Bodybuilding is, at its very core, all about becoming bigger and better versions of ourselves. With each ounce of new muscle gained we grow in both size and confidence; with added definition we look and feel better, and a sense of pride in our improved health and a body of work a majority of the world’s fitness population will never come close to bettering is most satisfying. But, as with most worthy pursuits, building a formidable physique requires a continual upgrading of our approach to constant improvement.
Certain individual approaches to building muscle may encourage great gains, but the longer we stick to one method, the more we risk the dreaded diminishing returns which signify a training plateau. Adopting the same training strategy for many months on end, even accounting for subtle variations in intensity and workout scheduling, will likely result in minimal gains. At best, we maintain what we have. As bodybuilders we must constantly explore new ways to grow; in doing so we may need to make wholesale changes to our current training schedule. Even the most experienced pro champions will, by necessity, periodically change their training approach to elicit further physical rewards. Is it time for you revisit your training approach, to replace old methods with new ideas to spark fresh gains in muscle size?
Whether you choose to incorporate a completely new set of training principles, select one or two which best fit your needs, or revisit methods not utilized since you attempted your first biceps curl in the hopes of transforming your stick-like appendages into Schwarzenegger-like cannons, it is important that you constantly incorporate new ways to achieve the same results you have always wanted: muscle mass on a scale unprecedented. Positive change can only lead to positive results: so choose your weapons wisely and get to work further adding to what you have so far accomplished. The following list of training principles will provide you with alternative ways to revamp your training program. Give each of them (old favourites lost in the midst of bodybuilding science and newer tactics designed to shred and build like never before) at least 6-8 weeks before deciding whether they are suited to your individual training requirements. You may wish to include 1-2 at a time or focus on each one in turn. Weak body parts, loss of muscle size, low motivation, lack of total body muscle definition? The following principles will help you to overcome these pressing concerns. Use them; benefit from them; then seek, through the pages of Status Fitness Magazine, even newer ways to facilitate further improvements.
The Muscle Priority Principle
Some of us are blessed with complete muscular development, while a majority of bodybuilders have weak points that must be addressed. If your current training program does not enable you to fix what is broken, then it might be time to include the Muscle Priority Training Principle. Regardless of whether we are weekend warriors for whom training is secondary to other areas of life, or elite professional bodybuilders who, paid for their muscle building efforts and dependent upon ongoing progress, consider their training to be of critical importance, most of us have lagging body parts. To develop a physique that is both impressively huge, and balanced, it is imperative that we target our weak points to ensure overall muscular proportion is not neglected. The Muscle Priority Training Principle requires us to train our weakest muscle groupings first, before targeting those we would consider strengths, the rationale being that we are strongest at the beginning of our workouts and therefore can, at this juncture, apply maximal effort. As workout duration increases, cumulative fatigue often occurs, making us, through fear of injury or sheer exhaustion, susceptible to restricting our intensity output. Prioritizing our weak points from the outset will ensure these are targeted with full force. If your shoulders are weak, you might opt to target these before chest and triceps, rather than beginning with bench, as is the custom with many a bodybuilder. Apply the same strategy to other sub-par muscle groupings to develop a more complete physique.
An organized approach to sports performance which requires a progressive cycling of various features of a training program during a specified period, periodization is often used by elite athletes in the lead-up to major sporting events. It can also be employed by bodybuilders to prevent training stagnation and to encourage impressive gains in quality muscle. In traditional fashion, a bodybuilder will, when preparing to compete, complete an off-season cycle of around 3-4 months followed by a cutting period of approximately 8-12 weeks: in each phase, training variables such as weights lifted, movements employed and types of training included (cardio versus resistance, mass building versus cutting) will be cycled so as to first build as much muscle as is humanly possible before refining it to reach competition shape. Such an approach can be abbreviated or modified for the needs of non-competing trainees seeking consistent muscle mass gains or for competitive bodybuilders wanting a fresh perspective. First, select 3-4 good mass-building movements per body part and design your workout around these. Complete 10-12 reps per each of 4 sets per movement and rest for 1-2 minutes between sets. Following this period, retain 1-2 of the initially selected movements while adding one further mass builder and one shaping (isolation exercise), decrease sets to three and rest periods to one minute while lowering rep count to 8-10. Train in this fashion for a further six week period. Finally, retain one mass builder from the previous cycle, add another of these (not previously used), and include one new isolation movement; increase rest periods back to 1-2 minutes, reps to 10-12 and sets to four per movement. Again, complete this phase over six weeks. For all three cycles, train each body part once per week and ensure that weights are increased or decreased in line with the prescribed rep count (but train to failure on each set). By periodizing one’s training in such a way, the body is forced to adapt to a unique training stimulus with each passing phase while building a steady supply of muscle through the hypertrophic nature of each cycle.
An old-school training technique that is surprisingly under-employed by many bodybuilders of today is super-setting. To perform a superset requires that we combine two movements - each working opposing muscle groups, or both for the same grouping - into one set to be completed with minimal rest between exercises; if included periodically, the resulting muscle pump and added training intensity supersets encourage will shock the muscles into responding faster than they otherwise might. Add to this the fact that in providing a fresh stimulus (again, when used sparingly), supersets provide a welcome break from the usual 3 sets of 8-12 mentality most of us adopt at one time or another. The Super-setting Principle – used as a way to compound the effectiveness of two exercises to force greater muscular overload – is probably best utilized every second or third workout with no more than five to six sets comprising the superset component for this session (though this will ultimately depend upon one’s experience level and ability to recover). Be aware also that due to their high intensity nature, overall volume for workouts that include supersets may need to be reduced. Effective superset pairings include:
Bench press (one set of eight to 12 reps) followed by lat pull downs (one set of eight to 12 reps)
Dumbbell biceps curls (one set of eight to 12 reps) followed by triceps pushdowns (one set of eight to 12 reps).
Leg extensions (one set of eight to 12 reps) followed by leg curls (one set of eight to 12 reps)
Same muscle group pairing
Lateral raises (one set of eight to 12 reps) followed by standing dumbbell shoulder presses (one set of eight to 12 reps)
Instinctive Training Principle
Given that individual lifters know their bodies best and are in the best position to gauge whether, or when, they can adopt a certain training strategy, and when changes can be made to their existing routines to ensure optimal recovery and ongoing progress, they would be well advised to incorporate the Instinctive Training Principle. Using this strategy will ensure that one follow his instincts as to how his program can be changed or fine-tuned to ensure better results. If all lifters, to a greater or lesser degree, trained instinctively there would probably be less overtraining, more recovery and greater results. Though not to be used as an excuse to be lazy, in training instinctively we can intelligently gather information based on our unique physiology and personalize, and adjust, our workouts on the basis of what works and what does not. The great martial arts movie star Bruce Lee said it best: discard what does not work and use what does. In its purest sense, instinctive training might best be utilized as follows: throughout a training session we might choose to avoid certain exercises if we feel we have not sufficiently recovered from a prior workout, reduce training workload if we cannot achieve a pump and energy levels are ultra low, or change the set/rep scheme on a particular exercise or prioritize/relegate depending on the effect a particular movement is producing. Given that our energy levels, degree of motivation, recovery abilities, metabolism and lifestyle can vary according to factors beyond our control, it is good training practice to observe how we feel before, during and after our workouts - and change one or several training aspects accordingly. Using the Instinctive Training Principle puts the bodybuilder in control of his training and, ultimately, any results he is likely to achieve.
Partial Repetitions Principle
The Partial Repetitions Principle can be used to completely exhaust a muscle group following a set taken to failure. Due to its intensive nature it is not to be used frequently, as doing so may greatly compromise recovery. Rather, by incorporating it to target stubborn muscle groups we can more fully overload this area to ensure that greater compensation (and muscle growth) occurs. Whenever we reach lactic-acid induced muscle failure, our form becomes sloppy and we are forced to quit our efforts. However, to truly maximize the effort we subject our muscles to we can continue to complete half-repetitions through the upper part of a rep to eke that little bit extra from them. Partials work great for the shoulders and arms, areas that often require a great deal of isolation to be truly worked to full capacity. For example, when performing a front deltoid raise, upon completion bring the weight to the top position before banging out 4-5 more reps through the top quarter of its range of motion. The burn resulting from such extreme isolation of this muscle group will be tremendous, but the extra growth experienced will be worth any temporary discomfort.
Peak Contraction Principle
A principle which works well when used in conjunction with partial reps is the peak contraction technique. As its name suggests, peak contractions require the lifter to hold a muscle contraction at the top of a movement; again, shoulders and arms are particularly perfect target areas, but all other muscles groups will also benefit from them. To etch detail in the quadriceps muscles, one may, painfully, opt to hold the top portion of a leg extension for 2-3 seconds before, slowly, returning the weight to its starting position. Again, use this principle sparingly (perhaps for one set of 2-3 movements every 3rd or 4th session) as it may deplete the lifter of the energy needed to properly complete their workout. The good news is, if this principle is used strategically greater muscle size, and shape, can result. Try holding the contraction on an incline dumbbell curl for the next 2-3 biceps training sessions and watch what happens to your biceps peak. Employed following a set of partials (the principle discussed above), peak contractions will likely work a muscle to previously unaccustomed levels of exertion. It is at this point that growth will more readily occur.
By sparingly incorporating one or several of the above principles into your training regime, or by integrating ideas such as periodization or instinctive training over the long-term, training stagnation becomes but a fleeting memory and the satisfaction resulting from ongoing gains replaces the frustration of insufficient progress. To provoke fresh muscle gains can be as easy as changing a few training-related variables and controlling how you wish to progress rather than adhering to training protocols based on someone else’s terms. Don’t be afraid to take chances, try new techniques, and, above all else, experiment until you find a system that works perfectly for you.
Model: Jeremy Dick, Photos by: David Ford