10 Manual Resistance Exercises to Build New Muscle and Strength

Manual resistance training has been shown to be a viable option for building strength, stimulating muscle growth, and enhancing the contractile properties of muscles (as it works to develop better concentric, isometric, and eccentric contractions).

In a previous article we discussed everything you need to know about manual resistance training, with the below covering common exercises that coaches and athletes can mix into their current training programs. Be sure to watch the below tutorial videos if you are unsure as to how much pressure to apply, what tempos should be during movements, and how to maximize the effectiveness of manual resistance training.

Preventative/Corrective Manual Resistance Exercises

Below you will find three (3) common preventative exercises that employ the techniques of manual resistance for most athletes. Note, that there is a wide array of manual resistance training exercises that can be done for a wide array of alignments (especially in the physical therapy realm), however only trained professionals should proceed with more advanced movements that involve the spine, shoulder capsule, and hip/knee. When in doubt, do your research and/or consult a qualified professional.

4-Way Neck

Neck training is key with contact sports (hockey, wrestling, fighting, football, etc), however a strong neck can also be helpful for most athletes. This exercise is done by applying gentle pressure along the back of the head with an athlete in a quadruped position (all fours). The athlete should then slowly press the back of the head into the trainer’s palm, making the back of the head move towards the upper back. This concentric and eccentric movement should be smooth and not straining. Repeat this process eccentrically by slowly returning to the start position.

The other three ways are done in a similar manner. The first with the athlete in the quadruped position and the trainer cupping their palms underneath the lifters jaw/chin. Apply light pressure to let the athlete work against resistance as they try to take their chin to their chest, and then back to the slightly extended position working eccentrically.

The lateral flexion of the neck can be done by having the lifter sit upright on a bench, with the trainer placing pressure against the left side of the head and taking their hand and placing it on the right shoulder of the athlete (to make sure they do not hitch their shoulder upwards). Have the athlete simply apply even pressure to move the left ear towards the left shoulder, and then back to neutral, working eccentrically…then switch.

Shoulder External Rotation

This is a good exercise for the rotator cuff, active for most strength and power athletes. This can be done to increase strength, isometric abilities, and/or as an activation warm up.

Have an athlete either sit or stand upright with their elbows bent at 90 degrees, with their forearms and wrists parallel to the ground. The coach/trainer should be standing in front of the athlete placing pressure on the outsides of the wrists/forearms. The athlete should then work to press against the trainers hands while keeping the elbows next to the ribs, engaging their rotator cuffs. Note, this exercise has a small range of motion, and can also be done isometrically.

Lying Abduction

Leg abduction can be helpful for athletes who experience hip weakness in the glutes, often beneficial or athletes who squat, pull, or more explosively. This can be done by having an athlete lay on their sides so that their right leg is on top of the left (with the hips stacked). Move the right foot slightly in front of the left leg, and secure a stable set up. The trainer should apply resistance on the outside of the low leg (above the ankle) and have the athlete slowly and actively raise their right leg upwards ways from the floor (making sure to keep the hips stacked and not hike the right hip upwards). Once they have reached the highest point of abduction they can achieve, the trainer should work to apply pressure to that the athlete can work eccentrically to resist the downwards movement back to the start.

Upper Body Manual Resistance Exercises

The upper body manual exercises below can be integrated into most training programs either as “finishers” or during accessory training sessions.

Shoulder Lateral Raise

Start with the athlete seated or standing, with their hands placed down by their sides, elbows straight. The coach/trainer should apply pressure on the outsides of the arms, just above the wrist, to then allow the athlete to work against even pressure as they raise their arms out to the sides, like a shoulder lateral raise. At the top of the movement, the lifter should then work to resist the pressure, working eccentrically to return to the start position, and repeat (be sure to not relax at the bottom and top of the movement, always work to keep tension).

Lying Chest Flye

Start by having the athlete assume a chest flye position, with their hands up in the top position, The coach should grab the forearms, just below the wrists. When ready, the coach should pull the arms apart so that the athlete can work eccentrically to open the open the chest into the bottom of the flye position. Once there, the athlete should then work to bring the hands back together at the top, working against the coach’s resistance.

Push-Up

The manual resistance push up is done just like a weighted (with a plate) push up, however in this case the coach/trainer works to eccentrically work the chest and triceps by placing a downwards pressure upon the athletes upper back as they slowly descend, working especially. They can then work concentrically (doing the push up movement from the floor to the top position) pushing up against the coach’s pressure.

Triceps Extensions/Skull Crushers

This is done by having an athlete assume a face up position on a bench, similar to that of the weighted skull crusher exercise. With the athlete making two fists and placing them in alignment at the top of the skullcrusher, the coach should work to apply pressure to the pinky-side of the hand, forcing the athlete to work eccentrically as they movie the fists towards the forehead. At the bottom of the range of motion, the lifter should engage their triceps and work to press upwards through the coach’s pressure, returning to the start position with extended elbows, and repeat.

Preacher Curl

This can be done by having the lifter assume a bicep curling position with a bench or in the preacher curl setup. I prefer having the athlete grab an empty barbell, however a towel (held at about 6-8 inches apart with a supinated grip will also do (this will just help the athlete keep proper wrist and arm positioning). The coach/trainer should have them start at the bottom of the bicep curl, working to curl the hands upwards against the coaches pressure (which can be pressing down against the bar/hands or pulling down against the towel. At the top of the movement, the coach and athlete should pause so that the isometric contraction can occur prior to proceeding into a slow and controlled eccentric contraction downwards.

Seated Row

The seated row can be done by having an athlete sit upright with or without a support. If they choose to have a support, I prefer them to sit facing the bench as it is in an upright 90 degree position (so that the upright part of the bench is on their chest). With the hands stretched out both grasping a towel in between them (one hand on each end) or cable handles (unclipped from the cable stack), have the coach apply resistance as the athlete pulls the hands back into their body in a rowing fashion. Before returning to the arms out position, the coach and athlete should pause so that the isometric contraction can occur prior to proceeding into a slow and controlled eccentric contraction outwards.

Lower Body Manual Resistance Exercises

The lower body manual exercises below can be integrated into most training programs either as “finishers” or during accessory training sessions.

Lying Hamstring Curl

This can be done a variety of ways, with the most common one being shown in the above video. To perform this, have the athlete lie face down on the floor or bench (if on a bench be sure they are towards the end so that the knees can move freely). With the legs at an extended position, the coach/trainer should apply pressure across the backside of the low leg (or grabs the back of the ankles, making sure not to twist or turn them). The lifter should perform a hamstring curl working against the coaches resistance in a fluid manner before having the coach switch into the eccentric phase of the movement (the athlete working against the coach as they pull the legs back downwards).

Reverse Hyperextension

The reverse hyperextension is done in the same exact manner as a normal body weight reverse hyperextension, however the coach/trainer applies resistance to the back of the legs (just above the back of the ankles) as the athlete works to concentrically contract the glutes, hamstrings, and erectors. At the top, the coach can choose to have the athlete work isometrically for a few seconds before returning downwards against resistance, working eccentrically.

Seated Leg Extension

This can be done by having the athlete sit with the legs off the edge of a high box, so that the feet themselves are off the floor and can flex more than 90 degrees. With the coach kneeling in front of the athlete, the athlete should extend both knees to activate the quadriceps. From that position, the coach should place their hands in the front of the low leg (just above the ankle, as to be sure not to press downward on the foot/toes as this will strain the front of the foot/ankle). When ready, have the coach apply steady and even pressure as the athlete works eccentrically to control the downwards movement of the feet (knee flexion) against resistance. Once the knee has reached a flexed position past 90 degree (100-110%), have the lifter work to contract concentrically to once against straighten the legs.

Featured Image: Strength Coach Select on YouTube

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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