In the first part of the series, we examined a useful and important isolation exercise that would be a worthy addition to any bodybuilding routine – the calf raise. We’re continuing in a slightly different line, by taking a look at small, but equally important exercises that could make or break your training effort by keeping you pain and injury-free.
A Few Words On Training Longevity
Optimizing bodybuilding training doesn’t, like many people like to think, deal exclusively with maximizing rates of strength and muscular gains through utilization of various (and often exotic) training methods and protocols – that’s basically just half the story.
You see, even if your training is fully optimized, muscle gain is an extremely slow process, which means that you need to be able to train for extended periods of time to reap the benefits of this favorable training situation. This is dealt with in the safety aspect of training, which ensures that your training doesn’t come to an abrupt end because, say, your lousy form on the bench press left you with a torn pec, or because a power clean left you with a wrist injury. So, we optimize the training process and make sure that it doesn’t stagnate due to various injuries that occur in the weight room. Is that all?
Well, just look at the structure of my reader population, and you’ll see the answer. There are no elite athletes here who retire in their thirties or forties, nor professional bodybuilders who need to get as much as possible from those short-lived periods where they make money from the sport. No, my readership is, like the entirety of the non-professional fitness world, composed of hobbyists and amateurs, whose aspirations don’t go beyond the simple need to train, for all the good reasons it brings along. And for these people, we have to extend the domain of the safety component of training to allow for an entire lifetime of healthy and efficient weightlifting and fitness. We usually call this training longevity.
An important part in ensuring training longevity is keeping your joints pain-free. Joint problems (which manifest themselves as pain, either present at all times or only during training/specific activities) is the plague of the fitness community. Go online and see a training journal of someone who has built up to using fairly impressive poundages, and was rewarded with a great physique for his efforts. Lots of times, you’ll see: “Couldn’t do pullups because of elbow pain, couldn’t do entire upper body because of shoulder pain, my knees were in pain today when doing split squats, etc.” A good number of times these problems don’t come from mechanical or overuse injuries, but are a consequence of the imbalances between the muscles surrounding the painful joint.
For the most part, these things are covered by any well-designed program, and if you put hard work in all the major exercises listed in those programs in order to make them strong in proper ratios (this is known as achieving structural balance), you are basically safe from muscular imbalances. E.g., any good program will have you doing both quad-dominant and hip-dominant leg exercises on your lower body days, and if there are no large discrepancies in used poundages, you most likely won’t experience knee pain, or, more precisely, if your knees hurt, it’s most likely not because your quads or hamstring are stronger than their opposite and thus pull the joint out of its natural position. There are, however, some areas which standard bodybuilding and strength training programs don’t cover completely, and which might require special attention to make sure everything’s in order. Luckily, all of them can be covered by several light, non-stressing isolation exercises which you can do anywhere, at any time.
Balancing The Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff is a term used to describe wide tendons of several muscles surrounding the scapula which envelop the shoulder cranially, ventrally and dorsally. Its function is basically to stabilize the shoulder and keep the shoulder ball centered. If something is off, shoulder problems are experiences (I’m referring to imbalances here, not mechanical injuries such as fairly common rotator cuff tears). As I said earlier, to keep a structure something in balance, all the muscles which comprise it must be proportionally strong. And this is where problems start.
A common function shared by all the muscles comprising the rotator cuff is, as its name suggest, rotation of the humerus. Now, not all of them do the same thing – some of them function as internal rotators, and some as external rotators. It’s fairly easy to picture how these movements look like. Stand up and put your arms out to the sides like you’re in the top position of an upright row. Your palms should be pointing to the floor. Now, point to the ceiling while keeping your hands inline with your forearms. You just did an external rotation of the humerus. Now point back to the floor. This was an internal rotation of the humerus. Our problem arises because bodybuilding training (and weight training in general) stresses and develops the internal rotators a lot more than external rotators, creating an imbalance that leads to shoulder problems. Again, I’ll describe how this imbalance forms by simply listing both the external and internal rotators. Ready?
So, external rotators are: infraspinatus (the strongest one, does two thirds of the job), supraspinatus, teres minor, rear deltoid and the long head of the triceps.
Now look at the list of internal rotators: the main one is subscapularis (starts out the same as previous list, but wait), assisted by pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, teres major, front deltoid and the long head of the biceps.
So, yeah, the situation is fairly clear. Bodybuilders commonly have a chest day, a lat day, a shoulder day (during which they further hammer the front deltoid, and tend to forget about the existence of the rear deltoid), and an arm day which is commonly dominated by biceps training. Still wonder why shoulder problems are so common in the bodybuilding community?
Now, things aren’t as grim as they might seem at the first glance. Just because you never heard of any external rotator muscle, it doesn’t mean that they don’t get their share of work in a well-balanced routine. I’ll simplify this part down and just say that if your bent-over row poundages are at or slightly above those you move on the bench press, you most likely don’t have to worry. And if you, besides regular rowing, do facepulls as a part of your routine, then you’re all set (notice how the facepull includes the external rotation movement quite directly – it is evident in the part in which you shift the direction from pulling to your face to pulling over your head if you do them with a straight bar attachment, or from your neck to the eye level if a rope attachment is used). However, if you still experience some shoulder pain and feel that this might be due to imbalances in the rotator cuff, there’s a fairly simple and easy way to remedy the situation.
The (Reverse) L-fly
The exercise used is called the reverse L-fly. Truth be told, people tend to call it just L-fly, and this is what you should google to check out various forms of doing the exercise. I’m somewhat a purist when it comes to exercise naming, and to me, the L-fly is actually the internal rotation movement, while the reverse L-fly is external. Not that it matters in any way, however. I won’t go into form details here, as watching a video explains everything in a much better an clearer way, so I’ll just list tips and we’ll move on.
First thing to notice is that, like many isolation movements, the (reverse) L-fly can be done in many different ways – lying down, standing with your arm on an upright bench, seated with a preacher bench or a shoulder horn, with dumbbells or cables. Different variations allow you to find the most comfortable position for doing them and to stress different points in the force curve of the exercise.
Next, this is a slow exercise. For one, it means that you should do it slowly, and in continuous fashion – a 2020, or even 3030 tempo is commonly prescribed. Also, do it for many reps, 10 should be the minimum here. The other slow thing about it is the progression. I regularly harp on the power of progressive overload and how training without improvement is only slightly better than not training at all. This exercise, however, is an exception. Use very light weights on it. Start out with something like a 5 lbs DB, and work your way up slowly, but, again, don’t focus on adding weight to the exercise. If you’re using 20 lbs within a few months (or even years) of doing it, it’s perfectly fine. Focus on tempo and reps, and never train to failure on this exercise.
Small Weights, Big Effect
The last thing I’d like to mention is that people like to forget about exercises such as this one, which are done slowly with small weights and don’t have a visible impact on your physique (they do, but in an indirect way). So, my recommendation is as following – get something that weighs between 5 and 10 lbs. Preferably a DB, but it can really be anything.
Keep this under your bed, or in a drawer close to it, and when you have time, like, when you’re watching TV or reading something, just take it out and do a few sets of reverse L-flyes. Again, this exercise is as light as they get. You don’t have to warm up for it, it won’t make you break a sweat, it won’t affect your lifting in any way and literally takes 5 min of your time once or twice a week – this is approximately the length of a single commercial break during a TV show.