Here's what you need to know...
- For hypertrophy, tension is key. Stop being a stickler about range of motion. Increase time under tension and grow.
- If you can't feel a muscle working, isolation work can improve your mind-muscle connection. It'll also improve muscle recruitment during compound lifts.
- Stop thinking that anything beyond 3 reps is cardio. Build muscle by using broader rep ranges.
Despite my focus on performance, I also want to look muscular and lean. So do my clients.
I had the opportunity to work with a lot of great bodybuilders, amateurs and pros. I worked with Amit Sapir for a few years, starting when he was an amateur and up to when he won his pro card.
I've trained Patrick Bernard, an IFBB pro in the 212-pound class, as well as a young figure competitor who won her class.
You can learn from anyone who trains hard – bodybuilders, powerlifters, athletes, CrossFitters, Olympic lifters, etc. Close your mind to any training modality and you'll miss out on a lot.
That said, here are three things I learned from working with bodybuilders. Including conventional rules that need to be broken.
Form is important. Good technique equals better performance. When you're competing in lifting sports like Olympic lifting, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit, a rep doesn't count if it's not complete or done within the rules.
I've always had a hard time accepting half squats, benches that weren't locked out, touch-and-go deadlifts, squats that are just a tad too high, and the like. But I've changed my tune.
Why you should break it:
Partial or "incomplete reps" can be very effective. Here's why:
- The first guy I ever trained who had thighs over 32 inches was a bodybuilder who was only going down halfway on his squats (thighs parallel to the floor) and on some reps he would stop even higher, yet this guy had humongous quads! I've also noticed that even the (arguably) best Olympic lifter in the world, Ilya Illyin, squats in a similar manner. It's also common for Chinese Olympic lifters to do quarter squats or quarter front squats after their main squat work is done.
- My client, IFBB pro Patrick Bernard, has amazing triceps, yet he never works full range on close-grip benches – stopping 1-2 inches from the chest and just short of lockout, dips – just doing the upper half of the range of motion, or bench presses – stopping 1-2 inches before lockout. He can easily do a full range lift. He's benched 455 pounds using a competition-style bench press, but when he trains, he generally uses one-half to two-thirds of the range of motion.
- I used to work with Alex Raymond and he'd stop short on any triceps extension because of an elbow injury, yet his triceps were among his best body parts. When doing shoulder presses, he'd also stop just short of lockout and lower the bar or dumbbells only to mouth level, yet he had amazing shoulders.
- Some of the guys with the biggest biceps I've seen are those who only train the middle of the range of motion on curls, keeping the muscle under constant tension.
- While Patrick Bernard uses a full range of motion on his squats, he uses only a very short range of motion on his leg press. As a result, he has amazing vastus medialis development.
Partial reps are fairly common, if not the norm, in bodybuilding. It was a shock for me at first, but after analyzing it I realized that for a bodybuilder, the purpose of doing a lifting exercise is simply to put tension on a muscle to make it grow.
It doesn't really matter what the exercise looks like as long as it puts the muscle under an optimal load/tension. Empirically, they found that doing only a portion of the range of motion for certain movements is what worked best for their own goals.
Bodybuilders tend to use relatively higher reps while still relying on pretty heavy weights. That's something that can take its toll on the joints, and reducing the range of motion can give the joints a break.
I'm not saying to start avoiding full range of motion on every set of every lift. After all, going full range on big movements often involves a greater amount of muscle mass and reaching a stretched position increases growth stimulation by activating the mTor pathway.
But when you're focusing on constant tension training – as opposed to heavy/strength lifting – it's perfectly okay to train in the range of motion that keeps the target muscle loaded.
Here are some examples of how to incorporate partial range of motion training:
|Stopping a few inches from lockout
|Keeps constant tension on the pectorals, prevents the triceps from kicking in too much; reduces elbow strain
|1-2" from chest to just prior to lockout
|Makes the close-grip work safer on the shoulders, avoids having the chest kick in too much
|Incline Bench Press
|1-2" from chest to 1-2" from lockout
|Keeps constant tension on the pectorals, avoids excessive shoulder strain
|Keeping the shoulders above the elbows in the low position
|Has the triceps do most of the work while reducing shoulder strain
|Bar/Dumbbell handle no lower than mouth level and up to 1-2" short of lockout
|Keeps constant tension on the deltoids, prevents the triceps from taking over, reduces shoulder strain in the bottom position
|From upper thigh parallel to the floor and up to 1-2" short of lockout
|Keeps the quads under constant tension and reduces the participation of the glutes and hamstrings
|Going down just prior to reaching a 90-degree angle at the knees
|Increases vastus medialis stimulation and reduces hip and lower back strain
|From just short of full elbow extension up to just short of finishing the flexion
|Keeps the stress on the biceps by preventing the front delts and traps from kicking in too much, reduces elbow strain
|Triceps Extension (pulley, dumbbell or bar)
|Go from full flexion to about an inch before reaching full extension
|Reduces some elbow stress, provides constant tension on the triceps
|Going as low as possible but only going three-fourths of the way up
|Keeps the hamstrings under constant tension, reduces the risk of possible lumbar hyperextension
I wouldn't use partial-movement training exclusively. It's more of an assistance technique. I certainly wouldn't use it when going heavy for low reps as it defeats the purpose of the exercise.
This is best kept for when using moderate-to-high reps (8-20). If you decide to use this technique, incorporate at least one full-range compound exercise with each muscle group. Train mostly using full range of motion, but know the value of partial range of motion and don't be afraid to use it if it fits your goals.
Lifters often make fun of isolation exercises. I did too. Yet I was the one praising the importance of having a good mind-muscle connection.
It might not seem like a contradiction... until you realize that the best way to fix a lousy mind-muscle connection is by isolating the muscle.
Why you should break it:
Learning to feel a muscle will make it easier to stimulate and grow. Isolation gives you the ability to feel individual muscles working.
Isolation work can even be used as a tool to improve your recruitment of a muscle, so that you can better stimulate it with compound movements.
If you can't feel a muscle working in a movement, you can't stimulate it optimally. The more you feel a muscle doing work, the better your recruitment of that muscle is and the more it will grow. Period.
Most of the time, just "thinking" about a muscle while doing an exercise, or trying harder to feel it working, isn't going to make a difference. If you don't feel the pecs being loaded during a bench press, you won't feel them better simply by thinking about them.
That's where isolation work can help you. By learning to isolate and flex a muscle, creating maximum tension with that muscle, you'll gradually improve your capacity to recruit it. The better you are at recruiting it, the easier you can integrate it when doing the big lifts.
A few years back, after I'd just transitioned from Olympic weightlifting to regular strength lifting/bodybuilding, my delts were so dominant I couldn't make my pecs grow no matter what. I could bench press in the 400's but had a flat chest.
So to "reprogram" my chest recruitment I did more isolation work and pre-fatigue training. It wasn't long until I could feel my chest during any variation of the bench press. My chest caught up to my shoulders and at one point I had to use the same strategy for my delts because my chest had begun taking over!
Sure, it sounds better to preach doing the big basics rather than isolation work. Squat, bench, deadlift, push press, power clean... all of those make you sound hardcore.
But the truth is that any resistance exercise can build muscle mass; isolation exercises just do it on a smaller scale because they don't involve as many different muscles. But, if you train all of them hard, they work too.
Still, the biggest benefit of isolation work is to increase your capacity to recruit a lagging muscle, and by increasing that capacity you also improve your chances of optimally stimulating that muscle during the big basic lifts.
Isolation work is motor learning – learning to maximally recruit and contract a muscle. While the bulk of your training program should revolve around the big basic lifts, isolation might be necessary to solve a problem with lagging muscle groups.
In that case, isolation work by itself or as a pre-fatigue superset (doing the isolation exercise before the compound movement) can help solve the issue by increasing your capacity to recruit a muscle and integrate it optimally in a big compound lift.
I love low reps. If I were to train only based on what I enjoy doing I'd never go above 3 reps per set, with the bulk of my work being done for singles or doubles. And I actually did that for a pretty long time.
Strength athletes tend to stick to low reps (1-5) in their training. Sometimes they might go up to 6-8 reps, but that's mostly on isolation work. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, will use any type of reps to stimulate growth – low (1-5), moderate (6-10), high (12-20), and even very high (more than 20).
Why you should break it:
Strength athletes, by being so focused on simply lifting bigger and bigger weights, are actually robbing themselves of some potential gains. After all, while it's true that the nervous system is key when it comes to showcasing strength, it's still the muscles that are lifting the weight.
All things being equal, the more muscle you have, the stronger you'll be.
Gaining strength on lower reps (let's say 2-5 reps) will transfer better to a 1RM test of strength and make you a lot stronger overall than gaining strength on higher reps (8-12). But if you get significantly stronger in any rep range, you'll be stronger overall.
Bodybuilders have long understood that provided you work hard, you can grow muscle with pretty much any kind of rep range. If you train consistently and try to gradually become stronger in the rep range(s) you're doing, you'll grow muscle regardless of if you are doing 3 or 20 reps.
When I also included slightly higher reps (5-10), I gained more muscle, faster. Now that I want to gain some muscle back after some medical problems, I'm including some higher rep work (up to 10 reps), even on the big movements, and I'm noticing a difference in growth.
And when only lifting heavy once a week, I still get stronger even though I'm doing less "pure strength" work.
A good approach could look something like this:
- Day 1: Pull workout, sets of 10 reps
- Day 2: Push workout, sets of 10 reps
- Day 3: Leg workout, sets of 10 reps
- Day 4: Test * (1 leg, 1 push, 1 pull), sets of 3 reps
- Day 1: Pull workout, sets of 6 reps
- Day 2: Push workout, sets of 6 reps
- Day 3: Leg workout, sets of 6 reps
- Day 4: Test * (1 leg, 1 push, 1 pull), sets of 2 reps
- Day 1: Pull workout, sets of 3 reps
- Day 2: Push workout, sets of 3 reps
- Day 3: Leg workout, sets of 3 reps
- Day 4: Test * (1 leg, 1 push, 1 pull), sets of 1 rep
* Day 4 of each week is a "test" day where you go for a heavy set to ensure that you keep the feeling of using near-maximal weights. For instance, work up to a 3RM of front squats (leg), bench presses (push) and deadlift (pull) in 5-6 sets.
Bodybuilders will use even broader rep ranges, but this represents a great compromise for goals that are both performance and aesthetic based. It will help you get stronger while also building more muscle.