Specialization is My Specialty
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with athletes who want to perform better, cougars re-investing in their assets, and more fat-loss clients than I can count.
However, I’ve recently found myself designing more programs for guys who want to bring up lagging body parts.
Perhaps it’s because I take an approach to training that’s based primarily on improving aesthetics and symmetry, or maybe it’s because I’ve always been outspoken in my opinion that goals are intensely personal and the idea that people “shouldn’t” want big arms over big legs is laughable.
Whatever the case, I’ve always been an ardent proponent of specialization programs, and have encouraged people to use them in their training.
Because full-body muscle growth slows dramatically for advanced trainees, I firmly believe that specialization programs are superior to programs aimed at increasing overall size.
Here are a few reasons why I prefer specialization programs.
Significant muscle growth happens in spurts.
For intermediate and advanced trainees, significant growth happens in bursts. Whatever theory of training you subscribe to and whatever program is your “go-to” for mass gain, if you’ve been training for a few years chances are you’ve gotten to where you don’t add a pound of muscle at a time. Instead you grow in five to ten pound growth spurts.
This is true for the vast majority of my clients and athletes, and it has certainly been true for me.
At higher levels of development, full-body growth becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.
The more muscle you have, the harder it is to gain muscle. Although in a broad sense this is because you’re getting closer to your genetic ceiling, one of the more specific reasons is that your body simply cannot continue to grow under the same conditions.
More advanced trainees are (hopefully) stronger. Lifting heavier weight for a comparable number of reps is more taxing on the nervous system and the general metabolic processes involved in recovery.
In almost all cases, as you progress your ability to train for full-body growth will be far greater than your ability to recover from such training.
On an already developed body, training your ass off for eight weeks to gain three pounds of muscle–which probably makes a minimal visible difference–is lame.
When you put on some muscle in a given time period it’s generally distributed over your entire frame.
Gaining a few pounds of lean body mass is always nice, and I would never say it isn’t a goal worthy of effort or achievement. It just sucks when you achieve it and you can’t see it. And when you’re already pretty well developed, that’s often what happens.
Recently, I was working with a college lacrosse player who wanted to put on some size in his off-season. At 6’2” and 180 pounds, I didn’t blame him for wanting to get bigger. We packed 15 pounds on him during the summer, and when he walked through the door on the first day of pratice the coach looked at him and said, “I thought I told you to gain some weight.”
This kid went from 180 to 195 pounds, with only three pounds being fat, and his own coach didn’t pick up on it until he got on the scale.
Granted, it’s partially a height issue; if a guy who’s 5’8″ put on fifteen pounds it would be a lot more obvious. But my point is most people aren’t putting on fifteen pounds over a summer; they’re adding five to ten, tops. And since it’s spread over their entire body, no one really notices.
Everyone notices when you put an inch on your arms, or add significant chest size.
Training with the goal of increasing the size of a single muscle or muscle group has a lot of benefits, but the main one is visibility. People notice. More than that, you notice. Nothing is as satisfying as actually seeing the results in the mirror or in your clothes, instead of having to account for infinitesimal changes on a measuring tape.
So if you can only have the occasional growth spurt, why not dedicate a spurt to something that will be visibly noticeable, intensely satisfying, and realistically achievable over a short duration?
The Bottom Line
I believe in short, single-minded bursts of training for three to six weeks, and no more. I prefer to spend those weeks getting as much out of a training program as possible, putting on some noticeable size and keeping fat gain to a minimum.
(Did I mention that specialization programs don’t require extreme “bulking” diets that usually lead to excess fat gain? Unless you’re specializing legs, in which case you need to eat a lot. But honestly, who trains legs? Everyone knows you’re just going to use this information to get bigger arms. There’s no point lying about it.)
Principles of Specialization Programs
When writing a specialization program, the first things to consider are volume and frequency. It should go without saying that when prioritizing a muscle, you need to train it more. Not only with more sets and reps, but a much greater frequency, too.
For a specialization program to be optimally effective, it must meet the following criteria:
High Overall Frequency
In a perfect world, I’d have people training once every 36 hours. When that isn’t possible, every other day is the next best option. At the minimum, you should be able to figure out how to squeeze in three workouts per week.
High Weekly Volume, Moderate Workout Volume
Your total weekly volume is going to be pretty high. Between three and four training sessions per week, you’re getting a lot of total work for the selected muscle group. I recommend that you generally aim for 40 to 50 sets per week, broken into as many sessions as possible.
Of course, that recommendation doesn’t account for reps or load, so here are some more specifics.
50 Sets Per Week:
- 15 Sets of High Reps: 12-15
- 15 Sets of Moderate Reps: 8-12
- 15 Sets of Low Reps: 6 or below
- 5 Sets of Very High Reps: 18-25 Reps
Moderately High Intensity
Given that you’ll be training with both high volume and high frequency, finding the right intensity is important. As a starting point, I recommend using roughly 90% of your max in a given rep range.
So if your 10RM on the bench press is 225 pounds, use roughly 200 pounds for sets of 10.
This recommendation stands regardless of the rep range.
One of the best things about specializing a body part is you get to shy away from the basics and really get into some fun exercises. While it’d be impossible to list all the combinations of all the exercises, I’d say that each workout would need to consist of the following:
I hope I don’t need to define this for you. Just know that big movements are always at the core of any program. Examples include squats, deadlifts, overhead press, pull-ups, close grip bench press, dips, lunges, bent-over rows and floor presses.
Each workout should have at least two compound exercises.
Movements requiring explosiveness are great because they increase strength, power, coordination, and recruit muscle fibers that other exercises leave behind. Examples of explosive exercises would be: jump squats, kipping pull-ups, push presses, cleans, explosive push-ups, jump lunges and cheat curls.
I recommend including one explosive movement per workout.
Stop pretending you don’t like biceps curls. Sure, you can probably get big arms without them, but how sweet is that pump? Other examples include lateral raises, leg extensions, leg curls, cable flys, triceps extensions and calf raises.
For the purposes of specialization, I recommend adding two isolation movements per workout.
Specific to specialization programs, unilateral movements are effective because they recruit a greater number of High Threshold Motor Units. I normally recommend that your unilateral movements correspond with your heavier workouts for the purposes of maximally recruiting HTMUs. Examples of great unilateral exercises are: single leg pistol squats, single arm over-head presses, single arm dumbbell chest presses, Bulgarian split squats and dumbbell rows.
You should include at least one unilateral exercise per specialization workout.
These are the exercises you aren’t really sure how to classify. Oftentimes, it’s stuff that crazy strength coaches like me come up with just to fuck with you. While they tend to be really bizarre things that make people look at you funny, they are often also radically effective and innovative movements that can help bring your training to the next level. Included in this category are: Siff lunges, fly-aways, javelin presses, drag curls, Bulgarian jump squats, lumberjack presses, renegade rows, side-to-side pull-ups and pike push-ups.
At least one exercise per training session should be new, innovative, and wacky. As a reference, check out the articles series “Exercises You’ve Never Tried” here on T Nation.
It should go without saying that a lot of these may overlap: a wacky exercise may also be explosive, or a compound exercise might be somewhat wacky. Use your best judgment to figure out which exercises are going to make the program the most fun and effective for you.
A Note on Maintenance
One of the things I notice about most specialization programs in other magazines is that almost no one mentions how to train the rest of the body. You’d think increasing the size of a single muscle was as simple as adding in a few extra sets and whatever they decide the Chest Exercise of the Month is.
At best, you’ll see something along the lines of “put all other body parts on maintenance.”
It’s not that simple.
Correct manipulation of volume is tricky, and honestly, I like to err on the side of caution. I’d much rather have people do a bit too much for the prioritized body part and a bit too little for everything else. To that end, I really tone down the volume for other body parts.
When people make broad recommendations like “put everything else on maintenance” it leaves trainees with a lot of room to screw things up by doing too much and inhibiting results.
After all, what does “maintenance” really mean? You need to define it. For me, it means you need to accept that your focus is your focus, and everything else takes a back seat.
So when I tell someone to put something on maintenance, I mean they should train it as little as necessary. That means not losing strength or mass. In most cases, this is a lot less than you think.
The majority of people can hold onto muscle mass by doing a full body circuit once per week, which is is a pretty decent starting point.
I do understand the concern and fear of losing mass, and I’m not discounting the validity of it. I just take a more pragmatic approach to things. If all you care about is having big legs, who cares if it feels “wrong” to only train chest once every 10 days, or even less?
If at the end of the program you have bigger legs, you accomplished your goal and you and your big legs can go back to training chest again.
I’m certainly willing to agree that you can gain muscle–even as an advanced trainee–on programs focused on whole body growth, but the result is usually not impressive. I know there are a lot of great programs from a lot of great coaches that can lead to significant growth over a considerable length of time.
For me, that’s not good enough.
I believe in acceleratory, single-minded bursts of focused training, intentioned to produce dramatic results in a relatively short timeframe.
Given that mindset, specialization programs are great for someone like me. They’re quick, fun, and the visibility of the results are intensely satisfying.
Bigger arms in four weeks? Sign me up.