Exercises are like recipes: a slight adjustment to the formula can be the difference between a mediocre meal and a masterpiece. Use these lifting tweaks, tips, and twists to turn stale weightroom staples into muscle-building marvels.

1. Dumbbell Curls: Twist Your Wrist

Easy to do and extremely effective, dumbbell curls are a classic go-to move for adding size and strength to the biceps. Most people instinctively start the move with a palms-up grip as if performing a barbell curl. While this isn’t entirely ineffective, next time you do the move, try starting with a palms-in (neutral) grip, then twist (supinate) your wrists, rotating your palms towards you as you curl the weight. “This allows for a greater range of motion that activates more muscle fibers and helps to develop the muscle more fully,” says Acadia Webber, nutrition and training coach and fitness competitor. At the top of the move, twist your wrists out even more, as far as they can go, to really score the added contraction.

2. Lateral Raises: Sit Down

The lateral raise is one of the best isolation exercises for the shoulders and an effective move for adding size and width to your overall frame. Unfortunately, lateral raises are too often performed standing, which can compromise form and effectiveness, says Isabel Lahela, personal trainer, competitive powerlifter, and Olympic weightlifter. “Performing lateral raises seated helps to engage the target middle delts more precisely by eliminating the body’s tendency to ‘bounce’ and use momentum to lift the weight.” Raising the weight from a seated position will also prevent you from lowering the weight in front of your body (rather than the sides), another common error that shifts the emphasis off of the middle delts and strains the rotator cuff.

3. Lat Pulldowns: Flip Your Grip

We’ve been conditioned to believe that a wide, overhand grip is the best way to do pulldowns. Most pulldown bars even have angled ends for just such a setup. But this grip really only targets the upper lats, leaving the rest of the muscle almost untouched. With an underhand, shoulder-width grip, the elbows travel downward alongside the torso instead of out wide. This activates the oft-ignored lower lats and allows for a better contraction and increased range of motion at the bottom of the move, says Webber. “As an added benefit, bicep and forearm activation is higher with the underhand grip, making you stronger and the weight feel lighter.” For a back that is as symmetrical as it is strong, alternate between the two grips every workout.

4. Triceps Pressdown: Underhand It

The triceps muscle is composed of three parts: the long, lateral, and medial heads. The latter, despite its important role in stabilizing the elbow joint and filling out the back of the arm, does not get fully engaged during conventional overhand pressdowns. Luckily there’s an easy solution. “Taking an underhand grip shifts more of the focus to the medial head,” says Lahela. “It also makes it more difficult for your arms to compensate with other muscles when your triceps get tired.” Keep in mind that because of its isolating effectiveness, most people find the underhand grip considerably more challenging, so don’t get discouraged if you have to drop down a few plates to maintain your rep volume.

5. Planks: Stop Counting, Start Flexing

Next time you set up for some planks, your first step should be tossing the timer. “It’s about using every single muscle in your body, as opposed to just counting the seconds and minutes,” says Schatz. Imagine a corset is wrapped around your body and every time you exhale it gets pulled tighter. At the same time, focus on squeezing your glutes, thighs, and shoulder blades, and keep pushing forward with your toes. Maintaining form and alignment should be your primary concern, not just how long you can hold it. You’ll know it’s time to stop when your entire core starts screaming for mercy. 

6. Bench Press: Go Wide

The standard slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width bench press grip is perfect for building overall upper-body size and strength. But to really target your chest muscles and shock them into growing, try widening your grip by at least two hand-widths. “This slight change keeps the focus on the pecs instead of the triceps, which do a lot of the work during conventional bench presses,” says Webber. Getting used to the dramatically shortened range of motion and increased workload on the pecs can be difficult, so be sure to go down in weight and use a spotter until you adapt. And no matter how wide your grip, always wrap your thumbs around the bar for safety and squeeze your pecs at the top of the move for added contraction. 

7. Squats: Mix It Up

Focusing on volume, weight, and intensity when squatting is great, but if you really want to add muscle and strength your lower body, you have to be prepared to break with routine.  “There are a ton of different squat variations and each one has its own unique benefits,” says Lahela. For example, changing foot position to a wide stance better targets the glutes and the outer thighs. A narrow stance more effectively hits the quadriceps and inner thighs. The same goes for bar position. “The back squat engages more of the hamstrings and glutes, while the front squat engages more of the front of the leg.” Assess your weak points and build your squat routine around what needs improvement.

Alex Zakrzewski
Alex is a Toronto-based freelance writer and fitness enthusiast.