3 Sneaky Tough Exercise Variations to Help You Pack On Mass

Small modifications can lead to big gains!

One of the biggest pitfalls of hypertrophy training is a simple one: a lot of the time, it’s straight-up boring. While compound movements like squats and deadlifts will always be challenging enough to require a lifter’s full attention just to ensure proper execution (let alone lifting hundreds of pounds), the same can’t be said for things like dumbbell curls. As a result, it’s easy to find yourself falling into the trap of mindless cranking out rep after rep of the same movement week in and week out.

Of course, that’s not ideal: to get the most out of training, you must be fully present in the gym for each and every set and rep. Now, I strongly believe that the way to achieve that mindset involves discipline and motivation, but hey – we’re all human. Some days you’re just not feeling it; maybe you had a tough time at work or got in a fight with your significant other. In those situations, it can be helpful to mix things up to force yourself to pay attention to the task at hand. That’s where unconventional movements can make a big difference.

If you’re a strength athlete focused on building an incredible physique, those unconventional movements become even more important. Oftentimes, focusing exclusively on compound movements can result in some smaller muscle groups – shoulders and arms, for example – lagging behind the bigger ones. Targeting those neglected areas in just the right way can make a big difference in your results.

So, that’s why it’s important to not stick to the bread and butter all of the time. When you’re ready to try something new, though, it can be difficult to figure out what that “something new” should be. It requires creativity, and that’s where my coach, Justin Harris, comes in.

Justin’s been a part of the powerbuilding scene for a long time, and he’s one of the lifters I looked up to the most when I first started out. He’s finished in the top 3 in national-level bodybuilding shows, totaled well over 2000 pounds in powerlifting meets, and – maybe most of all – he’s really freaking smart. Here are three movements Justin has programmed into my training that we’d like to share with everyone – either as inspiration for finding magic movements of your own, or to supplement an existing program. Enjoy!

1. Troponin Extensions

This is a great movement for targeting the outer head of the triceps, which will give it a more “rounded” appearance, and help your bench lockout at the same time – a double win! They’re pretty easy to perform, too:

  • Set a cable machine at shoulder height with no handle.
  • Holding the end of the cable, extend your arm away from your body while keeping your scapula retracted (to prevent straining your shoulder).
  • Flex hard at the end range of motion, and slowly return to the starting position.  
  • You can “lean” into the cable at the start of the motion to really get a great stretch in the triceps.

I like very high reps for this – think 20 or more. That creates a wicked pump, but if you prefer, you’ll find that you can go surprisingly heavy on this movement without any elbow or shoulder discomfort (when performed properly).

2. Way-Lean-Forward Rows

I love a good seated row, but many lifters have a tendency to “cheat” by involving a good amount of lower back in the movement. Leaning way forward helps to prevent that, and allows you to get a massive stretch in the lats at the end of the range of motion. Note that while Justin prefers to use a rope handle, he’s also a pretty tall dude – shorter guys and girls, like myself, might have better luck with a regular handle. Try both and see which fits you best.

My favorite way to perform this movement is part of a mechanical drop set, where you change positions during a set to allow for more repetitions. Try this:

  • Start out with a moderate weight – something you could hit for a set of 10-12 in the way-lean-forward position.
  • Crank out a set to near failure with perfect technique.  Leave one or two reps in the tank, but no more than that!
  • Without putting the handle down, straighten your back so that you’re in a regular seated row position, and continue to perform reps to failure.
  • If you’re really a masochist, you can add a third layer where you lean back and intentionally use a little more lower back to force out another rep or two at the end.

Be warned: this is brutal, but performed correctly, the lat pump is unreal!

3. Leg Superset of Death

Okay, this isn’t a new movement – but it’s more than worth mentioning, as it’s the single most brutal and effective combo I’ve ever done in the gym.

Here’s the deal: you’ve got three round of 20 reps on leg extension superset with 10 reps on any squat variation. Each set is to absolute muscular failure, with no more than about 10-20 seconds between leg extensions and squats. Don’t worry about how long you rest between supersets – that will probably depend on how much time you spend puking after each one.

Done properly, you shouldn’t need anything else for superlative quad development and squatting strength…but few will have the fortitude to push through this one. Challenge yourself to get it done at least once a month!

I hope these “magic” movements help add some extra pop into your training sessions!

Feature image from @troponin_nutrition Instagram page.