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Building big muscles requires a progressive and systematic application of physical stress. The increase of muscle size over a period of time also increases the capacity to exercise. In other words, if you’re not externally overloading the body in some way, you aren’t gonna grow! Worse yet, if physical loading is not tolerable, then injury or over-training will result. So the key to bigger and stronger muscles is to apply the appropriate stimulus. This way, the body will adapt and improve function.
However, each physique has a weak point, a lagging muscle[s] that doesn’t respond to general loading parameters or lifting methods. It takes more than just lifting a weight and putting it back down to produce a noticeable difference.
Mistakes are commonly made when lifters attempt to bring up a specific muscle group, and these occur in several ways:
- They train the muscle more often, hoping that it will respond to workout frequency. A lack of understanding of how to balance training so that optimal recovery levels are achieved for their next workout often leads to burn-out, or even injury.
- They lift as much weight as they can without structuring or organizing their routine. Simply lifting heavy weight and repeating the process in hopes that muscle growth will occur is like running a red light and hoping no one will hit you. The hit and miss approach will not work.
- They don’t eat enough food to supply the proper nutrients which promote growth and recovery.
- Their exercise selection is poor because they don’t understand the biomechanics of the muscle being trained. A layman understanding of how a muscle functions is a prerequisite. You wouldn’t normally take a test without studying so why would you focus on a muscle without understanding what it does?
- They misapply the exercise variables associated with strength training. Again, a general understanding of exercise variables and how they affect training stimulus, and the body, is needed.
To avoid making these common errors correct we must identify (and this is far from a comprehensive list) the important factors of muscle hypertrophy to understand how a muscle is built up.
- Strength and hypertrophy gains are not instantaneous. They occur after loading, once the body’s systems have recovered.
- The lifter must take into account that the various tissues in the body do not recover at the same rate or proportion.
- A certain load must be imposed for growth to occur. As the level of adaptation increases in relation to loading, so does the rate at which progress occurs.
- Strength and hypertrophy do not always work on a linear path (see point 2). Changes may be delayed or marked during various phases of a program.
- Fatigue is a complex process. There are various types of fatigue which play a role in determining how and when a muscle should and can be trained.
- The tension in a muscle is not constant. As the joint angles change in a movement so does tension.
- Muscle tension is produced through different muscle actions. It changes depending on the mode of muscle action (concentric, eccentric, and isometric).
- Muscle tension and the sequence of muscle recruitment are a function of the nervous system. In other words, it is the nervous system that is responsible for changes in muscle size and strength.
Muscle training is beneficial only as long as it forces the body to adapt to the stress of physical effort. This means that smart planning and a structured approach must be taken in order for gains to be maximized and the body to be kept in balance (defined as optimal recovery). With this information in hand we can now apply it to increasing muscle[s] size.
The Blue Print
Below I have listed some guidelines that should be followed when focusing on the growth of a particular muscle. Some of this information is observational while some of these guidelines are based on the hypertrophy template.
- Target muscle/s should be grouped into phases. Growth is not always progressive, it occurs in spurts. Don’t waste several months trying to build a muscle up. Intensive periods of 4-8 weeks may be favourable for muscle specialization. Changes to the muscle[s] will take place after the specialization phase when the body will be in a state of super compensation.
- Focus on a different method with each training session. For example, one training session can revolve around isometric (static) actions, while the other one or two workouts can use eccentric and/or concentric actions. Taking this one step further, training sessions could be divided further, into hypertrophy (8-12 reps), power (1-6 reps) and pump (15 reps plus) sessions.
- Keep the training volume low (total number of sets per muscle group or per workout) for the rest of the body, especially if you are placing specific emphasis on certain muscle[s] 2-3 times a week. Your primary concern should be the target muscle[s]; the rest of your body should be placed on a maintenance schedule. For example, if you are prioritizing the arms, then the rest of the training volume for the body will be cut anywhere from 50-70%.
- Eat! You’ve heard this numerous times. To be successful you have to follow this golden nugget of advice. If you provide the proper types and amounts of fuel, the body will respond by producing more lean tissue. So eat!
- Don’t be afraid, on the specialization days, to take in more carbohydrates. Think of it as carb cycling. You’ll eat less when you’re performing the maintenance workouts and more on the specialization days.
- Engage the body in recuperation methods. Contrast bathing, massage (vibration, deep tissue, active release technique) Epsom salt baths, Cryotherapy and pre/post workout recovery drinks. This is not an exhaustive list because there are other methods that can help speed up recovery between training sessions, and reduce aches and pains in the soft tissues and joints. However these are the easiest to incorporate into the specialization phase.
Sample 5 Day Split
- Monday – Arm specialization isometric power workout
- Tuesday – Regular workout (whole body)
- Wednesday – Rest
- Thursday – Arm specialization eccentric workout
- Friday – Regular workout (whole body)
- Saturday – Arm specialization concentric hypertrophy workout
- Sunday – Rest
Sample 4 Day Split
- Monday – Arm specialization power workout
- Tuesday – Rest
- Wednesday – Regular Workout (push)
- Thursday – Rest
- Friday – Arm Specialization hypertrophy workout
- Saturday – Regular Workout (pull)
- Sunday – Rest
Sample 3 Day Split
- Monday – Arm specialization eccentric workout/Rest of body
- Tuesday – Recovery method
- Wednesday – Arm specialization pump workout
- Thursday – Rest
- Friday – Rest
- Saturday – Arm specialization isometric workout/ Rest of body
- Sunday – Recovery method
Everybody suffers from at least one muscle group that doesn’t respond to the normal training stimulus, it’s the ugly duckling of the flock. However, if you use a specialization phase you can transform this muscle group into a beautiful swan.
Written by Maki Riddington
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Learn from what you eat – Part II discussion thread.