A Forgotten Key to Muscle Development

Now that the 2012 Olympics are in full force, we’re all reminded of the astonishing level of development the human body can achieve. You only need to look at the physiques of the gymnasts for proof. The guys who perform the rings and pommel horse events have the most impressive muscle development I’ve ever seen on natural athletes.

If your muscle-building efforts have come to a halt, I’ll bet that you’ve been searching for the latest program to get you out of that rut. Maybe you think you need more volume or a higher training frequency or a new set of exercises? Those elements are important, but most likely, that’s not the problem.

For the last few years I’ve spent most of my own training time around future Olympic gymnasts. Each week while training to improve my rings technique, I observe athletes of all ages: from 5 years old through high school teenagers. One thing I’ve noticed is there’s very little variety in their training. They don’t perform dozens and dozens of different exercises with varying sets, reps, and tempo. Instead, they focus on a handful of exercises on the rings, parallel bars, pommel horse, etc. However, their level of muscle development at such a young age is impressive.

Here’s the key: as these young athletes improve their technique with better control on the rings, etc. their muscle development also improves. How? Because it’s takes greater muscle activation to perfectly control a movement.

This is similar to Olympic weightlifters who compete in the snatch and clean and jerk. They don’t perform a lot of different exercises, either. In most cases they just do the two Olympic lifts along with a few assistance exercises. And man do those Olympic weightlifters have impressive physiques: especially in the lower weight classes where their body fat must be kept to a minimum.

How do gymnasts and Olympic weightlifters achieve head-turning muscle development with such little variety in their training? Because they constantly focus on achieving perfect technique with every rep.

So what is perfect technique? It’s when you maintain perfect control of the movement and your posture. This allows you to achieve the highest levels of muscle tension and motor unit recruitment. Unfortunately, there’s minimal focus on technique these days and that can lead to three problems: less muscle, less strength, and a higher risk of injury.

Take a typical YouTube video of the muscle-up, for example. You’ll often see kipping and a forward head posture to pull off the move. Kipping became a necessary aspect of the muscle-up because people weren’t strong enough to pull their body into the correct position. And the abrupt forward head posture is a neural reflex mechanism that can mess up your neck, shoulders, or both.

I mention the muscle-up for good reason. It’s an advanced exercise that people attempt to pull off when they’re not ready. One of the reasons I started my Rings and Power seminar is to teach athletes and trainers how to “peel back” the advanced rings exercises. There’s a strong emphasis on perfect technique, right from the start, and then the moves become more complex over time. When you focus on perfect technique you gain three benefits.

More muscle: controlling the instability of the rings requires intense focus between the mind and muscles. This enhanced mind-muscle connection increases motor unit recruitment so you can build muscle faster.

More strength: rings and other body weight exercises require you to slow down the movements and focus on high-tension muscle contractions to stabilize and move your body through space. These high-tension contractions recruit your largest, strongest motor units.

Lower risk of injury: when you perform exercises with your glutes and abs activated, and when you keep your neck packed (chin tucked and head neutral with the spine), your spinal column is in its ideal position to release the most neural input to the muscles while minimizing stress to your neck and shoulder joints.

So each time you perform an exercise, imagine you’re being tested on it. Keep your core and glutes activated, keep your head neutral with the spine, and focus on achieving as much tension as possible in the peak contraction phase.

Now, I know that perfect technique can’t be taught in a blog post, but when you learn how to do challenging exercises such as the muscle-up and handstand push-up from the rings with control, your muscle development will reach a new level.

Stay Focused,
CW

Total Body Training Twice Per Week

Question: CW, due to work demands I can only lift weights twice per week. The other two days I do Muay Thai. Can you help me design a program to get bigger and stronger? Thanks, BS

CW Answer: First off, when you can only train twice per week it’s essential to do total body (i.e., full-body) training. This allows you to hit all the major muscle groups twice per week, and that’s sufficient to make progress. In fact, I have many professional fighters perform two total body workouts each week since they’re constantly toeing the line of overtraining because of all the boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, etc. they must also perform.

Since you only have two days per week to get bigger and stronger, there are a few adjustments that should be made.

1. Increase the Volume of Each Workout: In my book, Huge in a Hurry, I outline a system of training a total number of reps per exercise with a specific starting load. For example, you might start with a load you can lift 6 times and perform as many sets as it takes to reach 25 total reps for that lift while sticking with the original load. Each subsequent set typically consists of fewer than 6 reps due to fatigue: that’s how it’s supposed to be. So to reach 25 total reps, your reps for each set might be: 6, 5, 4, 4, 3, and 3.

However, with only two workouts per week it’s better to perform a greater number of total reps per exercise, such as 40 or 50. When the total number of reps is up around 50, use a lighter starting load. A load you can’t lift more than 8 times for the first set works well in this case. If you attempt 50 total reps with a 6 rep max you’ll end up doing too many sets of 1-2 reps in the end.

So your quest to reach 50 total reps with the original 8 rep max will probably go something like this: 8, 7, 6, 6, 5, 5, 5, 4, and 4. The other option is to perform 10 sets of 5 reps and avoid reaching failure on any set.

Now you might think that 10×5 per exercise would protract the workout. It won’t if you use compound lifts and organize the exercises in a circuit. I favor a higher number of sets, and that’s why I’m also a big proponent of circuits. The following full-body workout, for example, can be finished in approximately 25 minutes:

1A Pull-up from rings for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1B Dip from rings for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1C Romanian deadlift for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds, repeat 1A-1C nine more times

2. Perform Unilateral Exercises Each Week: Performing exercises one limb at a time is essential in any training program, regardless of the frequency. But when the frequency is low it becomes even more important to have a workout that builds stability strength around the joints and spinal column. This ensures that your body stays strong and in balance.

So your second workout of the week could look like this:

1A One-arm row for 5 reps, each arm
Rest 30 seconds
1B One-arm bench press for 5 reps, each arm
Rest 30 seconds
1C Reverse lunge for 5 reps, each leg
Rest 30 seconds, repeat 1A-1C nine more times

Again, this is a relatively brief workout that takes around 30 minutes, even though you’re performing 10 sets per exercise.

3. Add More Exercises to the Circuits: Make the most of your two trips to the gym each week by adding exercises that target your weaknesses. The above examples fulfill the requirement of a total body workout: upper body pull, upper body push, and a squat or deadlift or lunge variation. But if you have the time, add more exercises to the circuit. When a client is limited to two workouts per week, I’ll typically perform a circuit of five exercises. The two extra exercises don’t have to be compound moves: you might want to add a calf or abdominal or arm exercise.

When you add extra exercises to the circuit, decrease the volume of each exercise to 40 total reps. Here’s an example:

1A Pull-up from rings for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1B Dip from rings for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1C Lateral raise for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1D Romanian deadlift for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1E Ab wheel rollout for 5 reps
Rest 30 seconds, repeat 1A-1E seven more times

Follow these three steps when you’re limited to two workouts per week and you will get bigger and stronger.

Stay Focused,
CW