Here’s one truism we can all agree on: your body doesn’t want to build muscle unless it’s absolutely necessary. A muscle must be challenged to work harder so your physiology has no choice but to manufacture new muscle tissue to adapt to the demand.
Exercise variety is important and necessary to offset overuse injuries, but merely switching from a standing barbell curl to a dumbbell hammer curl won’t do anything to spark new growth in your biceps. This is true for training any muscle group.
You might get sore when you switch to a new exercise, but that’s mainly because the muscle is being challenged in a different way: it doesn’t mean the muscle has to grow to meet the demand. A better strategy is to find a free weight or body weight exercise that you like, and increase the frequency of training that movement over the course of 4-6 weeks.
What it’s best for: muscle growth
Explanation: we all know that increasing the load of a movement is great for building strength, and some muscle growth will follow. However, I’ve found that the fastest growth occurs when you significantly increase the weekly training volume for that muscle group.
Let’s take two guys (Jim and Tim) that perform the pull-up, as an example. Jim weighs 180 pounds and does the pull-up twice per week for 6×4 with an extra 30 pounds of weight attached to a chin/dip belt. You can calculate his weekly training volume with this equation: load x total reps = volume. Since his load is 210 pounds and his total reps are 48, his weekly volume is 10,080.
He’s been feeling pretty strong so the following week he adds 10 more pounds to the chin/dip belt. Now his weekly training volume for the pull-up is 10,560 (220 pounds x 48 reps).
In other words, Jim’s weekly training volume increased 5%.
Tim weighs 210 pounds and has been doing a body weight pull-up for 6×4 twice per week. Therefore, his weekly volume was the same as Jim’s first week: 10,080. Tim has been feeling strong too, but instead of adding an extra 10 pounds to a chin/dip belt he decides to add an extra pull-up workout, thus increasing his training frequency to three times per week. So if we plug in the numbers for Tim’s second week we get a volume of 15,120 (210 pounds x 72 reps).
In other words, by simply adding one extra body weight pull-up workout Tim increased his training volume by 50%!
So which method do you think would send a stronger signal for new muscle growth: a 5% increase in weekly volume or a 50% increase? Yep, you know the answer.
The irony is that it’s easier to add an extra pull-up workout than it is to strain like hell with more load to achieve the same 6×4 workout.
Now, I must state that for maximal strength gains you must focus on adding load to your workouts. But when fast muscle growth is the goal it makes perfect sense to increase the frequency for that movement because it results in a significantly higher weekly volume.
Exceptions to the frequency progression are a barbell squat, bench press and deadlift. However, use the frequency progression for any upper body lift or single-leg exercise and you will build new muscle more quickly.
How to use it: add one extra workout per week for the lagging body part. Perform around 25 total reps with a load that allows 6-8 reps per set. Keep adding one extra workout for that movement for 4-6 weeks straight.
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