There’s a science to muscle growth. To put on lean body mass, you’ve got to take a calculated approach to your training and diet. Most athletes will rightfully see their goal physique as an equation to be solved — combine the right training variables with properly-calibrated nutrition, work hard, and wait.
Bodybuilding, whether you’re a recreational enthusiast or a career professional, is equal parts science and art. The athletes who have clawed their way to the top of the sport have all done so by being as diligent with their technique in the gym as they are with their math in the kitchen.
If you’re chasing a sculpted physique, you need a keen eye and a steady hand. Small adjustments to your favorite exercises could yield new gains or help break through a strength plateau. Here are some simple technique tips to help you perform better in the gym.
Note: You shouldn’t force your body to move a certain way, especially if it causes pain. If any of the technique tips on this list cause notable discomfort, they aren’t worth incorporating.
Upper Body Technique Tips
Training your upper body properly can be deceptively complex. While the average gym rat sees biceps curls and bench pressing as enough to build a beach-worthy physique, you should walk into the gym armed with a more refined perspective.
Your upper body is an intricate network of tissues that both perform their own unique functions and assist one another in executing large movements. To get the most out of your training, you have to know when to recruit extra muscles to help move big weight and when to isolate a specific tissue for targeted growth.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Technique Tip: Tuck your elbows as you lower the weight, and intentionally flare them as you press upwards.
The incline dumbbell press is a fantastic way to build your upper chest. One commonly-overlooked function of the pectoral muscles is internal rotation of the upper arm. Both compartments of your chest — your pec major and pec minor, which binds from ribcage to shoulder blade — work in tandem to rotate the arm inward.
By tucking your arms to roughly 45 degrees on the eccentric portion and reversing that motion as you press, you should feel a greater contraction throughout your chest as your pecs both flex and internally rotate your arm. Make sure you’re pressing the dumbbells both upward and towards each other as well, since the pectorals also serve to draw the arm across the body.
Technique Tip: Lean forward slightly for the duration of the set.
Your traps can take a tremendous beating in the gym. Although the traps have three distinct components, your upper trapezius is the prime mover in any form of scapular elevation — drawing your shoulders up towards your ears.
That said, your upper traps also help to pull your shoulders back. When you do shrugs, particularly with a barbell, the resistance is in front of your body and not exactly aligned with the direction of the muscle fibers in your traps. By taking a slight forward lean in the torso, your shoulder will be directly on top of the weight, allowing you more freedom of movement and better alignment for shrugging properly.
Technique Tip: Use an adjustable bench set at a low incline instead of leaning on a flat bench.
Dumbbell rows are a beastly exercise for building strength and size in your lats. By supporting your torso with your free arm, they also earn points for being easier on your lower back than their barbell counterpart. In the same way people tend to be too upright during the barbell row, you can ruin your dumbbell row technique by turning it into an upper back movement.
By using a low incline bench and resting on your elbow instead of your palm, you should be able to lock your trunk into a more stable position with less rotation. Additionally, it’s a common error in the row to pull the weight in a straight line.
Rowing on a low incline should help you pull up and back at the same time, reducing trap involvement and keeping your lats in focus — think “put your elbow in your pocket.” Supporting yourself on your elbow may reduce excessive torso twisting as well.
Technique Tip: Tuck your hips and keep your lower back flush against the bench.
Pullovers are a highly underrated exercise that golden-era greats like Schwarzenegger made use of. It’s a unique movement that stimulates opposing muscles — your lats, chest, and triceps — at the same time. If you like doing pullovers with an arched back, you might be leaving gains on the table.
Your lats span a massive portion of your spine. While they attach to and help move your shoulder and upper arm, they partly originate on the thoracolumbar fascia, a large piece of connective tissue on your lower back that serves as a framework for your muscles to pull against.
When you arch your back, you give some slack to your lats as you raise your arm overhead. By tucking your hips instead, your lats should experience a much deeper stretch and a more thorough contraction.
Technique Tip: Lean forward and raise your arms slightly in front of your body.
Lateral raises might be the only truly essential exercise. Even though movements like the upright row or Arnold press stimulate the middle section of your shoulder to some degree, nothing helps develop cannonball delts like the lateral raise.
The fibers of your medial deltoid aren’t perfectly suited to abducting the arm, or raising it out to the side. Further, holding a pair of dumbbells at your side does inhibit a portion of your shoulder’s range of motion. By taking a forward lean and raising your arms up and very slightly forward, you can kill two birds with one stone. More range of motion and better muscular engagement.
Technique Tip: Use a straight bar and squeeze your pinky finger as you curl.
The biceps are a fairly straightforward muscle with one major caveat. While their primary function is to flex the elbow, the biceps inserts on the radius bone of your forearm and assists in rotating the wrist.
This is precisely why a supinated, or palms-up, curl emphasizes your biceps while an exercise like the hammer curl will involve more of your brachialis. To maximize biceps engagement, you should curl with a supinated palm.
While cambered or EZ-grip bars can be wonderful for alleviating wrist pain, if you can tolerate using a straight bar that fully rotates your wrist, you’ll likely experience a better contraction. “Curling with your pinky” can be an effective mental cue to reinforce this action.
Technique Tip: Allow your upper arm to drift forward in front of your body during the eccentric portion.
The triceps brachii is named for its three heads. Two of which, the medial and lateral heads, exclusively perform elbow extension and are responsible for the iconic horseshoe shape that defines an impressive pair of tris. The long head, however, also helps perform shoulder extension.
Standard cable pressdown technique necessitates that you keep your upper arm glued to your torso for the entire set. While this is great for isolating the lower two heads of your triceps for targeted growth, it takes the long head out of the equation almost entirely.
However, if you allow your upper arm to drift forward during the eccentric phase, and tuck it back to your sides as you press, you can engage all three heads of your triceps simultaneously and ante up the weight you use at the same time.
Note that it is very easy to lose control of this technique and turn the pressdown into a full-body movement if you’re sloppy. Be very rigid and aware of your form if you want to reap the benefits here.
Lower Body Technique Tips
While proper training in any shape or form requires delicacy and precision, training your legs correctly is more brawn than brains. There’s no technique hack that will turn five sets of heavy squats into a walk in the park.
That said, there are ways to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze on leg day.
Technique Tip: Lower your hips only until your knees begin to track backward.
There’s no shame in wanting a pair of glorious glutes, and the hip thrust is a real power player when it comes to blasting your backside. If you want to ensure that each rep maximizes gluteal stimulation above all else, cut your range of motion short.
Most of the movement in a hip thrust comes from, unsurprisingly, hip flexion. Past a certain point, your knees will begin to drift back towards your torso as you attempt to lower your hips to the floor. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anything extra for your glutes, since your hips aren’t actually flexing any further.
It will, however, increase hamstrings engagement, since you’re technically opening your knee joint against resistance. If you want your hip thrusts to work both your glutes and hamstrings, go for the fullest range of motion. If you want it to be all glutes all day, cut your reps short and load up on weight.
Technique Tip: Place small plates under the middle of your feet on your warm-up sets.
The back squat is deservedly considered to be one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises out there. It’s also one of the most customizable lifts you can perform, due largely to every athlete having a unique body type with different limb lengths, leverages, and mobility.
Since the squat is relatively easy to learn but difficult to master, if you spend a lot of time refining your technique you may lose your mind-muscle connection along the way. A common error in squat technique involves shifting your weight too far towards your heels or your toes.
To stay in the right lane, you can place a pair of small change plates directly under the middle of your feet while you’re warming up. By getting your heels and toes off the ground, you should have an easier time pushing through your midfoot and properly engaging your legs.
[Related: The Best Weightlifting Shoes for Squats, Flat Feet, and More]
Technique Tip: Turn your feet out slightly.
Hip extension is straightforward, but that doesn’t mean your stance needs to be. Depending on your anatomy, you may find that you have an easier time sinking into a deep hinge and squeezing your glutes if you adjust your stance.
Your hip is a ball-and-socket joint, and not all hips are created equal. If you find it uncomfortable to bend at the waist with your feet facing perfectly forward, it may be because your acetabulum — the crevice that your femoral head sits in — is physically obstructing your femur from moving.
The fiber orientation of your gluteus maximus lends to a slightly turned-out foot as well. Beyond that, one of the primary functions of your glute medius is to stabilize your hip compartment during flexion and extension. Rotating your leg outward places it in a shortened position, allowing it to do its job a little bit better.
Technique Tip: Actively press your hips into the pad while lowering the weight.
Resistance machines are a mixed bag for bodybuilding. Their fixed range of motion can be restrictive if your body type or mobility doesn’t align with the machine’s path, but they also help you take secondary muscles out of the game and focus on putting the load where you want it to be.
That said, you have to work with the machine. When you’re using a prone hamstring curl machine, actively push your hips into the pad throughout your set. It can be all too easy to start driving your knees into the pad to give you more leverage, but the tension on your hamstrings can evaporate as a result. Your thighs should be gently resting on the pad, not bracing against it.
Technique Tip: Keep your pelvis extended and posteriorly tucked for the entire set.
Your rectus abdominis controls — and resists — the motion of your torso. To that end, most common ab exercises train flexion of the trunk, flexion of the hip, or isometric contraction.
The cable crunch is a fantastic way to blast your abs if you know how to isolate them properly. Instead of arching your back, squeeze your glutes hard to lock your pelvis in place. This will provide a stable anchor for your abdominals to contract against, taking some of the elasticity out of the exercise so you can focus on compressing your ribcage hard.
How Technique Helps You Make Gains
Unless you command the power of the Force, you can’t move a heavy barbell with your mind. Good technique can do a lot for your overall performance in the gym, but it doesn’t directly facilitate any biological change on its own. What your technique can do, though, is amplify the work you’re putting in.
The primary mechanism that drives hypertrophy is mechanical tension — how much stress you can put a tissue through, challenging it to adapt and grow. The technique you use to achieve that can speed up or slow down the process. Some literature corroborates the idea that good technique and a strong mind-muscle connection can encourage more muscular hypertrophy long-term. (1)
However, getting in touch with your biceps shouldn’t come at the expense of working hard on your curls. While there is a marked correlation between cueing, mental attentiveness, and force output up to a point, you’re likely to struggle with “staying in tune” with your muscles at high intensities. (2)(3)
In practical terms, this means striving for good technique and a strong contraction at all times, but when things start getting hard, it’s okay to get out of your head and focus on working hard — provided you can maintain solid form the whole time.
Lifting heavy weights is cool. Good form shows everyone in the gym that your training is more than a vanity project. If you can do both at once, you can separate yourself from the pack in a big way.
The exercises you choose for your routine should work for you, not against you. In powerlifting or weightlifting, you’re locked into getting as proficient at possible at certain lifts. Bodybuilders get to pick their weapons of choice, a luxury that you’d be foolish not to capitalize on.
Don’t be afraid to tweak and tailor your training to fit your specific needs — the gains will follow and you’ll be thankful you did.
1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., Winkelman, N., & Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European journal of sport science, 18(5), 705–712. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020
2. van den Tillaar, R., Andersen, V., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2019). Comparison of muscle activation and kinematics during free-weight back squats with different loads. PloS one, 14(5), e0217044. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217044
3. Snyder, B. J., & Fry, W. R. (2012). Effect of verbal instruction on muscle activity during the bench press exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(9), 2394–2400. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823f8d11
Featured Image: Nikolas_jkd / Shutterstock