1 – Free Weights Beat Machines At Building Mass
With the “functional” craze sweeping the industry, many machines are going the way of the dinosaur. That shouldn’t be the case, though. For hypertrophy, machines kick ass.
If you’re trying to build muscle, your goal every time you set foot in the gym is to subject your muscle tissue to enough torque and tension to cause adaptation. Free weights can be incredibly limiting because, as weird as it may sound, they don’t always maximize the role of gravity. With the use of pulleys and levers, however, machines and cables can produce tension over a larger portion of a muscle’s active range of motion.
Let’s think about a dumbbell lateral raise, for example. For the first half of each rep, the weight is spending much of the time in the horizontal plane, much more than it’s spending time in the vertical plane. Gravity doesn’t really operate horizontally, so you’re essentially missing out on the force that will stimulate growth for half of the exercise.
Now compare that to a cable lateral raise. The integrated pulley system changes the resistance curve of the movement to provide tension where free weights couldn’t. Many machines do the same exact thing. Use them!
A good rule of thumb: If the weight isn’t moving in a purely vertical direction for the entire range of motion, then there’s probably a machine or cable variation that’s more effective. It’s basic Newtonian mechanics. You know, cuz gravity and all that.
2 – Calves Are Stubborn, They’ll Never Grow
For calves, genetics plays an enormous role in terms of what you start with, but where you end up ultimately depends on how hard you’re willing to work and what you’re willing to do.
The truth is, your calves aren’t really stubborn. It’s your whiny refusal to train them with adequate intensity that’s the real problem. Start doing more than your half-assed six sets of calves a week tacked onto the end of your leg workout.
Bite the bullet and up the frequency with staples like calf raises on the leg press, calf machine raises, seated machine calf raises, etc. They’re all it takes to develop an impressive pair of calves, but you have to do enough of them to stimulate growth.
Train calves 2 or 3 times a week for 6-8 sets to start. Add 2-3 second isometric work at the extremes in your range of motion i.e. pause at the top and the bottom of the exercise.
Here’s a sample routine to try at the beginning of each leg day. Do this one as a circuit. Tack it onto an upper body or secondary leg day each week for a month and enjoy the gains. Add an additional round to the circuit to increase the intensity as you progress.
- Calf Raise Machine 3 x 20 (2313 tempo)
- Seated Calf Raise 3 x 25, 20, 15 (2313 tempo)
- Leg Press Calf Raise 3 x 12, 10, 8 (2313 tempo)
3 – Incline Bench Press is the Best Upper Chest Exercise
By no means is the incline barbell press a bad exercise. It just doesn’t optimally activate the clavicular head of your pectoralis major, which is what you look for in a good upper chest movement.
Muscle fibers can pull only one way: the way they’re oriented. So take fiber orientation into consideration when selecting exercises to target sub-groups of muscle fibers. Then make sure you train according to that fiber direction.
In muscles like the pecs, fibers are oriented in different directions, allowing for greater range of motion and potential force production. The fibers of the upper chest run at an angle, basically from your armpit to your collarbone. These upper fibers function to bring your humerus towards the midline of your body while doing so at a slight upward angle.
The incline barbell press is suboptimal in maximizing the contractile force of those fibers because the bar limits the amount of humeral flexion at the shoulder joint. This prevents the clavicular fibers from fully shortening.
You want to train those upper fibers based on their orientation and take them to maximal contraction. This workout will hammer those upper chest fibers:
- Low Incline Cable Flye 4 x 12 (3-second isometric on top). Drive elbows together, not hands. Upper arms perpendicular to the floor.
- Low Incline Dumbbell Press 4 x 12, 10, 8, 8 (2011 tempo). Keep the dumbbells wide on the bottom of the movement. Drive elbows together on the press.
- Incline Plate Squeeze 3 x AMAP (as many reps as possible) Lie on a flat or incline bench. Lay a 35-pound plate on your chest so that the edge of the plate is situated between your pecs. Using both palms, squeeze the plate as hard as possible as you push the plate from chest to full extension. Repeat.
4 – Toe Direction Targets Vastus Medialis/Lateralis
Training the quads isn’t complicated. Of course you might think differently, given that there are plenty of bogus tips out there on where to point your toes while doing knee extensions and how to manipulate stance width on squats to supposedly isolate different heads of the quadriceps.
Here’s the problem with that. Muscles respond to torque. Introducing an action that doesn’t use the target muscle will not increase torque, period.
A muscle acts only on joints that it crosses. But it’s “toes out” to hit medialis, and “toes in” to hit lateralis on the leg extension, right? Not exactly. More like “toes out” to tear your MCL and “toes in” in to tear your LCL.
Your knee only bends one way, so train it that way. Introducing external rotation at the hip on squats (toes out) also won’t do your quads any good. Instead, your glutes will likely end up taking on the brunt of the training load. Of the four heads of your quadriceps, only the rectus femoris crosses the hip. However, it’s responsible for flexion at the hip… not rotation.
If you want to increase the size of your quads, your best bet is to manipulate the knee angle and center of gravity location associated with compound movements like squats, lunges, split squats, etc.
Quad vs. Glute Dominant Lunge Pattern
Additionally, ditch the old “knees behind toes” cue. Let your knees track over your toes every time you lunge and squat when targeting quads.
5 – Hit Compound Exercises First, Isolation Exercises Last
Lift heavy when you’re fresh, right? Wrong.
For beginners, compound movements should be your bread and butter. Few would disagree. Focusing on the big lifts will lead to more drastic neurological and strength adaptations in the early stages of your training life. But that isn’t necessarily true for intermediate and advanced lifters.
While any solid program should incorporate both compound and isolation movements, the order of them isn’t as important as it’s so often cracked up to be. That’s especially true if hypertrophy is the end goal.
Periodize your training with exercise order as the main variable. One week, start every workout with isolation work and then finish off the workout with some compound movements.
The reasoning? Isolation exercises are just flat-out more effective for developing a solid mind-muscle connection. If you start your workout by getting into a rhythm and finding your groove for the muscle group you’re training, compound movements will feel even more effective. It’s all about efficiency.
Why “waste” sets at the beginning of workouts pushing/pulling a lot of weight with no real connection to the muscle and beating your CNS into the ground?
A simple trick is to invert your workout routine. Do you typically bench and then finish with flyes? Flye first and then knock out your sets on the bench. It’s brutally simple and effective.
If you recall the upper chest routine described above, you might have noticed how flyes were listed first. That’s what we’re talking about. Try that one out, and if you’re feeling extra adventurous, swap the plate squeezes and dumbbell presses as well. That workout would then look something like this:
- Low Incline Cable Flye
- Incline Plate Squeeze
- Low Incline Dumbbell Press