Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. For Bodybuilding.com Signature athlete Julian Smith, that was definitely the case. As Smith explained in The Bodybuilding.com Podcast, he was frustrated as a young lifter by training at busy gyms where everyone seemed to be doing the same thing, at the same time. This led him to start looking for innovative alternatives, often using old-school bodybuilders as his guide.
Today, Smith is known for sharing all kinds of unique movements on social media, in articles like "Julian Smith's Signature Moves for Legs," and in his Bodybuilding.com BodyFit Elite program 30 Days to Your Best Arms. But he's not just changing things for the sake of changing things; on the contrary, he finds that it dials in his technique and increases the mind-muscle connection.
"When something is new and exciting, when you've never done it before, you're going to put a little more focus on your technique to make sure you're doing it the right way," Smith says.
Here are five twists on some old standby exercises that will keep your mind and gains fresh, while also helping you make the most of the limited equipment available in a busy weight room.
1. Heels-Elevated Dumbbell Goblet Squat
When there are lots of people in the weight room, the squat racks can be the first place to fill up. You have a choice: sit and wait, or look for alternatives.
So, what makes his version of the goblet squat a worthy alternative to the almighty barbell front squat?
"A lot of people who do front barbell squats have a hard time stimulating their quad muscles," Smith says. "They tend to support the weight on shoulder muscles that are a lot smaller than their quads, so it limits how much weight they can handle."
Smith addresses that situation by swapping out the barbell for a dumbbell, and upping the reps to where few people brave to go with barbell front squats.
What's more, he recommends performing this squat variation with your heels—and only your heels—touching, and elevated about the width of a plate. Point your knees out as you would in a normal squat stance. Keep the weight pressed against your chest, keep the lowering half of the rep slow, and you'll definitely feel it in your quads.
"This variation is basically a front squat because this also keeps the weight centered close to your body as it would be if you were doing a normal front barbell squat," Smith explains.
Sets and reps: 4 sets of 20, 15, 10, 10 reps
2. Good Morning Into a Squat
Good mornings and squats are both great exercises on their own. So why do them together? For one, it'll help you hit every part of your legs without having to use a heavy weight. You'll feel your hams and glutes getting stretched to the max on the good morning, and then they and your quads will power you through the squats. It'll also allow you to maximize the precious time you have in the squat rack, if you were planning on doing squats first and then a hamstring-focused movement like RDLs or stiff-legged deads afterward.
A good morning is very difficult to do with a lot of weight on the bar, so you want to use 20-25 percent of your normal squat weight. You may be able to squat 315 pounds for 8 reps, but you're not going to be able to carry that much in a good morning.
To be clear, you're not doing a full rep of a good morning followed by a full rep of a squat. You'll bend forward into the good morning, then drop your butt down into the bottom of a squat. For your back's sake, you'll definitely want to position your feet wider than you would for a good morning.
Sets and reps: 4 sets of 12, 10, 8, 8 reps
3. Seated Cable Row Wide-Grip Lat Pull-down
If you're working out in a crowded gym and the lat pull-down machines are taken, your back day doesn't have to come to a grinding halt. Just find an open seated cable row machine and do your pull-downs while lying facedown on the cable row bench.
"What I like more than anything about this variation," Smith says, "is that since you're lying down on your stomach and your chest is flat on the pad, you can take a lot of the torso momentum out of this movement, which helps you give your lats a better workout."
Sets and reps: 4 sets of 10 reps
4. Bodyweight Leg Extension
This is another perfect variation for a day at the gym when everyone seems to be on the same split as you.
"Bodyweight leg extensions are basically the exact same movement as a leg extension," Smith says, "but you can do them without a leg extension machine just by using the floor and your body weight."
Kneel on the floor with your legs straight out behind you and your upper body erect. Keeping your back straight, lean back, lowering your butt down to your heels, then bring yourself back up again. That's it. But, like anyone who has tried Smith's popular take on the sissy squat can attest, your quads will burn like a raging inferno for days afterward.
Sets and reps: 4 sets to failure
5. Wrestler's Bridge
Wrestling bridges used to be a staple of strength training, but you don't see them much anymore. But if you're simply doing shrugs in the hopes that it'll give you that "strong like a bull" look, this may be just what you need. (Keep doing those shrugs too, though.)
"A lot of people think this is a pretty barbaric exercise, but it's an old-school move," says Smith. "Not a lot of people want to lie on their back and lift their entire torso off the ground by their head and neck support, but it's actually a very safe exercise. A lot of people do it for wrestling and MMA-style training."
The best part? All you need is a bit of floor space and a towel or pad for your head. Train these along with shoulders and traps, and get ready to stretch that T-shirt neck hole.
Sets and reps: 4 sets to failure