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Sometimes it makes sense to go against the grain, to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing or what you normally do. It’s by no means a novel concept. Seinfeld lovers will recall the episode in which George Costanza did the exact opposite of every one of his instincts and realized it was the way to be successful. This philosophy holds true in the gym, particularly when we’re talking about the grip you use on the bar. While it may seem weird or unconventional, flipping your grip may be just the thing you need to spark your muscular fire and ignite new growth. After all, doing the opposite worked for George – he got the girl and landed a job with the Yankees.
Every muscle in your body is composed of thousands of muscle fibers, but they don’t all work together simultaneously to contract the entire muscle. Take the biceps brachii, for example. It’s actually composed of two heads; the long head sits more toward the outside of the arm while the short head sits right next to it on the inside of the arm. When you do a biceps curl, both heads contract to flex the arm, but some curls cause more of the short-head muscle fibers to contract while other curls cause more of the long-head fibers to contract. Every small change you make in your curls, from the type of bar to the grip you use, changes the muscle fibers utilized in the exercise.
To maximize muscle growth, you need to hit all the muscle fibers in a muscle, and the best way to accomplish this is by using a variety of angles, bars and, yes, grips. One simple way to change your grip is to flip it 180 degrees, so that it’s the reverse of the usual way you do the exercise. For example, on the bench press you normally grip the bar with an overhand grip. To stress different muscle fibers in the pecs, turn your wrists 180 degrees and do a reverse-grip bench press. You can turn things around with almost any upper-body exercise to significantly alter the way the muscles are targeted.
Try incorporating the following reverse-grip moves into your workouts to fast-forward your muscle growth.
When you take an underhand grip on shoulder presses, the emphasis shifts to the front delts and the very upper fibers of the upper pecs. Your elbows flare out to your sides on standard overhand-grip barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses, placing more emphasis on the middle deltoid head. With an underhand grip, the elbows travel more in front of the body, calling on more front-deltoid fibers. The elbows also drop farther in the bottom position of the shoulder press with an underhand grip, involving more upper pecs; the front delts take on the majority of the load after the upper arms come parallel to the floor. Many bodybuilders are more concerned with middle-delt head development than their front delts, but the reverse-grip shoulder press is a great way to shape the chest-delt tie-in (the groove that separates the pecs and delts), making both muscle groups look that much more impressive.
Whether you’re doing rows or pulldowns, flipping your grip on back exercises places more emphasis on the lower-lat fibers. Using an underhand grip on a barbell row or a lat pulldown causes the elbows to travel closer to the sides of the torso – a line of pull that involves more of the muscle fibers in the lower part of the lats. The reverse grip also enables the elbows to travel farther behind the back, increasing the range of motion at the point of peak contraction and forcing more of the lower-lat muscle fibers to do the work.
Because reverse-grip rows and pulldowns allow more help from the bi’s, you can generally lift heavier weight compared to the regular-grip versions, stimulating more muscle growth. Although wide-grip pulldowns and barbell rows better target the upper- and outer-lat muscle fibers critical for back width, using a reverse grip on these exercises adds lat thickness and lower-lat width. Just look at Dorian Yates’ back and you’ll see what we mean. He was a huge proponent of both the reverse-grip barbell row and reverse-grip pulldown.
Using an underhand grip on triceps-extension moves such as the pressdown and lying triceps extension places greater emphasis on the medial head of the triceps. Many bodybuilding pioneers who trained by feel suspected as much, and research has supported this concept. The medial (lower and inner) head is often overlooked by bodybuilders in their quest to develop massive long heads and lateral heads, but the former needs frequent work if you seek complete and balanced triceps development.
Unlike the other muscle groups mentioned, when you reverse your grip on biceps curls, you actually go from a standard underhand grip to an overhand grip, rather than vice versa. Most guys who frequent the gym should know this, but switching from underhand to overhand places most of the emphasis on the deeper brachialis muscle (situated between the biceps and triceps) as well as the brachioradialis, your upper-forearm flexor. What most guys don’t know is that it also shifts more emphasis from the biceps short head to the biceps long head. Because the brachialis muscle isn’t a flex-your-arm kind of muscle, it’s often neglected by bodybuilders who want huge guns. Yet reverse-grip curls should be a frequent addition to your arm routine because this muscle can add serious thickness to the biceps, particularly the lower area.
When you flip your grip on chest presses from the standard overhand grip to an underhand grip on either barbell or dumbbell moves, the major focus of the exercise switches from the middle- and lower-pec fibers to the upper-pec fibers. Scientists at Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College (Toronto) discovered that performing a reverse-grip bench press with a wider-than-shoulder-width grip increases upper-pec involvement by about 27% compared to the regular (overhand grip) bench press. This additional upper-pec involvement carries over to the reverse-grip dumbbell bench press — great news for those who train at home and don’t have an incline bench or when you don’t have time to wait for the incline bench to free up during peak gym hours. It’s also beneficial for those wanting to stimulate different pectoral-muscle fibers.