Train your body to be stronger with these simple movement alterations.
The English language is a fascinating thing. It’s existed for thousands of years, yet we’re always coming up with new terms and phrases or redefining how to use existing words. For example, the original meaning of hack is to “cut or shape with, by or as if by crude or ruthless strokes” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). Nowadays, hack is often used to refer to breaking into a computer network or taking a shortcut as a way to achieve an outcome.
When it comes to fitness or getting results from a training program, it is important to note that there are no simple shortcuts, but there are creative ways to hack certain movements that can make them more effective so you can reach all your fitness goals. Making small changes to how muscles are engaged can have significant results; from another point of view, changing how you use your muscles can help reduce risk of injury from overuse. To understand the best hacks for popular muscle groups, it is first necessary to understand how all the muscles of the body are designed to work together as an integrated system to accomplish a specific task.
Exercise is a function of movements created by many muscles working together simultaneously, not a series of separate, isolated muscle actions. This means that for the best results, workout programs should use movements that require muscles to function as an integrated system and not feature a series of discrete actions. The human body is designed to move, and the foundational pattern of human movement is the gait cycle; therefore, the musculoskeletal structures of the human body are designed to be most efficient when standing upright and moving over the ground, not lying on the floor or sitting in a machine.
When it comes to many popular fitness moves, the traditional approach to understanding human anatomy is falsely based on the assumption that muscles function independently to perform separate, isolated actions. Identifying the best hacks for specific exercises that use upright movements and can help you reach your fitness goals requires understanding the true nature of how certain muscles are designed to function.
The six movement hacks below are creative ways for making small changes to popular movements for the larger muscle groups in your body. First, a word of caution: These movements may use your muscles differently than what you’re used to, so be careful, because if you do too many the first time, you will feel it the next day. Unfortunately, I’ve had one or two clients get carried away when doing these (especially for the glutes) and have received texts indicating that walking is so uncomfortable that they are taking the day off and staying in bed. That is certainly not the goal of any workout, so for best results and to minimize any muscle soreness, start with only one or two sets and work your way up from there.
The squeezing action of the inner-thigh machine certainly creates the perception that it is targeting this muscle group; however, it’s important to point out that the adductor and hamstring muscles of the inner thigh are used to help move the legs forward and backward when walking or running, and for best results, it is most effective to perform movements that mimic these actions. One of the most effective hacks for this muscle group is to get out of the machine and do Romanian dead lifts and single-leg Romanian dead lifts. Both movements use the muscles the way they are designed to work, to help extend the hips, and because you’re standing, you’ll be using many more muscles than sitting in a machine, which helps to burn more calories.
Start with two sets of 10 reps of Romanian dead lifts, and progress to doing the single-leg version for three sets of 12–15 reps.
Glute (butt) muscles
The butt is composed of a series of muscles technically called the gluteal complex, which include the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and gluteus maximus. Most movements for the glutes focus on hip extension, moving your leg straight behind your body, but these muscles work together to move the hips in all three planes. Therefore, for best results, it is important to do training drills that use these muscles in a variety of three-dimensional movements. A creative hack for the hips is to do a reverse crossover lunge (also known as a curtsey lunge, but I use the former term when working with my male clients because, well, men don’t curtsey).
Start with two sets of 10 reps on each leg, and progress to doing three to four sets of 10–12 reps on each, holding dumbbells of medium to heavy weight in your hands.
The deep muscles of the core—specifically the transverse abdominus, pelvic floor and posterior fibers of the internal oblique—help to stabilize the spine and, when trained properly, create the appearance of a flatter stomach. Often we are told to “tighten” or contract the core when we do this movement, but a better way, or hack, for engaging these muscles is to focus on what your hands, shoulders, glutes and feet are doing during this exercise. The technical reasons are too long to quickly explain and better left to a post for a later date. But actively focusing on your extremities will automatically cause the deep muscles to contract to create the necessary stability.
When doing the high plank, focus on pressing your hands into ground, pushing your upper back up into your shoulder blades and squeezing your butt muscles while pushing your feet and toes into the ground (like doing a toe raise). Try this and you’ll immediately feel much stronger. Do it on a regular basis, and you’ll find that you not only will enhance your ability to do the plank but will be much stronger in other movements that require engaging the core when standing on your feet. When you are standing on your feet, the best way to contract and engage your core is to push your feet into the ground while squeezing your glutes—this will cause a reflexive contraction of the muscles that stabilize the spine, helping you to increase your overall levels of strength.
Start with holding the high plank for 30 seconds for two sets, and progress to doing four sets for 45-60 seconds. A great option is to do a high plank for 45-60 seconds as an active rest between sets of your normal strength-training movements.
When choosing exercises to enhance shoulder strength or improve definition, it is important to consider that there is a specific path of motion for how the arms should move when they go overhead like in a shoulder press. The primary joint of the shoulder functions as a ball-and-socket, where the ball (created by the head of the humerus of the upper arm) glides through the socket (the glenoid fossa of the scapula, or the shoulder blade). In a healthy shoulder, the socket of the scapula points in an angle that is pitched approximately 35 degrees forward from the side of the body.
This arrangement is often overlooked in many shoulder movements, like overhead presses, which place the arms in a position with the elbows sticking straight out to each side of the body; from this position, when the arm goes all the way up to full extension, the upper arm runs into a portion of the shoulder blade called the acromion process. When this happens, it can pinch the upper portion of the biceps or supraspinatus muscles and be a potential cause of injury. The hack for shoulder training is that when doing overhead presses, it is best to keep the arms in a position approximately 30–45 degrees toward the front of the body (to use this path of motion, consider the front of your body as 12 o’clock, and keep your elbows pointing in the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions when pressing overhead).
If you are really interested in developing strong shoulders, use one-arm presses with heavier dumbbells for the best results. (Note that using one limb at a time allows you to focus all your energy on those muscles, which itself is an important hack.) When doing this exercise, focus on pushing from the floor up. Start with a lighter weight to learn the movement, and as your skill improves, you’ll find that it will be easy to go up in pounds.
Start with two sets of five to six reps, and work your way up to four sets of 8-10 reps.
The bench press is one of the more popular workout moves, but done repeatedly, it could place too much stress on the joint structures of the shoulder because the stiffness of the bench restricts the motion of the scapulae. The good news is that this doesn’t mean you need to stop doing bench presses altogether, but to save your shoulders, it is a good idea to step away from the bench for a few weeks and do other movements that not only blast the pecs but engage your core muscles. Push-ups are an old standby for strengthening the chest and can help reduce joint stress because they allow more freedom of motion through the shoulder complex.
If you really want to blast your chest, then doing push-ups with the TRX Suspension Trainer is the hack for you. When using the TRX, the closer to the ground you are, the more of your body weight you will be using. For best results, as mentioned above during the high plank description, squeezing your glutes and thighs while pressing your toes into the ground will help engage the core while doing the pressing motion. Without a stiff bench pressed into your upper back, your shoulders will be happy, and you’ll find that once you get back on the bench, your strength will go up because you are engaging more of your core while pressing. For best results, take three to four weeks off the bench every three or four months and focus on the TRX. There’s a reason why many NFL players and those in the military Special Forces use the TRX—it works!
Start with two sets of 10 reps, and work up to doing four to five sets of reps until fatigue. (Maintain excellent form; as soon as you can’t keep good form, end the set.)
The biceps brachii muscle of the upper arm performs a few different functions: elbow flexion (bringing your wrist closer to your shoulder), shoulder flexion (raising your arm in front of your body, like a front raise) and rotating the wrist so the palm faces upward. To hack this muscle and train it with multiple pulling drills like rows or chin-ups, it is best to do these movements with your palms facing up, technically called supinated; this will use more of the biceps in each movement while reducing the strain on the wrists and forearms. Another hack is to start doing supinating curls with your palm facing the midline of your body and end with your palm facing your body. When the sun is out, you’ll be happy to show off your guns with the results you’ll get.
When doing bent-over rows with a palms-up (supinated) grip, start with two sets of 8-10, and work up to four sets of 10-12 reps.
Use strength–training machines the way they were designed
Recently the Internet has been inundated with videos of how to hack certain movements using strength-training machines; as seen on many “exercise fail” videos, using a machine incorrectly can cause serious injury. The movements above were chosen specifically because they do not require machines but rather challenge you to move your body in ways that engage all your muscles.
It’s extremely important to note that if a workout machine is used incorrectly, any injury that occurs is the fault of the individual user and not the manufacturer of the machine or the health club in which it’s located. Be safe. When using fitness machines, use them in the manner in which they were designed. If you want to get creative with movements to target specific muscles, challenge them to work in all three dimensions while standing on your feet. When it comes to results, there are no iron-clad guarantees, but if you try the movements above, I am confident you will immediately feel the difference and be happy with the results.
Photo credit: g-stockstudio, Thinkstock