Imagine that a guy walks into my gym, and he's looking to add 10 pounds of muscle — a simple and straightforward request. The first thing we do is go through a short checklist:
1. Is he lifting?
2. Is he eating enough, and eating enough protein?
3. Is he lifting often enough, heavy enough, and with good technique?
Obviously, if someone wants to gain size and he isn't lifting weights, there's no mystery about the first step. We get him on a training program, introduce him to the magic of progressive resistance, and watch him grow.
Since nobody is confused about the need to lift in order to gain muscle, let's move on to the next two points.
You'd be surprised how many people lift weights but don't eat enough total calories to reach their goals. Same with protein intake: It seems obvious, but some people do need to be told to eat more. So once we figure out what he's eating and when, fixing the problem is relatively straightforward.
"Heavy enough" and "often enough" are subjective, of course, but once we understand what he's been doing, these are easy variables to manipulate. Technique? Well if you've been to any commercial gyms recently, you'll see a lot of underdeveloped guys lifting with really bad form. If our guy's form on the squat and deadlift leaves a lot to be desired, we might be able to add size just by teaching him to use the right muscles on basic lifts.
But what if the problem isn't so easy to detect and fix? What if he's doing everything we expect him to do with his training and nutrition, but he's still not making the gains he wants to make, and that we'd expect him to make, given the effort he's putting in?
Our next step is to release the brakes.
When Pushing Harder Doesn't Help
I got the "release the brakes" idea during a conversation with Dax Moy, a British trainer and gym owner. We were talking about "accelerating" client progress, and came to an interesting conclusion:
All of us in the fitness industry, trainers and trainees alike, have been brainwashed into thinking that the only way to improve results is to push harder. If you aren't making gains, it's because you aren't training hard enough or often enough. Doesn't matter if we're talking about systemic gains in muscle size or body composition, or strength in particular lifts, or the size of individual muscles or muscle groups. The answer to every problem is to punch down harder on the accelerator.
But think of a car with the parking brake on. If you push harder on the gas pedal, you'll only run out of fuel quicker, right? But if you take off the brake, the car will go farther and faster, and probably use less fuel in the process.
This leads to two important conclusions: First, removing the impediments to your progress will probably help more than adding another set of squats, bench presses, or sprints. Second, it's pointless to increase load and volume while those impediments are in place.
So What's Holding You Back?
A friend of mine went to see a chiropractor for a back problem. The problem: misaligned vertebrae in his lumbar spine. The culprit: heavy Romanian deadlifts.
My friend is strong as hell — he was using close to double his body weight in the lift. His glutes and hams could handle the load, but his lower back couldn't. Since my friend's goal is to get even stronger than he was before the injury, what's his best strategy? Keep pushing, despite the fact his injured back has already shown it can't handle bigger loads? Or design a program that releases the brakes by strengthening his weakest link?
We switched to a heavy emphasis on core training that allows direct loading of his lumbar area, along with heavy single-leg RDLs, which maintained the strength of his glutes and hams without the risk of a lower-back injury.
Core strength is often the underlying issue, whether we're talking about something major like misaligned vertebrae or something that's annoying but minor, like a lagging body part. The core muscles need to stabilize and protect the spine, particularly when the extremities are in motion. If those muscles aren't strong or stable enough, the first clue could be a lack of size or strength somewhere else.
Stand up and hold a single dumbbell out to your right side, as you would in the finishing position of a lateral raise. What muscles are working? Obviously, it's your right deltoid. If you're a trainer or otherwise knowledgeable about exercise physiology, you can probably name a few other muscles in the shoulder girdle that come into play, but we can all agree that the prime mover here is the deltoid.
But think about how your torso stays upright with that dumbbell hanging out in space. Your center of gravity has been thrown off, so something besides your right deltoid must be working pretty hard to keep you from listing to the starboard side. In this case, it's your left oblique. It's working to stabilize your spine, allowing your right deltoid to lift that weight and hold it out there away from your body.
Now imagine that the oblique on your left side is weak, or recently injured. You wouldn't be able to lift that dumbbell, since the muscles charged with protecting your spine aren't prepared to do their job. Your body cares more about the health and safety of your spine than it does about the size of your shoulders.
Your best strategy, then, is to rehabilitate and strengthen your obliques, thus releasing the brake on your muscle development. Stomping on the accelerator by increasing the volume of your shoulder training wouldn't do any good, and might make things considerably worse.
Let's assign some completely hypothetical numbers to this example, and say your right deltoid can lift 30 pounds for 10 reps. To achieve overload and force growth, we have to train the deltoid to do one of two things: lift 31 pounds for 10 reps, or 30 pounds for 11 or more reps.
But let's say your core muscles, either because of injury or disuse, can only handle 29 pounds for 10 reps.
A bodybuilder might say the solution is to find a way to overload the delts while bypassing the core. Maybe he'd use machines designed for that purpose, or wear a lifting belt for his lateral raises, or do something else that wouldn't occur to me. Ultimately, the strategy is counterproductive; even if it works, it only exacerbates the imbalance, which makes the brakes work harder to slow your body down and keep your spine safe.
I'd take the opposite approach, and do everything I could to release the brakes. Here's an example of how I'd train the core muscles twice a week. I'd use timed sets, rather than prescribing specific rep counts:
|A1) Side plank||3||60*|
|A2) Barbell, dumbbell, sandbag, or weight plate overhead lunge||3||60|
|A3) Dumbbell or kettlebell asymmetrical shoulder carry||3||60*|
* Each side.
You already know how to do a side plank (although doing it for 60 seconds on each side might be a new experience).
The overhead lunge is just like it sounds: hold something heavy over your head with straight arms, and do lunges for 60 seconds.
The asymmetrical shoulder carry is also straightforward: hold the weight on one shoulder as you walk briskly for 60 seconds. Then switch to the other shoulder for 60 seconds.
That's one circuit, which takes five minutes. Do a total of three circuits, resting as much as you need to in between.
|A1) Cable overhead isometric hold and squat||3||60*|
|A2) Side plank with legs suspended||3||60*|
|A3) Dumbbell or kettlebell asymmetrical farmer's walk||3||60*|
* Each side.
Cable overhead isometric hold and squat
If you've ever done the Pallof press, then you get the idea here. Attach a handle to the high pulley of a cable machine, and select a very light weight (trust me on this one). Stand sidewise to the machine, holding the attachment with both hands and your arms straight overhead, as shown in the pictures to your right. Squat down and hold for two seconds, then return to the starting position, keeping your torso upright. Repeat for 60 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
Side plank with legs suspended
If you have a TRX, blast straps, rings, or a Jungle Gym, attach it to a chin-up bar, and secure your feet in the loops so they're about 12 to 18 inches off the floor. Now do a side plank for 60 seconds on each side, as shown in the picture.
Dumbbell or kettlebell asymmetrical farmer's walk
Nothing fancy here — just walk while holding a dumbbell or kettlebell at hip height. Go for 60 seconds on each side.
How to Find the Brake-Release Switch
Some brakes are easier to find than others. Let's say your bench press is stuck, and you want to figure out if the problem is your chest or your triceps. A simple test would be to compare your one-rep max on the full-range bench press to your max on the five-board press.
If you get 315 pounds on the full-range press vs. 405 with the boards on your chest to shorten the range of motion, you can conclude that your triceps are a lot stronger than your chest. If the reverse is true — you're stronger pushing the bar off your chest than you are locking it out — then the problem is probably with your triceps strength.
But what if the problem has nothing to do with the prime movers? Imagine a guy who comes to me a few weeks before he has to take a fitness test. He needs to be able to do 75 push-ups to pass the test, but can only do 50 right now.
The traditional advice is to do more and more submaximal sets, or use diminishing rest intervals to build capacity. It might work, if the problem is a simple matter of undertraining. But it's also a crapshoot. If he isn't undertrained, and the problem lies elsewhere, we risk wasting a lot of valuable time.
Before going to a volume approach, I'd want to know if the problem is with the strength and endurance of his arm and shoulder muscles, or if there's an issue with his core muscles.
I'd use an exercise called the super plank, or plank walk-up. It works best if you have a training partner to watch your form.
Start in a push-up position, then lower yourself down to your forearms, so you're in a plank position. Then come back up to a push-up position, keeping your core tight throughout the exercise. Do as many reps as possible, and stop when you or your training partner observes that your belly is starting to sag, indicating that you've lost core stability.
If you never get to that point — if your arms and shoulders give out before your core muscles — then you know the problem is a lack of strength and endurance in your prime movers.
But if the core gives out first, you see a different problem. You might have 60 or 65 reps in your arms and shoulders, but only 50 in your core. In that case, we'd pursue a core-training strategy similar to the one I showed earlier.
If, however, the problem is with the prime movers, I'd put together a workout that emphasizes strength training and suspended push-ups. It would look something like this:
|A) Dumbbell bench press (wave loading) |
|B) Push-up||2||Max (timed)|
Dumbbell bench press (wave loading)
Each "wave" consists of three sets using progressively heavier weights. In Week 1, you start with 8 reps. Increase the weight for the second set, which is 6 reps. Then increase it again for the set of 4 reps. For the second wave of 8, 6, and 4 reps, use more weight on each set than you used on the first wave.
So if you used 60, 70, and 80 pounds for the first wave, you might use 65, 75, and 85 for the second wave.
After Week 4, repeat the entire program, but use heavier weights to start out than you used the first time through.
Do as many reps as possible, timing yourself to see how long it takes. Rest for the exact amount of time it took you to do your max reps, and repeat.
|A) Suspended push-up |
As with the suspended side plank described earlier, you'll need blast straps, a TRX, or something else that will support your weight about 12 to 18 inches off the floor. Put your hands in the rings or straps, with your feet on the floor, and do your sets and reps with the rest periods decreasing week by week, as shown in the chart.
After four weeks, repeat the program, making the push-ups harder by raising your feet up off the floor or wearing a weighted vest.
How to Find a Lower-Body Imbalance
A structural imbalance between core strength and muscle strength is a little trickier to detect in the lower body. For example, suppose I'm training a young athlete who's 5-foot-11, 162 pounds, and needs to gain size and strength. When we test his strength on a variety of lower-body exercises, we get this:
Back squat: 135 x 3
Front squat: 135 x 3
Split squat: 115 x 5
Romanian deadlift: 175 x 5
What jumps out at you? It's a little odd that he can front squat as much as he uses in the back squat, but that's not what I see as the big red flag. It's also strange that he's much stronger in the RDL than in the squat, but again it's not the most important data point.
To me, the real anomaly is the fact he can use almost as much weight in the split squat — a static lunge with a barbell on his shoulders — as he can in the traditional squat.
When we further test his form on the squat and lunge, we find he has better range of motion and stability in the lunge pattern than he does with his feet parallel to each other. He gets lower and has better balance.
Now we need to know why. The action of the front leg in the lunge is doing something very close to the action of both legs in the squat, so logically you'd think he should be able to use a lot more weight with two legs than with one. We'd expect him to be able to squat at least 185 pounds for five reps.
We put him through three tests.
The first is a two-part test I described in this article. We'll assess his form in an unloaded overhead squat, particularly looking for forward lean relative to depth. If he can't get to normal squat depth (top of the thighs parallel to the floor, or just below that point) without leaning forward, we'll move to the second part of the test.
To figure out if the problem is with flexibility or core stability, we'll put him on his back on the floor and have him lift his thighs to his chest. If he has a normal range of motion in that drill, then we know his flexibility is fine, and the likely problem is core stability.
Next we'll test his split squat for a left-right imbalance. For this test, he'll hold a 57.5-pound kettlebell (or 60-pound dumbbell) on the same-side shoulder as his forward leg. So if the right leg is forward, he'll hold the weight at his right shoulder. The offset load is much more challenging to his core, and we want to know if that affects one side more than the other.
Finally, we'll test his strength in the good morning. We already know from his RDL numbers that he's strong in the glutes and hamstrings, so the good morning tells us if there's an imbalance farther up the posterior chain. If his good morning is close to his RDL, we'll know his lower and middle back are proportionally strong enough.
In this example, he's passed every test except the first one: His inability to do an unloaded overhead squat without excessive forward lean tells us there's a real problem with his core stability.
Here's how we go about fixing it.
|A) Plank and side plank||2-3||1*|
|B) Trap-bar deadlift||5||5,3,1,5,5|
|C) Asymmetrical lunge||2-3||8-10**|
* 60 seconds per side.
** Each side.
Plank and side plank
First we want to get him to the point at which he can do 60-second holds for both exercises. Then we'll add a load, either with a weighted vest or by putting his feet up on a bench or his elbows on a stability ball.
As described earlier, we'll have him hold a heavy dumbbell — 75 to 85 pounds — at either his shoulder or hip on the same side as his front leg.
Rx for Biceps and Lats
You've probably heard this bit of old-school wisdom: "You can't shoot a cannon from a canoe." If your biceps are lagging, and the problem isn't lack of training emphasis, the brakes could be in your upper back, especially your traps. Those muscles aren't big and strong enough to support more upper-arm size.
A solid program of heavy shrugs, deadlifts, YTWL raises, face pulls, and inverted rows will develop the upper-back strength necessary to support additional loading in curling exercises, leading to greater size and strength.
Another common strategy to increase arm size is to focus on using the arms in multijoint lifts as part of a movement chain that emphasizes the back or chest. That's why close-grip bench presses and dips are great triceps-building exercises, and why chin-ups are usually effective for biceps.
But what if the chin-up is the problem? That is, what if you're unable to do more than a few chins at a time, and the problem isn't simply a lack of effort in that exercise?
The problem could be in your external rotators. The chest and lats are powerful internal rotators of your upper-arm bones, so your body may resist your efforts to increase strength in those muscles if your external rotators are weaker than they need to be. It puts the brakes on the stronger muscles to prevent injury. Face pulls and YTWL raises, mentioned earlier, will help alleviate that imbalance.
Here's another common weak link in chin-up performance: lat strength in relation to glute strength.
In gym culture, the idea that the lats and glutes work together seems ridiculous. The lats move your arms and the glutes move your legs, and as any reader of Flex could tell you, those are entirely different body parts. But take a look at an anatomy chart. You can draw straight lines from the fibers of the latissimus dorsi on the left side through the gluteus maximus on the right side. Same with your right lat and left glute.
That's why those muscles work together when you walk, run, or climb to stabilize your spine. (On the front of your body, your obliques share the same fiber orientation as the adductor muscles on the inner thigh of the opposite-side leg.)
If one side of this support mechanism is weak, your spine is at risk. So your body will resist your attempts to make one of the muscles disproportionately stronger.
As odd as it seems, you might need to work on your lunge or step-up strength to improve your performance in chin-ups.
You can also work around the problem, if you have it, by holding a Swiss ball between your butt and heels while you do chin-ups, as shown in the pictures at right. You'll need a training partner to set the ball in place on the back of your legs, and then you'll need to squeeze it in place by firing your glutes, hamstrings, and calves. With your glutes contracted, your body perceives that the spine is stable, and it releases the brakes, allowing your lats to work more effectively.
Wrapping It Up: Make or Brake
In business, those who're ambitious are often told that they won't attain a seven-figure income by doing more of what got them to a six-figure income. Chances are it's not even possible — they worked at full capacity to earn the six-figure income in the first place. To reach seven figures, they have to think and act differently.
The strength-training version of that idea has been expressed by Dave Tate: Whatever you did to get from 200 pounds to 300 pounds in the bench press won't work to get from 300 to 400.
My version of this idea is what I hope I've described in this article: Pushing the accelerator by eating more and training more can get you pretty far in the gym. You can build a body that's bigger and stronger than most of the others you see around you.
But if you want to reach another level of development -- adding size and strength systemically; bringing up a lagging muscle group; increasing strength or repetitions in a particular exercise — you need to think and act differently.
The answer isn't always obvious; if it were, anyone willing to work hard could get a lot bigger and stronger than he is now. So once you've attempted the obvious solutions, like eating more or training the targeted muscles harder, you need to start looking for the brakes.
Those brakes could be hiding in a lot of different places: your obliques, your external rotators, your traps, your lats, your glutes. If there's one thing those potential locations have in common, it's this: They tend to be near the center of your body.
Or to make it even simpler, look at it this way: The impediment to growth in your arm muscles probably isn't in your arms. You already know how to push down on the accelerator, and increase the volume and intensity of your arm workouts. But chances are progress will be brutally slow until you figure out how to release the brakes.
Cable overhead squat
Side plank with legs suspended, using a TRX.
Split squat with asymmetrical load.
Chin-up with Swiss ball
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