It is fair to say that multijoint movements are the bread and butter for getting bigger and stronger. Developing a love for these exercises tends to pay off as they are efficient at doing what they do. But for many trainees, the basic multijoint movements don’t allow enough variation, and they seek other exercises usually in the form of machines. Not everyone, however, has these options because they train at home or in a smaller facility without a lot of equipment. I want to lay out a number of variations for upper body movements that are effective and require minimal equipment, usually just a band or two.
Reverse Grip Bench Press
The main problem with this exercise is that if you train alone it is hard to unrack the weight, stay tight, and perform the lift. There is a simple way around this, pin presses off the bottom. Set your rack up so that your bar is as close to the chest as possible, and press from the bottom up. You will find you can get very tight under the bar before your press. If you find yourself shaky and unable to press the bar, a simple way to add some stability is to loop two bands over the top of the power rack and do a reverse band, reverse grip bench press. The bands help maintain a bit of a groove. Once you have the movement down, ditch the bands and benefit from the additional stability needed to complete the movement.
Dips with a Band
The main problem with weighted dips is that usually you are stronger at the completion of movement due to the leverage advantage. A simple way around this is to attach a band to your weight belt to accommodate the resistance to the leverage change. This also has the added advantage of being able to use compensatory acceleration with dips. As it is with most band movements, always try to “outrun” the band, that is move quickly on the concentric part of the movement.
The wonderful thing about band dips is that it allows for added intensity with drop sets. Do a set of band dips to failure, drop the band, and continue with bodyweight alone. Your shoulders and triceps will be fatigued and your chest not as much. You will be able to complete reps while your shoulders and triceps scream.
Low Pulley Cable Rows, multiple grips
The main problem with low pulley cable rows is that it turns into a lower back exercise for many, and the use of momentum doesn’t allow a strong contraction. More so, most of the time, just one handle is used. To effectively work the back, you need various grips that allow emphasis of different muscles. For example, using a lat bar, overhand shoulder-width grip, pulling the bar above nipple line. Keep your elbows out and work the upper back and rear delts. You normally have to drop the weight down to do this. To extend the set, reverse your grip, shoulder width, and keep going, with your elbows in changing the emphasis of the movement. One machine, two different exercises.
The main problem with step-ups is the use of the push off leg to compensate for the stepping leg’s weakness. There are two ways to do a step up. If you want to emphasize your hamstring and glute, plant with your heel on the step, and think about pulling your body up with your leg, almost like a leg curl feel. If you want to emphasize your quads more, step on the box with the ball of your foot, and push up. The major difference you want to feel between the two movements is the push v. pull with your foot.
One Armed Dumbbell Row
The main problem with this exercise is the use of too much weight and momentum. While the Kroc row has its purpose, the vast majority of trainees would be better off doing the movement with a different purpose.
I could never get comfortable with my knee on a bench, although this works for many people. Instead I prefer to brace myself by using my free hand, keeping my back flat, and pulling the dumbbell “in” versus “out”. By “out” I mean on the outside of the thigh. When pulling in, the dumbbell travels basically in front of your thigh until it hits your waist or hip. You have to experiment to find the right placement of your legs, but once you find it, you’ll see how stable you are.
Start with a dead hang and let the dumbbell drift towards your head or in front of it. Pull from the elbow as much as you can, and focus on the path of your elbow versus your hand. Your elbowing is arcing. As you near the completion of the concentric, be sure to contract your back on that side as hard as you can, hold it, and then lower the weight under control, once again, lowering from the elbow. When you can’t get your reps completed due to a DIFFERENT elbow path, you know you’ve failed and are now compensating. Some of that is fine, but don’t let it detract from what you are really trying to do…work the back hard with deliberate movement.
Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extensions with a Neutral Grip
This is a great movement that not too many people do on a regular basis. The problem with this movement is that as the weights go up, the elbows tend to drift in various ways, especially outwards. There is a simple way to stop that but also extend your set.
Start the movement with your arms extended, think of a rod holding your arms straight. As you lower the weight, think about that rod in your lower arm and try to keep your elbows in the same position, or pointing straight up/vertical. Think about that rod and focus on just moving your lower arm. As you get tired, the upper arm will want to shift, in effect, the rod moves. To compensate for this, keep your elbows pointed upwards, not outwards, but let your elbows drift slightly towards your head at the bottom of the movement. Your elbows will be traveling about an inch or so towards your head, but remain vertical. Reverse the movement at that point, move your elbows first (not your hands) and use that to get the dumbbells moving vertically again, and then drive the hands away from the body. That simple addition of elbow movement allows you to extend the set while maintaining relatively good form.