Now we have covered the nuts & bolts of training and learning the most important variables in how to become bigger & stronger. If you missed part 1 and part 2, read them first. Next we can look at the less important but still have an impact on training.
Most of what we are about to cover will have an effect on short-term training, which will change the rate of progression (next & very important article) and in the long run, change your results. OK onto the variables and my take on how to place them in your training.
Exercise Selection & Order
The importance of exercise selection is very dependant on each person’s goals, the is a difference between getting stronger in the bench press vs building a good chest. A powerlifter will need to include the main lifts & accessory movements which will help improve those lifts, where as I find a physique athlete has a little more choice and is best to focus on the movements that feel good and they can adhere too.
The principle of specificity derives from the observation that the adaptation of the body or change in physical fitness is specific to the type of training undertaken. When we start a training program, the neural adaptations are what drives progress, after this learning period (4-8 weeks) is over that is when the muscular changes drive further progress. On top of that building big legs via a leg press won’t necessarily transfer over to the squat, if you want to build a big squat then you have to squat. This also applies to intensity, research shows that to get strong you have to lift heavy (85%+) but to get big you just need sufficient volume with enough intensity (~70-80%).
With any training plan we don’t want to switch it up too frequently or even be too rigid with a single movement, variety is key too. Research shows that by having different movements targeting similar muscle groups is both more efficient for muscle & strength gains. I think this is mainly because there are typically so many muscle attachment sites & pennation angles etc that it is hard to hit it all with 1 movement.
Compound to isolation
Now how to structure each session? I would generally start with larger multi-joint (compound) exercises that target more muscles, you are stronger & also have the most motivation to perform. Then follow it up with more isolation movements to bring up lagging or weaker muscles. Remember we don’t need to be a specialist for overall muscle growth but if you are trying to improve strength in the bench press then bench, then follow it up with chest flys to build some chest specific mass.
Weak points can mean smaller muscles or muscles that lack strength that bring down the overall strength of a movement. Typically the reason why we have smaller muscles is due to the genetic build of each person (sorry!) on top of this structurally we may favour areas that inhibit other muscles from developing, a classic example is allowing the biceps to take over from rowing or pulling movements. This is where I would add in some extra isolation work to target these lagging areas. Always remember to use proper form and technique that engages all target muscle groups.
As we become more fatigued during a workout, our force output decreases. Ideally we want to keep force output high to increase the stimulus to change by adding volume
A variety of exercises should be included for whole body hypertrophy, including free weight, machine based, compound and isolation movements, adding extra volume to lagging body-parts spread across the week.
Use the volume and intensities from previous article
Strength – 50% competition lifts plus 50% accessory work from assistance lifts & isolation work
Hypertrophy – 1-2 compound exercises plus 1-3 isolation movements for each muscle group per week
Inter-set recovery is vital for optimizing your workout. Too little rest will bring down training volume, due to too much fatigue and too much rest just isn’t efficient for your own time.
We know that volume drives progress, which leads to muscle & strength gains. In the past to build muscle it’s been said that you need to reduce rest time to increase hormones beneficial for muscle growth. We know that the benefits of hormones is actually an association with increasing volume not the main driver of muscle growth.
When we reduce rest down we build up more fatigue and although muscle damage and cell swelling are components of muscle growth (future article), there is more benefit to be seen by increasing volume and to do this we need to optimize recovery to increase volume.
Research suggests that shorter rest periods actually leads to less muscle growth that longer or optimal rest periods.
The traditional thought on super-sets is generally performing 2 exercises back to back with little to no rest but this builds up fatigue and performance is reduced.
I tend to suggest a modified approach to supersets, that allows for rest but pairs different exercises in a way that allows for sustained performance and efficient workouts. For example an upper & lower body movement or push & pull exercise. There is actually research suggesting a performance increase (go figure).
Squats & chin ups
Bench press & bent over rows
So what about the actual rest? I suggest taking as much time as you need to effectively perform the exercise to your best ability. Simple! Don’t overthink it or worse break out your stopwatch ;) 1-2 minutes rest per exercise in the super-set is usually sufficient. I have found this incredibly effective especially during heavy movements where 5 minutes is warranted.
Tempo is the speed of each lift. A concentric action is the upwards phase of the lift where as eccentric action is the downward or lowering phase of the lift.
Eccentrics require less force, hence the rise of slow eccentrics as it was thought to provide a greater stimulus. But really you need to apply more force to get adaptation on that muscle but practical it isn’t great for most people or gyms.
There was also a big push for time under tension (how slow you can make a movement) but again research shows that this can limit the amount of load used, overall training volume and thus produce inferior strength & muscle results. Remember big picture thinking first.
Again don’t overthink this, we need both concentric and eccentric muscle actions but going too fast, ballistic or slow is producing less volume and results. I suggest a controlled descent followed by a powerful accent, this will keep you safe and reduce the chance of injuries. It’s really that simple, just lift weights!
Range of Motion
Last point here is touching base on range of motion, as does make a difference when training for strength and muscle. Muscle adaptations are specific to the stress you place on it. By working in partial range of motion, will only create change in that range of motion, which can be great for building strength in weak areas, but maybe not optimal for building overall muscle. When it comes to hypertrophy, research shows that by using full range of motion has lead to superior results when compared to partial range of motion in both lower and upper body.
There has been evidence that suggests training in the stretched position is superior than training in the shortened position of the muscle, due to mechanical and metabolic stress placed on the muscle. But by working through the full range of motion, allows you to hit all areas and muscle fibres, which can potentially lead to more growth.
Full range of motion should be used as the basis for any hypertrophy based program, unless injuries warrant otherwise.
Take a step back and observe the important relationships that training variables have a smaller impact on muscle & strength than consistency, adherence, volume & intensity. Go out there and train!
Thanks for reading and I hope that with these little bits of information you can apply and make some crazy long-term progress in your training!