Weak points. Stubborn bodyparts. Lagging muscle groups. Whatever you want to call them, everybody’s got at least one.
Perhaps it’s flat, droopy pecs, or a back that lacks thickness or density, or narrow shoulders, or calves that would seem better suited on a flamingo.
Even those who possessed the greatest physiques in recorded history still complained of stubborn bodyparts. Arnold’s sorry calf development when he first arrived in America is legendary, but not so many people are aware that the Oak also felt his triceps were sub-par, saying in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding that, “As impressive as my arm development was, I would have preferred larger triceps.”
So, if those are weak triceps, what does that say about the rest of us?
Part of the problem with addressing a lagging bodypart is that some limitations are of a genetic variety and simply can’t be fixed, like short muscle belly lengths and poor insertion points. In other words, you can say your prayers and take your vitamins until your pee is fluorescent orange, but you can’t expect to sport a set of guns like Hulk Hogan if your dad was Woody Allen’s stunt double.
Yet while you can’t out-train your genetics, you’d be amazed at the progress that can be made when even so-so genetics meets intelligent training and big eating. We asked some of T NATION’s top coaches what they do when presented with a client complaining about a lagging weak point.
First, some ground rules:
• If you haven’t been training hard and consistently for at least five years, quit reading. This article isn’t for you. You’re not big enough yet, and to be blunt, your whole physique is a weak point. The best advice for you is to bump up your protein, practice smart para-workout nutrition, and focus on getting strong. You shouldn’t worry about the medial head of your triceps failing to fill out your polo shirt when half the girls’ swim team out-benches you.
• Dieting, or aggressively trying to lose fat, is not the time to make major improvements in your physique; unless you’re on anabolic steroids. Save the weak-point training for periods when calories and nutrients are in abundance.
• Only target one weak point at a time. The saying goes that you can’t ride two or three horses with one ass, so don’t expect to bring up two or three bodyparts at the same time. Sure, some goals can go together-a bigger bench and bigger triceps is an example-but trying to target quads, pecs, and back all at the same time is simply a recipe for zero progress.
• Finally, if your list of weak points is longer than two, it’s likely that you just need to get bigger all around. You’d be amazed at how matchstick forearms and skinny biceps seem to improve when you make ratcheting up your chin-up scores a priority. Again, this article is for seasoned lifters looking to slap a just little clay here and there onto their personal sculptures.
Let’s get going!
Tim Henriques is a powerlifter by trade, but has also competed in arm wrestling and strongman events. He’s also the director of NPTI, a 500-hour certification course for personal trainers, so it’s safe to say he has an extremely broad training repertoire to pull from.
Given Coach Henriques diverse background, his answer on how to address lagging bodyparts wasn’t surprising.
“I would say it depends on the bodypart,” he says.
“In general, I would say the bigger lagging body parts, like chest or legs, need to be hit intensely with weights once or twice a week. Smaller body parts tend to recover faster, so they should be trained two to three times a week,” he says.
While those ballpark guidelines hold true, Henriques says there’s also the matter of set and rep individualization.
“Legs are specials. You can do both high reps and higher weights, so sets of 30-reps on the leg press will blow up even the most stubborn set of quads. However, with other big muscles like chest and back, you may need to skip the high rep stuff and go for a lot of weight on the big exercises.”
Despite the noncommittal nature of Henriques’ response, he says there’s one matter that’s key to bringing up every stubborn bodypart: a spin on the classic mind-muscle connection principle.
“The most important thing for a lagging body part is that you have to go with the feel method,” says Henriques. “You must either feel the muscle working during the set, get a pump in the muscle after the set, or get sore as hell in that muscle a day or two later.
“If one or more of these things is not happening, then the exercise you’re doing for that bodypart is just not effective. It might be effective on paper, but if you never really feel it then you need do something else,” he says.
An example is the close grip bench press for triceps training. Henriques says that some people can experience a tremendous pump and subsequent soreness from this lift, while others merely feel it in their pecs and shoulders. So a fantastic exercise for one lifter may be a waste of time for another.
“Assuming the muscle is at least involved in the exercise, you can’t argue with the feel test. I don’t care what anybody says about that,” he says.
Henriques says that another way to help recruit and isolate a lagging muscle is to remember that a muscle contracts harder if it’s a two-joint muscle and the non-working joint is stretched. “You can use this concept to be inventive on your exercises and make them work better for you,” he says.
“A great example is to hit the long head of the triceps. Combine an EZ bar pullover and an EZ bar skull crusher into a ‘pullover skull crusher.’ This really blasts the long head of the triceps, because you stretch it at the shoulder (by flexing it) and then work it at the elbow.”
Erick Minor is the owner of Strength Studio, a sports performance and personal training studio located in Fort Worth, Texas.
Coach Minor trains amateur and professional athletes from a variety of sports including Major League baseball, football, and sprinters. Minor has also competed himself as both a powerlifter and bodybuilder, so when addressing the subject of weak bodypart training, he says it’s first important to identify the purpose of building up the given weak point: is it for performance or hypertrophy?
“If trying to improve a weak point for performance, then I recommend accentuation training, which is essentially increasing strength at the joint angle where maximal force is developed,” says Minor.
Minor uses the highly technical sport of sprinting as an example. “During full speed sprinting, maximum stress is on the hamstrings during the late swing phase; when the front leg is swinging forward and almost parallel to the ground,” he says. “The hamstring is transitioning from a fast eccentric to an explosive concentric contraction and this is when most hamstring pulls occur.
“To train the hamstrings to handle these high forces, I have my athletes perform single-leg reverse hip extensions, with the hamstring in the stretched position. [See photo of Leonard Scott on right.] Another movement I use in this application is a modified Bulgarian split-squat with emphasis on the eccentric contraction.” [See photo of Darvis Patton on right.]
So when addressing a weak link in a very technical movement such as a sprint stride or a batter’s swing, the goal is to target the weak link to maximize performance of the given movement or prevent injury. But what about something less biomechanically technical, like adding an inch or two on the guns?
Minor takes an entirely different approach when addressing lagging bodyparts for hypertrophy-based applications. For the mirror focused trainees, Minor borrows a page from legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin’s songbook and addresses two aspects of program design that many trainees overlook: tempo and total time under tension (TUT).
“To bring up the size of a lagging muscle group to match the stronger bodyparts, I recommend using a slower tempo with more time under tension.”
Anytime you extend the TUT, you’re exposing the muscle fibers to resistance for a longer period of time, and paying attention to tempo also helps get “the mind into the muscles” that you’re trying to work. Methods like this work exceptionally well with bodyparts that bodybuilders typically can’t see in the mirror while they train, like the upper back.
“Perform this upper back routine twice a week for three weeks and I guarantee you’ll see gains, if diet, lifestyle, and sleep are optimal,” says Minor. “But pay close attention to the tempo prescriptions. When it comes to hypertrophy, TUT makes a HUGE difference.”
Or, you can just keep telling yourself that tempo training is for fruitcakes and enjoy having the lat and trap density of Screech from Saved by the Bell.
A) Chin-ups, mid-parallel grip 3-4 sets x 3-6 reps 3030 tempo * 90 sec rest.
* tempo numbers indicate 3-second eccentric (lowering), no pause at the bottom, 3-second concentric, and no pause at the top.
B) DB Prone Row (Face down on an elevated bench) 2-3 x 6,6,6 reps * 2021 tempo 90 sec rest.
* indicates a drop-set.
C) Side Lying Powell Raise 2-3 x 8-10 reps 2020 tempo 60 sec rest.
Focus on squeezing the muscle on every rep. [The exercise is essentially a one-arm delt raise, starting at below the face and ending with the arm extended 180 degrees from the upper body. It can be performed on a flat or incline bench.]
Shelby Starnes is a nationally ranked bodybuilder and powerlifter. As a busy physique coach, Starnes is used to hearing from aspiring bodybuilders and physique competitors desperately searching for a magic solution to their weak point woes, although he says it’s first important to define in what way the muscle group is actually weak.
“From a bodybuilding standpoint, weak usually means lacking cosmetically, while from a powerlifting standpoint it indicates holding back a major lift, such as weak triceps stalling the bench press,” he says. “There’s some overlap between the two for sure, but there are differences as well.”
Starnes says that often when a muscle group is seen as “stubborn” it’s due to one of the following reasons:
• Its insertion points suck. (Genetically determined, so you can blame your parents for that.)
• It gets overpowered by other, stronger bodyparts during training. (Think of in the bench press, the pecs being overtaken by the shoulders and triceps.)
• It’s not being trained effectively. (Poor form and too much momentum. Think of the kid with the 14-inch arms doing reverse curls that look more like hang cleans.)
While you can’t do much about your genetics except hold a grudge, you can correct your exercise technique very easily–if you swallow your pride and get somebody more experienced to show you how. As for the case of a weaker muscle being overpowered by a stronger bodypart during training, you need to get a little more creative.
Sticking with the example of the shoulders and triceps taking over for the chest during bench pressing movements, Starnes says you need to either correct your form or choose exercises that take the stronger bodyparts out of the equation. So to minimize shoulder recruitment during a chest exercise, there are a number of things Starnes says you can do:
• Make sure you bring the bar low; no higher than lower pec line.
• Pin your rear delts back against the bench (or machine) and keep them there. No floundering around on the bench like a freshly caught mackerel.
• Make sure the delts don’t move much during the movement. “A good rule of thumb is, if they’re moving, they’re working,” says Starnes.
• Always initiate the movement with the target muscle group. This is an important one for all bodybuilders and it can apply to any lift, and it relates back to getting the mind into the muscle. “So when bench pressing,” says Starnes, “the first movement should be the contraction of the pecs, and then the bar follows, not the other way around. Don’t just think about moving a weight from point A to point B. That’s powerlifting.”
“Instead, think about training the muscle,” says Starnes.
Dr. Clay Hyght
Dr. Clay is no stranger to T NATION readers. A California-based chiropractor, Hyght has also been a bodybuilder for nearly 20 years and an NPC judge for many of those. When it comes to building a pretty but healthy body, he’s often our go-to guy around these parts, so Hyght had a lot to say when the subject of weak point training came up.
“First and foremost, it depends on the body part in question,” he says. “For example, if you’re doing just about any cardio at all you are, in essence, training your legs (especially the quads) more frequently, because almost all cardio involves legs. For that reason, doing a higher frequency for quads is usually not a good idea.
“On the other hand, body parts like chest and back tend to do quite well training them more frequently,” says Hyght. (For an example of how to implement higher frequency chest training check out this article
“I also recently completed a very successful experiment with a competitive bodybuilding client in which we built up to training back six times per week, and the results were incredible,” says Hyght.
If the thought of training any bodypart six times per week has you reaching for the Traumeel, Hyght says another great tip to bring up a body part is to simply train in a manner that’s completely different from what you’re currently doing.
“If you tend to lift lighter (10 or more reps), then lift heavier (9 reps or less) for a couple months. If you’ve been lifting heavy for a while, then train lighter.
“Sometimes, a change as subtle as doing the opposite is enough to kick-start some growth,” says Hyght.
Finally, one strategy that Hyght says works very well is to focus solely on strength for a while by implementing high tension training with low volume; in other words, lift heavy and don’t do many sets.
“This is quite similar to I, Bodybuilder training,” says Hyght. “Then, after 8 weeks or so, switch to higher volume training with relatively lighter loads.”
“This approach works very well because, in simple terms, it first makes you stronger, which ultimately allows you to use more weight with higher reps once you switch to a more traditional bodybuilding or hypertrophy-based, higher volume training,” he says.
Focus on getting stronger, and then use that newly built strength to lift heavier weights for volume. Who couldn’t grow on that kind of plan?
That’s four different coaches, four different ways to target weak or lagging bodyparts. So where do you go from here?
When comparing advice from different coaches, a tried and true way to separate solid all-around advice from the more esoteric is to look for the similarities between the approaches. So if the issue is bringing up a lagging bodypart, here are a few surefire tricks you can try:
• First, determine in what way your lagging bodypart is holding you back. Is it a lack of size that’s spoiling your physique? Or is it proportionately weak and stalling your progress in performing a sport or finishing lifts? Each requires a different approach.
• Don’t attempt any type of weak point specialization unless you’ve been training hard for at least five years and are approaching your natural limits, or are extremely genetically gifted (bastard).
• If you have more than two lagging bodyparts, your issue is a lack of overall development. Eat more, train heavier, pay close attention to pre and post workout nutrition, and focus on adding weight in the key indicator lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, chin-ups, and overhead presses.
• If your lagging bodypart is a smaller muscle like biceps or calves, experiment with training them two or three times per week.
• Conjure up your inner Weider and make the “mind-muscle connection.” If you can’t feel the intended muscle working during the lift, it may not be the right exercise for you.
• Play with slower tempos and extended time under tension for hypertrophy-challenged bodyparts. Slowing things down and extending the training stimulus encourages greater neuromuscular control and better form. Some bodybuilders just have appalling exercise form and it shows.
• If other muscles are overpowering your weak points, clean up your technique or find new exercises. There are hundreds of exercises that you’ve never tried before. Studies show the average American eats just 17 different foods; there’s no reason to extend that philosophy to the weight room.
• Do the opposite. If you always do 3 sets of 8-12 reps for triceps, try doing 8-12 sets of 3 reps. Is it what you normally do? Perhaps not, but you’re not growing anyway, so what’s the big deal? Remember, the absolute worst thing that will happen by doing the opposite is that your lagging bodypart won’t grow, and considering it isn’t growing anyway, that’s hardly a big risk.
• If your weakness stems from poor muscle insertions, blame your parents. I suggest holding a massive grudge against them and any other surviving relatives. Turn Christmas and other holidays into an excuse to get drunk and berate Grandpa Phil for being so stupid as to marry a woman with poor calf insertions. At worst it will spice up the traditional holiday gift exchange.
One of the coolest lines ever to emerge from the T NATION forums was, “The more I eat and the heavier I train, the better my genetics get.” It’s amazing what five years of heavy training combined with serious eating will do for even the most genetically disadvantaged physique, and many “weak points” are simply a lack of quality time under the bar.
But for most of us, true lagging bodyparts are an unfortunate reality, and while you can’t change your genetics, you can always change your approach.
And really, what have you got to lose?