If you’ve been in the game of training for some time, or are relatively new and are just gathering information, you probably know that training progress is only achieved by creating proper stimulus.
And while you can look for workouts on the internet, there is one very important thing to learn and understand – What’s actually happening beneath your skin when you’re training, that leads to progress?
As we dive into this article we are going to cover how your muscles work, core training, volume & intensity, developing strong shoulders, using cardio, and even cheating your reps (it’s not what you think!).
The 3 Training Factors – Metabolic Stress, Mechanical Tension, Muscle Damage
When we look into the science of muscle growth, it appears that these 3 factors are the primary contributors that trigger the pathways that lead to muscle growth.
Let’s have a look at why that actually makes sense
In order to grow and adapt, the muscles need more mechanical tension, created by the progressively increasing training load (more weight, sets, reps).
When exposed to a new load that the muscles have never experienced before, the muscles are technically overloaded.
In turn, to endure this, the muscles send signals to satellite cells, which bind to the damaged muscle cells and in result, the muscle adapts and grows.
This implies that mechanical tension is what induces muscle damage and that therefore sets off a flurry of reactions in the body that allow the muscle to recover and increase its volume, capacity and efficiency.
Pretty cool, right?
What About Metabolic Stress?
The third important factor for muscle development is metabolic stress, which may sound like a fancy term but let us explain.
Basically, while you are training at a high intensity with weights, you use up a lot of the muscles’ energy.
Needless to say, all this energy is broken down into byproducts, which we refer to as “metabolites”.
These metabolites act as “anabolic signals” that, again, set off a hurricane of anabolic (constructive) processes that allow for muscle recovery and adaptation.
How Should I Train, Then?
Generally, in your workouts, you should look for a balance of effort and volume.
For instance, lifting just the bar for 100 repetitions won’t really cut it.
Choose a weight that is challenging enough to take you through a set of 6-10 reps, but just a couple of reps shy of failure.
Use challenging weights and do 10-20 of those, per muscle group, per week.
You should even consider going down to the strength rep range of 1-5 repetitions.
All of this will help you create a strong, aesthetic, stamina-abundant body, which, with the right approach, you can take to your older years.
What Are Volume & Intensity
Training intensity & training volume are two separate training variables, which have to be very well combined, as we already mentioned.
Intensity increases the closer you get to your maximum strength capabilities on a given exercise.
For instance, if you can bench press 100 lbs for 1 rep and fail to do a second rep unassisted, 100 lbs represents 100% intensity for you, for that exercise.
Volume on the other hand, represents the total amount of weight lifted on a given set, exercise or a workout.
For example, if we take that same 1 rep set with 100 lbs, that would be a volume of 100 lbs.
Oppositely, if you do 10 repetitions with 100 lbs, that would be a volume of 1000 lbs (Volume = Weight * Sets * Reps)
There’s a TON more info on this topic in our blog – Weight Training Guide For Beginners
What Is The Optimal Training Volume?
When you combine intensity and volume, you get a workload that is challenging and each set takes you within 2-4 reps shy of failure.
This is effective volume and should be at the core of your workouts, whether you are training for strength or for bulk muscle growth.
The optimal training volume forms at 10-20 challenging working sets, per muscle group, per week, depending on your level of training.
Beginners for example can reap benefits with just 5-6 sets per week, but as you progress and reach 15-20 sets, plateaus in development may be reached.
What is Volume Cycling?
Trying to build up all muscle groups all at once may be a challenging and unsustainable task, because all compound exercises engage multiple muscle groups.
For this reason, it often happens that you may not be able to get to peak recovery, especially on your weaker muscle groups.
This is when you can implement the concept of volume cycling, which implies a slight decrease in the volume for already well-developed muscle groups, and an increase for the weaker muscle groups.
Technically, this concept works for bringing up weak body parts, because the minimum volume you can MAINTAIN the well-developed muscle groups at, is about 30% of your minimum effective volume (i.e you can do ~5 sets per muscle group per week and maintain it).
Example Of Training Adjustments
Now, though you will be putting priority on your weaker muscle groups, you should still consider choosing exercises that work WITH your stronger body parts.
Those are compound movements that allow you to lift heavy weights, but on top of that, you can also include a good amount of volume with isolated movements.
For instance, if your chest is well developed, but your triceps are lacking, focus more on close grip bench press & triceps dips – This primarily engages the triceps, but also the chest and shoulders.
This is mostly applicable for the upper body, where certain exercises for the bigger muscle groups, may leave the smaller muscle groups exhausted and unable to complete quality volume.
Tips For Bringing Up Lacking Muscle Groups
Manipulating your training variables is one of the most important things about bringing up weaker muscle groups.
Besides that, you can view your training split and week as a cycle, where you usually have the most energy and focus at the beginning.
For this reason, you can structure your training around the weaker muscle groups by:
- Placing them first in the training split
- Placing them first in the workout
Furthermore, you can apply volume cycling, place a cooldown on dominant muscle groups and focus on the lacking ones by increasing the weight, sets and repetitions.
Developing Strong Shoulders
To understand exactly what the shoulders are doing, let us have a look at their superficial and deep anatomy.
The main muscles of the shoulders are the deltoids, which are made up of 3 heads:
- The anterior (front) deltoid
- The medial (side) deltoid
- The posterior (back) deltoid
Each of these serves a variety of functions that allow a vast range of motion – You can lift your arms overhead, laterally, to the front and you can even take them back.
However, this big range of motion can make the shoulder joint unstable and thus, vulnerable to injury.
So How Do You Stabilize The Shoulders?
Luckily, our bodies were designed like what seems to be a very adaptive machine with components for high performance!
The shoulders are in fact, very well reinforced with stabilizing muscles, BUT, those muscles often become weaker due to the modern-day sedentary lifestyle and lack of natural movements like climbing.
There are 4 muscles that stabilize the shoulder and are referred to as “the rotator cuff”.
Those are namely:
- The infraspinatus – This is the main rotator cuff muscle that allows you to extend and rotate the shoulder
- Supraspinatus – This second rotator cuff muscle allows you to lift your arm and also, keeps the shoulder joint in place
- Teres minor – This is a pretty small muscle, but important for the external rotation of the arm, away from the body
- Subscapularis – Last but not least, the subscapularis keeps your upper arm and shoulder blades tight and also helps with arm rotation
To strengthen the rotator cuff, you should do exercises such as:
- Resistance band external rotation
- Resistance band internal rotation
- Active hanging
- Passive hanging
All of these movements will help you stabilize your shoulders and thus, you can have a greater output on the strength exercises for the deltoids, safely.
Training The Deltoids
As we already mentioned, the deltoids work with a variety of other upper body muscle groups.
The main muscle groups that work in synergy with the shoulders are the chest and the triceps.
These usually work together to help you complete complex exercises, such as:
- The bench press
- The overhead press
- The push-up
For this reason, when it comes to getting better, stronger shoulders, you should mostly rely on compound, free-weight movements, instead of isolated exercises.
Compound movements will allow you to engage synergistic muscle groups to ultimately lift a bigger load, while placing the focus on the desired area (i.e the triceps and upper chest will help you during an overhead press, but most of the work will go for the shoulders.
Here are the 5 best deltoid building exercises:
- Overhead presses (these are king, especially for the front deltoids)
- One Arm Lateral raises
- Two Arms Lateral Raises
- Machine Lateral Raises
- One Arm Dumbbell Upright Row
- Climbing (again, really?)
- Olympic clean
When you combine powerful, compound deltoid movements, with precise, focused rotator cuff work, you will inevitably set yourself up for a healthy shoulder line in the long term.
PLUS… Deltoids can make or break the physique you have, so work on them!
The Core & Vacuum Training
The Core 101
For the most part, when you hear the word “core” you may think of your sixpack, but the truth is different.
The six-pack is just a part of your core and works in synergy with other muscles around it, to ultimately:
- Keep your posture good
- Stabilize internal organs
- Keep you on your feet
- Exert force using other muscle groups
It is considered that the core is made up of the external and internal abdominal muscles, the glutes, the spinal erectors, obliques and the diaphragm.
Static VS Dynamic Exercises
Though crunches are a very popular exercise for the abs, they don’t even get close to the full functional potential of your core.
As a matter of fact, the abdominals have a variety of functions, both dynamic & static.
For instance, leg raises would allow the abs to contract and relax dynamically, while just holding your legs raised in a static position would contract the abs statically.
Both of these functions should be exercised during your training, to achieve maximum development.
Here are some of the best static & dynamic exercises you can do for the abs:
- Hanging knee raises
- Hanging leg raises
- Side to side leg raises
- Front lever drills
- Full front lever
- Russian twists
- Boxing bag upside down crunches
- Dragon flag
The Stomach Vacuum
A chiseled set of abs will give your waistline a complete overhaul and if you want to emphasize on that even further, you can implement the stomach vacuum in your training routine.
With this exercise, you will engage the internal abdominal muscles and your waistline will naturally become more tucked in.
Additionally, this is a whole workout for the sixpack as well, so do develop new, unseen before lines all over your midsection!
Here’s how to do the stomach vacuum:
- Stand up on your feet
- Take a completely straight body position
- Take a deep breath
- Slowly exhale and contract the abs while holding your breath
- Swallow the abdominal wall in and under the rib cage
- Hold this vacuum for a couple of seconds and release
Initially, this may feel odd but with time, you will start feeling more and more mind-muscle connection.
This exercise is best done on an empty stomach and can be practically completed every single day.
Can Cardio Exercises Build Muscle?
For years, the debate between weight lifting and cardio exercising has been going on with full power, as both sides have proponents.
As you may or may not know, cardio has been dubbed as the number one health improvement tool, while weight lifting is claimed to be more oriented towards visual and functional development.
And though both have actual benefits for the body and all of its processes, one question remains – Can cardio actually help you build muscle?
What Is Cardio?
Generally, cardio is any low-intensity activity that is done for a prolonged period of time, such as:
These are aerobic activities that primarily engage the heart and the lungs, leading to more efficient energy transportation.
This in turn leads to increased levels of endurance, where the individual can eventually sustain the activity for hours on end.
HOWEVER, prolonged, low-intensity activities only engage the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which don’t have a big potential for hypertrophy (growth).
Nevertheless, there are ways to use cardio exercises AND build muscle.
The Answer Is… Sprints!
As we just mentioned, prolonged cardio activities only engage the slow-twitch muscle fibers, due to the fact you don’t really need to exert much.
However, if you change the WAY in which you do the exercise (i.e running), the stimulus changes.
Sprints are without a doubt one of the most powerful tools to put in your training arsenal, ESPECIALLY for the goal of lower body development.
By definition, sprints have all the characteristics of a muscle building exercise, because they involve short, power bursts that engage the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Sprints are applicable for any cardio exercise, whether it’s swimming, cycling, running or skipping.
Just make sure to not do them right before or right after leg day, as sprints are demanding on the lower body and would require recovery time afterwards.
Sample Sprint Run Workout
Just like your normal gym workout, before you get into sprinting full-on, you have to go through a proper warm-up routine, where you’ll prepare and prime the legs for high exertion.
The goal of the warm-up is to – Activate the muscles and fill them with blood, raise the heart rate a bit, raise the body temperature a bit.
A good sprint run warm-up can include:
- Light jogging
- Dynamic stretching
- Squat jumps
- Power breathing
When you feel like your body is loose enough, follow the steps in the table below.
#1 – Warm up run, 60-70% exertion
#2 – Warm up run, 70-80% exertion
#3 – Full-on sprint, 90-100% exertion
#4 – Full-on sprint, 90-100% exertion
#5 – Full-on sprint, 90-100% exertion
Much like any other workout, you have to apply the principle of progressive overload on sprints, as well.
This would imply increasing the distance run, the number of sets or, changing the rest times.
Sprint workouts can even replace your weight training leg workout in the gym, so if you have a day where you don’t feel like squatting, get up for some sprints!
Should You Cheat On Your Exercises?
We all always hear the same story about how you should always use proper form, full range of motion and a slow to moderate pace, in your exercises.
This is because oftentimes, we see people in the gym just yanking the weights, applying too much inertial force and using just a little of their muscles.
Nevertheless, this is sort of a “complete cheating” while on the other hand, strategic cheating can actually help you in your workout.
Why You Should NOT Cheat (Completely)
Complete cheating generally involves an excessive amount of inertial forces, accompanied by poor biomechanical positions.
Such positions, done under the resistance of weight, can lead to long-term injuries of your joints, ligaments, tendons, and sometimes, even a muscle rupture can occur.
For this reason, you should mainly resort to the above-mentioned proper exercise execution, followed along with full range of motion and constant tension.
How Can I Strategically Cheat, Then?
Contrary to the current popular approach that dictates “staying a couple of repetitions shy of failure”, back in the golden days when the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger trained, people looked for ways to always surpass failure.
For this reason, many weight training techniques came to life, to up the intensity during heavy sets.
One of those techniques, that doesn’t involve a partner or a spotter, is the “cheating” technique.
The cheating technique basically implies using inertial forces to squeeze out another couple of repetitions AFTER you reach failure.
In other words, cheating is done AFTER you’ve done the exercise right AND reached failure.
Think of cheating as forced repetitions, where a spotter helps you get a couple more repetitions, after you can’t do any more unassisted.
Which Exercises Can I Cheat On?
Now, due to the twisty nature of cheating, you have to be very careful on the exercises you choose to cheat on.
Some movements cannot be cheated on with a proper technique, which increases the chance of injury.
As a matter of fact, there are only a handful of compound exercises which you can use to safely take yourself beyond failure.
Those are namely:
#1 Bicep Curls
Whether you are doing dumbbell or barbell bicep curls, or even hammer curls, you can easily lean forward slightly and use some inertial force.
As a matter of fact, Arnold himself used this technique to train his biceps, which was dubbed one of the best bicep peaks of all time!
#2 Lateral & Front Raises
Since the position of the dumbbells is almost identical with that of the bicep curls, lateral & front raises allow you to do the same thing – Lean forward slightly and come back up on the concentric part of the repetition.
Looking to get some 3D delts that pop? Use this technique.
#3 Hanging Leg Raises
If you’ve done a solid number of strict hanging leg raises and want to squeeze out a couple of more after failure, simply, swing back and forth slightly more!
Using the cheating technique on this exercise will lead to immense abdominal pump and ultimately, better definition and separation (if your nutrition is on point!).
How Often Should You Use This?
No matter how much control you have over this technique, it can still be dangerous and lead to injury, because you demand of the body more than it is currently capable of.
For this reason, properly dosing this technique is important if you decide to use it in the first place.
Since there is no definitive answer to the frequency of use, try and use this technique for less than 10% of your sets, on days when you FEEL that you have extra power.
Don’t do it just because you think you have to.