7 Smarter Exercises for Delts, Abs & Legs

How to Upgrade Your Favorite Exercises

Here’s how to upgrade some of your favorite exercises to make them even more effective.

All of these standard exercises are great, but you can make them work even better with some tweaking. So let’s get to tweaking.

1. Standard Dumbbell Front & Side Shoulder Raise

With your elbows slightly bent, raise your arms up, either out in front of your body for front raises or out to the sides for lateral raises, until your elbows are even with (or just above) your forehead. Don’t swing the weight up. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to your sides. Use deliberate control on the lifting and lowering portion of each rep.

The Upgrade

Increase the range of motion. This is important because strength and muscle gains are specific to the ranges of motion you train in.

Stopping when your arms are parallel to the floor is like stopping a biceps curl when your forearm is parallel to the floor.

When most lifters are doing shoulder raises, they try to minimize involvement of the upper traps. They don’t raise their arms above shoulder level or even slightly below shoulder-level, yet many of these same people do shrugs, upright rows, and other trap exercises.

The truth is, just about any upper body exercise, from seated rows to biceps curls, elicits low to moderate activity in the upper traps. So don’t fool yourself into thinking that front or side shoulder raises are miraculously going to spare your traps from any activity. So go ahead and increase the ROM for comprehensive shoulder training.

2. Standard Bulgarian Split Squat

Lower your body toward the floor by bending the leading leg. Allow the knee of the trailing leg to lightly touch the floor. Then drive your heel into the ground and push off with the leading leg to raise your body back to the start.

The Upgrade

You can do the Bulgarian split squat while leaning your torso forward at about a 45-degree angle, which emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings, or while keeping your torso upright, which emphasizes the quads. This upgrade, however, applies to performing them with an upright torso.

Place your back foot on a surface that’s around mid-shin height, which for most people requires a shorter platform than a weight bench.

Placing your back foot on a surface that’s around mid-shin height prevents the possibility of overextending your lower-back and placing unwanted stress in that area.

The higher the surface you put your foot on, the greater the hip extension. And that hip extension range is steadily increased each time you lower your body down. Combine that with keeping your torso upright and you’ve got the high likelihood that you’ll cap out of your available hip extension range of motion and be forced to have to overextend your lower-back in order to maintain an upright torso.

So with this upgrade it’s less awkward to maintain the upright torso position and potentially safer on the lower back.

3. Standard Single-Leg Squat

Stand in front of a pad that’s 2 to 3 inches thick. Alternately, use a small stack of weight plates with a mat on top, or a workout step. Stand on your left leg and lift the right foot off the floor with the knee bent and slightly behind your left leg. Your hands are outstretched in front of you as counterbalance.

Slowly lower yourself toward the floor by bending your weight-bearing knee and sitting back at your hips until you lightly tap your back knee on the pad, weight stack, or step. Reverse the motion and stand up again. Perform all reps on the same side before switching sides.

The Upgrade

Instead of performing a pistol squat, lean your torso slightly forward and hold your non-weight bearing leg behind you instead of in front of you. I call it a single-leg knee tap squat.

The pistol squat exercise isn’t bad exercise, but the knee tap squat puts you in a position that better reflects how you perform a squat, as well as how you move in life and sport. It feels more natural and less awkward.

4. Standard Ab Wheel Rollout

Drive the ab wheel away from you by extending your hips and arms forward as if diving into a pool. Push the wheel just beyond your head without allowing your lower back to sag toward the floor and without feeling any pressure in your lower back. Once you’ve gone as far as you can control, reverse the motion and pull the wheel back to the start, finishing with the wheel under the middle of your torso.

The Upgrade

Anchor a resistance band around something stable (like a weight bench) at floor-level and hook each end of the band around the handles of the ab wheel.

Attaching a resistance band to the wheel has two main benefits. First, many people have hurt themselves doing the ab wheel because they went out too far beyond what they could safely control. The addition of the band allows you to move through a smaller range of motion; you don’t have to extend your arms to full extension. The band also provides additional resistance so that you still “feel it” when you pull the wheel underneath you.

5. Standard Diagonal Chop

Stand perpendicular to a cable column on your left side. Use both hands to hold each end of a rope handle or a D-handle attached to the lowest position (for high chops), the middle position (for horizontal chops), or the highest position (for low chops). Position your feet slightly farther than shoulder-width apart.

Shift most of your weight to your left leg while your arms reach toward the origin of the cable. Shift your weight toward your right leg while simultaneously driving the cable across your body, either diagonally downward, horizontally, or diagonally upward. Finish when the rope or D-handle attachment gently touches your forearm.

The Upgrade

Shorten the range of motion by keeping your torso fairly perpendicular to the cable column. Don’t rotate your torso towards the cable more than a few degrees as you begin each rep, and don’t rotate your torso away from the cable more than a few degrees as you reach the end of the range of motion.

Fully rotating your torso in each direction at the beginning and end of the range of motion of each rep greatly reduces the rotational tension on your torso muscles. The upgrade keeps more constant tension on the muscles to create and resist rotation, helping you make better use of your training time.

6. Standard Stir-the-Pot

Place both forearms on top of a fitness ball and assume a plank position with your body in a straight line and your feet just wider than shoulder-width. Move your arms in circles, first going from left to right, and then going from right to left. Don’t allow you head or hips to sag towards the floor. On each arch, reach your arms as far as you can without feeling discomfort in your lower back.

The Upgrade

Move your arms in arches or semi-circles instead of making full circles as if you’re stirring a big pot. Alternate between left-to-right arches and right-to-left arches.

Making full circles is unnecessary and awkward. Eliminating the bottom end of the circle takes away the aspect of the exercise when your arms are fully underneath you, which is the easiest portion of the exercise on your abs, but the most awkward on your shoulders.

A smaller ball makes it more difficult to perform than a larger ball because you’re lower to the ground. It’s just like push-ups – the higher you elevate your arms, the easier the push-up becomes because of your body angle.

If you want to mix up your set and rep ranges, you can use a smaller ball on the days when you do fewer reps and more sets, and use a larger ball on the days when you’re doing higher reps and fewer sets.

7. Standard Face Pull

Pull the rope toward your face as you simultaneously drive your arms apart so that your hands end up just outside your ears. Don’t overarch your lower back. At the end of each rep, your elbows should be slightly higher than your shoulders and the middle of the rope should travel to the front of your forehead. Slowly reverse the movement back to the starting position.

The Upgrade

Grab the rope from the outside instead of from the inside.

Grabbing the rope handles from the outside is not only less awkward on your wrists, but it also allows you to move through a greater range of motion.