When you think about improving muscle definition, you usually think about lowering body fat. This is because muscle definition becomes more visible when you’re leaner and the separation between muscles (both body parts and individual muscle heads) is more easily seen. But can definition also be improved by incorporating training at different angles? Read below to find out.
Can You “Shape” a Muscle?
There has been a lot of debate on the idea of if you can “shape” a muscle or not. In other words, do certain exercises hit muscles in certain ways such that only part of the muscle is targeted (or at least emphasized)? For instance, do preacher curls really hit the “lower” biceps more? Does pointing your toes one direction while doing leg extensions actually hit different parts of the quadriceps? And if so, how does this affect muscle separation?
Opinions on this have varied over the years. At first, many people in the workout industry felt that working the muscle at different angles did indeed stimulate different types of growth. Then the idea that genetics determined a muscle’s shape and there was nothing you could do about that became prevalent.
First of all, since muscle groups are made up of multiple muscles and/or muscle heads, you can train different exercises and/or at different angles to emphasize one muscle/head or another. For instance, incline press works the pecs at a different angle than flat bench press.
However, the difference in development and muscle definition isn’t because the muscle was worked at a different angle as much as incline press targets the pectoralis minor (the upper pec) more than it targets the pectoralis major (the lower pec). This isn’t a case of a different “part” of muscle being worked as it is a different muscle within the group itself.
That doesn’t mean that different parts of an individual muscle aren’t worked differently by different exercises or working those exercises at different angles. After all, you can literally feel an instantaneous difference when pointing your toes in, straight, or out during leg extensions and calf raises. Your body isn’t lying to you, is it?
Science would say it isn’t. In fact, three different studies in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research published in 1995, 1997, and 2000 would support this. Both EMGs and MRIs were used to determine if different movements worked at different angles could target different parts of a muscle, and the answer was a definitive “yes”.
What does this mean for Your Muscle Definition?
So if working different exercises at different angles can indeed alter which part(s) of a muscle are targeted, and in turn, grow, then what does this mean to your workouts? And more specifically, what does it mean for your muscle definition?
It means that by manipulating how you grow a muscle, you can further enhance your muscle definition by basically changing how it’s shaped. Want a more prominent “horseshoe” in your triceps? Concentrate on pushdowns using a v-handle attachment. Want deeper separation in the “teardrop” shaped muscles of the quadriceps just above the knee? Spend more time doing Bulgarian split squats.
What Angles are Best on which Exercises for what Muscles?
There are almost countless variations of how to utilize angles to affect muscle growth. However, below is a list of body parts, exercises, and modifications you can make to enhance your muscle definition and overall muscularity.
- Dumbbell “w-press” (press two dumbbells overhead with your arms out at an angle; in the top position, your arms and head should form a “w” shape) – emphasizes the side delt.
- Wide grip behind the neck press (be sure to go with a lighter weight, higher reps, and a full range of motion) – stretches the front and side delt exceedingly well; targets the traps hard.
- Lateral raise – keep the shoulders sunk as low as possible in the socket so as to hit the side delt; shrugging the shoulders up will shift emphasis to the traps.
- Incline press – targets the upper pec.
- Pec dec (angle your arms such that your elbows are higher than your shoulders) – emphasizes the upper pecs at contraction.
- Cable crossover (stand upright and have the pulleys set to waist height or below; bring the arms up at an angle as you perform each rep) – hits the upper pec well, but keep a strong mind-muscle connection or the front deltoids will take over.
- Reverse grip barbell row – hits the lower lats very well (see the back development of 6x Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates).
- Wide grip pullup or pulldown – stretches the lats out wide; tends to build them wider.
- Dumbbell row – pulling with your elbow at your side emphasizes the lower lats; the further out you flare your elbows, the more emphasis is placed on the middle lats and rhomboids.
- Preacher curl – target the lower biceps just above the elbow (especially when lying with your chest on the angled part of the bench so your arms hang vertically).
- Concentration curl – emphasizes the biceps “peak”.
- Any “hammer” curl variation where the palms are partly/fully facing each other – shifts emphasis to the outer biceps head, builds a better biceps peak.
- Pushdown with a v-handle – emphasizes the “horseshoe”.
- Lying dumbbell extension (lying crossways on a bench, both hands lifting one heavy dumbbell, arms angled slightly back, bringing the dumbbell back behind your head) – hits the lower triceps just above the elbow.
- Pushdown with a rope attachment – contraction emphasizes the inner triceps head.
- Single dumbbell overhead extension (keep the upper arm vertical, bringing the hand down behind the head so that the forearm moves in line/parallel with the torso) – stretches the inner head of the triceps well.
- Bulgarian split squat – hits the VMO (the “teardrop” shaped muscle above the knee) hard.
- Leg extension – pointing the toes out hits the inner quadriceps; pointing the toes in hits the outer quadriceps.
- Squat/leg press – pointing the toes in or out elicits the same effect as in the leg extension; a wider stance shifts more emphasis to the hips and glutes.
- Sissy squat – stretches the VMO hard; contraction targets the middle quadriceps.
- Standing calf raise/toe press – pointing the toes in or out elicits the same effect as in the leg extension. Toes in has slightly more emphasis on the outer head of the gastrocnemius and solues; toes out has slightly more emphasis on the inner head of the gastrocnemius.
When all is said and done, the fact of the matter is that training at different angles can hit different parts of the muscle, and emphasize the stretch or contraction in different ways. This allows you to not only target your problem areas, but by enhancing certain parts of the muscle, you can thereby improve your muscle definition, too. Just realize that to maximize your definition, you’ll still need to be lean, so make sure you have your diet in check.