very practical and natural movement: whenever you carry anything below shoulder height, be it a bag of groceries or whatever, this is more or less what you're using to hold it... biceps and your lateral shoulder head. Should you want to hold it higher, you'll switch to a shoulder press type of position (which tends to receive more attention in terms of strength). This is what it will look like traditionally:


      It's a called a row because it's a pull through your elbows. But unlike any other row, it engages your side delts, rather than your rear ones, because pulling straight up is their territory. However, what the guy in the picture is doing is not good. See his finish position?

     That is actually a vulnerable position for your shoulder: that is way too high up. His elbows are higher than his shoulders. Remember how any press is performed.... you're supposed to keep your elbows below your shoulder.. anything too high wrecks your rotator cuff? Even though this is a pull, it still is not safe, considering the straight - up pulling direction. The only time I would consider any pushing / pulling action with elbows above shoulders is when performing face pulls or other upper back exercises where the force of effort is safely backwards.

     So, to fix this, we can move our hands wider apart, like this:

     Now, the elbows are almost parallel to the ground in the finish position. Remember, you are training your side delts. Just like when you do lateral raises, you don't need to bring your shoulders any higher than parallel: anything above is really just for your trapezius. This girl is actually lifting a bit too high. And, to better hit the side head of your shoulder, you want to be raising your arms to the side (equivalent of wider grip), right?

     Yes, in general the exercise is meant to train traps as well. The guy in the former picture is trying to shrug all the way up. But why? It's not safe, it doesn't hit your shoulders as well, and, if you think about it, this is way too easy for the traps. If you do shrugs for isolation, you will know you can train with much more weight. In other words, the trap won't get developed much at all even if you do try to shrug when doing upright rows.

     Also... the main thing I notice when trapezius meets lateral raises / upright rows is such: use of the trapezius to "fling" or "hurl" up the weight. If you do upright rows or side lateral raises already, you are likely guilty. Do you ever feel like you're using an unnecessary amount of energy in the movements and / or you are breathing really hard? Also, can you only lift a certain amount of weight if you do it really fast? You're probably hurling it up.

     See, whether lateral raises or upright rows, there is little to no resistance at the bottom. Both your biceps and lateral deltoids aren't being stimulated by the force of gravity. Your trapezius can take advantage of that neutral zone and get a head start, hurling the weight upwards. While this is not a bad practice, it won't hit your shoulders quite as well because you're really just using them quickly to help hurl up the weight. Sure, this hurling movement is important for things like snatch, clean, and jerk, but for the sake of shoulder training, don't throw - go slow.

     So for our purposes, do not shrug. Keep your shoulders at a constant height, go at a slow pace, and slightly rotate outwards at the top, like the girl is doing. When your elbows get perpendicular to your shoulder, stop pulling up, and instead rotate out. That creates a great exercise on so many levels: for your shoulders, cuffs, and posture.

     But a whole different problem arises. As you raise the bar with a wider grip, you will feel it in your wrist, which will be excessively deviated as it holds the bar near the top of the movement. You can choose to endure the pain, but I strongly recommend using an EZ bar if you have access to one, and holding it at this position:

     .... and that both eases the wrist pressure and makes your elbows naturally come up lower relative to your shoulders. Absolutely perfect!

     As for reps it will be a good idea to do a high amount, such as 10-12. You will really feel the burn. If you go too heavy, you might start hurling without even realizing it, and will not able to lift the weight as high. Just make sure to get a decent amount of reps in where you can raise the bar high enough where you can get a bit of outward rotation (nothing crazy).

     For a clearer view, check out the instructional video here (FEMALE NOT MALE!). The male does it the bad way. You're smart, so you should do it as the female does. See, the male pulls through his elbows all the way. Not what we want. The female stops pulling when her arms are about parallel to the ground and then rotates outward slightly with her forearms.

     One more thing.....  everyone's shoulder posture is a bit different. Some people's shoulders are rotated inward more than others, so you may need to lift up your sleeve and find the optimal leaning position where the side delt is opposing gravity. The side delt is not usually located directly at your side, but a little more towards the backside. This is mitigated by the fact that you're holding the bar in front of you, making your shoulders hunch forward more, making your side delt oppose gravity better in the perfectly standing - straight position. So standing directly upright is perfectly fine. However, each person may benefit just a bit more from finding their own optimal leaning position.

 Rear Head

     As you noticed I didn't include an exercise for the posterior shoulder head. Because it is a direct antagonist to the front head, its full motion path would be the exact opposite of a shoulder press, as in a lat pulldown or pullup. However, the optimal position of the posterior head, when it's fully contracted, is best attained from lower (decline) rows. This is in contrast to your anterior head when pushing: it gets trained less and less as you decline your push. So if you do rows and similar pulling exercises, and you pull back all the way (I recommend holding it for a second at each fully pulled position), that in my opinion is more than enough for all your rear deltoid purposes. In any old row such as this:
      The posterior deltoid is at its fully contracted position. Just holding the weight like this will train it very well. And that's the basic idea: all rows hit your rear head better than presses hit your front head. 

     So the reason I chose not to include a rear deltoid compound movement like a bent-over row here, is because pretty much every posterior delt exercise that hits the delt at a great angle has a mediocre range of motion, and those exercises with a good range of motion will not hit it at the best angle. I was going to include the bent-over row as the third exercise but realized: though it will hit the rear deltoid in a good angle, the range of motion for the deltoid will be crappy so calling it a rear deltoid compound movement would be kind of false.


     So that's just some tips on these two shoulder movements. I personally do both shoulder presses and upright rows without ever doing any shoulder dumbbell raises. I just like exercises that engage more muscle groups because every rep feels more worthwhile. I hope I may have helped some people who have trouble with these movements.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Hip Action - Flexion and Extension Muscles Explained

     Hi world. Today I want to talk about movement at the hip, backwards and forwards. Let's also name the muscles involved. This is a topic that is not often talked about, and to be honest, I am learning a lot myself as I am typing.

     Typically the muscles that decrease the angle between your upper and lower body are known as hip flexors and are on the frontish side of your body. The ones that decrease it are the extensors and are the backside of the leg.

     In reality, it is a bit more complicated than it sounds, and that is exactly why I wanted to write this post. It's not only this:
     But the flexion and extension muscles can further be divided into two more groups (which even Wikipedia doesn't do). This is because it matters....
  • Whether you are moving your legs towards your upper body or your upper body towards your legs in the case of flexion
  •  Whether you are moving your legs away from your upper body or your upper body away from your legs in the case of extension
     Why would you want to know this? Well I can almost say for certain you like to know what muscles you are training! Establishing a firm mind-to-body connection can really help in choosing and ordering your exercises.

     The general rule is this: when moving your legs towards or away from your body, your higher-up muscles are acting, those located in your hip area. When moving your upper body, towards or away from your legs, your lower-down muscles are acting, which are those located in the upper leg.

     Let's start with extension because I've been talking a lot about hamstrings and such stuff recently. And, to be honest, I don't even know all the muscles involved in flexion the moment I'm writing this :). So this is the easier one to understand:


     See, both of these moves increase the angle between your upper and lower bodies at your hip joint. So both are extensions. But what is often not talked about in muscle anatomy is that these use completely different extension muscles. In the first picture, the guy is moving his legs back. This is done by the gluteus maximus and not the hamstrings. In the second one, he moves his upper body back. This is done by the hamstrings and not the gluteus maximus.

    Yet such a distinction is rarely made for some reason, and both the hamstrings and gluteus maximus are classified as just hip extensors. From a muscle building perspective it is critical to know the difference.

     Here is the hyperextension, a hip extensor exercise. You can see that the legs are held in place while your upper body moves back:
     And therefore the hamstrings are responsible, and not your butt.

     Here is the reverse hyperextension, a hip extensor exercise. Here your upper body is held in place while your legs move back:

Stolen from
     And therefore the gluteus maximus is responsible and not the hamstrings.

     Can both be used at the same time? Of course! First, the glute bridge:

     And now the reverse plank:

      Both will use both the extensors, your gluteus and hamstrings, because both methods of extension are being utilized. Neither side is fixed, so you are both pushing your legs back from your upper body and pushing your upper body away from your legs, all to keep that straight posture against gravity. Isn't that neat? That can be called extreme hip extension (I made that up), when you extend your hip from both sides.


     Now let's talk about the opposite: flexion. Logically, moving your upper body towards your legs at the hip and moving your legs toward your upper body should use different muscles.

     The main use for understanding flexion will probably come from ab and core exercises that utilize hip-bending as well as torso bending. So, I'm thinking sit-ups, reverse crunches and different leg lifts, where you bend at your hip simultaneously while bending with your abs (at the torso). Or Roman Chair situps, where you really only bend at the hip.

     So here too, it matters whether your legs move towards your upper body or if your upper body moves towards your legs. Just as we saw with extension where the leg muscles (hamstrings) moved the upper body and the hip muscles (gluteus maximus) moved the lower body, it is the same with flexion: the flexors on the leg move the upper body and the ones at the hip the lower body.

Flexion when your body moves

     The muscles in the leg that move your body towards your legs (as in sit-ups) are found in the front
thigh (directly opposite your hamstrings). Although, only one of your quadriceps (in contrast to all three of your hamstrings) is responsible at the hip. This is the rectus femoris. It's a quadricep, so it extends your knee as well. Given these dual functions, it is a complete antagonist to your hamstrings. Here's what it looks like:

     Do a sit-up and you will feel it contracting. It's bringing your body towards itself. Take a Roman Chair sit-up (a pretty debatable / dangerous move that I will likely talk about in another post):

      I chose this particular sit-up variation because it's known for minimal use of the abs to actually bend at the torso, as you can see, and almost exclusively bend at your hip. As such, it is almost a direct opposite of the hyperextension exercise (which I displayed earlier). This is a very good rectus femoris exercise.

     Have you ever wondered why, if your legs are straight or almost straight, you just can't seem to sit-up? You will only be able to crunch at your torso, thanks to your abs. But were that guy's legs in a straight position, he would certainly not be able to do those Roman Chair sit-ups.

     This is because, since the rectus femoris also acts on the knee, the more your knee is extended the weaker the muscle actually gets in terms of being able to bring your upper body forward. It is contracted at the fully straight leg position, right? So it doesn't have any more room to spare for your upper body's desire to perform flexion.

     Luckily, the rectus femoris is not completely alone in bringing your upper body to your legs. A muscle that it partners with is the sartorius, a long, thin muscle in your front thigh that primarily just assists various other leg muscles in their movements. Here is a picture of a bodybuilder named Aaron Maddron. 

     See the long, skinny muscle in his thigh that begins at his number tag and extends all the way to the knee? That's the sartorius. Lying in this diagonal position, it lies ready to assist bigger muscles in a number of different movements. One of these is the rectus femoris, but the sartorius is no replacement. Without the power of that quadricep the sartorius by itself can do very little. With your legs in a straight position, the sartorius is just not enough to let you sit up.

 Flexion when your legs move


      So logically to move your legs toward your body you will be using muscles above the hip, and on the opposite side of your butt, the gluteus maximus. This muscle group is called the illiopsoas, and consists of two muscles: the psoas major and illiacus. As you can see, they are situated in the hip and are on your front side:


     Those are your stereotypical hip flexors. So when you perform exercises like lying leg raises, hanging leg raises, captain's chair leg raises, these two muscles are what bring your legs towards you and work at the hip. The bulk of work of any leg raise exercise is performed by the illiopsoas.

     They are direct antagonists of the largest and most powerful muscle in your body, the gluteus maximus. Of course, they can't accomplish quite as much. I guess moving your legs towards you in nature isn't as important as moving them away. Think about walking: you move your leg toward you when taking a step forward, barely against any resistance at all. When your leg moves back, you are hauling the heavy weight that is yourself forward.

     Another muscle that aids these hip muscles is the tensor fasciae latae, technically a gluteal muscle, and it is located on the outer thigh. And yes, its primary function is actually to abduct your hip, and is a major muscle worked when you use one of those hip abduction (pushing outwards) machines. It is also a very aesthetically pleasing muscle :). This is what it looks like:

     Try just raising your leg a little. You will likely be able to feel it contracting. Also try moving your leg sideways to feel it contract even more. Imagine, this very good-looking muscle is trained in a lot of your core exercises!

     So long story short, those are the muscles that let you do leg raises at the hip. Look at the captain's chair, for example:

     This is not really an abs exercise at all unless you bend at your torso. This man is only bending at his hip, moving his legs towards himself. This is therefore a good workout for the hip flexors of the hip region that peform this function. 

      And just like with extension, it is absolutely possible to perform both modes of flexion simultaneously. A very, very common example of this is the plank and hits both sides of flexion really well:
     Because, to keep the body from falling on either side of your hip joint, you naturally push your legs toward your body and your body towards your legs, concurrently. A quick way to confirm it is to try and feel your tensor fasciae latae muscle (you will need to put one leg down) in this position. It will be contracting. Leg movers confirmed! And, you will feel your quadriceps begin to burn, especially if you've been going a while or added a bit of weight. That's your rectus femoris. Body movers confirmed!

     If I missed any muscles or helpful topics in this post, please comment!

     (Also, sorry about the formatting. The Blogger text editor is so ridiculously buggy and annoying. It shrinks my text to extra small for no reason, plays around with my formatting, refuses to save almost ANY change in trying to resize or recolor text, and is just such a pain in the ass. I spent almost 30 minutes trying to change a couple of paragraphs into regular font size from the extra-small they randomly put it in. It wouldn't save any changes. So I had to copy it into Word, change it there, and paste it back - and now that text shows up in Times New Roman and is oddly spaced. What's more, my html code is now flooded with all sorts of crap that definitely doesn't need to be there. I just got tired of dealing with all that stuff. Thanks Blogger. Step up your game, Google.)