by Jim Cordova

Fitness professionals commonly recommend making frequent changes in exercise selection for each muscle group. Even bodybuilders like myself that believe there are a certain set of exercises that are most effective for each bodypart will frequently add a twist to them from workout to workout. In either case, it is important to note that every exercise and variation is unique to the others in that it involves changes to bodily position, with the purpose of creating a unique shock factor by transferring the stress in the fiber makeup of a muscle. And if we explore exactly how and why this works, it should increase your capacity to position your body for greater development.

For many of you, there was a period of time throughout your fitness endeavors where you became accustomed to using the same exercises on a consistent basis. Then one day you decided to alter one of your favorite movements or even made use of a new exercise altogether for a particular muscle. The next day that muscle was much sorer than usual, the severity the tenderness being reminiscent of that experienced upon taking some time off of training. And in one sense, that isn’t too far off from what has actually taken place as a result of incorporating a different positioning tactic.

Many of you already realize that a muscle will contract as a single unit under stress. However, the strength of the contraction will not be uniform across all of the fibers in the belly. If you have a basic understanding of the fan-like fiber distribution of the lower pectoral, you can feel the strength of the contraction vary by bringing the upper arm to different locations across the midline of the body. To experiment, flex your chest by bringing your arm down across the body as you would during a decline and feel around the belly with your other hand. Next, bring your upper arm up and across the midline to contract the upper region of the lower pectoral, which fans upward similar to the clavicular portion (i.e. upper chest) of the pectoral major. You will note that the lower region of the lower pectoral will feel more tense than the upper, and vice-versa.

Maximum stimulation in a muscle occurs when it works directly against the downward force of gravity. A resistance training movement is simply a configuration of bodily positioning and equipment components, formed to optimally place the target muscle under this force so that it receives the bulk of the stress. The fact that a muscle becomes resistant to one particular exercise suggests that it adapts to the distinctive pattern of contraction and stimulation relative to it. That same muscle will respond to another exercise or variation because it contracts and is stimulated with a different pattern. Looking at this another way, each exercise variation and movement technique will cause a region of fiber within a single muscle to contract harder, break down to a greater degree, and become more resistant than other areas. The reason that same muscle will respond to a different exercise is because the change in position dynamics transfers these characteristics to a different area. For the sake of analogy, every exercise can be viewed as a unique tool, with individualistic goals dictating the selection.

In simpler terms, the basis for interchanging exercises or style of execution is mainly founded off of the fact that the body is adaptive. More specifically, muscular development tends to stagnate with the constant usage of the same group of exercises and/or movement techniques. This is true even with the manipulation of rep range, cadence, and through the adoption of shock strategies such as drop sets and supersets. Exercise variation is therefore an effective counter-strategy because each movement will form a unique stress factor within the belly of a muscle. This concept is also the rationale behind the integration of multiple exercises for a single muscle in a conventional routine, as this ensures a thorough working of the entire region of fiber.

On a practical level, strategic positioning primarily refers to making frequent and systematic adjustments to grip and stance, movement pathways, equipment settings, and related components to put the target fibers in position to receive the bulk of the stress. Simply put, you can incorporate a variety of exercises that target a single region and alternate between them from one workout to the next. Additionally, you can change the positioning variables of a single exercise. This causes the fibers to respond to a much greater degree since a muscle perceives each variation as something new. Making sound changes on a consistent basis will keep the body guessing and progressing at a much faster pace since the fibers in a muscle will never have a chance to become accustomed to a given movement. In my experience, the capacity for the utilization of positioning variations is much greater than many people realize, even affording you the opportunity to target and enhance specialized areas of fiber in a single muscle.

While you can’t change the genetic structure of a muscle in terms of insertion points, belly length, and fiber density, you can use strategic positioning to modify its appearance, and quite dramatically over time. To better understand the extent of which slight position adjustments can shift emphasis, it would be helpful to view every individual muscle, and even the entire musculature of the human body, as a composite of fiber-like strands of clay. Each has the potential to be molded. It is simply a matter of adjusting the body so that the target fibers work hardest against gravity, while keeping in mind that minor variations can make a big difference.

To illustrate, I will use the lower region of the chest major. Though it is a single muscle, the function of the lower pectoral is highly versatile and an ideal candidate for various positioning strategies. When working it, you will find that shifting an angle position, even slightly, will have a considerable effect on fiber emphasis within a single region. For example, when pressing to build the lower pectoral region, you will place a specialized emphasis on a group of fibers when using a flat bench that differ from those that will be stressed when pressing at a decline angle just 10 degrees below that. This is peculiar given that the entire lower pectoral contracts when using either of these two angles! Yet, each angle will cause a different “slither” of muscle fiber, so to speak, to undergo a stronger contraction, meaning that it is breaking down to a greater degree than other areas of the lower pectoral. This will be made most evident upon experiencing the localized pump and soreness that each angle delivers.

As previously implied, I believe there are movements that need to be incorporated during every workout for a given bodypart. Within this realm of key movements, there are certain mass building exercises that necessitate the usage of a given stance or grip width to activate the majority of fiber within a muscle. For example, performing barbell curls, particularly with a shoulder-width grip, is arguably the greatest developer for the biceps. Despite the requirement of a shoulder-width vicinity, slight adjustments can be made to turn this particular exercise into many to acquire greater development over time. Taking a slightly wider or narrower grip will transfer the stress in the fiber makeup of the biceps. The same will be true when curling at shoulder width using an EZ-bar, performing a cable curl, or curling with a pair of dumbbells while switching up the position of the arms to alter the tension factor.

Positioning tactics can be most effective by abiding by some form of basic model every time you work a bodypart. This will allow you to create an orderly system to track the positioning variations used during each workout for a given bodypart. For example, I use a model to track sections of the latissimus dorsi muscle (lats) as I work the fibers from top to bottom to ensure thorough stimulation. I pull to the front of the chin to stimulate the upper region of fiber during every back workout. Even so, the exercises within that framework will change. When I work my upper lats during a given workout, I might I choose a lat pulldown with a neutral grip, a pulldown with a supinated grip, a traditional pull up with either a neutral or pronated grip, or a HAMMER STRENGTH overhead lat pull. Though each exercise is similar in that I sit upright and pull below the chin to work the upper lat region, the differences in grip width, wrist, and resistance variation from workout to workout creates a unique contraction with each version. As a result, the muscle is shocked to a greater degree than it would if I merely used the same exercise and positioning practice every time.

Because of the outstanding versatility of the human body with respect to the countless muscle fibers within it, positioning has as great a capability to be manipulated as other factors such as rep range and cadence. Even so, it is easy to get carried away and the most obvious sign that you are doing so is if a movement feels awkward or painful. Though quite a few unique and very effective movements can be formed, for the most part, the majority of positioning strategies are structured around the essential basics. At the same time I don’t want to restrict your thinking, as you can create an extensive selection of effective variations from which to choose, even within the ensemble of fundamental exercises.

The strategic implementation of positioning is a very comprehensive and multifaceted topic. For this reason, I attempt to explain it from multiple standpoints with respect to each bodypart in the training section of this website. I speak of positioning in terms of the broad array of variables to consider, with regard to muscular anatomy and movement pathways, incorporating positioning strategies within an optimal range-of-motion, counter-productive variations, and the formation of new movements that will significantly enhance your potential. If you seek to learn more about how you can use positioning tactics to your advantage, I encourage you to read the articles. You will find that they will provide you with enough detail to give you the general idea, while taking both your training and physique to the next level!