The old reliable exercises are fine for producing old reliable results. But if you want a physique that’s better than the body you have now, you need exercises that do more for you than the ones that took you to this point. Luckily for you (and your muscles), trainers and scientists across the continent spend their days asking excellent questions, such as “Why do we do it this way?” and “What if we did it that way?” The answers they find are surprising—and useful. You’ll refresh your workout and soon have muscle in places you didn’t even know it could grow.
1. Try a new muscle formula
Do at least 3 sets of pulling exercises—rows, pullups, and pulldowns—for every 2 sets of chest and shoulder presses you perform, says Brian St. Pierre, C.S.C.S., the owner of BSP Training & Nutrition in Augusta, Maine. Chances are you’ve been doing just the opposite, so this approach can help you build the muscles you’ve been neglecting. The result: Improved posture, better overall muscle balance, and faster gains.
2. Sculpt bolder shoulders
Strong, stable shoulders will help you lift more weight in nearly every upper-body exercise. So start each upper-body workout with the band pull-apart, suggests Shon Grosse, P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of Comprehensive Physical Therapy and Fitness in Colmar, Pennsylvania. It trains your rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers, the network of muscles that help create a strong shoulder joint. (And it counts as another pulling exercise.)
Keeping your arms straight, use both hands (palms up) to hold a stretch band out in front of your chest. Now squeeze your shoulder blades together and stretch the band out to your sides, without bending or lowering your arms, until the band touches your sternum. Reverse the move and repeat. Do 2 or 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.
3. Beef up your back
Most of the fibers in your upper-back muscles are horizontal, which is why rowing exercises work them so well. But the ones in your lats are closer to vertical. The J pull-in hits your lats from start to finish, says Lee Boyce, a Toronto-based strength coach. “And it won’t take much weight for you to feel a deep contraction.”
Attach a rope handle to a high pulley of a cable station. Grab an end with each hand and kneel facing the machine. Keeping your arms straight and your torso upright, pull the rope down toward your groin. (The rope’s path of travel should look like a J.) Try 3 sets of 10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.
4. Pump up your pecs
If you’re unhappy with your chest development, you may have one of two problems.
You don’t work your chest enough. Sometimes you just need to do more work. Boyce recommends the 1 1/2-rep bench press, which effectively doubles the workload of your pectoral muscles. On a flat bench, lower the weight to your chest, and then press it halfway up. Lower it again, and then press it up until your arms are straight. Use 70 percent to 80 percent of your 1-rep max, and perform 3 or 4 sets of 8 reps.
Your shoulders are beat up. Years of dips and bench presses will do that to you, says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. To build your chest and triceps while sparing your shoulders, he recommends the close-grip board press. Duct-tape a pair of footlong 2×4s together, the 4-inch sides facing each other; secure the block under your shirt. Load a barbell onto a flat bench-press station. Lie on your back and grab the bar using an overhand grip, your thumbs 12 to 15 inches apart. Lift the bar, lower it to the block, come to a dead pause, and then push back to the starting position. You can go heavy: 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
5. Add to your adductors
You wouldn’t be caught dead on the inner-thigh machine. But you also don’t want to ignore your adductor muscles, an area of untapped growth potential. Target them by doing pullups while holding a light weight plate between your feet, Grosse suggests. You’ll force your abs and adductors to engage as you work your back, shoulders, and arms.
6. Blast your biceps
To hit all the muscle fibers in your biceps, you need to either lift max weight or lift at max speed—which nobody does when they work their biceps, says Chad Waterbury, M.S., the author of Huge in a Hurry. The next time you do curls, use a weight you think you can lift just 6 or 7 times. Bang your reps out as fast as you can while maintaining good form. That means lifting the weight quickly, lowering it at a normal speed, and immediately starting the next rep. Stop the set when one rep is clearly slower than the others. You may pull off 4 or 5 reps on your first set, and fewer on later sets. Rest for 45 seconds between sets, and shoot for 25 reps total.
7. Trick out your triceps
Waterbury recommends jackknife pushups as a triceps-building companion for the high-velocity curls (tip 6).
Assume a pushup position but place your toes on a bench; keep your hands on the floor, thumbs 6 to 12 inches apart, and hips up. (If you feel the blood rush to your face, you’re in the correct position.) Do pushups as fast as you can without rearranging any of your favorite facial features. (That is, don’t hit the floor.) Go for 35 reps total, with 7 or fewer per set.
8. Power up your legs
Supercharge any lunge variation by extending your range of motion, making your muscles work harder and grow faster. Boyce recommends these brutally effective leg builders.
Reverse lunge from step: Stand with both feet on a 6-inch-high box or step. Take a long step back with your right foot and descend until your knee almost touches the floor. Return to the starting position, and then repeat the move with your left foot.
Bulgarian split squat with front foot elevated: Place your left foot on a 6-inch step in front of you and your right foot on a bench behind you. Drop straight down until your right knee almost touches the floor. Do all your reps, switch sides, and repeat. Perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions for each leg using body weight only, or 10 reps holding dumbbells at your sides.
9. Shift your butt into gear
Deadlifts and squats are great for your glutes, but only if you’re actually engaging those glutes. If your knees cave in toward each other, you’re doing less with your butt and more with your back, says Brian Zarbatany, C.S.C.S., training director at the Human Performance Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The solution: Grab the floor with your feet, as if you’re trying to twist through the outsides of your shoes. That helps you keep your knees out and your glutes working.
10. Get more from your core
The abdominal push press is the best ab exercise you can do in bed, although you’ll probably want to try it on the floor first, says physical therapist Jonathan Fass, D.P.T., C.S.C.S. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lift your right knee so your hip is bent 90 degrees, and press your left palm into your right thigh, near your knee. Now try to lift your thigh to your chest while pushing back with your hand. If you’re doing the exercise properly, your core should work to produce a stalemate. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, switch sides, and repeat until you’re sick of it.
11. Mix it up for a hard middle
If you have a partner, Fass recommends ab prayers, a core-building exercise for two that can double as foreplay. Stand facing each other in an athletic position. Put your palms together (as if praying) in front of your chest, elbows extended 6 to 10 inches from your body. Have your partner push and pull your hands in all directions, forcing you to adjust. Go for 30 seconds, and switch. You should both feel your midbody muscles working.
No partner? Try stir the pot, a classic core exercise from spine specialist Stuart McGill, Ph.D. Assume a plank position with your forearms on a Swiss ball, and roll the ball around by moving your forearms and elbows in a circular pattern.
12. Build bigger calves
Instead of working your calves in isolation, try the bench bridge, which works them in conjunction with your hamstrings and glutes, says Nick Tumminello, a Baltimore-based personal trainer. Lie on your back with the balls of your feet on the edge of a bench and your knees slightly bent. Lift your hips. You should feel it from your calves through your glutes. Lower your hips and repeat the move for as long as you can.
13. Move more and risk less
Everyone wants to lift more on the classic powerlifts, and nothing beats hard work, of course. But you can also produce big improvements by incorporating even the simplest of tricks. For the barbell squat: During the move, “Pull the bar down as if you’re trying to rip it apart,” Gentilcore says.
“You’ll activate your lats, which provide more spinal stability.” You’ll move more weight with less risk of injury. And if you actually do rip the bar apart, please send us video.
14. Boost your bench
This one may seem “bass ackwards,” but to improve your bench press, the experts would like you to start with your butt.
“Clench the bench” by contracting your glutes, and keep them contracted throughout your set, says Joe Stankowski, a personal trainer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You’ll find that this tweak solidifies your base and allows you to generate more force on the lift. Don’t forget to unclench when you’re done.
15. Raise your deadlift
Here’s a gear tip: Wash your socks. Then, when you arrive at the gym, perform the deadlift with your shoes off (if your gym allows it), advises strength coach and power-lifter Eric Cressey, C.S.C.S. “Shoes increase the distance the bar has to travel,” Cressey says. They also lift your heels off the floor, which puts more emphasis on your quads and less on your glutes and hamstrings, where it belongs. Either barefoot or in your stocking feet is fine. If your gym frowns on this, invest in shoes with minimal heel lift. Or find a new gym.