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Simplify your training to add muscle faster

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Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.

Often in the pursuit of maximising muscle growth many people are guilty of over-analysing the details of training before they ensure they have the foundation in place. They ask themselves whether they are working out too much or too little; or whether they are resting too long or too short between sets; or whether they are lifting heavy enough to promote hypertrophy or going too heavy.

Anyone who is serious about training will fall into this trap at some point. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to constantly evaluate your progress to ensure you are on the right track, but over-thinking what you are doing every time you step in the gym can be counter-productive. That’s why it’s beneficial to remind yourself of the basics that got you into decent shape to start with. Here are the key aspects of training for hypertrophy that should always be at the forefront of your mind.

Exercise selection
Rule number one: your exercise selection should be justified. And that justification needs to be more than ‘I love doing biceps curls’. It’s important you love training, but sometimes I see someone doing six different varieties of curls. Why are they doing that? It doesn’t make any sense and they can’t justify it. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, the chances are that you shouldn’t be.

You can have too much variety, because you need to know how to perform a movement properly before you can shift an adequate load to be able apply enough tension to get optimal growth. The initial strength gains when performing a new movement are primarily due to neurological adaptation[1]. After this, as the movement pattern becomes more finely tuned, you can expose the muscle to increased loading. Doing so helps with later stage strength gains, which are dominated more by muscle growth[2].

While a certain level of variety in training is a necessity for a bodybuilder in order to ensure complete development in all muscle groups, you don’t want variety purely for variety’s sake. Some variety is fine to keep you from being mentally stagnant but, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that variety in and of itself is a good thing. You want enough variety to target all muscle groups, but you also need time with your movements to master them so that you can use them as effective training tools.

Exercise order
If you do a move first when you are fresh then you will typically get more volume out of it[3,4] and volume is an important variable for hypertrophy[5]. So doing the big lifts that train a lot of muscle groups early on – after an effective warm-up – is the right way to go.

When you do pre-fatigue or pre-exhaustion work, such as doing knee extensions to fatigue the quads before performing leg press in an attempt of making them work harder, you might think you are giving the quads a greater stimulus, but in fact this is not the case. There have been EMG studies on this that show when you do leg press after pre-exhausting the quads with leg extensions the quads are actually contributing less[6], likely because the glutes and hams are recruited to a greater degree to pick up the slack.

So it makes sense to put the hardest exercises that train the most muscle groups early in the workout. You may have enough left in the tank at the end of your session to do calf raises, but try doing 5 x 5 squats are the end when you’re really tired. It’s not going to happen.

Perfect form
This almost goes without saying, but form is very important. A really cool study got some untrained subjects to do lat pull-downs and measured EMG activity in the lats. They then got a group of qualified trainers to come in and show them how to perform the lift and guess what happened – far better lat recruitment when they were given instruction[7]. That’s pretty obvious, but it reinforces the point that doing a lift right significantly increases muscle recruitment.

But what is proper and correct form? Firstly, it’s using the full range of motion that you have. Not everyone can do full-depth squats or full-range deadlifts. For some the risk of injury is too great. If you don’t have the full range of motion, then work on becoming mobile enough to achieve it. However if you can perform full range of motion movements correctly, I’d advise you do so.

Researchers have observed that full range of motion preacher curls have resulted in larger muscle girths than partial range of motion curls[8] and deep squatting has resulted in more complete thigh development than limited range of motion squatting[9].

Not only that, but shoulder problems are among the most common injuries in bodybuilders[1]0, and bodybuilders also frequently display limited shoulder range of motion[11]. This is a correlation that suggests that maintaining full range of motion at a joint might help to prevent injury. So make sure to work on attaining a full range of motion and then use that range of motion in training with good form and ensure optimal growth and to hopefully reduce your chance of injury.

Rest periods  
I don’t think rest periods are as important as a lot of people think. Remember, we adapt in a functional manner to the training we do. Short rest periods make you better at recovering faster so you can do more work. But hypertrophy has more to do with the total volume of work you do, not how long you rest between sets. But don’t take my word for it, a lot of studies have been performed on rest periods, comparing rest periods anywhere from one minute to five minutes with each group doing the same workout and none have found differences in hypertrophy[12-14].

It’s good to have a great work capacity and I like to train efficiently so I can get more volume done in a session, but rest periods for hypertrophy aren’t set in stone. You just need to rest long enough so you can do the next set as well as possible. Fatigue isn’t the primary training goal, quality training and getting all your prescribed volume in is. If you only rest 30 seconds between each set then you subsequently won’t be able to move much weight so total volume and tension on the muscle will be less.

Forget muscle shaping
This is another point that needs reinforcing. How often have you have heard someone in the gym say you need to do dumbbell flyes to hit your inner chest, or you need to do concentration curls to get a better biceps peak? This is the belief that it’s possible to ‘shape’ a muscle. Frankly, this doesn’t make sense.

A muscle spans from an origin to an insertion. Think of two bones and a muscle stretched between them. When the muscle shortens that joint moves closer together, that’s the purpose of concentric muscular contraction. To change the shape of a muscle, you’d have to preferentially recruit only certain parts of the muscle, or actually change where the insertion and origin were located.

While it is true the muscles are compartmentalised, and that certain grip positions and angles change muscle recruitment[15], the idea that you have a great deal of control of how a muscle changes shape in response to training is dubious at best. Think about it, if it is true that the experienced bodybuilders actually know how to ‘shape’ their muscles with specific grips, angles, and exercise variations and that’s why they look so good, that would mean the novice bodybuilders are doing this poorly.

This would mean that there should be novices out there doing specific lifts, angles, grips or partial range of motion exercises incorrectly that are changing the shape of their muscles in undesirable ways.
But where are these bodybuilders who should be walking around with misshapen delts because they did the wrong lateral raise, or thicker inner chests and thin outer chests because of all those dumbbell flyes and not enough pressing?

Freak show
If muscle really did grow that way then there would not just be positive effects, but a whole bunch of negative effects of poor muscle shaping attempts. If you genuinely could change parts of individual muscles in any significant way, then there would be some pretty freaky sights out there. There’d be Quasimodo novice bodybuilders out there with all kinds of oddly shaped muscles, but they don’t exist.
Remember, that long before we decided that muscles were nice to look at and bodybuilding became a sport, we knew that muscles moved us. And if muscles didn’t operate in a very efficient fashion we wouldn’t be here today. As part of this efficiency they tend to work in synergistic groupings to create movement.

My point is, don’t try and out-smart thousands of years of human evolution. When doing a squat, focus on executing it perfectly through a full range. When you move through a full range of motion at your hips, knees and ankles, you will more than likely get proportionate development in your glutes, hams and quads. Don’t get hung up on trying to isolate a certain muscle when doing the compound lifts, the only ‘mind-muscle connection’ you need to worry about is proper technique.

Don’t overcomplicate the matter, because our muscles are much more integrated than you think anyway. During a lat pulldown, everybody knows you are training your lats and biceps right? Well guess what, your triceps and pecs are actually involved in shoulder extension as well[16,17]. So don’t spend endless hours trying to find the perfect exercise to isolate each muscle, because our muscles rarely work in isolation.

Pick the few isolation movements you need to make sure you get effective growth on your smaller muscle groups and weak points, but be intelligent in your exercise selection. The basic lifts go a long way, so train intelligently and don’t do things that you can’t explain or justify. Get this right, and you won’t go too far wrong.

1. Seynnes, O.R., M. de Boer, and M.V. Narici, Early skeletal muscle hypertrophy and architectural changes in response to high-intensity resistance training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2007. 102(1): p. 368-73.
2. Fry, A.C., The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports Medicine, 2004. 34(10): p. 663-79.
3. Simao, R., et al., Exercise order in resistance training. Sports Med, 2012. 42(3): p. 251-65.
4. Simão, R., et al., Influence of exercise order on repetition performance during low-intensity resistance exercise. Research in Sports Medicine, 2012. 20(3-4): p. 263-273.
5. Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2014.
6. Augustsson, J., et al., Effect of pre-exhaustion exercise on lower-extremity muscle activation during a leg press exercise. J Strength Cond Res, 2003. 17(2): p. 411-6.
7. Snyder, B.J. and J.R. Leech, Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. J Strength Cond Res, 2009. 23(8): p. 2204-9.
8. Ronei, P.S., et al., Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. J Strength Cond Res, 2011.
9. Bloomquist, K., et al., Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2013. 113(8): p. 2133-42.
10. Siewe, J., et al., Injuries and overuse syndromes in competitive and elite bodybuilding. Int J Sports Med, 2014. 35(11): p. 943-8.
11. Barlow, J.C., et al., Shoulder strength and range-of-motion characteristics in bodybuilders. J Strength Cond Res, 2002. 16(3): p. 367-72.
12. Ahtiainen, J.P., et al., Short vs.long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: Influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005. 19(3): p. 572-582.
13. Buresh, R., K. Berg, and J. French, The  effect of resistive exercise rest interval on hormonal response, strength, and hypertrophy with training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009. 23(1): p. 62-71
14. de Souza, T.P.J., et al., Comparison Between constant and decreasing rest intervals: influence on maximal strength and hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010. 24(7): p. 1843-1850
15. Antonio, J., Nonuniform response of skeletal muscle to heavy resistance training: Can bodybuilders induce regional muscle hypertrophy? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2000. 14(1): p. 102-113.
16. Landin, D. and M. Thompson, The shoulder extension function of the triceps brachii. J Electromyogr Kinesiol, 2011. 21(1): p. 161-5.
17. Marchetti, P.H. and M.C. Uchida, Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG. J Appl Biomech, 2011. 27(4): p. 380-4.

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