What supplements should I be taking?

“What supplements should I be taking?” That is a fair question, and one that we receive via our customer support page almost daily. It’s also a difficult question to answer without falling back on the dreaded “It depends…” The truth is that so much does depend on the individual asking the question — his or her current physical state, experience level, and choices made in the kitchen and grocery store.

Those of us with a few grey hairs can remember a time when this was a more simple question. Twenty years ago, supplements were limited to a few sawdust-flavored protein powders, ass-expanding weight gainers, and a variety of questionable “anabolic megapacks” that we all knew were snake oil despite cool packaging that featured the reigning Mr. Olympia’s glowing endorsement.

Today, the supplement scene is much different. Walk into your local supplement shop and you’ll be bombarded by row upon row of protein powders, fat burners, pre- and post-workout mixes, weight gainers, lean-weight gainers (huh?), and countless other products. An eager salesperson will offer extra-high praise for a chosen few items but most likely has one eye on the commissions list and the other eye on your wallet.

Yes, she’s a powerlifter, and yes, she uses AtLarge’s supplements.

So what can we do to demystify this situation? In sports, many coaches preach about mastering the fundamentals before trying anything fancy. For example, in football, blocking and tackling take priority over running the flea-flicker or perfecting touchdown celebration dances. This logic is simple yet sound — if you can’t handle the basics, all the razzle-dazzle in the world won’t help you win a game.

A similar paradigm can be used for choosing the right supplements, whether your goal is to build muscle, get stronger, lose fat, or just be healthier. For example, let’s say your goal is to build muscle, and you’re wondering whether the newest nitric oxide product will help. Before you whip out your wallet, first take a look at your diet. Are you getting sufficient calories? What about protein (at least a gram to a one and a half grams per pound of bodyweight per day)? Are you consuming enough polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats? Are you getting a decent serving of carbs post workout?

These building blocks are mass building fundamentals, and MUST be set correctly to achieve maximum strength and mass gains. As for that six-scoop serving of Mega-Pump 8000? Despite what the guy-in-the-labcoat ad is selling you, that product about as important to your gains as the color of Mr. Olympia’s banana hammock. Sadly, the onslaught of advertising and information confuses many rookie lifters. With little to no clue as to what is really required to accomplish their goals, they spend much time and money fussing with the supplementation equivalent of the trick play when they don’t even have enough players lined up on the field.

The right supplements can enhance your CrossFit performance. Jaime Gold at the 2102 CrossFit Games.

Before you part with your hard-earned cash for a supplement, do an honest assessment of your situation. What is your goal? Is it to build muscle, lose fat, or perform better? Where does this supplement rank in the big picture? Does it fill a gap left by your diet or lifestyle, or is it redundant or just not necessary at this time?

For example, if you’re trying to lose fat and are already eating a high-protein calorie-reduced diet, then a fat burner like Axcel might be a great addition. However, if you eat haphazardly, have no idea how much protein you take in, are scared of dietary fat, and won’t perform any cardio because you’re afraid of “losing muscle”, then even Axcel can’t help you. You simply need more protein (like Nitrean+), some fish oil, and a serious reevaluation of your exercise plan. On the other hand, if your goal is to build mass and you’re already eating pounds of lean red meat, poultry, and eggs multiple times a day, a quality protein supplement like Nitrean might not be priority number one. But if you have a busy schedule or find cooking and eating to be a chore, then maybe a protein supplement is a good assist.

You get the idea by now…first, determine your goal, and then figure out what you need to do to need to get there. Examine your diet, training, and lifestyle and pinpoint where your gaps might be. What are you missing? This analysis will determine what supplements should be on your own priority list. Figure it out and you’ll get the most out of your supplement dollar while greatly accelerating your progress.

So if the goal is building muscle, what are the absolutely most effective supplements to take?


Nitrean+ is an enhanced version of our award-winning Nitrean protein. You need protein to build muscle. This fact has been validated both by science and by thousands of bodybuilders throughout the history of bodybuilding. To get bigger and stronger muscles, you need to stimulate them in order to drive adaptation (training) while also providing the necessary material for growth and repair. That material is protein. The building blocks of protein are amino acids, and like a fingerprint, each protein has its own unique amino acid profile. This is why experts encourage trainees to eat a variety of proteins and not just subsist on whey or chicken or, God forbid, soy.
To address this need, Nitrean+ uses a protein matrix that combines three different fractions of whey (isolate, concentrate, and hydrolyzed), casein, and egg proteins. This matrix promotes superior net retention on a gram-for-gram basis, which means that your body retains and uses more Nitrean+ for every gram you ingest as compared to a simple whey-only supplement.
The Nitrean+ blend also supports a more anabolic state by addressing both sides of the anabolism/catabolism equation. The high-quality whey fractions in Nitrean+ are rapidly absorbed “fast proteins” that promote protein synthesis, especially when consumed in the post-workout period, while the “slower” casein effectively blunts catabolism, or muscle breakdown. A protein supplement that addresses both anabolism and catabolism with one formula is the equivalent to a boxer with a devastating set of hands and a rock-hard chin…it’s tough to beat. Throw in some egg albumin (the old-school staple with the extremely high biological value that single-handedly built many of bodybuilding’s greatest physiques) and you have the most anabolic protein supplement on the market!
But what takes Nitrean+ over the top is the addition of branched-chain leucine. As one of the coveted branched-chain amino acids, leucine has been demonstrated to stimulate protein synthesis to a degree equivalent to whole proteins. In other words, the additional leucine in Nitrean+ acts as an anabolic supercharger that aids in optimizing the body’s response to intense training.

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine monohydrate is the most rigorously studied and scientifically proven lean tissue and strength-building supplement on the market. Scores of unbiased studies have shown that creatine monohydrate increases both lean muscle size and strength while maintaining an exemplary safety profile, and AtLarge’s creatine monohydrate is made of the purest, finest quality creatine monohydrate available.
Creatine was reportedly used by Olympic athletes as far back as 1982, and has been tested extensively both in the lab and in the gym over the past 30 years. The truth is that it’s safe and it works. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found predominantly in meats. If you follow a Fred Flintstone-like meat diet you might consume amounts of creatine sufficient to achieve an ergogenic effect, but it’s very unlikely. To do this, the average man would need to consume three pounds of beef, three pounds of salmon, or three pounds of tuna every day! That’s enough meat for Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty put together.

Another reason that creatine is so effective is that it isn’t merely an athletic supplement. Recent studies have indicated that it may also be a potent antioxidant, which protect the body’s cells from damage by free radicals. Creatine has also been shown to improve the functioning of patients suffering from various neuromuscular disorders. It truly is a wonder supplement!
Creatine’s proven ability to increase strength and lean muscle mass also makes it an effective body fat-reduction supplement. Lean muscle mass is a physiologically “expensive” tissue, requiring considerable calories to maintain. Those aiming to decrease their body fat levels would be well advised to increase their lean muscle mass because more muscle equates to a greater metabolic rate. In other words, you burn more calories, even at rest. Burn fat while you sleep? Sign me up!

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s)

BCAAs are something that every lifter should be taking, if not daily, then at least during training cycles when maximum muscle mass is the goal. If you spend enough time in this business, you start to notice a few patterns. Training programs with squats and deadlifts tend to build more muscle than workouts featuring endless sets of arm curls and pressdowns. Diets heavier in protein and lighter in carbs tend to yield leaner athletes, and supplement protocols with ample amounts of BCAAs usually lead to better gains.

The branched chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. What sets these three apart from the other essential and nonessential aminos acids is that they have some very specific, very special properties. BCAA’s promote protein synthesis in muscle, and, when consumed during training, have been shown to increase both growth hormone and insulin (thus increasing anabolism and anti-catabolism) while increasing post-workout testosterone levels. That’s a lot of heavy hormonal support from just three little amino acids!

On the subject of results Joe Sixpack can actually feel, regular BCAA users usually report remarkably decreased soreness, even after grueling high-volume workouts. This means that the muscles are recuperating faster, which, when added up over weeks and months, can mean bigger and stronger muscles.

AtLarge Nutrition’s BCAA+ also contains the amino acid glutamine, which on its own has a myriad of performance and recovery supporting effects. During inflammatory states (such as those that might be occur due to a heavy training cycle), intramuscular stores of glutamine are reduced, leading to increased rates of protein breakdown. This negative effect can be significantly mitigated through oral glutamine supplementation.

Of even more importance, however, is glutamine’s other role. Glutamine also helps bolster the immune system by serving as a ‘fuel’ for many immune cells, and thus helps to protect the body from the extreme stress of intense training. Much of the immune suppression that occurs during overtraining is due to glutamine use outstripping the body’s production. Supplementing with glutamine may help prevent this by providing support during especially heavy training periods. So while BCAA’s help repair the muscles from killer workouts, glutamine helps prevent all that hard training from leaving you sick in bed with the flu, sucking on chicken soup, and watching endless hours of reality TV.

Wrap Up

When the rubber hits the road, supplements are just that: additional assists in your efforts to build a leaner, stronger body. They aren’t intended to replace a nutritious diet, but rather to plug whatever holes your diet might have left behind. Some may even taste great and make your life a lot easier, but that’s just the icing on the proverbial cake.

However, take heed – any time the angry bodybuilder in the 26-page ad report makes it seem like supplements are responsible for their accomplishments, run. Run fast. Define your own goals and what you need to do to get there. Then, fill in the gaps with supplements that can assist you in your endeavors, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Shoulders Like Boulders

Forget the clothes – it’s the shoulders that make the man!

In my line of work, I design a lot of specialization programs to address the weaker points of a given physique. Overall, I’d estimate two-thirds of these requests are from guys who want bigger arms or thicker chests, as well as the occasional wish to turn anemic calves into cows (picking better parents certainly helps with that one!).

On occasion, I do receive more open-ended requests, such as those from trainees who simply send pictures and ask for a routine that addresses what I judge to be their weak points. More often than not, what I send back to them isn’t the latest “pecs and biceps” routine but something to bring up lagging shoulders.

In contrast to today’s obsession with ripped abs, development of wide and full deltoids was priority one in the recent past, so much so that lifters spent more time training shoulders than any other muscle group.

The reason for this is that bodybuilding has always been a sport of illusion. It’s not the biggest knuckle-dragger on stage that wins the prize but the one showing the best balance of muscle size, proportion, and of course, conditioning. Interestingly, the physiques that have this balance often appear much bigger than they really are.

The X-Factor

To create this illusion, bodybuilding coaches often talk about achieving an “X-frame.” The classic bodybuilding X-frame consists of a wide upper body that tapers to a tiny waist and widens again to sweeping thighs and (God-willing) thick calves.

Anne-Marie Swisher has beautifully capped shoulders and that X-frame sought by so many.

Bodybuilding legend Robbie Robinson has the archetypal X-frame, one so impressive that Joe Weider reportedly had his head superimposed onto Robbie’s body for a series of Weider supplement ads. Now that’s high praise!

What if you didn’t win the genetic lottery and instead have a wide waist or narrow clavicles? Although you can’t alter your overall structure, you can make every effort to make yourself appear wider. By emphasizing deltoid development, even “structurally challenged” men can present the illusion of superhero-like width.

Pressing Matters

Another reason why old-time bodybuilders put shoulder training at the top of their lists is that many also competed as Olympic lifters, so there was extra incentive to spend time pressing a heavy bar overhead. However, once the overhead press was dropped from Olympic competition, opinions changed. Shoulder work fell out of favor with the top bodybuilders, and the next generation of up-and-comers saw no reason to emphasize it.

Today, many coaches actually advocate avoidance of direct deltoid work. “The delts receive enough stimulation when training the chest and the back,” is the classic sound bite. At first glance, this makes sense. You can’t do any type of chest press without recruiting the anterior (front) deltoid, and any rowing or chin-up type movements will involve the posterior (rear) deltoids. That just leaves the medial (side) deltoids, which these coaches say require just a few sets of lateral raises. Logical? Sure. But is this effective?

For athletes or lifters who consider aesthetics of secondary importance, I’d say yes. The deltoids will get all the stimulation they need from pressing, rowing, chinning, and power cleans. However, bodybuilders seeking the elusive X-frame should reconsider. Big anterior delts give the shoulders the full, round “bowling ball” look, and these can’t be attained without some direct training–namely overhead work.

You are pretty much going to look tiny next to the shoulders of world’s strongest powerlifter Donnie Thompson (left) and man mountain Paul Childress (right).

Avoiding all overhead pressing also affects width. The medial deltoid contributes significantly to overhead pressing movements, and considering that much heavier loads can be used for presses than lateral raises, narrower bodybuilders seeking maximum width will compromise their potential by avoiding the heavy bar.

As for the posterior delts, the genetically blessed can usually get away with just doing rows and chins, but most mere mortals will need to give their rear delts some direct attention. Additionally, the combination of flat bench-presses and zero posterior delt work significantly increases the potential for shoulder injury or developing a posture reminiscent of the gym douchebag searching the gym floor for his missing cell phone.

So what’s the answer? Lots of shoulder pressing? Tons of lateral and rear delt raises? The answer is “all the above” but separately.

Shoulders Like Boulders

To maximize growth but minimize overtraining, break your shoulder training into blocks: heavy shoulder pressing in one block, lateral and rear raises in the other. Furthermore, during the shoulder pressing block, do not perform any bench presses or bench press variations. Instead, replace them with work for the external rotators. Don’t worry–you can return to bench pressing dominance during the lateral raise phases.

There are shoulders, and then there are Markus Ruhl BOULDERS!

Interestingly, upon returning to bench pressing, your poundages may initially be lower, but should then soar to new heights after a few weeks. This is due to the shoulder contribution to the bench press. A stronger shoulder press means a stronger bench press. The catch is that the inverse is NOT true.

Injury Side Note

Another cause for the untimely demise of the shoulder press is the myth that shoulder pressing hurts the shoulders. Let me be clear – it’s not the shoulder press (not even a properly performed behind the neck press) that hurts the shoulders. Piss-poor flexibility, imbalances between the external rotators of the humerus, and way too much bench pressing is what hurts the shoulders.
If you lack the flexibility to perform a decent shoulder press, consult a good Active Release Therapy practitioner. You should see results within a treatment or two.
A note on tempo:

I’ve borrowed (stolen?) this tempo prescription from strength coach Charles Poliquin. I highly recommend his excellent PICP courses for learning more about proper program design and exercise methodology.

Here’s how the four numbers work, using 3211 as an example:

• The first number is the eccentric tempo, or lowering phase. In this example, the lifter would take three full seconds to lower the weight.

• The second number is the isometric pause at the end of the eccentric. In this example, the lifter would pause for two full seconds; a zero indicates no pause is taken.

• The third number is the return or concentric phase. This example has a one-second concentric; an X would indicate an explosive return, or pulling the weight back up as fast as proper technique allows.

• The fourth number is the isometric pause at the end of the concentric phase or before the start of the next rep. In this example, the lifter would pause one full second before lowering the weight again.

Don Howarth was once considered to have some of the best shoulders in the game.

Heavy Pressing Block

Do this routine every five days. I suggest pairing the shoulder pressing with a chin-up variation for the same number of sets and reps. Add weight to your chin-ups if possible. Your other workout days should be lower body specific and arms – no chest!

Workout 1-4

A1) Seated dumbbell press
Sets: 4
Reps: 6-8
Tempo: 3010

Hold the dumbbells in a semi-supinated (palms facing each other) grip and lower until the ‘bells touch your shoulders. Press the dumbbells straight up overhead – resist the urge to bring them together. Think of that dumbbell clinking sound as the international mating call of the dork gym rat.

A2) Wide-grip pull up
Sets: 4
Reps: 6-8
Tempo: 31X1

Rest for 90 seconds between these lifts, during which you should stretch the pecs, lats, and deltoids.

B) Cuban press
Sets: 4
Reps: 6-8
Tempo: 4020

Grab a LIGHT barbell and perform a wide-grip upright row until the bar is just below the clavicles. Next, externally rotate the bar as if you were trying to touch it to your forehead. Finish by pressing the bar overhead. Lower the weight along the same path.

Workout 5-8

A1) Seated barbell overhead press
Sets: 5
Reps: 5
Tempo: 30X0

Make sure that the index fingers are positioned just outside the medial deltoids in the start position. Start the exercise from the bottom position. The classic Bill Starr “5 sets of 5 reps” with 90% 1RM is perfect here. Perform near-perfect reps and resist the urge to hit failure. Rest for two minutes before performing an antagonistic exercise, such as medium-grip chin-ups.

A2) Medium-grip chin up
Sets: 5
Reps: 5
Tempo: 31X1

B) Low pulley external rotation
Sets: 3
Reps: 10-12
Tempo: 3022

Set the low pulley handle at about knee height and stand with the nonworking side next to the weight stack. Grasp the handle with your working arm and pull it across your body until it’s at upper thigh level. This is the starting position.

Now, externally rotate the arm while trying to keep the elbow close to the body. Hold for a two-count at peak contraction and slowly reverse.

Workout 9-12

Standing press

Sets: 6
Reps: 3,3,3,1,1,1
Tempo: 30X0

Perform six sets of this exercise: three sets of three, then three singles. . Start the exercise from the bottom position, and gradually increase the weight for each set. Rest for two minutes before doing the antagonistic exercise; rest another two minutes before returning to the original exercise. Be mindful not to lean back excessively, thus turning this into a standing incline bench press. Also, keep the legs out of the exercise – this is not a push press.

A2) Neutral-grip weighted pull-up
Sets: 6
Reps: 2-4 (add weight if possible.)
Tempo: 41X1

B) Incline lying dumbbell abduction
Sets: 3
Reps: 10-12
Tempo: 3022

Think of this one as a single-arm, half-lateral raise done while lying on an incline bench. Note the two-second pause at the top.

Mike Matarazzo was another bodybuilder known for his MASSIVE shoulders.

The Next Phase

Workouts 1-6: Supersets

Now you may return to bench-pressing glory! Your shoulder workouts should look like this:

A1) Seated lateral raise
Sets: 3
Reps: 6-8
Tempo: 20X0

Rest 10 seconds before A2

Maintain a slight bend in the arm and focus on using muscle, not momentum. Bring the arms up so that at the end of the movement the back end of the dumbbells is slightly higher than the front end. This places more stress on the lateral head of the deltoid.

A2) Cable upright row with rope attachment
Sets: 3
Reps: 10-12
Tempo: 2010

The much-maligned upright row is problematic if performed with a barbell and pulled to the nose. Using a rope and only pulling to the clavicles avoids this. Rest two minutes between supersets.

B1) Bent over rear lateral raise
Sets: 3
Reps: 6-8
Tempo: 30X1

Rest 10 seconds before B2

Rest your forehead on an incline bench and bend the knees slightly. Bring the dumbbells slightly forward in line with the ears.

B2) Seated row to neck with rope
Sets: 3
Reps: 10-12
Tempo: 3111

This exercise will hammer the rear deltoids, the upper and mid trapezius, and the rhomboid muscles. Set the pulley so that it is positioned in line with the top of the chest, and grasp the ends of the rope attachment with palms down. With the shoulders protracted, begin the exercise by retracting the shoulder blades, and immediately row the rope towards the neck by bending the elbows. Keep the elbows up at all times.

The trunk should remain stable in order to minimize lower back involvement. Be sure to pause at the top and bottom position.

C) Cable lateral burnout
Sets: 3*
Reps: to failure
Tempo: 21X0
Rest: None

* This is basically a high-volume variation of the rest/pause technique. Perform a set to failure (approximately 12 reps) of cable lateral raises. Upon reaching failure, switch hands and repeat. Keep switching from arm to arm until no more reps are possible, then reduce the weight and continue. Perform this three times.

Workouts 7-12: Tri-Sets

A1) Seated lateral raise
Sets: 3
Reps: 6-8
Tempo: 30X1

No Rest

A2) Cable upright row with rope attachment
Sets: 3
Reps: 8-12
Tempo: 2010

No Rest

A3) Seated dumbbell press
Sets: 3
Reps: 12-15
Tempo: 3010

Rest three minutes between tri-sets.

B1) Bent-over rear lateral raise
Sets: 3
Reps: 8
Tempo: 30X1

No Rest

B2) Seated row to neck with wide bar
Sets: 3
Reps: 12
Tempo: 3111

Use a straight bar attachment instead of a rope.

No Rest

B3) Wide-grip barbell row to neck

Grab a light barbell and assume the classic barbell row position. Retract the shoulder blades and pull the barbell towards the neck, holding the contraction for one second.

Sets: 3
Reps: 12
Tempo: 3010

Rest three minutes between tri-sets.


Make no mistake, the benefits of proper shoulder training go far beyond merely filling out your favorite bar-star T-shirt. Balanced shoulder development will make your entire physique look bigger while the extra power will pay big dividends on International Bench Press Monday. As for the improved shoulder integrity? Well, that health stuff is just an added bonus.

Give this routine an honest shot, and maybe your friends will start calling you X-Man!

Article discussion forum thread

Back to Basics

Pumped up pecs and “ripped abz” may look great in a cheesy cell phone
self-portrait, but a big, beefy back gets noticed from all angles.

As someone who spends 50-plus hours a week in the gym, my fashion choices don’t extend much past T-shirts, shorts, and track pants and maybe the odd pair of Sunday afternoon blue jeans. Yet even meatheads like me occasionally get invited to non-fitness social gatherings, meaning that once or twice a year I find myself fumbling around in “normal people” stores trying to find clothes that don’t make me look like a reject from a Jersey Shore episode.

You guys know the drill: you finally find something that’s a fit in the shoulders and it’s swimming around the stomach yet still too tight in the arms. As for the back — especially when trying on jackets off the rack — forget about it! As much as it annoys me that I can’t just grab-and-go like a normal shopper, I admit to feeling a touch of pride when I try on a jacket or shirt and the seams almost burst at the lats. Sure, it might mean an extra trip to the tailor, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The back is the true measuring stick for the bodybuilder. Though 19-inch arms and heroic pecs may look great in a tank top, a wide and thick back is the ultimate symbol of time spent toiling under heavy iron. You can’t hide a big back even if you wanted to. On stage, it’s the obvious focus in all poses from the rear, but the lats, traps, and posterior delts also contribute to varying degrees in both front and side poses. On the street, it’s equally conspicuous. Calves, arms, and abs can be easily hidden by clothes, but stand behind a well-developed bodybuilder in line at the grocery store and the width of his back says one thing: I move iron.

A well-designed back program doesn’t just make you look good, it also helps to prevent injury. Most rookie trainees are so mirror-focused that their programs often consist of 75% pushing and curling exercises with the odd set of fist-pumps thrown in for good measure. Not only will such haphazard programming build an aesthetically challenged physique, it can result in shoulder problems, strength imbalances, and a posture resembling a Neanderthal scouring the ground for a lost Paleo-Puff.

Massive lats and traps provide the visual “pop” of a huge back.

Building the back takes work. A few sets of lat pulldowns before calling it a day won’t cut it – the back is a complex group of muscles that requires intelligent programming, significant volume, and gut-busting intensity. If you don’t feel smashed after a back workout, then either something is wrong with the program or you left your intestinal fortitude at the dinner table. This article will help you with the programming part; as for the guts, you’re on your own.

In my esteemed opinion, the following are the top back-building exercises that should appear frequently in every bodybuilder’s training journal:

Chin-ups and Pull-ups – Just so we’re on the same page, a chin-up is performed with a supinated grip (palms facing you) while pull-ups refer to use of a pronated grip (palms facing away from you). There’s also a semi-supinated or neutral grip in which the palms face one another, such as V-handle chins. For further variety, you can also vary the distance between the hands (wide, medium, narrow) as well as the grip-width (fat-grip chins).

Chin-ups are the king of back exercises, provided they’re performed correctly. A full range of motion is key: reps should start from a dead hang at the bottom (full stretch) and not stop until the chin clears the bar and/or the chest touches the bar. Coming up 90% of the way and then hyper-extending the neck so the head clears the bar will only lead to sub-par results and a trip to the chiropractor. If you can’t even do one chin-up with perfect form, don’t ditch them in favor of lat pulldowns; bio-mechanically, they’re not the same thing. Instead, perform single-rep sets of negative-only (eccentric) chins, focusing on using the lats and not the biceps to lower your body under control. Once you can do 30-second negative reps, you should be able to bang out a few bodyweight chin-ups with perfect form.

Coaches like Poliquin have long prescribed weighted chins for gaining upper body mass and for good reason. The lats seem to respond to heavy loads, so once bodyweight reps are a breeze, then it’s time to start attaching additional resistance. As a bonus, your biceps will also grow from this stimulation.

Rack Pulls and Deadlift Variations – Many athletes will put deadlifts into their leg days and for good reason — deadlifts thoroughly trash the entire posterior chain, from the hamstrings to the trapezius. But deadlifts are often absent from novice gym rats’ programs, for a number of reasons. First, deadlifts are “scary,” especially to nervous gym owners concerned about bars being bent or seeing their posh “fitness rooms” being overrun by large, hairy men in singlets.
Next, deadlifting is just plain hard work. A standard “five sets of five” can leave trainees gassed for days and sore in muscles that they didn’t know they had. Subsequently, lazy bodybuilders often try to program their way around deadlifts by performing a combination of pulldowns, rows, shrugs, and back extensions.

Nice try.

The German psychologist Gestalt wasn’t a bodybuilder, but if he were, he’d say that an effective exercise is more than just the sum of the parts. There’s just something about squatting down and picking up a gut-splitting weight from the floor. The trunk suddenly begins to grow “thicker,” often at an alarming rate, and the entire physique takes on a more “3-D” look. All deadlift variations work the back to a degree, though lifters seeking to add thickness to the mid-back and erectors often choose partial range deadlifts or rack-pulls. Set the pins in the power rack to just above knee height and be sure to come to a complete stop at the bottom position to minimize momentum.

One of the best deadlifters in the world (930 lbs+ raw pull), Konstantin Konstantinovs knows what a big, strong back can do for you.

Performing rack pulls on back day would likely lead to over-training the lower back if deadlifts or stiff-legged deadlifts are already a part of your leg day, so save these for rotations when leg days consist of one of many squatting variations.

Dumbbell Rows – When performed properly, the dumbbell row is a fantastic exercise for the lats, rhomboids, scapular retractors, and grip. It’s too bad that proviso regarding proper form is a big problem for most lifters. On a good day, I see dumbbell rows performed with too much weight, too much body English, and an incomplete range of motion. Again, that’s on a good day. Typically, overzealous trainees try to outdo one another by using absolutely ridiculous amounts of weight in a piss-poor attempt to be the next dumbbell-rowing YouTube sensation. While there is merit to performing the occasional set of ultra-heavy DB Kroc rows as a finisher, trainees with the lat and upper back development of Larry King need to focus on performing dumbbell rows properly.

The trick is to lengthen the range of motion and pause at the top and bottom. Starting with the dumbbell positioned in front of the head and rowing it up in an arc towards the hip extends the ROM. As for the one-second pauses at the top and bottom, trainees who suck it up and do this will finally feel what it’s like to experience next-day lat soreness!

The finished product should look like a smooth and precise movement, with a flat back and virtually no upper body movement save for the working arm. If you’re still unsure, have a friend film you performing a set; if your form looks anything like trying to start a stubborn lawn mower, then you need to reassess your technique.

Chest-Supported Rows – The barbell row is a real conundrum. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic old-school back exercise that can add size and thickness to the back. On the other hand, most bodybuilders use way too much weight and leg drive, turning this once sound movement into a rounded-back travesty.

Big lats show from the front or back (Phil Heath posing).

Fortunately, there’s chest-supported rows. This variation virtually eliminates all leg drive while supporting the lower back throughout the movement, making them an option even for fatigued or injured lifters. This exercise is a favorite of elite powerlifters who know that a thick upper back can beef up a bench press. Using a wide grip and pausing at the top emphasizes the scapular retractors, posterior delts, and rhomboids.

Seated Rows to Neck with Rope – Building a balanced physique requires training the muscles you can’t see in the mirror, making even those less-flashy muscles a priority. Seated cable rows to the neck are a great way to compensate for too much beach-driven bench pressing.

Set the pulley so that it’s in line with the top of the chest and grasp the ends of the rope attachment, palms down. With the shoulders protracted, begin the exercise by retracting the shoulder blades, then immediately row the rope towards the neck by bending the elbows. Keep the elbows up at all times. The trunk should remain stable in order to minimize lower back involvement, and be sure to pause at the top and bottom position. For variety, a straight bar attachment can also be used (use a wide grip).
Note: when using a rope, rotating the wrists at the top so the forearms are perpendicular to the floor will recruit the external rotators.

Shrugs – To be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of shrugs. Most nondorks can develop a beastly set of traps just by performing heavy deadlift variations and, ideally, learning to perform the Olympic lifts. But because every dude does shrugs anyway, they might as well do them properly.

For a full range of motion, use dumbbells (not a barbell) and pause at the top and bottom positions for a full one-second. Performing the exercise while seated can help mitigate lower back problems, and please don’t use straps; your grip will catch up. Finally, for the love of God, please don’t roll the shoulders back at the top position. Not only does this stress the shoulder joint, it’s completely illogical and only serves to identify you as a Gym Moron and worthy of ridicule and disdain.

Putting It All Together
To add some much-needed back mass, these exercises can be combined into two effective routines. Perform these routines every 6-7 days. Repeat Routine A five or six times before moving onto Routine B.

Routine A

Order Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo/ Rest

A. Rack pull 4 x 4-6 3211* 240
B. Weighted chin-up 4 x 6-8 41X1 180
C. Chest supported row 3 x 8-10 3211 90
D. Rope row to neck 3 x 10-12 3111 75

*Note the two-second pause in the dead-stop (bottom) position.

Routine B

Order Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo/ Rest

A. Wide-grip pull-up 4 x 6-8 41X1 120
B. DB row 4 x 8-10 4111 120
C. Wide S. row to neck 3 x 10-12 3112* 90
D. DB shrugs 3 x 15-20 2112 75

*Note the two-second pause in the top position.

A note on tempo:
I’ve borrowed (stolen?) this tempo prescription from strength coach Charles Poliquin. I highly recommend his excellent PICP courses for learning more about proper program design and exercise methodology.

Here’s how the four numbers work, using 3211 as an example:

  • The first number is the eccentric tempo or lowering phase. In this example, the lifter would take three full seconds to lower the weight.
  • The second number is the isometric pause at the end of the eccentric. In this example, the lifter would pause for two full seconds (a zero indicates no pause is taken).
  • The third number is the return or concentric phase. This example has a one-second concentric; an X would indicate an explosive return or pulling the weight back up as fast as proper technique allows.
  • The fourth number is the isometric pause at the end of the concentric phase or before the start of the next rep. In this example, the lifter would pause one full second before lowering the weight again.

Get Back To It!
Everybody loves to train the glamour muscles, but it’s the ones that you can’t see that pay the richest dividends. Give these routines an honest go and you too will soon find yourself struggling to find a jacket that fits.

Just please don’t send me your tailoring bills!

Backside of the Arm!

As a full time personal trainer and physique coach, I’ve helped hundreds of athletes, bodybuilders, and weekend warriors get more out of their workout programs.

To say the client assessment process can get a little repetitive is an understatement, and while no two cases are ever exactly alike, you can’t help but spot the consistent factors. I can usually guess four of the five things that new clients would most like to change about their physiques before even asking them!

With women, nine-tenths of the time the priorities are to lose fat, get more “toned” through the stomach and butt, build shapely arms, and either not change the bust or give it more “lift.” (Hey, I’m a trainer, not a surgeon!)

With guys, it’s also interesting. 15 years ago, when I started coaching, priority #1 was always to get big and strong, like a mid-70’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. Today, “Get ripped abz!” is the number one goal of the mid-20’s male, unfortunately. Whether this is an indication that young men are now a bunch of vain bastards who prefer to stand shirtless in front of cell phone cameras or are all just too damn fat is open to interpretation. In either case, priority # 2 for guys is always to build bigger arms.

Ahh, big arms…now we’re talking! Deep down, even the most functional-minded “weeds, seeds, and wheat grass” zealot still longs for an extra inch or two of beef in the sleeves of those hemp T-shirts.

The biceps are the star of the show and for good reason. Ask your typical gym rat to “make a muscle” and he’ll invariably hit a half-assed biceps pose. However, for most of the trainees I encounter, it’s the triceps that are the major issue.

You can build a set of biceps so freaky that they would make Boyer Coe proud, but if your triceps aren’t up to snuff, then you’ll never reach your aesthetic potential. After all, the triceps make up two-thirds of total arm size and make (or break) your bench press — hence the need for bodybuilders and strength athletes alike to give the triceps the love they deserve.

Mike Matarazzo had incredible arms with absolutely massive triceps

When asked to come up with a few ways to improve the triceps, I immediately thought of five things. After going through my client logs, that number quickly reached ten (I quit counting at 15). Suffice it to say that when it comes to triceps, there’s no shortage of ammunition for your arsenal.

I’m going to begin by giving you my 11 best tips. Obviously, using all of them would be impossible, not to mention insane, so I’ve also included a brief explanation as to when and why you might choose to use each one.

At the end, I’ve also supplied a couple of routines that I’ve used with two vastly different clients, each of whom approached me with complaints of substandard triceps development.

#1 – Train Heavy: The triceps often respond well to multiple low-rep sets, as evidenced by the massive triceps development many powerlifters possess. Coaches like Charles Poliquin have noted that the lateral head of the triceps in particular can be notoriously fickle and often responds almost exclusively to heavy loads. The take-home message: if the bulk of your triceps work involves a cable station, switch things up to include multiple sets of weighted dips, close-grip bench presses, and pin presses, all in the 2-6 rep range.

#2 – Change Your Frequency: It never ceases to amaze me how many bodybuilders train each bodypart once every seven days. I imagine the popularity of this practice stems from the convenience of working the same bodyparts on the same day of the week, thereby making Friday night gun shows a weekly ritual. Obviously this system “works,” but I would argue that if the aim is to bring up a weak point, then working it once every seven days is about the least effective approach you can take.

Weak triceps often require more frequency. This doesn’t necessarily mean more volume, but more frequent exposures instead, preferably with different rep ranges. If you’re still hung up on the same-days-of-the-week thing, a routine that trains triceps with biceps on Monday (nine sets of 4-8 reps) and then on Thursday after chest (five sets of 8-15 reps) is very effective.

#3 – Do The Opposite: This is a classic personal training trick. Often, when I pick up new clients who are not growing, I ask to see what they’ve been doing for the past six months – and then have them do the opposite. Nine out of ten will start growing again.

We all have favorite body parts, workout routines, and set-and-rep protocols; it’s human nature to repeat the things we enjoy and with which we experience success. The problem is that the body is highly adaptable, and as any strong dude will tell you, always playing to your strengths eventually stops working. It can also set you up for muscle imbalance issues and injury. Therefore, you need to change your routine, change the stimulus, and force adaptation.

#4 – Focus on Form, Not Weight: Many bodybuilders use horrific form in order to lift more weight. Don’t get me wrong–using a small amount of body English to complete that last rep or two of a gut-busting set is permissible, but if your first reps are shoddy already, then take note: you’re doing nothing more than reinforcing poor technique, not to mention greatly increasing the potential for both acute and long term injury.

For years, bodybuilders have yammered on about the “mind-muscle connection”, and while much of that is “gym science”, there may be some truth to the saying when it comes to stubborn triceps. Slow down the reps and practice perfect form, especially with the single-joint isolation movement. Really feel the stretch at the bottom of extensions, and contract forcefully on your precious pressdowns. In either movement, keep the elbows locked in place at all times.

As an aside, perfect form makes achieving “da pump” much easier. Many lifters scoff at the importance of the pump, and while it may be irrelevant for strength, it is crucial for hypertrophy, especially if the given muscle is a stubborn weak point.

#5 – Try Partial Reps and Lockouts: Board presses, pin presses, floor presses, and seated half presses are all powerlifting staples commonly used to bring up triceps strength, and specifically, to assist in the lockout portion of the bench press. The shortened range of motion allows for significantly heavy loads and can serve as a great remedy for triceps that lack thickness and mass. To maximize muscle-building tension, take a 2-second pause at the bottom of the rep but keep tension on the bar. Press it back up to a full, hard lockout.

#6 – Try Chains on Presses and Extensions: Adding chains to a loaded barbell is a way to incorporate what the Westside guys refer to as “accommodating resistance.” Extensor movements like presses and extensions are hardest at the bottom and get gradually easier as you approach lockout. With chains (correctly) hanging off the ends of the bar, the weight gets heavier as you progress down through the range of motion, thus mirroring the strength curve. Similarly, the weight “deloads” at the bottom, where you’re weakest, as more of the chain rests on the floor. This is more of an advanced strength training technique but is very effective.

Not many men have arms literally larger than their head. Sergio Oliva did!

#7 – Target the Long Head of the Triceps: The long head is the largest of the three heads of the triceps and is arguably the “showiest”. Although isolating one head completely out of the others isn’t possible, it is possible to preferentially recruit the different heads by manipulating elbow position.

According to Charles Poliquin, “The further away the arms are from the belly button, the more recruitment there is of the long head of the triceps.” Exercises that fit this description include incline triceps extensions and overhead dumbbell triceps extension.

#8 – Stretch: DoggCrapp training is very popular with bodybuilders, at least as long as they’re able to stay healthy while doing it. One aspect of DC training that all lifters should consider regardless of the program they’re on is fascia stretching. John Parillo was the first to introduce this to bodybuilding circles, before Dante Trudel popularized it a decade or so later. Fascia stretching literally means expanding the fascia or connective tissue surrounding the muscles to make room for more mass. It’s about as enjoyable as dropping a 45-pound plate on your pinky toe, but the results are undeniable, especially in the quads, pecs, lats, and triceps. A heavy overhead dumbbell stretch can provide this kind of stimulation as can an extreme dip between bars, provided your joints approve.

#9 – Try Drop Sets: You’re probably going to do triceps pressdowns anyway, so why not do them in a butt-kicking fashion? Drop sets allow you to use a heavy load with an extended time-under-tension, a winning combination for hypertrophy. Drop sets work best with safe exercises that allow for quick weight adjustments; this is the cable station’s moment to shine. There are dozens of drop set protocols, such as 5/5/5, 6/12/25, etc; pick one and perform three sets, preferably as a finisher. I like to program these after a heavy chest workout for a fast and effective secondary triceps blast.

#10 – Supercompensate: This is one of my favorite programming tricks: beat the tar out of a muscle, then pull back and watch it grow. Those who have done a (successful) specialization program will report that they didn’t really “see” the gains until after they quit specializing. In other words, fatigue masks fitness, and therefore it wasn’t until the body was given a chance to recover that those hard-earned gains appeared. You can try this with numerous approaches, such as 2 or 3 weeks on and 1 week off; but one of my favorites is given in the sample workouts below.

#11 – Gain Weight: My apologies if this is frightfully obvious, but considering some of the boneheaded stuff I read on bodybuilding forums, I suppose it bears repeating. Addressing a weak point involves building muscle, which requires a calorie surplus. Combining your summer beach diet with a titanic triceps specialization program is akin to riding two horses with one ass. That doesn’t mean you need to eat like a fat bastard to gain muscle, but you shouldn’t be restricting calories either.

That’s a lot of tips, for sure: so much so that you’re likely thinking, “How the heck do I combine all that into a routine?”

Simple. You don’t.

Many trainees make the mistake of trying to cram too much work into one training session, especially with body parts that they desperately want to improve. The end result is usually over training and sometimes injury to boot. Choose your battles carefully.

Here’s what I suggest:

If your training diary shows a lot of higher rep, machine-based, Planet Fitness-friendly triceps work, you likely have triceps that lack overall size and fullness. In addition, you probably have comparatively weak triceps as evidenced during pressing movements.

Try this for six weeks. It’s a two-a-day routine that works wonders for folks stuck in the Muscle and Fiction “once a week from all angles” rut.

While this is a relatively elbow-friendly routine (the PM workout can be an issue), your rotator cuffs may not like the half presses and dips. Performing the half presses to the front as opposed to behind the head can help, as would replacing the dips with decline close-grip bench presses.

Roelly Winklarr has some of the best triceps in bodybuilding today

Perform the following on Monday & Thursday (or Tuesday & Friday, etc.)

Warm-up: Rope pushdowns – 3 x 15 reps (both AM and PM workouts)

AM Workout – Heavy Sets Tempo Rest
A1. Seated 1/2 press 6 x 2-4 52X0* 2 min
** come to a 2 sec stop on pins      
A2. Weighted chin 6 x 2-4 40X1 2 min
B1. Dips 4 x 6 41X1 90 sec
B2. Incline hammer curl 4 x 6 31X1 90 sec
PM Workout – Heavy Sets Tempo Rest
A1. EZ bar extension w/chains 6 x 6-8 32X0* 90 sec
A2. EZ bar preacher curl 4 x 6-8 30X2 90 sec
B1. Overhead DB triceps ext 3 x 8-10 3030 60 sec
B2. *Incline concentration curl 3 x 8-10 3030 60 sec

* See below for an explanation of tempo.
** Performed by lying prone (backwards) on an incline bench, holding two dumbbells with the arms hanging completely straight. Curl the weights up high as possible without moving the elbow, while being careful to come to full extension at the bottom.

“Two-a-days? Do you think I live in a gym?”, I hear you cry.

Easy there, sport. It’s just for a short period of time, and you’ll actually be in the gym twice on only two days a week. Before anyone asks, the other days should consist of one upper body and one lower body day with no more than 12 work sets per workout. We’re specializing here, right?

Here’s how the specialization would play out over a six-week period:

  • Week 1: Two a day, twice a week
  • Week 2: Two a day, twice a week (push the intensity a bit)
  • Week 3: One a day, twice a week (drop the PM workout)
  • Week 4: Two a day, twice a week (change the exercises slightly – grip width, attachments, etc)
  • Week 5: Two a day, twice a week (push the intensity a bit)
  • Week 6: One a day, once a week (drop the PM workout)>

The following routine is for a different triceps-challenged trainee: a lifter who is plenty big and strong, but has triceps that lack detail and shape (or whose training history shows a lot of basic, low-rep barbell work).

Perform this bad boy every 4-5 days:

Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo Rest
A1. EZ bar triceps ext 3 x 4-6 42X0* 10 sec
A2. Flat DB triceps ext 3 x 6-8 31X0 10 sec
A3. Rope triceps ext 3 x 12-15 21X1 90 sec
B1. Reverse EZ preacher curl 3 x 4-6 4020 10 sec
B2. Supinated EZ preacher curl 3 x 6-8 3020 10 sec
B3. *Preacher DB hammer curl 3 x 8-10 3020 90 sec

*Can use a neutral-grip triceps extension bar.

A note on tempo:
Exercise tempo is a subject of much debate in the lifting community. Some say it’s an essential lifting parameter, like sets and reps, while others argue it is completely irrelevant information.

My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. While at times tempo is somewhat self-fulfilling (can you really perform a one-rep max safely without anything other than a slow eccentric?), when you do the math, it does make sense, especially for hypertrophy.

Even if you always press the bar up explosively, a set of 10 reps with a 4-second eccentric (lowering of the bar) puts the muscle under load for a lot longer than pressing the same weight for 10 reps with a swift, 1-second eccentric. The difference is literally four times the amount of precious muscle-building “time under tension.”

I’ve borrowed (stolen?) this tempo prescription from strength coaches Charles Poliquin and Ian King, though both would admit that they didn’t invent them, either.

Here’s how the four numbers work, using 4212 as an example:

  • The first number is the eccentric tempo, or lowering phase. In this example, the lifter would take 4 full seconds to lower the bar.
  • The second number is the isometric pause at the end of the eccentric. In this example, the lifter would pause for 2 full seconds; a zero indicates no pause is taken.
  • The third number is the return or concentric phase. This example has a 1-second concentric; an X indicates an explosive return, pushing the weight back up as fast as proper technique allows.
  • The fourth number is the isometric pause at the end of the concentric phase, before the start of the next rep. In this example, the lifter would pause 2 full seconds before lowering the bar again.

Wrap Up

If you’re cursed with stubborn triceps, there’s no need to disown your parents or head down to see Mickey the local Synthol dealer. Simply conduct an honest assessment of what you have been doing and use the above suggestions to adjust your workout program accordingly.

Take heart– it often doesn’t take much to get things growing again, and one thing is for certain: if what you had been doing was still effective, you wouldn’t need an article like this.

Thanks for reading!