You may not give much thought to where you hold your weights while doing lunges and squats — or if it’s better to do planks with your arms straight or on your forearms. But you should. Different variations target different muscle groups and some may even be better for your body if you’ve had certain injuries.
Here’s how weight placement changes four common exercises:
SQUAT: FRONT VERSUS BACK
Front squats work the front of your body — especially the quads and abdominal muscles — more, plus “they shift the center of gravity of the exercise more toward the toe side of the foot, which can increase the ability to propel the body forward,” explains Mike Nicholson, master trainer at Chelsea Piers Fitness in New York City.
On the other hand, back squats also work your quads but at the same time work your glutes and your lower back, says Equinox trainer Lauren Saint Louis. “The added pressure on your spine is beneficial in that it will strengthen the spine, but it could be detrimental to a person with spinal injuries or a weak core, which makes you susceptible to spinal injury,” Nicholson says.
PLANKS: STRAIGHT ARM VERSUS FOREARM
Not only do forearm planks challenge your core more, they’re also good for anyone who wants to work their core but has weak arms or poor shoulder stability, Nicholson says. Keeping your forearms parallel to each other (rather than clasping your hands together) can encourage proper scapular and postural positioning, Saint Louis adds.
“Straight-arm planks recruit more muscle groups — and being further off the ground makes it harder to stabilize the body and therefore harder to complete and more effective at overall strengthening,” Nicholson explains. They’re also great preparation for pushups, Saint Louis says.
LUNGES: DUMBBELLS AT SIDES VERSUS AT SHOULDERS VERSUS OVERHEAD
In general, “holding dumbbells at your sides while lunging brings the center of gravity closer to the ground, which decreases the amount of work needed to move the body as well as decreasing the amount of work the core has to do to stabilize.” Nicholson explains.
Hold the dumbbells at your shoulders, and “your legs now need to push the weight not only forward but also up, so there is a little more exertion required,” Saint Louis says. You recruit your core more and it’s easier on your grip. “However you may not be able to load as much depending on the size and shaping of the dumbbells, so I recommend using a barbell because it is more comfortable to use more weight,” Saint Louis says.
Last, if you extend your arms to hold the weight overhead, you challenge your core and shoulder stability even more. “While this it more of a functional, total-body version, if you are looking to isolate the quads or glutes, this may not be the best option,” Saint Louis says. “It’s harder to angle your body accordingly without compromising shoulder safety.”
SITUPS: HANDS CROSSED OVER THE CHEST VERSUS HANDS BEHIND THE HEAD
When you cross your hands over your chest, your center of gravity is more stable — so no wonder these feel easier. It also focuses on your upper abs more and tends to be gentler on the cervical spine, Saint Louis says.
But take your hands and put them behind your head to do situps, and the focus shifts more to your lower abs. “If you are able to do them properly — with your abs engaged rather than pulling on your head to sit up — you see better results than with your arms crossed,” Saint Louis says. Some people also experience less neck strain this way, because they rest their head in their hands.