As a strength coach, my first love is working with competitive athletes, but as any coach knows, the vast majority of clients we encounter have mostly cosmetic or physique goals. In other words, they want to look good naked. Hence, quite a bit of my personal experience to this point has involved solving physique problems. So I thought I’d make the topic of my first T-mag article something that most readers can appreciate: How to gain or lose muscle in specific body parts, commonly referred to as specialization.
The things is, I know a dirty little secret about some of you, something you dare not confess in your e-mails to the T-mag boys – some of you don’t squat. Worse, some of you don’t even train legs at all! In fact, some of you TRAIN NOTHING BUT CHEST AND ARMS! If I spread your dirty little secret to some “experts,” they’d probably say you were lazy. They might say you weren’t a “real” bodybuilder. They might even say that you’re not a real man!
Relax. While it might seem like common sense to train the whole body and achieve some sort of balance, most of the people I meet have conflicting objectives. Maybe it’s the baseball pitcher who wants to “get buff” like his offensive counterparts because “chicks go for the long ball,” or the middle-distance runner who wants his arms to look good in a tank-top as he’s gliding along that last hill before the finish line.
Regardless, most trainers out there will ignore those objectives and proceed to train someone their way, like a barber giving you a bowl cut when you really wanted to keep your ponytail. As an ethical professional, I consider it an obligation to give my opinion on an athlete’s goals or biases – but only once. After that it’s my job to help them realize their goals, even if they’re as wacky as having Synthol-sized arms.
What follows are the discoveries I’ve made helping people achieve their own aesthetic image. You could call them rules or truths, but maxims will do.
Maxim # 1: You must make a decision.
This one’s for the competitive athletes out there. I’ve spoken with track athletes who swear they want to decrease their sprint times, but after talking at length they seem to be obsessed with increasing their bench press; I’ve consulted football players who want increased performance, but wince when the training involves working the trunk and hips.
Make a decision. Are you after performance or physique? Don’t rationalize; arm strength and chest power are nice, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of blocking and tackling. And don’t half-ass the training; instead of the best of both worlds (a Heisman trophy and size 28 waist?) you’ll get the least – sub-par performance and a butt that’s still too big for your liking.
With that out of the way, let’s start with the hypertrophy aspect of specialization.
Maxim # 2: You must decrease the volume and intensity of training for the rest of the body.
This is the most important aspect of making specified gains that eludes many trainees who seem to think that cranking up the intensity for a body part is all that’s required.
A question for those athletes: Has it worked yet?
The truth is, you must drastically decrease the work for other areas. All training requires recovery and stresses the body; you simply can’t make optimal gains in a body part while imposing a normal training load on the rest of the body.
In terms of maintenance, I’ve found that the most important parameter is tension. That means if you maintain 95-100% of your 1RM, even for as little as one set, the amount of muscle lost during a specialization phase for another body part will be negligible to nonexistent.
And I hear the dissent already: “Don’t you know that for big arms you should squat big?” Yes, that’s true, but so is my point. Just like “Better safe than sorry” and “No risk, no reward” – opposite truisms – there’s a time in your training career when both are applicable. A beginner will usually find that if he trains the compound lifts intensely and exclusively, he’ll make the best gains in all muscle groups, but as a trainee gains experience and nears his potential he’ll find he can more easily increase his arm girth if he truly specializes.
Maxim # 3: You should specialize training for only one muscle group at a time.
Obviously this goes hand-in-hand with the former topic. I’ve found that the best gains are made when trying to bring up only one area at a time.
When someone tells me that they want to specialize in the upper body – chest, shoulders, back – for example, I usually advise them to either construct separate cycles for the different areas, or to continue training in a more generalized fashion, changing parameters (volume, intensity, and rest periods) frequently (see below).
Maxim # 4: You must alternate microcycles of specialization with equal or longer cycles of generalized training.
This brings up the “periodization” aspect of the title. When attempting to maximally increase hypertrophy in a single body part, it’s wise not to try to specialize all the time. Bodybuilding, like all physical stressors, is governed by the law of general adaptation, which posits that the body will eventually recognize the stressor as normal. That’s why those Heavy Duty guys at your gym never seem to grow or get stronger, and why those teenage boys who do nothing but bench press don’t have pecs to write home about.
The General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.) also helps explain why professional and Eastern European athletes, who often train for up to three hours at a time, once or more per day, can make incredible gains seemingly in opposition to the “one hour time limit” rule; their bodies have simply adapted to the great load of training and practice.
Another reason to alternate cycles is to bring up the rest of the body, which should have been under maintenance training. Maintenance does not mean progress (though in the short term you might benefit from the reduction in work), and if one tries to go from arm specialization to calf specialization to chest, etc. you will eventually find your other areas in regression.
Maxim # 5: For each specialization cycle, you must change the training parameters.
By training parameters, I’m referring to things like volume, intensity, frequency, density, exercise selection, tempo, grip, and rest periods.
If you’re a regular reader of this magazine, you probably do better than 99% of the gym population when it comes to changing parameters. However, I’ve found that many advanced athletes and professional trainers usually have a bias related to volume and intensity, often stemming from an extreme response to what is usually sound, expert advice. Statements (or inferences) such as “High reps do nothing for strength or power,” or “Loads near 1RM require fewer sets and more rest,” while partially true, often cause an athlete to adopt a method of training that excludes legitimate variation.
If you’re truly interested in making good gains, your first assignment for your next microcycle is to adopt the opposite combination of volume and intensity. For our purposes, all training programs will mostly fit into the following combinations:
High volume, High intensity
Low volume, High intensity (often called intensification)
High volume, Low intensity (often called accumulation)
Low volume, Low intensity
Simply adopt the opposite of what you’ve been habitually doing, or did in your last microcycle.
And don’t be afraid to vary rest periods. It’s not written in stone that high intensity work requires more rest, or that “bodybuilding” training necessitates short intervals. Try longer rest periods (and, hence, much longer workouts) in your next accumulation-type phase, or shorter ones, up to and including rest-pause (where you actually put the bar down for 10-15 seconds, rest, and then do another set) in your next intensification phase.
Maxim # 6: You must increase calories.
Most readers of this magazine know this, as muscle does not develop from ether. But what holds some people back from their muscular potential is a fear of the whole bulking and cutting thing; adding hard-to-shed fat and bulky, unaesthetic muscle, and I wholeheartedly understand this. As non-competitive bodybuilders, most of us don’t want to look good only a few months out of the year.
But the great thing about specialization is that the increase over maintenance calories doesn’t need to be very much for the training effect to work. Theoretically, if you added a whole inch to your arms (and no weight elsewhere), you gained less than a pound over what’s probably a month-long cycle. For those type-A compulsive calorie counters, an increase of 100-250 calories above maintenance should do the trick; for those less observant, simply add a small meal, in the form of a snack or extra MRP.
Now we come to the truly heretical area of this article – how to lose muscle. It’s “heretical” because most “hardcore” types think that any muscle gain, anywhere (how about five extra pounds for the masseter muscle?) is sacred, and resent those of us who don’t want Tom Platz thighs. It’s certainly a unique topic for a bodybuilding publication, as I’ve never seen it discussed before. Some strength training experts, such as Charles Staley and Charles Poliquin, have discussed training to avoid further increases in mass, but nothing has been put forth to help, for example, the female trainee with stocky thighs lose the muscle she inadvertently gained.
Maxim # 1: If you train it, it will grow.
This brings up a pet peeve, and something that continues to mystify me about seemingly intelligent trainees.
Let’s say we see Joe Hypothetical training in our gym one day. He’s training arms, and since he wants them to grow he’s doing all the right, traditional things – high volume, high reps, short rest periods. Later on in the workout we notice that Joe has moved to training abs. Again, high volume, high reps, short rest. He’s doing this to accomplish… what? Smaller abs? A tighter waist? Increased “tone”?!
Hypertrophy is an effect of training that can’t be avoided, even by the strictest relative strength protocol or the extremely low-intensity work provided by endurance or cardio training. Look at endurance runners, the most stick-like of athletes; their legs often still show ample mass. Or look at tennis pros, whose dominant arm is usually quite larger than the other.
While strength coaches may disagree over some things, virtually all would agree with me that over time, the hypertrophy of any muscle group is directly related to the work performed, intentional or not. Which means that if you choose to train abs directly, you’ll gain increased muscularity at equal levels of body fat, but this muscularity will be mostly the result of hypertrophy of the abdominal muscles, which at its extreme results in the obvious potbelly displayed by the big, hardcore lifters.
Maxim # 2: To lose muscle, you must temporarily stop training it.
Yes, there are ways to train muscle and minimize (not stop) hypertrophy, but if you’re serious about losing mass, you must allow for (gasp!) atrophy to set in. That means not only stopping any direct work for at least a month, but also being very observant of any indirect tension you may be placing on the muscle. So for instance, if you want to lose mass from the trunk, this isn’t a good time to do powerlifting. If you want to reduce your thighs, be careful of the amount of work they get from aerobics.
Understand that there’s a difference between detraining – the physical and hormonal consequence of complete cessation of training – and specialized atrophy. So long as the usual level of tension is maintained for the rest of the body, detraining shouldn’t be a problem. With athletes who like to do high intensity work, which usually innervates all muscle groups, I generally advise focusing on machine and isolation work for the other groups during the planned atrophy period. This maintains strength levels while minimizing inadvertent work.
Maxim # 3: To lose muscle, you must reduce calories.
Muscle is a tissue, which requires energy for maintenance or growth, and it’ll decay in a hypocaloric environment. If you avoid training a muscle but eat enough or too many calories, the result might not be a reduction in muscle tissue but a reduction of resting muscular tension, commonly called tone, that will leave those big thighs every bit as stocky, but now soft and undefined.
But just as I wrote before, specialization doesn’t require nearly the same caloric change as bulking and cutting. A reduction of about 250 calories a day should speed atrophy while shrinking some fat stores but minimizing other muscle loss.
Maxim # 4: You must eventually resume training.
As indicated above, atrophy and decreased muscle tone happen together. Assuming you don’t like a soft, flabby look, you must eventually resume training that muscle.
But certain rules apply. I totally agree with other strength coaches that to minimize hypertrophy, volume should be kept extremely low, both in sets and reps. As a general rule, I advise trainees to perform no more than nine total sets a workout for the problematic body part, usually in sets of fewer than four reps. A side effect of this high-load approach is that muscle tone is at its highest level, and strength is preserved in such a way that a trainee isn’t embarrassed by a lack of such in that area. My advice is to resume training at no more than 90% of previous RM, with 80% being better for many athletes.
I know there will still be some people out there who want to wear off-the-rack jeans but still squat 900, or win the Outland trophy while avoiding “lineman’s belly.” As I said earlier, you must make a decision. For competitive athletes, there really is no decision; if you want to be the best – and you should – there’s no room for worrying about how pretty nature did or didn’t make you. But if your competition days are behind you, or you’re a recreational athlete, and you want to look like Steve Reeves…the techniques outlined in this article should help you get as close as possible.