by Ben Bruno T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• The problem with most combination exercises is that one of the exercises is significantly stronger than the other and you end up using less weight for it. These six combos solve that problem.
• Combination exercises can work well for packing on mass if both exercises are equally demanding so you don’t have to shortchange one for the sake of the other.
• Combos done in alternating fashion allow you to get more reps of each than if you were to use straight sets. Why? Because each muscle group gets a brief rest while you work the other.
The problem with most combination exercises is that one of the exercises is usually significantly stronger than the other. This means when it comes to selecting a weight, you must choose according to the weaker exercise, which in turn means that you’re shortchanging the stronger exercise and not getting as much out of it as you could had you done it on its own. This isn’t as big of a deal if you’re just looking to do some lighter metabolic work, but if your goal is to build muscle, it’s not ideal.
So while I typically don’t like combination exercises for muscle building, they can work well if both exercises are equally demanding so you don’t have to shortchange one for the sake of the other. With that in mind, here are six great combination exercises to add muscle to your upper body.
1. Dumbbell Fly and Squeeze Press
This is a great exercise to fry your pecs. It works particularly well for people that struggle to feel most traditional pressing exercises in their chest. Start with the dumbbells pressed together on your chest and do a “squeeze press” on the concentric where you keep the dumbbells in contact with each other the whole time. This works best with hex dumbbells or Powerblocks, but it’ll work just fine with regular dumbbells too. Just make sure to line the dumbbells up with one another so they don’t slip out of place. From there, lower the weights down by doing a dumbbell fly, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to keep the stress on the chest rather than the shoulders.
This combination works really well and allows you to reap the benefits of two great chest-building exercises while enabling you to handle more weight than you’d otherwise be able to use for regular dumbbell flyes. I do them on a slight incline because I feel it more in my chest and less in my shoulders. Stick to sets of 8-12 reps using good controlled form. This makes for a great finishing exercise for your chest after you’ve done your heavy pressing work.
2. Incline Curl and “Tate Press” Arm Combo
This is a cool combination exercise to hit the biceps and triceps in one movement. Start by doing an incline dumbbell curl and follow it up with an “elbows out” triceps extension (also known as a Tate press).
This is a great pairing because it flows well and uses weights that you’d realistically use for each exercise if done individually. Training the biceps and triceps together also makes for one hell of a pump. Tacking 3-5 sets of these at the end of your workout will only take an extra 5-10 minutes but will still provide your arms with a good growth stimulus.
3. Chin-up and Hanging Leg Raise
This combo blast the lats, upper back, arms, and core all at once.
This pairing works nicely because it kills two birds with one stone: you can classify it as either a back exercise or a core exercise, depending on where you want to put it in your program. It also helps keep your chin-ups honest because you can’t kip or use excessive momentum. The goal is to do it with your legs straight, but if that’s too tough at first you can start by doing them with your knees bent and progress over time to doing them with your legs straight. Doing them with your knees bent is actually a good way to squeeze out a few extra chin-ups too, as the bent legs can be used to give you some momentum. Just don’t use that as a license to start flailing around!
You could even do a mechanical drop set of sorts by starting the set with straight legs and bending them mid-set as you start struggling to do more chin-ups and your core starts to fatigue.
Placing a medicine ball or a weight between your feet increases the core challenge significantly. If you’re doing them with bent knees, you can place the weight between your knees. You can also add a weighted vest if you’re looking to make the chin-up portion of the exercise harder.
4. Ring Fly and Fallout
This exercise is a ring chest fly combined with an ab fallout done from pushup position. Do one chest fly followed by one fallout and repeat in alternating fashion for the desired number of reps.
Both of these exercises are much harder than they look, so you may need to shorten the straps and/or walk your feet farther underneath the anchor point at first. Fallouts are typically done starting from the pike position with the hips flexed – in which case they aren’t nearly as hard – but when you start with the hips extended in push-up position, it’s a whole different animal. On the fallouts, only extend out to the point where you can maintain a neutral spine position. If you start to arch excessively or start to feel it in your lower back, you’ve gone too far. Similarly, be sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows on the flyes to keep the stress off the shoulders. If full flyes are too hard at first or if they bug your shoulders, try bent-arm flyes instead.
These exercises go well together because they’re equally challenging and when done in alternating fashion they allow you to get more reps of each than if you were to use straight sets because each muscle group gets a brief rest while you work the other.
5. Bodyweight Reverse Fly and Curl
Here’s a great way to work your upper back, rear delts, and biceps in a hurry at the end of an upper body workout. Using suspension straps or rings, start by doing a bodyweight reverse fly and follow it up by doing a biceps curl. Continue in alternating fashion for the desired number of reps.
To make it harder, lengthen the straps and/or walk your feet farther underneath the anchor point. To make it easier, do the opposite, shortening the straps and walking back farther. Like the previous exercise, this allows you to crank out more reps of each exercise than you’d otherwise be able to do if you did them separately.
6. Chest-Supported Reverse Fly and Hammer Curl
This exercise is great for working the upper back, rear delts, and biceps and provides a good alternative if you don’t have a suspension trainer. Start by lying prone on a 45-degree incline bench with your arms hanging straight down and your palms facing each other. First do a reverse fly, focusing on keeping your arms straight or almost straight and keeping your chest pressed flush against the bench to avoid cheating. Segue into a hammer curl, keeping your hands close together and trying to pause at the top of the rep just before the dumbbells touch your forehead.
It won’t take very much weight for this to be very challenging, so ditch the ego and focus on doing both exercises correctly with controlled form.