muscle growth tends to happen in “bursts.”
Unfortunately, these bursts are usually interspersed with long draughts of progress: the dreaded plateau.
You’ll often hear about guys who simply “can’t” get any bigger despite their best efforts. These guys have hit full-body plateaus, really. Most of the time, this is an issue with a guy’s diet more than training; these guys are often not eating enough. Slightly less talked-about but certainly more insidious are single-body-part plateaus, where someone is experiencing pretty decent progress overall, but one muscle group seems to have stalled out like the ’84 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera I drove in high school. (Hey, don’t laugh; that car had personality. It may not have had air conditioning or a working radio… or a functional passenger side seat belt, but it sure as hell had personality.)
Unlike most issues with muscle growth, where food (or lack thereof) is usually the culprit, single-body-part plateaus aren’t typically due to a dietary deficiency. They’re usually a training issue. Not just lack of training, but lack of activation that leads to lack of development.
And, as anyone who’s ever hit such a wall can tell you, training a muscle in a way that allows for subpar activation is worse than not training it at all. Not only do you get the same results (none), you also waste your time. This must be avoided, and to do that, you need to learn to activate your muscles to get them growing again.
So today, I want to share five quick tips to jump-start growth in any muscle. Nothing crazy, no groundbreaking secrets from some Eastern Bloc black ops training camp. Just five tried-and-true methods I use with my clients to get their stubborn muscles growing like (insert simile of something that grows fast). No, I didn’t forget to add it in. I just couldn’t think of anything cool.
1- Don’t just lift — lift fast
Unless you’re doing a program that specifically calls for a dedicated lifting and lower speed (like lactic acid training), don’t worry about tempo. As an industry, we’re really getting away from tempo prescriptions as a whole.
In fact, Jason Ferruggia (excellent trainer, extreme badass) has cited the prescription of slow tempos for muscle growth as one of the biggest mistakes and wastes of time in his career. While I don’t think we need to write tempos off completely — everything has its place — I do think that getting away from structured speed for a few months speeds (ahem, pun intended) results. Anyway, rather than wasting you mental energy timing your rep, always try to lift explosively. Increasing bar speed will force you to amplify recruitment of fast-twitch muscle. This simple trick will affect your body in profound ways.
The increase neurological efficiency has obvious implications for muscle growth, but from a fat-loss perspective it’s also great because you’ll use more weight, which is just more calorically expensive and metabolically challenging. Ultimately, you’ll have greater activation, recruitment and development. As an added bonus, lifting in this way will increase both neurogenic and myogenic muscle tone, helping you look leaner even at a slightly higher level of body fat. Try this with shoulder exercises and enjoy the new look of your delts just a few sessions later.
2- Perform Unilateral ExercisesSingle-limb movements, particularly with heavy weight, recruit High Threshold Motor Units (HTMUs). Recruitment of HTMUs has carryover to muscle building by escalating overall fiber recruitment and neurological efficiency, allowing you to stimulate muscles more easily and create growth more.
Of course, training your entire body using unilateral exercises does double the workout time, so I normally recommend starting your workout with big bilateral movements, then transitioning to a few sets of single-limb exercises, and finishing back up with some more explosive bilateral stuff. As an example, going from front squats to heavy single-leg squats, and then to jump squats.To increase growth of a target muscle, pre-stimulation with an isolation movement is one of the smartest things you can do. While I don’t normally like too many isolation exercises, everything has its place.
This is very different from something like pre-exhaustion, where the goal is to fatigue the targeted muscles in an attempt to shift the emphasis later. Again, it all comes down to activation. With pre-stimulation, the idea is to establish recruitment patterns early in the workout with an isolation exercise that will have carryover to the more productive compound movements you’ll use later on.
Perform a fast and light set of flys before you hit the bench press and your pecs will be activated and actually perform more work; whereas had you not done this, your triceps and shoulders may have done the brunt of the work.
You don’t need to do this before every set, just the first 2 to 3 in your workout. The pre-activation effect will not only have impact on the immediacy in the workout, but will also teach your body new recruitment patterns overall.
Also, try a set of straight-arm pull-downs before pull-ups, and you’ll notice you feel your lats firing more effectively. For those of you looking to develop a larger quad “sweep,” lateral lunges before sets of squats can help your recruit your Vastus lateralis more efficiently.
4- The Magic TouchThis is absolutely one of my favorite sneaky tricks to gain muscle fast. During your set, lightly touch the muscle you are working. This will boost mind-muscle connection via a method called tactile stimulation to send signals to both brain and body to increase activation of that muscle.
Early in my training career, I had less connection to my back than I did to any other muscle. No matter what I did, I’d pretty much just leave my back out of it. Anytime I did pull-ups, I was basically just using my arms.
Then I started touching myself. (Well, I did.)
I switched all of my back exercises to unilateral movements, and with my non-working arm, I would reach across my body and touch the lat of the working side. By doing this, I was able to feel when I wasn’t working, and tried to actively engage my muscles during the exercise.
Over time, I was able to develop intense mind-muscle connection, allowing me to activate my lats not only during the unilateral sets, but, eventually during all back exercises. The result? My back went from being one of my visually weakest body parts to the most impressively well-developed. I use this with my clients now, and we’re able to see significant progress over a short time.
This works incredibly well with back and calves. Most people also have an issue with glute activation, so resting a hand on your tuckus while you’re doing lying hip raises can definitely help get your glutes to fire and improve development and strength.
5- More Work, Less TimeAnother fun (and challenging) way to bring up a lagging body part is to try to complete your given workout in less time. Decreasing training time without cutting workout volume increases training density. The targeted muscle will experience more stimulation without recovering, forcing your body to compensate with an increase in work capacity, power output, muscular density (hardness), and size.
Outside of being great for jump-starting development in a given muscle, increasing training density is incredible as a fat-loss technique, and performing density training for a single muscle while on a fat-loss plan can certainly help you bring up that body part while losing a little fat.
Density training is one of the featured training styles in my badass e-book,Final Phase Fat Loss. There you have it, short and sweet.
Five simple but instantly effective ways to jump-start growth and development in any muscle that you can put into action as early as tomorrow.