Simple tweaks for better muscle activation (10 exercises)

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JULY 5, 2022

I decided to get more practical with you this week, so here are 10 simple and effective exercise tweaks that can lead to better muscle activation:

1. Dumbbell row

  • Keep the motions controlled and pull the weight through your elbows.
  • Imagine that your hands are mere hooks for the weight and consider a thumbless grip to help with the mind-muscle connection.
  • When lowering the weight, extend your elbow fully but keep your shoulder in position and don’t let it protract (move down).

2. Cable fly

  • Train one side at a time and adduct your arms, squeezing the active pec muscle as hard as possible. For instance, when doing the fly with your right arm, your knuckle should travel in front of your left pec.
  • Training both sides simultaneously would mean bringing one hand over the other and crossing them instead of bumping your fists and releasing.

3. Hammer curl

  • Perform the exercise from a seated position to minimize the use of momentum and isolate your arm muscles.
  • Maintain an upright posture with your shoulder blades retracted and directly against the back support of the bench.
  • As you curl, keep your elbows to your sides and move the weight up until your wrist is slightly higher than your elbow, squeezing your biceps at the top.

4. Push-up

  • Consider a narrower stance (about shoulder-width apart) and support your weight over your palms, only having your fingers as anchors that keep your hands in position.
  • When pushing yourself off the floor, try bringing your hands together as if you’re about to do a fly. You won’t be able to move your hands, but thinking about the motion can lead to better chest activation.

5. Lateral raise

  • Lead the raise with your elbow and keep it slightly higher than your wrist on each repetition.
  • Additionally, consider doing one-and-a-halfs: raise the weight to the top position, lower it halfway, stop, raise it to the top again, and lower it to the bottom. That would be one repetition.

6. EZ lying skull crusher

  • Instead of bringing the bar to your forehead, lower it behind your head. Doing so is excellent for stretching your triceps well on the way down and increasing the range of motion, making repetitions more challenging and beneficial.

7. Romanian deadlift

  • Arch your back and bring your butt back as you lower the weight in a straight line.
  • Most of your weight should be on your heels. I find this slight tweak to engage my hamstrings instantly. You can practice the movement pattern without any weight. Lift your toes off the floor to see how muscle activation changes when standing on your heels and hinging at the hip.

8. Lat pulldowns

  • Performing the single-arm lat pulldown can be beneficial for increasing the range of motion and feeling your back muscles activate more.
  • You can also introduce a slight lateral torso crunch in the direction of the pull to further activate your lats.

9. Concentration curl

  • Spread your feet wide and place the elbow of your working arm against the inner portion of your thigh.
  • Lean forward enough so your shoulder is directly over your elbow, and curl the dumbbell until your wrist is slightly higher than your elbow, squeezing your bicep hard.
  • Twisting your wrist out can also help you engage your bicep more on each repetition.

10. Chin-ups/pull-ups

  • Incorporating negatives is a fantastic way to form a better muscle connection with your back during chin-ups and pull-ups. The objective is to grab the bar and reach the top by jumping or stepping on something, then control yourself on the way down. Keep your shoulder blades retracted and your abs tight, extending your arms as slowly as possible.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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