“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”
I am sure you have heard this statement before. In other words your progress in the gym will always be limited by your weak muscle groups. This is true regardless of whether you are training for size or strength gains.
In my experience the fastest way to eliminate weak muscle groups is to train for structural balance. Find out the secrets to structural balance training right here!
- Part 1: The Rotator Cuff
- Part 2: The Lower Trap
- Part 3: Overhead Pressing Strength
- Part 4: The Brachialis
- Part 5: The Vastus Medialis
- Part 6: The Hamstrings
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to accelerate your progress by training for optimal structural balance.
The concept of structural balance was popularized by the Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin in the 1980s. The structural balance theory states that you will make faster progress when all the different muscles of your body are in balance with each other.
Ideally you want your muscles to be in balance with each other in a few different ways:
- The agonist muscles must be in balance with the antagonists
- The smaller stabilizing muscles must be in balance with the larger “power” muscles
- The upper and lower halves of the body must be in balance with each other
- Finally, the left and right sides must also be in balance with each other
Charles trained Olympic-caliber athletes in a wide variety of sports. He found that his first-time clients always had certain muscle groups that were too weak relative to the others.
Charles invented different testing protocols including the upper body structural balance test which he used to evaluate his athletes. However, most of his trainees had the same weak muscle groups:
- Upper body: rotator cuff, lower traps, overhead pressing strength, brachialis
- Lower body; vastus medialis, hamstrings
If you are reading this article then the odds are very high that you have weaknesses in some or all of these muscle groups. In this guide I am going to teach you some of the best training strategies for strengthening these weak muscle groups.
I will teach you the best exercises to train these muscles, the best set and rep schemes and the best exercise tempos. I will also provide you with a sample 6-12 week training program to strengthen all of these weak muscles.
Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this cutting edge information! Note: if you have any trouble reading the training routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: The Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff is easily one of the most injured muscle groups in the upper body. It is also the single biggest upper body weakness in most trainees. The rotator cuff is a small family of muscles that is responsible for stabilizing your shoulder joint during big compound exercises.
The shoulder is easily the most flexible joint in the human body. You can move your shoulder around in a huge number of different directions.
One of the unfortunate side effects of this is that the shoulder joint is very unstable. This is where the rotator cuff muscles come into play. Their job is to stabilize the shoulder joint during the big compound exercises such as bench presses, overhead presses, chin ups / pull ups and rows.
If your rotator cuff is too weak then you will never be able to stabilize your shoulder joint during these big compound exercises. And if you can’t properly stabilize your shoulder joint then your upper body size and strength gains will be suboptimal.
Charles Poliquin discovered that 2 rotator cuff muscles known as the “external rotators” are especially weak in most trainees.
These are the muscles responsible for rotating your upper arm outwards (like when you perform a backhand in tennis or ping-pong). If your external rotators are too weak then you have to train them with targeted isolation exercises.
Here are some of the best rotator cuff isolation exercises that you can use:
- Seated DB external rotations
- Single-arm cable external rotations
- Seated cable rope face pulls
It is extremely important that you use perfect form on each of these exercises. Let’s take a closer look a them one-by-one.
Rotator Cuff Isolation Exercise #1: Seated DB External Rotations
This is one of the most important rotator cuff isolation exercises that you can perform. The key is to use nothing but your rotator cuff muscles to move the weight. That means you cannot swing your shoulders back or use momentum to lift the weight.
Charles Poliquin used advanced statistical analysis on his athletes’ training logs to discover the optimal strength ratios between the seated DB external rotation and the close grip bench press. Here is the ratio:
- Close Grip Bench Press: 100% x 1 rep
- Seated DB external rotation: 9.8% x 8 reps
In other words if your best 1-rep max on the close grip bench press is 300 pounds then you should be able to perform seated DB external rotations with a 30 pound dumbbell for 8 reps. Most trainees are nowhere near meeting this strength ratio.
Most of my first-time clients need to start off with a 5-10 pound dumbbell for this exercise, regardless of how strong the rest of their upper body is. That is how weak most people’s external rotators are! If that describes you then this would be a great exercise to add to your current training program.
Rotator Cuff Isolation Exercise #2: Single-Arm Cable External Rotations
This is another fantastic exercise for your external rotators. There are two main ways to perform this exercise. The first way involves keeping your elbow hugged against your ribs. For example:
This variation tends to place more emphasis on your infraspinatus, one of the two muscles responsible for externally rotating your shoulder. The second variation involves you pointing your elbow straight out to your side as if you were elbowing them in the face. For example:
This variation tends to place more emphasis on your teres minor, the other rotator cuff muscle that externally rotates your shoulder. Both of these cable exercises are FANTASTIC for training the rotator cuff.
I recommend you start with the first variation with your elbow hugged against your ribs. After 2-4 weeks of this variation you can progress to the more challenging second variation where your elbow is pointed out towards your side.
Once again I recommend you start off using a weight in the 5-10 pound range. This is all most trainees can handle with good form at first. Of course some trainees will be able to use more than 10 pounds and for others 5 pounds will actually be too much!
Rotator Cuff Isolation Exercise #3: Seated Cable Rope Face Pulls
The seated cable rope face pull is a “most-bang-for-your-buck” exercise. It is actually one of the best rotator cuff exercises that you can perform in the gym. Unfortunately almost no one performs this exercise correctly!
This exercise actually has two different phases. The first phase involves pulling your elbows back and squeezing your shoulder blade muscles together. This portion of the movement primarily works the rhomboids and the middle / lower traps.
The second phase of the exercise involves externally rotating your upper arms. You want to rotate your arms so your hands end up directly over your shoulders!
This is the part of the movement that actually engages the rotator cuff muscles. This is also the part of the movement that most trainees skip over!
In my experience this is a more advanced rotator cuff exercise that should be performed after the seated DB external rotations and the single-arm cable external rotations. It is a bit harder to isolate the rotator cuff with this movement so you need to have a decent strength base before performing it.
Still the seated cable rope face pull is undoubtedly one of the best upper body exercises you can perform for improving your structural balance and the health of your shoulder joint.
A Sample 9-Week Rotator Cuff Training Program!
By now you should understand the importance of training the rotator cuff and the best exercises for strengthening the external rotators. Now let’s look at a sample 9-week rotator cuff training program.
As a general rule of thumb the rotator cuff responds best to slower lifting tempos and higher repetitions. This is especially true when you first start performing rotator cuff isolation exercises. The slower tempos and higher reps are very helpful for teaching you to actually engage the correct muscles.
I recommend you perform these exercises at the end of your regularly scheduled upper body workouts. You can perform them anywhere from once every 3-7 days depending on your training split. These workouts will work well regardless of whether you are primarily training for size or strength.
Rotator Cuff Workouts: Weeks 1-3
- A1: Cable unilateral external rotations (arm abducted / supported), 4-5 x 12-15, 4/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
Rotator Cuff Workouts: Weeks 4-6
- A1: Cable unilateral external rotations (arm adducted), 4-5 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
Rotator Cuff Workouts: Weeks 7-9
- A1: Seated DB external rotations (elbow on knee), 3-4 x 7-9, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
You should be familiar with these exercises from the above videos. If you perform these simple rotator cuff workouts at the end of your upper body workouts for 9 weeks then your rotator cuff is guaranteed to improve.
This is a big deal because a stronger rotator cuff means you will be able to lift heavier weights in the big compound upper body exercises.
Don’t be afraid to give your rotator cuff some love – there is nothing wrong with having a big, strong, healthy upper body!
Part 2: The Lower Trap
The lower trap is another one of those upper body muscles that is extremely weak in most trainees. Charles Poliquin found that this was the second most common upper body structural imbalance in his Olympic-caliber athletes (the first is the rotator cuff).
If the rotator cuff is the key muscle group for stabilizing your shoulder joint then the lower trap is the key muscle group for stabilizing your scapula (shoulder blade).
The lower trap performs 4 essential actions:
- It retracts (pulls back) the scapula
- It depresses (pulls down) the scapula
- It tilts the scapula backwards
- It upwardly rotates the scapula during overhead motions
In other words the lower trap plays a critical role in keeping your scapula nice and stable during compound upper body exercises. Some of you are probably thinking:
“So the lower trap stabilizes the scapula? Big deal! I don’t care about what my scapula are doing – I just want to get jacked and tan!”
I’m glad you asked! You already know that the rotator cuff plays a critical role in stabilizing the shoulder joint. Without a strong rotator cuff you are never going to reach your upper body size / strength potential.
But the rotator cuff muscles have two attachments: one attachment is on the upper arm bone and the other is on the scapula!
If you can’t stabilize your scapula then your rotator cuff muscles can’t do their job to stabilize the shoulder joint! In other words if your lower traps are too weak then your rotator cuff muscles can’t do their job to stabilize the shoulder! How cool is that?
Just to drive this point home here is IFBB professional bodybuilder Ben Pakulski talking about the importance of having strong scapular stabilizers for building a big, strong upper body:
OK, maybe it isn’t so cool when a weak muscle group like your lower traps is preventing you from getting stronger on the bench press. The good news is your strength on the big upper body exercises will shoot through the roof if you get your lower traps as strong as they should be.
There are three isolation exercises that work AWESOME for training the lower traps:
- Pull up scapular depressions
- Prone bilateral trap 3 raise
- Prone unsupported unilateral trap 3 raise
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises.
Lower Trap Isolation Exercise #1: Pull Up Scapular Depressions
Pull up scapular depressions are probably the single best exercise for isolating the lower traps. This is the first lower trap exercise that I give to my online coaching clients. I like this exercise because the only way to perform it is to use your lower traps.
You are going to grip the bar with a reasonably wide overhand grip. Then you are going to try and lift your chest up to the bar WITHOUT bending your arms. In order to do this you have to pull your shoulder blades down and back. I want you to try and “pull your shoulder blades into your back pockets.”
When your chest starts to rise you know your lower traps are contracting. You should feel an uncomfortable burning sensation in your middle back. That is your lower trap working!
In my experience this exercise works best when you use relatively long isometric pauses in the contracted position. For example you may try using 6-second pauses in the fully contracted position.
Lower Trap Isolation Exercise #2: Prone Bilateral Trap 3 Raise
For this exercise you are going to lay face-down on a 15, 30 or 45 degree bench. I want you to pay close attention to the above video.
Nick Mitchell of Ultimate Performance does an outstanding job of teaching this exercise. Nick correctly emphasizes that it is critical that you “feel” the correct muscles working during this exercise. If you use too much weight and use the wrong muscle groups to lift the weight then it becomes absolutely useless.
There are two phases to this movement. The first phase involves pulling your shoulder blades back and down. Think about pulling your shoulder blades into your back pockets. This will lock your lower traps into place.
The second phase of the movement involves raising your arms straight out in front of you at a 45 degree angle – you are trying to make a “Y” with your arms. The entire time you raise your arms you want to keep your shoulder blades tucked back and down.
If you perform this exercise correctly then you will feel an intense burning sensation in your middle back – that is your lower traps working!
In my experience this exercise also works great with longer pauses in the contracted position. For example you may want to try performing sets of 6 reps with a 4/0/1/6 tempo – that is, you lift the weight over 1 second, hold the weight in the contracted position for 6 seconds, and lower the weight over 4 seconds.
This is a very effective way to rapidly boost your lower trap strength.
Lower Trap Isolation Exercise #3: Prone Unsupported Unilateral Trap 3 Raise
This is probably the most difficult lower trap isolation exercise that you can perform. Just like with he previous exercise you are going to start the movement by pulling your shoulder blade back and down. Then you raise your arm up at a 45 degree angle until it is straight out in front of you.
This is actually the exercise that Charles Poliquin uses in his upper body structural balance assessment to test how strong your lower trap is. According to Charles Poliquin here is the key strength ratio:
- Close grip bench press: 100% x 1 rep
- Trap 3 raise: 10.2% x 8 reps
In other words if you can close grip bench press 300 pounds for 1 rep then you should be able to perform a trap 3 raise with a 30 pound dumbbell for 8 reps. If you are reading this article then chances are you are nowhere near reaching this strength ratio.
Don’t worry, the lower traps are one of those muscle groups that responds very quickly once you start training it like you mean it.
A Sample 9-Week Rotator Cuff Training Program!
Here is a sample 9-week lower trap training program that you can use to boost your lower trap strength. You can perform these exercises at the end of your normal upper body workouts anywhere from 1-2 times per week.
I strongly recommend you use the exact tempos and rep ranges as listed for each of these exercises. They are written that way for a reason!
Lower Trap Workouts: Weeks 1-3
- A1: 45 degree prone trap 3 raise, 4-5 x 6, 4/0/1/6, 60 seconds rest
Lower Trap Workouts: Weeks 4-6
- A1: 30 degree prone trap 3 raise, 4-5 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
Lower Trap Workouts: Weeks 7-9
- A1: Unilateral unsupported trap 3 raise, 3-4 x 7-9, 3/0/X/2, 120 seconds rest
If you are not sure about how to perform any of these exercises then I recommend you check out the videos shown above.
The lower traps are another one of those muscle groups that respond well to somewhat slower tempos and higher rep ranges. This is partly because the lower traps are a slower-twitch muscle group and just seem to respond better to sets with longer time under tension.
The other reason is that it is very easy to overpower your lower traps with other muscle groups so that they do not actually perform the work. It is much easier to isolate your lower traps with higher rep ranges and lighter weights which is critically important if you want to fix a lower trap weakness.
Part 3: Overhead Pressing Strength
The third most common upper body structural imbalance is a weak overhead press. Most trainees spend FAR too much time training the bench press at the expense of other compound exercises such as the overhead press.
This may not seem like a big deal but focusing too much on the bench press can negatively impact the health and strength of your shoulders. If you like not being injured or if you like having a big / strong upper body then you may want to spend a little more time training the overhead press and a little less time training the bench press.
According to Charles Poliquin there are a couple of strength ratios you should know about:
Strength ratio #1
- Close grip bench press: 100% x 1
- Seated DB overhead press: 28% x 8 reps
In other words if you can bench press 300 pounds for 1 rep then you should be able to overhead press a pair of 85 pound dumbbells for 8 reps. If you are unable to do this then your overhead pressing strength is too weak relative to your bench press.
Strength ratio #2
- Close grip bench press: 100% x 1 rep
- Seated behind the neck press: 66% x 1 rep
In other words if you can close grip bench press then you should be able to perform a behind the neck press with 200 pounds for 1 rep. If you are nowhere near achieving these strength ratios then your best bet is to perform an overhead press specialization phase.
I recommend you drop the bench press entirely for 2-4 months and instead focus on increasing your strength on a variety of overhead pressing variations. One great strategy is to focus on a different type of overhead press every 2-4 weeks.
Changing up your exercises at predetermined intervals like this is a great way to make consistent progress over time. Here is a sample overhead press specialization training program that you may want to try.
You can perform these workouts anywhere from once to twice per week. After three weeks on the first routine you would switch to the next one and so on.
You can perform whatever other upper body exercises you want on these training days. I am just telling you how to structure your overhead pressing variations.
Overhead Press Workouts: Weeks 1-3
- A1: Standing barbell overhead press (hanging band method), 4 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
Here is a sample training video for this exercise:
The hanging band method is an AWESOME tool you can use to improve your shoulder strength and stability. The weights bounce around in nearly every direction which forces your shoulders and especially your rotator cuff muscles to work harder to stabilize the weight.
When you switch to regular “straight weight” you will be surprised at how much stronger you feel!
Overhead Press Workouts: Weeks 4-6
- A1: Seated military press bottom position isometronics, 3 x 6**, 1/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Seated military press middle position isometronics, 3 x 6**, 1/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Seated military press top position isometronics, 3 x 6**, 1/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Seated military press (full range of motion), 1 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
**On your 6th rep perform an all-out overcoming isometric contraction against the top pins for 6-8 seconds. Your goal is to press so hard that you literally break the pins in half!
Here is a sample training video for this workout:
(NOTE: I can’t find a good video of someone demonstrating overhead press isometronics. Instead here is a bench press isometronics video. The same principles apply but you should use the seated military press rather than the bench press for this routine.
The isometrics are great for teaching your body to produce more force and for recruiting the high-threshold motor units. This is a very demanding workout but it will produce extremely rapid strength gains in your overhead press.
Overhead Press Workouts: Weeks 7-9
- A1: Seated DB overhead press, 2-4 x 6-8**, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
**On your last rep I want you to perform a 10-second eccentric phase. And yes, 10 seconds really means 10 seconds!
Here is a sample training video for this workout:
This workout utilizes a form of accentuated eccentric training to build size and strength in your shoulders. On your last rep you will slowly lower the weight down over 10 seconds.
Some trainees find it helpful to visualize their muscles as giant brakes that are responsible for slowing down the weight. These accentuated eccentric reps are a powerful way to stimulate strength gains in the shoulders.
Overhead Press Workouts: Weeks 10-12
- A1: Standing behind the neck press (with chains), 3-5 x 3, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Standing behind the neck press, 3-5 x 1, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
Here is a sample training video for this workout:
A1: Standing behind the neck press (with chains)
A2: Standing behind the neck press
This last routine uses an advanced form of contrast sets to peak your strength on the overhead press. You are going to alternate sets of triples with chains with sets of singles with straight weight.
The triples with chains teach you to lift the weight as explosively as possible all the way to lockout. Then when you perform your single with straight weight your brain will still “think” that the chains are on the bar so you will lift the weight more explosively than usual!
All in all this is a fantastic 12-week overhead press specialization phase that is guaranteed to improve your overhead press. You may even find that your bench press strength goes way up even though you didn’t do any bench presses during this time!
Part 4: The Brachialis
The brachialis is a small muscle located underneath your biceps. It plays an important role in all types of curling exercises and in maintaining a healthy shoulder joint.
According to Charles Poliquin the brachialis is actually the 4th most common weak muscle group in the upper body.
No, correcting a weak brachialis muscle is not nearly as important as correcting a weak rotator cuff or a weak lower trap. However, this muscle group probably deserves more attention than you are giving it right now.
If you strengthen your brachialis then you may find that you make faster overall progress on all of your other upper body exercises.
The brachialis is often called “the workhorse of elbow flexion” because it is recruited during all types of curling exercises. However, the best way to train the brachialis is with all forms of reverse curling movements where your palms are facing down.
Here is the key strength ratio that you should know about:
- Supinated grip ez-bar curl: 100% x 8 reps
- Pronated grip ez-bar curl: 82% x 8 reps
In other words if you are able to perform supinated grip curls with 100 pounds for 8 reps then you should be able to perform pronated grip curls with 82 pounds for 8 reps.
If you are nowhere close to achieving this strength ratio then you may want to perform a brachialis specialization phase for 2-4 months where you focus on improving your reverse curling strength. Before I show you a sample brachialis specialization phase we should talk about some of the best brachialis exercises.
Here they are some of your best options:
- Reverse ez-bar curls
- Zottman curls
- Reverse cable curls
Let’s take a closer look at each of these brachialis exercises.
Brachialis Isolation Exercise #1: Reverse Ez-Bar Curls
The reverse ez-bar curl is probably the first brachialis exercise that most trainees think of. The idea is simple: you are going to grip an ez-bar with a pronated (palms facing down) grip and curl the bar up and down. For example:
As a general rule of thumb this exercise works best if you grip the bar with a wider grip. The exercise becomes more difficult to perform when performed with a narrow grip. This is because the bar tends to spin away from you so the leverages of the exercise change as you are curling it up.
Of course the narrow grip reverse ez-bar curl is still a viable exercise but as a general rule of thumb I prefer the wider grip for most trainees most of the time. This exercise can also be performed on a preacher curl station. For example:
Using a preacher curl station probably makes this exercise even more effective for overloading the brachialis muscle. The preacher station prevents any cheating and forces you to ues nothing but your brachialis to curl the weight.
Before moving on I want to mention one final variation of this exercise: the eccentric-only reverse ez-bar curl. Unlike the biceps brachii the brachialis is primarily composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Like most fast-twitch muscles the brachialis responds extremely well to accentuated eccentric training protocols for building size and strength. Fortunately it is easy to perform eccentric training with the reverse ez-bar curl.
You would power-clean the weight up to the top position and then slowly lower the weight down to the bottom position over 5-10 seconds. Then you power clean the weight up again and perform your next rep.
This technique works great for sets of 4-8 reps when training for hypertrophy and sets of 1-3 rep when training for strength. I was unable to find a good training video of this technique so you are just going to have to use your imagination.
Brachialis Isolation Exercise #2: Zottman Curls
Zottman curls are hands-down THE most effective brachialis exercise in the world. If you are not a long-time reader of Revolutionary Program Design then you have probably never heard of zottman curls. A zottman curl is performed with dumbbells.
The idea is simple: you are going to curl the dumbbell up with a supinated (palms facing up) grip and lower the weight back down with a pronated (palms facing down) grip. In order to do this you just spin the dumbbell around in the top or bottom position of the exercise.
For example here is the 2-arm seated DB zottman curl:
And here is the 1-arm preacher zottman curl:
You are probably wondering why you would curl the weight up with one grip and curl the weight down with another. You probably already know that you are stronger with a supinated (palms-up) grip than you are with a pronated (palms-down) grip.
With zottman curls you get to lower really heavy dumbbells with a pronated grip. The weight on the eccentric range is much heavier than you would normally use with a regular pronated grip dumbbell curl. This means you are performing accentuated eccentric training for the brachialis!
Although the brachialis primarily works when you curl with a pronated grip it is also recruited when you use a supinated grip. This means your brachialis is working during the whole movement but it is working ESPECIALLY hard on the eccentric range. This is a recipe for rapid size and strength gains!
I think you will be shocked at how fast your strength improves on zottman curls when you first start performing them. Many of my trainees see their zottman curl poundages go up as much as 50% in just a few weeks!
There is one last thing I want to mention about zottman curls. You can make them even more effective by using an offset grip. To do this you press your pinky up against the inside of the dumbbell and hold it there during your entire set.
Holding the dumbbell with an offset grip like this will make all of your elbow flexors work harder during both the concentric and the eccentric range.
I recommend you spend 2-4 weeks training with a regular grip on zottman curls before progressing to the offset grip.
Make no mistake, zottman curls are the single best exercise you can perform for your brachialis. Your reverse curling strength will explode if you start making these a regular part of your routine!
Brachialis Isolation Exercise #3: Reverse Cable Curls
The reverse cable curl is another excellent brachialis exercise. The cable does an excellent job of overloading the brachialis in a different manner than free weights. Here is the 2-arm reverse cable curl:
And here is the 1-arm reverse cable curl:
These exercises can also be performed on a preacher curl station if you are creative enough. In my experience the reverse cable curl is great for giving your body a break form the different free weight reverse curling exercises.
I often see that trainees get “stuck” after a while if they focus too much on free weight exercises such as the reverse ez-bar curl or even zottman curl. The reverse cable curl can be thought of as an excellent plateau buster that gives your nervous system a much-needed break from the free weight reverse curling exercises.
A Sample 6-Week Brachialis Training Program!
Here is a 6-week training program that you can use to dramatically increase the size and strength of your brachialis muscle. This will go a long ways in helping you to attain optimal upper body structural balance and to improve your rate of progress on all your other upper body lifts.
Once again you can perform these workouts anywhere from once every 3-7 days. Regardless of which training frequency you use I want you to perform the first workout for the first 3 weeks and the second workout for weeks 4-6.
You can perform these brachialis exercises towards the end of an upper body workout or as part of your own dedicated arm training day – the choice is up to you.
Brachialis Workouts: Weeks 1-3
- A1: Seated DB zottman curls, 3-5 x 8-10, 5/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curls (wide / pronated grip), 3-5 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
This workout utilizes supersets to inflict maximum muscle damage on your brachialis muscles. The short rest periods between the 2 exercises force your muscles to work much longer than normal which creates a potent stimulus for hypertrophy.
Brachialis Workouts: Weeks 4-6
- A1: Eccentric-only standing ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip)**, 5 x 5-7, 10/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
**Power-clean the weight up to the top position and then slowly lower the weight down over 10 seconds. Repeat for 5-7 total reps per set.
This intensification workout takes advantage of supra-maximal eccentric training to rapidly boost your reverse curling strength. I talked earlier about how you can perform eccentric training with the reverse ez-bar curl by power cleaning the weight up to the top position.
In this routine you are going to do exactly that! Most trainees will be able to use a weight that is around 90-100% of their 1-rep max for this routine. I recommend you start somewhat conservatively with the weight so that you can get all 5 sets in.
I think you will be shocked at how fast your strength goes up on this routine even though you are only performing 1 exercise!
Part 5: The Vastus Medialis
The vastus medialis is often called “the rotator cuff of the lower body.” It is the single most common lower body muscular weakness in an athletic or weight training population.
The vastus medialis is one of the 4 quadricep muscles. It is located on the inside of the knee and is often called the “teardrop muscle” by bodybuilders because it looks like a teardrop when it is fully developed.
The vastus medialis is so important because it plays a critical role in stabilizing the knee joint during dynamic movements. It is the only quadricep muscle that actually crosses over the knee joint and it helps to prevent ACL tears and other lower body injuries.
The vastus medialis also plays a critical role in helping you move big weights in exercises such as the squat and deadlift. If you want to become as big and strong as possible then you MUST strengthen your vastus medialis muscle!
A lot of strength coaches, bodybuilders and even physical therapists believe that it is impossible to isolate and strengthen the vastus medialis. My advice to these people is to keep an open mind and keep learning. Remember, the mind is like a parachute: it only works when it is open!
Charles Poliquin had a number of exercises and techniques that he used to strengthen a weak vastus medialis muscle in his world-class athletes. Let’s look at a few of these techniques here.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #1: The Petersen Step Up
Charles Poliquin used to say that “if there is one exercise that I know that has made me a lot of money it is the Petersen step up.”
Charles had almost all of his world-class athletes start with this exercise. It did not matter if he was working with an Olympic gold medalist or anyone else: they all started with the Petersen step up. The Petersen step up was invented by Carl Petersen, a Physiotherapist.
He was working with the Canadian national ski team and was tasked with figuring out a way to reduce their incidence of knee injuries.
Carl came up with the Petersen step up as a way to preferentially strengthen the vastus medialis muscle. Research has shown that anytime you perform a leg exercise where the weight is on the ball of your feet and your knees shoot forward over your toes you preferentially recruit the vastus medialis muscle.
Charles liked his athletes to perform multiple sets of 15-30 reps. The higher reps are necessary because the range of motion on this exercise is so short. You can progress this exercise by holding a pair of dumbbells or even by placing a barbell on your back.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #2: The Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
The front foot elevated split squat is another FANTASTIC exercise for training the vastus medialis. You can also perform the split squat with your front foot level with the ground or even with your rear foot elevated. However, Charles preferred his athletes to start with this version with the front foot elevated.
The front foot elevated split squat is so effective for training the vastus medialis because it loads the knee joint through a full range of motion. Research has shown that the vastus medialis is strongly activated when the knee is fully bent or almost fully bent.
This is one of the reasons most trainees have such a weak vastus medialis: almost no one performs squats through a full range of motion! If your vastus medialis is especially weak then you may want to perform this exercise with a 1-2 second pause in the bottom position.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #3: The Drop Lunge
Lunges are another fantastic exercise for training the vastus medialis. One of the reasons lunges work so well is they act as a form of accentuated eccentric training. Your quadricep muscles have to contract eccentrically in order to absorb force and decelerate your body when your front foot hits the ground.
Most people are familiar with stationary alternating lunges and walking alternating lunges. However, most trainees are not familiar with drop lunges. These were a favourite of Charles Poliquin for strengthening not only the vastus medialis but your entire lower body.
Your muscles have to work even harder to decelerate your body during the landing because of the elevation. This is an advanced lunge variation that should only be performed after you are proficient with the more traditional lunge variations.
Vastus Medialis Exercise #4: The Quad Squat
Once you have mastered step ups, split squats and lunges then it is time to move on to the king of all lower body exercises: the full squat. If you want to train the vastus medialis with squats then there is no getting around it: you have to squat through a full range of motion!
Charles used to say that you have to squat so low that “your ass leaves a stain on the gym floor.” This is the only way to maximally recruit the vastus medialis with front or back squats.
If you are unable to safely perform a full squat then you need to continue working on your mobility and / or continue working on step ups, split squats and lunges until you are ready. If you are ready to perform full squats then one of the best variations is the quad squat.
To perform a quad squat you will use a narrow stance with your heels elevated. For example:
Research has shown that both of these adjustments (bringing your heels close together and raising your heels) increases the recruitment of the quadriceps and especially the vastus medialis.
This squat variation is normally performed for multiple sets of higher repetitions to build muscular hypertrophy. There are many other ways to squat to increase the recruitment of the vastus medialis. I talk about a lot of these squat variations in the following article:
For example you may want to experiment with incorporating isometric pauses in the bottom position or performing “one-and-a-quarter” reps out of the bottom position. All of these techniques will go a long way towards increasing your vastus medialis strength and reducing your odds of lower body injury.
A Sample 6-Week Vastus Medialis Training Program!
If you are serious about improving your vastus medialis strength then you may want to try out the following 6-week vastus medialis training program. You are going to perform 2 different quadricep workouts for 3 weeks each.
These workouts can be performed anywhere from once every 3-7 days depending on what type of training frequency you respond best to. You may want to perform some additional hamstrings work alongside these workouts.
For example you could perform the hamstring work at the end of the workout or you could perform antagonistic supersets between the quadriceps exercises and your choice of hamstrings exercises.
Charles Poliquin was a big proponent of using antagonistic supersets but I will leave the choice up to you.
Quadriceps Workouts: Weeks 1-3
- A1: Back squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 10 x 10, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Walking DB lunges, 3 x 12-15, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
This first routine utilizes the 10 x 10 set and rep scheme, also known as the “German Volume Training” program. The quadriceps are one of those muscle groups that responds extremely well to higher reps including the 10 x 10 set and rep scheme.
You want to pick a weight that you can perform about 20 times. The first few sets are going to feel very, very easy. However, by the 6th or 7th set your legs are really going to be feeling it!
Make sure you stick with the same weight until you can complete all 10 sets of 10 reps with it. Only then can you bump the weight up at your next workout
Quadriceps Workouts: Weeks 4-6
- A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3-5 x 4-6, 3/0/X/0, no rest
- A2: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3-5 x AMRAP**, 3/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
**Perform as many reps as possible with the same weight that you used for exercise A1.
This second workout is absolutely brutal. You are going to perform one of my favourite mechanical advantage drop sets for the lower body!
The basic idea is to perform a set of front squats just shy of failure in the 4-6 rep range. Then you rack the weight and immediately get under the bar to perform a set of back squats. You then bust out as many reps as you can on back squats with the same weight that you used on front squats.
The front squat actually recruits the quadriceps and especially the vastus medialis better than the more traditional back squat. This means that your quadriceps will be pre-fatigued so that when you perform your set of back squats your quadriceps will be working harder than normal.
This is a great intensification method for a bodybuilder or anyone looking to beef up their vastus medialis muscle.
Part 6: The Hamstrings
According to Charles Poliquin the hamstrings are the second most common weak muscle group in the lower body. The hamstrings are the muscles located on the backside of your legs. These muscles play a crucial role in almost all compound lower body exercises such as squats and deadlifts.
The hamstrings also play a huge role in preventing injuries. The hamstrings actually act as a second ACL ligament can can help prevent ACL injuries when they are fully developed. They also add a ton of overall stability to the knee joint.
If you want to build a big, strong lower body and avoid injuries then there is no getting around it: you have to train the hamstrings properly!
The hamstrings are a unique muscle group. They perform 2 completely different functions::
- Knee flexion
- Hip extension
Let’s take a closer look at both of these functions of the hamstrings.
How To Train The Hamstrings As Knee Flexors
The hamstrings are the major muscle group that bends or flexes the knee joint. In Charles Poliquin’s experience most trainees do a very poor job of training their hamstrings as knee flexors.
Their leg curling strength is far too weak relative to their hip extension strength and this decreases their performance in the gym and increases their risk of a lower body injury. If you want to strengthen your hamstrings as fast as possible then you have to start training leg curls properly.
Here are three of my best tips for training the hamstrings with leg curls:
- Train leg curls for low reps
- Vary your foot orientation on leg curls
- Use eccentric training for size and strength gains
Let’s take a closer look at each of these tips
Leg Curl Tip #1: Train Leg Curls For Low Reps!
The research is very clear on this one: the hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle. Whenever you perform an isolation exercise such as leg curls you should train with low reps.
As a general rule of thumb you will make faster size and strength gains when you train leg curls in the 1-8 rep range. This is true regardless of whether you are a bodybuilder or a powerlifter.
Yes, I know many well-known bodybuilding coaches recommend performing leg curls for as many as 20 reps per set. You may get results training this way but you will get better results training in the 1-8 rep range.
If you are worried about not getting enough time under tension on your 1-8 rep sets then try slowing down the eccentric phase of your reps. As a general rule of thumb the hamstrings respond well to 2-5 second eccentric tempos.
Trust me, if you are lowering the weight down over 4-5 seconds per rep then you are going to accumulate PLENTY of time under tension to hypertrophy your hamstrings
Leg Curl Tip #2: Vary Your Foot Orientation On Leg Curls!
Most people perform all of their leg curls in the same way: their feet are dorsiflexed (their toes are pointing towards their shins) and their feet are pointing straight ahead.
There is nothing wrong with performing leg curls like this. However, you will make faster progress if you vary your foot orientation on leg curls from one routine to the next. The hamstrings is actually a family of three different muscle groups:
- The semitendinous
- The membranous
- The biceps femoris
You can actually target each of these hamstrings muscles by changing your foot orientation on leg curls! When you point your toes inwards towards your body you target the semitendinous more. For example:
When your toes point straight ahead you increase emphasis on the semimembraneous. For example:
Finally when you point your toes outwards you target more of the biceps femoris. For example:
If you perform all of your leg curls with your feet pointed straight ahead then your semitendinous and biceps femoris will be undertrained relative to your semimembraneous. This is not a good thing!
You can also change how the hamstrings are trained by dorsiflexing your toes (pointing your toes towards your shins) or plantarflexing your toes (pointing your toes away from your shins). For example here is what leg curls with your feet dorsiflexed looks like:
And here is what leg curls with your feet plantarflexed looks like:
You are a little bit stronger on leg curls when you dorsiflex your toes. This is because your gastrocnemius or your upper calf muscle actually helps you to flex your knee when your feet are dorsiflexed. This can be a good thing if you want to handle more weight.
However, if you *really* want to isolate your hamstrings on leg curls then you may want to try them with your feet plantarflexed (or with your feet pointing away from your shins).
When your feet are plantarflexed your gastrocnemius is unable to help so your hamstrings are left to move the weight all by themselves. This actually increases the quality of the training stimulus to the hamstrings!
In summary you can vary your foot orientation on leg curls by pointing them inwards / straight / outwards or by dorsiflexing / plantarflexing them. All of these different orientations have merit and you should use all of them at least periodically in your long-term programming.
Let Curl Tip #3: Use Eccentric Training For Size And Strength Gains!
Fast-twitch muscles like the hamstrings respond extremely well to eccentric training methods. Eccentric training simply means you are going to use different training methods that overload the lowering portion of the exercise.
As you may already know the lowering portion of an exercise is where most of the size and strength gains take place. Overloading the lowering portion of an exercise is an unbelievably powerful tool that you can use to accelerate your progress.
Here are 2 awesome techniques you can use to eccentrically overload the hamstrings with leg curls:
- The Poliquin method
- The 2/1 method
The Poliquin method was invented and popularized by Charles Poliquin. It involves dorsiflexing your ankles (pointing your feet towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflexing your ankles (pointing your feet away from your shins) on the eccentric range.
For example here is a video of someone using the Poliquin method on leg curls:
As you already know you are stronger on leg curls when you dorsiflex your ankles. With the Poliquin method you are using a stronger foot position during the lifting phase of the exercise and a weaker foot position during the eccentric phase of the exercise.
This means that you are using a technique that lets you lower a heaver-than-normal weight. In other words you are overloading the eccentric range of the exercise!
You may find that it is actually harder to lower the weight down than it is to lift the weight up using this method. How cool is that?
The other eccentric training method that works really well with leg curls is the 2/1 method. The idea is simple: you are going to lift the weight up with 2 legs and lower it back down with 1 leg. For example:
This is a more extreme version of eccentric training. In my experience this technique works best when you perform sets of 4-8 reps with a 10-second lowering phase on each rep.
If you perform fewer than about 4 reps per set then you may start to overtrain your hamstrings tendons and develop hamstrings tendinitis (ask me how I know!).
In summary if you want to train the hamstrings as knee flexors then I strongly recommend you train primarily in the 1-8 rep range, vary your foot orientation on leg curls and incorporate some eccentric training into your long-term programming.
Now let’s look at the best strategies for training the hamstrings as hip extensors.
How To Train The Hamstrings As Hip Extensors
Hip extension occurs any time you are extending your back such as with a deadlift, good morning or back extension. The hamstrings work together with the glutes and lower back to perform this motion. Yes, this is the “posterior chain” that Louie Simmons and other powerlifting coaches love to talk about.
Training the hamstrings as hip extensors is much more straightforward than training them as knee flexors. However, there are still some rules that you should pay attention to.
First of all the hamstrings actually act more like a slow-twitch muscle when they perform hip extension movements. Charles Poliquin had his Olympic-caliber athletes perform most of their hip extension movements such as deadlifts and good mornings in the 6-20 rep range.
Yes, there is a time and place for performing hip extension movements in the 1-5 rep range. However, as a general rule of thumb if you are trying to correct a weakness in the hamstrings then you will make faster progress training hip extension movements in the 6-20 rep range.
Another great tip is to use the most bang-for-your-buck hamstrings exercises. According to Charles Poliquin here are the 2 best hip extension movements for training the hamstrings:
- The deficit snatch grip deadlift
- The Romanian deadlift
If you want to build your hamstrings as quickly as possible then these 2 exercises will do it better than anything else. Here is what a deficit snatch grip deadlift looks like:
And here is what a Romanian deadlift looks like:
Charles used to call the deficit snatch grip deadlift the king of all hamstrings exercises. It trains the hamstrings through an extremely long range of motion. You have to bend down so low at the start of the movement that it almost feels like you are performing a squat!
Yes, you have to lower the weight with this exercise vs regular conventional deadlifts. Despite the reduced weight your strength gains will shoot through the roof with this exercise. The Romanian deadlift is another fantastic hamstrings exercise.
The Romanian deadlift places the hamstrings under an extremely large stretch which is very beneficial for stimulating size and strength gains. As Charles used to say, “the muscle that is stretched the most is trained the most.”
A Sample 6 Week Hamstrings Training Program!
Here is a sample 6 week hamstrings training program that you may want to try. This program consists of 2 different 3-week routines.
The first routine is focused on building muscular size and uses two different types of tri-sets to beef up your hamstrings. The second routine is more of an intensification routine designed to strengthen your hamstrings.
You can of course perform some quadriceps work during these workouts for a more well-rounded workout. I will leave the choice of quadriceps exercises and set / rep schemes up to you.
Hamstrings Routine: Weeks 1-3
- A1: Bilateral seated leg curls (Poliquin method** / feet pointing in), 4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (Poliquin method** / feet pointing straight), 4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Bilateral seated leg curls (Poliquin method** / feet pointing out), 4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B1: Standing barbell good morning, 2 x 6-8, 4/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: DB stiff-legged deadlift, 2 x 10-12, 3/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
- B3: 45 degree back extension, 2 x 15-20, 2/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
**Dorsiflex your ankles (point your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflex your ankles (point your toes away from your shins) on the eccentric range. This will allow you to eccentrically overload your hamstrings. See the video below for more details.
This is an unbelievably effective hamstrings hypertrophy routine. You are going to use 2 different pairs of tri-sets. The first tri-set trains your hamstrings as knee flexors while the second tri-set trains your hamstrings as hip extensors.
This type of routine was a favourite of Charles Poliquin for rapidly addressing a weakness in his athletes’ hamstrings muscles.
Hamstrings Routine: Weeks 4-6
- A1: Eccentric lying leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight)**, 5 x 5, 10/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Romanian deadlift against bands, 3 x 5-7, 3/1/X/0, 180 seconds rest
**Use the 2/1 method for this exercise. Lift the weight with 2 legs and lower the weight down with 1 leg. Perform all 5 reps for the first leg, rest at least 10 seconds and then perform all 5 reps for the second leg.
This is another extremely effective hamstrings routine. This one is designed to boost your overall hamstrings strength although you can still expect some decent size gains from this routine.
In my experience the Romanian deadlift is an EXTREMELY underrated hamstrings exercise. I am so glad to see someone as creative and successful as Josh Bryant using this exercise with his clients.
The bands make it so the exercise is harder at the top rather than the bottom of the exercise. This gives the movement a completely different feel and is a great way to blast through a hamstrings training plateau.
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” If you are stuck in a training rut then you might have one or more weak muscle groups holding you back. According to Charles Poliquin the most common muscular weaknesses in a weight training population are as follows:
- The external rotators of the rotator cuff
- The lower traps
- Overhead pressing strength
- The brachialis
- The vastus medialis
- The hamstrings
If one of these muscle groups is too weak then you will be spinning your wheels forever wondering why you can’t make progress.
The first thing you need to do is to figure out which muscle groups are weak and holding you back. I talk more about how to do this in my article on upper body structural balance training but I also touched on it here.
The next thing you need to do is to design your next 2-4 months of training to target and eliminate these weak points. You can use any of the training tips or routines provided in this article to help you do this.
When your body is in optimal structural balance your overall rate of progress goes through the roof and your risk of injury goes way down. It is well worth the effort to train for a more balanced physique – your future self will thank you for it.
I will leave you with a quote from Super Training’s Marc Bell: “Strength is never a weakness… weakness is never a strength.” So get back in the gym and start training your weak points like you mean it!
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
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