The (way too) Little Three: Neck, Forearms, and Calves
You know the type. You’ve seen him before, at the gym, the pool, and walking around campus…chest out, shoulders back, lats flared like he’s carrying two suitcases. The first thing you notice is how big his upper body is and the way his arms are in a constant state of semi-flex, but something is just a little off. Squint your eyes a little and use your hand to block out the view of his torso and suddenly his apparent walk-around weight just plummeted from 185lbs to 135lbs. That is when you realize the underlying problem with his proportions. Despite spending 2 hours every Monday hammering chest, having numerous weekly arm sessions, and maybe even a solid squat routine, this guy has never done a single exercise for the muscles in his neck, his forearms are more Olive Oil than Popeye, and his calves are little more than shins and skin.
Don’t be that guy. Too many weightlifters and bodybuilders view their training as segmented, having been raised on a steady diet of back/biceps chest/triceps style workouts. While their is nothing wrong with workouts that focus exclusively on one area of the body, it can lead to a mindset that prioritizes certain muscle groups out of vanity rather than viewing the body as a complete unit. Think about it - would you want to drive a souped up V-12 race car that has an alternator that was built for a 4 cylinder? Then why would you want to focus on your chest and back only to neglect the very muscles that allow you to hold on to that heavy weight? Maybe you love to squat and regularly crush your quads and hammies with brutal workouts, but when is the last time you payed similar attention to your legs from the knee down? And unless you are a fighter or wrestler I am willing to bet that the last time you did a neck exercise was…never. The goal in your training should be to eliminate any weak points, and be as functionally strong as possible in any position. It should come as no surprise then that the most well rounded athletes also possess physiques that are the most atheistically pleasing. So it’s time to ditch the wrist straps, un-pop that collar, and quit wearing sweatpants in the summer out of calve embarrassment. Here is a solid strategy to train up the “little 3” to blend in with the rest of your massive musculature.
Problem Area: #1 - Forearms
Typical Offense: using straps on every exercise, doing nothing grip specific
Quick solution: no more straps
For even the strongest, most well rounded weightlifter, the grip is going to still occasionally be the limiting factor is some lifts. If you are pulling 4 plates on Snatch-Grip Deadlift or performing dumbbell rows with a 150lb DB, then by all means, use straps. The problem I often see is a lifter walking around with straps on during an entire workout and using them on accessory exercises. I have fairly strong lats yet I have never had a problem holding on to the bar during lat pull downs. Don’t even get me started about guys using straps during pull ups. Unless doing a max effort set of an extremely heavy weight I would recommend ditching the straps all together and get used to squeezing the bar.
Top functional exercises for forearm/grip strength:
Weight Holds - pick a set of dumbbells roughly equivalent to your body weight (I weigh 160lbs, so I would use 80lb DBs), pick them up and stand with good posture (chest up, shoulders back, do not slouch) for as long as possible. Each week try to beat your time from the week before.
Towel Pull Ups - take a towel or sweat shirt and roll it up before draping it over the pull up bar. Grab as much material as possible and hold on tight as you do slow, controlled pull ups. Try doing sets of 10, or for an advanced version try sets of 3 with a weighted vest.
Plate Pinch: hold two plates together (smooth side out) squeezed between your thumb and the rest of your fingers flat. Start with two 5 or 10lb plates and work up from there.
DB Wrist curls - place your forearm on your thigh with your hand falling off of your knee. Let the dumbbell roll down your hand the end of your fingers then curl it back up, flexing the forearm. Do not let your wrist lose contact with your leg.
Hammer Curls - curl a heavy dumbbell up with your palm in a neutral position. Squeeze at the top and do not let your elbow pass the midpoint of your body..
Problem Area #2: Calves
Typical Offense: never working them, doing 1 or 2 half assed sets of calve raises occasionally
Quick Solution: incorporate them into your cardio or weight routine.
Disclaimer - I do not believe that the classic calve raise variations are the ticket to bigger, stronger calves. While these exercises are great, your calves are choke full of fast twitch fibers and I have found them to respond better to dynamic movement such as jumping and sprinting. Years ago when I trained as a bodybuilder, I did calve raises regularly with little results. When did my calves catch up to the rest of my body? When I started boxing and had to regularly sprint and jump rope. Calves can be a stubborn muscle to develop and are also highly constrained by genetics so high volume training is the way to go.
Top functional exercises for calves:
Jump Rope - try working up to 20 minutes of continuous jump rope once or twice a week as your conditioning routine. Another strategy is to incorporate 60 seconds of jump rope in between every set during your normal weight routine.
Hill Sprints - if you don’t have access to a steep hill or bleachers, try this interval workout on the tread mill: 10% incline 10mph, 10 seconds on/20 seconds off for 10 minutes. If you are advanced, lower the rest time to 10 seconds, or if you struggle to make it thru, keep the incline at 10% but lower the speed accordingly. Make sure to run on your toes, do not heal strike.
Single leg calve raise utilizing time under tension (TUT). Stand on the edge of a step or ploy box on one foot with your heel hanging off. Hold a dumbbell in one hand and hold onto the rack or railing with the other hand for balance. Lower and stretch for 10 seconds then raise all the way up, flexing the calve, and squeeze for 10 seconds. Complete 10 total reps, with each rep lowering the stretch and the squeeze count by 1 second (stretch and squeeze for 9 seconds on the 2nd rep, 8 seconds on the 3rd rep, etc.). Once you reach the 10th rep, blast out 10 additional quick reps then switch sides.
Problem Area #3: Neck
Typical Offense: Not realizing/caring that you have a pencil neck.
Quick Solution: Actually trying a neck exercise for once.
Ok, I get it. You’re not a wrestler or a fighter, so why bother working your neck? For one, the easiest way to prevent a concussion from any type of collision - sport induced or otherwise - is to have a strong neck. The muscles on the sides of your neck are what prevent your head from spinning fast and your brain crashing into your skull. So even though you may not play a contact sport, you never when a strong neck could prevent an additional injury during a fall or a random fender bender. From a physique standpoint, there are few things worse than building up a solid base of upper back and traps only to have a skinny neck sprouting up to support your head. If your goal is to not just be strong but to “look strong” do yourself a favor and start building up your neck. Besides, it’s the only muscle that shows in the winter time, and that will be here soon enough.
Top Functional Exercises for Neck:
Neck Plank - start by sitting on a swiss ball or bench and walk out until only your head is touching as you lay back. Bridge your hips up so your spine is flat and your knees are bent at 90 degrees. Start with 10 second holds and work up to 30 seconds. Once you can easily hold the position for 30 seconds, start adding weight by holding a plate or med ball on your hips.
Static holds - loop a thick band around your head and gently pull in one direction, gradually increasing the resistance. Pull as hard as you can while still keeping your head perfectly centered. Start with 10 second holds each direction and work up to 30 seconds
So there you have it - some simple solutions to bringing the little 3 up to speed. But now the hard part…you have to actually work them regularly! My advice to you if you have neglected these areas for years (like 99% of lifters do) then do at least one of the things I taught you for each area EVERY single day. For more solutions to your training woes, and the motivation to match, make sure to follow me on Instagram @CoachMyers_GutCheck