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Brandon’s Top Picks

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Understanding the subtle differences in form and execution on key exercises can help you keep growing.

By Brandon Curry, IFBB Pro

[Q] What’s the difference between a stiff-leg deadlift and a romanian deadlift, or are they just different names for the same exercise?

[A] Both are variations of the conventional deadlift but they are in fact very different exercises with different target areas. The biggest differences are in the back and knees. With a stiff-leg deadlift your back slightly rounds at the bottom and your legs are straight throughout. In a romanian deadlift your back is flat – or slightly arched – and your knees are bent to a much greater degree. Also, in the stiff-leg version you allow the bar to drift away from the legs, so that makes it a low-back exercise. The RDL requires you to keep the bar close to your body the entire time. Because your low back is locked in an arched position, it’s working isometrically but the workload is falling on the hamstrings and glute/ham tie-in. If you have low-back concerns, you probably should stay away from the stiff-leg version, although the RDL can also aggravate a problematic low back. 

[Q] I’ve seen some pics of old-school bodybuilders doing bent-over rows where a lot of them used an underhand grip. Should I start doing mine that way? What’s the difference?

[A] The most basic benefit of using an underhand grip is that it moves the emphasis to the lower lats more because your elbows stay in tight close to your sides rather than away from it. I’ve noticed the underhand grip engages the rhomboids much more than standard rows. You may get a slightly greater range of motion because your elbows stay closer to your body. Because the biceps work more than with overhand rows, you’ll probably be able to use heavier weight. Here’s the bottom line: Using any grip variation that’s unfamiliar to you is good because it makes your workout more challenging, forcing your muscles to adapt. The reverse-grip row is definitely a more advanced movement for your back, so don’t try it unless you already have a good idea of how to work these muscles effectively. 

[Q] What’s better for my triceps — traditional skullcrushers in which my upper arms are perpendicular to the floor or 45-degree extensions where I let my elbows go back a bit? 

[A] One isn’t necessarily “better” than the other for triceps, but by moving your elbows back toward your head on any extension variation, you get greater recruitment of the meaty long head. Since this is the biggest part of your triceps, I advise you to include at least one long-head movement in each workout. My basic philosophy is that the best exercise is probably the one that’s hardest for you. I always find the more challenging ones force you to use less weight, so you don’t put as much stress on the elbow joints. 

[Q] When I do dumbbell curls, should I start with my palms up or palms facing in and supinate my wrists to get the best contraction? 

[A] That’s a great question. Many people say you should supinate, or turn your palms up, for a stronger contraction. I prefer to stay supinated throughout the exercise. Start palms up and finish that way. I believe this method is the best way to challenge your biceps without engaging the rotational muscles of the arm, the brachialis and brachioradialis. It gives you the most bang for your buck when you’re looking to target the biceps, which are a small muscle to begin with, especially considering dumbbell curls are one of the best ways to overload your bi’s. 

[Q] A guy in my gym does all his squats with his heels up on weight plates. What gives? Is this even safe?

[A] Some bodybuilders who have been training for a while understand this is simply a way to emphasize the quadriceps a bit more. Putting their heels up on weight plates decreases the contribution from the glutes and hamstrings by pushing the knees forward. Some guys may prefer this style for flexibility reasons. If they have tight calves, for example, they generally can’t go as deep as is required for complete lower-body development. Standing with their heels on something allows them to go a little deeper. If you’re interested in trying this technique as a squat variation, providing your knees are healthy and you’re already a good squatter, give it a try. If you’re new to it, you’ll want to start with lighter weight to get a feel for the change in muscular emphasis. Either way always stretch those lower-body muscles to maintain flexibility as you grow.

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