Most of us think "macro" when we tackle a workout plateau: periodization, cycling, pyramiding, and split training are all ways of changing it up and keeping the muscles guessing. But sometimes you need to think small. Micro changes can have a surprisingly large effect—and by micro, we mean really subtle. For example, how you hold the bar and where you put your feet for many standard strength training exercises can dramatically improve your workouts. Want to learn more? Get ready for grips and stances.
Get a Grip
The easiest "micro" change you can make is to vary your grip. Every exercise that requires you to wrap your hands around a bar is another opportunity to surprise your body. Just by changing the orientation of your hands, particularly on very familiar exercises, you can move the push point of an exercise away from your comfort zone. Your old favorites will still target the same muscles they always did—but they will hit different fibers in a different portion of the muscle at a different phase of contraction. This will both help you get off your plateau, and help to even out imbalances in your muscle development.
Remember, these are going to be small changes. For example, some of them will involve the width at which you grip a barbell. So, during pressing movements, switch between wide, narrow, and medium grips to challenge your muscles in new ways. The same goes for the cable machine, especially for biceps and back work. All those different handles aren't there for decoration—they're there for you to use. Try forcing yourself to use a different handle each week and see if that doesn't get you growing.
But what about dumbbell exercises? Of course, the dumbbells themselves aren't going to change, and they appear to offer few alternatives. So you're going to need to change your relationship to them. For example, wrap a sweat towel around the handle to make your hand grip thicker. This will force different muscle fibers to engage, and you'll keep your body guessing. After a week or two, go back to gripping just the dumbbell and you'll find it feels very different—and now you will get additional benefit from basic exercises, by dint of having changed things up for a while.
You can experiment, cautiously, to find out how changing up your grips will impact your muscles. But here's a guide to a few things you might try, and the effect they will have on your muscles. Remember, moving your hands around will change where an exercise "hits" you. Don't be surprised if you get a little sore at first—but you should not make changes so radical that they cause you genuine pain.
|Exercise Type||Sample Exercises||Grip Type and Benefits|
|Chest Presses||Flat bench barbell press
Incline barbell press
Dumbbell chest press
|Narrow grip: According to pro bodybuilder Mike Francois, a narrow grip is three to four inches closer than the standard more-than-shoulder-width grip. Use a narrow grip during chest work to focus the stress on your inner chest.
Wide grip: Take your hands out wide to challenge the fibers of your outer chest. Don't take your grip so wide that the weight becomes unstable. For a wide grip, four to six inches wider than a standard grip should do.
Underhand grip: By taking an underhand grip (palms turned toward your face), you can surprise your lower chest. Turn your hands around on your decline presses to develop dense, Arnold-like lower pecs.
|Back Rows and Pull-Downs||Seated cable rows
Standing barbell rows
Narrow grip: Pro bodybuilder Lee Hayward suggests that a narrow grip is best for developing back thickness, because it allows you to produce more power and move more weight.
Wide grip: A wider grip on lat pull-downs will emphasize your upper lats. On rows, the wider the grip, the more you'll isolate your middle back and reduce the stress on your lats.
Underhand grip: By turning your hands over during row movements, so that your palms point up, you put more focus on your lower lats.
|Bicep Curls||Standing barbell curls
Standing cable curls
Regular grip: For a regular grip, your hands should be about shoulder-width apart. This grip allows for the best overall work, as it emphasizes both heads of the bicep.
Narrow grip: Any grip closer than shoulder-width is consider a narrow grip and shifts the focus to the long head, or outer bicep. Don't put your hands any closer than two inches or you'll put undue stress on your wrists.
Wide grip: A wide grip during bicep work is about six inches outside shoulder-width. This grip puts emphasis on the short head, or inner bicep.
Just as different grips will emphasize the different muscle fibers of your upper body, so different foot positions will surprise your legs. Try some of these stance position variations to mix it up. You'll build additional strength and balance your leg muscle growth.
|Exercise Type||Sample Exercises||Stance Type and Benefits|
Seated leg presses
Wide stance: The wider you take your feet during any quad pressing exercise, the more you'll emphasize the inner quad.
Narrow stance: The narrower you take your feet during quad pressing movements, the more you'll isolate your outer quad. If it's a killer thigh sweep you're after, narrower is the way to go.
Heels up: By pushing through the balls of your feet instead of through your heels, you can force the stress on the medial quad. Just stick a plate under your heels when squatting or concentrate on pushing through your toes on the press to develop killer "teardrops."
|Leg Curls and Extensions||Lying leg curls
Single-leg knee extensions
Toes in: Turn your toes in to emphasize the outer thigh.
Toes out: Turn your toes out to emphasize the inner thigh.
Toes pointed: Point your toes on curls and extensions to emphasize your lower quads as well as your hamstrings.
About Duke Greenhill: Duke Greenhill is a freelance writer, certified personal trainer, and model living in Manhattan. He can be found online at www.campusmen.com/weightlifting.