Unless you’re a genetic specimen who has managed to chisel a perfectly proportioned physique in the gym, you probably have a body part (or two) that you’d like to work on—for most guys, that’s the chest, arms, and shoulders. However, merely hammering that muscle with more volume isn’t always the answer. In fact, it can lead to injury. But no worries: As a competitive bodybuilder and physique coach, I’m here to supply you with the same unique advice I dole out to my clients and use on myself to bring up your lagging body parts.
Rarely do I meet someone with a lagging body part who doesn’t have poor posture. To have balanced posture, your muscular structure needs to be balanced and strong from front to back. Weak muscles create instability, and, when they’re placed under tension, stronger muscle groups take over. Rounded shoulders, which are a common example, create a lot of instability. You end up placing more tension on your shoulders and triceps when you bench-press rather than on your chest. You can change your setup all you like, but if you’re unstable it won’t make any difference. You need to work on strengthening the muscles that help stabilize your scapula and support thoracic extension (lower traps, thoracic extensors, and rhomboids) with moves like face-pulls and barbell rows. Not only will this improve your posture, it will also enable you to press from a more stable base, and more tension will be felt where it should. Poor posture isn’t corrected by standing better; it’s a sign that something is weak and needs to be strengthened.
Muscles have a fully lengthened range (think of the biceps when your arm is fully stretched out) and a fully contracted range (think of the biceps when you show off your magnificent guns). To fully develop a muscle, you need to train it through its entire range. But most people aren’t prepared to lift a weight appropriate for their strength. There will always be parts of any movement where you’re weaker. If you learn to train where you’re weaker first, trust me, you will grow a lot more quickly. However, because it’s easier to throw a weight past the hard parts of a lift, that is what most people do, and their physiques suffer for it. This leads nicely to No.3.
To grow, you need to stimulate as much of the muscle as possible, which means lifting with control. From the moment you move a joint, you need to be in control of the muscle you’re training and remain in control, even during the lowering (or eccentric) phase. For most guys, this means using less weight. It may dent your ego to be seen lifting 50% of what you normally do, but remember that you’re in the gym to change your body, not to impress others. You also have to remember that you’ve remained the same for long enough, so what you’re currently doing isn’t working.
Training beyond the point at which you feel the muscle you’re trying to target could cause injury as well as deactivate the working muscle. You must learn the range you can control a load through, and remain within it. Go beyond it, and other muscle groups kick in. For instance, think of the bench press: You lower the bar and feel your pecs working until the bar gets about two inches from your chest, then you suddenly feel your shoulders start to round and you lose tension in your chest. At this point, the load has switched to your shoulders, traps, and triceps. This doesn’t work the chest, and leaves your shoulders open to injury, particularly rotator cuff pain.
If I told you it’s important to start an exercise with the muscle you intend to work, you’d assure me you do. However, consider my third point about muscle control: You have a fully lengthened and fully shortened range of a muscle. But you need to focus on developing the entire length, so you should contract the muscle before even starting the lift. This ensures that you fire up the muscle you want to develop. Think about a dumbbell biceps curl: At the fully stretched position, most people swing the dumbbell up for the first two inches when they should contract the muscle in this fully stretched position, which is actually very hard to do. But if you don’t initiate with the working muscle, you allow other muscles to do the lift, in this case the deltoid. You also miss the opportunity to develop muscle tissue at the extremes of the range of movement.
Training a weak muscle frequently is popular, and rightly so—it works. But there’s no point if you’re not training it correctly. A weaker muscle group can be trained more than once a week. But you need to train it only to the point when you fatigue. Let’s say you stick to all the principles in this article, and you get nine sets into chest and you’re toast. This is when you should stop. Don’t push on and do poor reps just to add volume. Leave the workout at nine intense and focused sets. Go home and get some rest. Then come back in 48 hours and do the same again. Instead of busting out 18 crappy sets, split the volume into two perfect sessions. A muscle will grow if it’s stimulated correctly, so focus only on precise execution—quality over quantity.
BY MARK COLES