1 – Train Muscles More Frequently
Screw body part splits. You know, where Monday is chest day and you don't train those muscles or lifts again for 7 days. The overlooked variable in the typical bro split is exercise frequency.
If you're like the typical lifter on a body part split, you change up your exercise selection, poundages, and rep ranges on a semi-regular basis, but you only hit every major body part once a week. In terms of intramuscular adaptations, strength, and hypertrophy, you'll plateau if you only hit every movement pattern once a week. The plateau-busting potential of increasing your frequency will shock you.
In order to increase exercise frequency, move to a push-pull split while reducing your overall daily training volume. Example:
Day One: Pulling Muscles
Day Two: Pushing Muscles
If you can train four to six days a week, you'll end up hitting every movement pattern two or three times every week. Too much to recover from? No, it's not. The reduction in daily volume makes it manageable. On a push-pull split, with a nod to Lee Haney, you stimulate rather than annihilate. Not only can you recover well, but your strength will shoot through the roof by doubling or tripling the training stimulus.
Retire the body part split and increase your frequency. At the very least, give push-pull training a go for a couple of months and see what happens.
2 – Do Metabolic Finishers
There's a muscle that many strength and size-focused lifters don't think enough about, and that's the myocardium – the heart. It needs regular attention and adequate stimulation as well. Few things you can do in the gym will get your heart pumping (thereby strengthening your myocardium) quite like 10-20 minutes of metabolic finishers.
At the end of your regular workout, stoke your metabolic fire with EMOM conditioning. EMOM stands for "every minute on the minute." Load up the Prowler, a trap bar for farmer's walks, or a sled to pull. You want the load to be heavy enough that you can sustain it for 25 to 30 seconds without busting a gut.
You'll have to adapt to your available space, but at the top of the minute, push, carry or drag the load for about 25 seconds. Take the rest of the minute to recover. In round 2, push or drag it back to the starting point. Your distance to cover for each round remains the same, but your rest periods will get shorter as you tire. Repeat for 10-20 rounds. Say bad words between heaving breaths.
3 – Use Time Under Tension
Slow down! When it comes to stimulating size gains, the majority of the muscle damage you need to grow is caused by the eccentric or lowering phase of an exercise. If you bounce the bar off your chest on the bench or drop like a rock into the hole on the squat, there's essentially no eccentric component, just gravity. Control the weight, always.
Yes, there's a time for fast, explosive movement and it's the concentric (lifting) part of the exercise. Increase your time under tension with slow, controlled eccentrics much more often and grow.
4 – Do Posterior Chain Work
Your posterior chain is the musculature on the back side of your body from the neck to the Achilles. With all the time we spend sitting, and all the time we lifters spend pushing, the posterior chain needs more attention than you're currently giving it. There are two specific posterior chain exercises that you probably aren't doing, or at least aren't doing enough:
There may not be a more important movement for shoulder-joint health and posture than the face pull. This exercise is remarkably effective at counteracting the effects of the three deadly S's of the 21st century: sitting, slouching, and staring at screens.
Don't think of face pulls as a strength exercise. Keep the weight relatively light and the rep count fairly high. Focus your attention on the movement of your scapulae (shoulder blades). They should retract smoothly as you pull the rope towards you. Hold the peak contraction for a beat or two.
Alternate between overhand and underhand grips from set to set, or even within the same set by doing 8-10 reps with one grip, immediately followed by 8-10 reps with the other. The difference of a few degrees of external rotation actually changes how your scapular retractors activate. Shoot for 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps.
As blush-inducing as they may be, hip thrusts are about the best exercise you can do to activate your glutes. Beyond filling out the seat of your pants, you need to maximize the strength and engagement of your glutes to bring up your squat and deadlift numbers.
A powerful backside also helps you avoid and even remedy back pain. Overcome the initial embarrassment and make hip thrusts a regular part of your training.
5 – Be Consistent
Every coach and trainer fields the same question: "What's the best program for overall muscle size, or strength, or for building up a specific body part?" The answer should be "the program you do consistently."
There's no substitute for hard work, performed consistently over time, to help you to achieve your goals. There is no program as effective as the B.I.G. program (butt in gym).
6 – Use Extended Set Techniques
If we're being completely honest, it's pretty rare for most of us to take a set to failure. True failure involves missing the last rep, something we want to avoid for a bunch of reasons, injury and shame being highest on the list.
Far more often, we finish the set once we hit a target number of reps. At best, we'll push to volitional failure (the last rep I want to do) or to technical failure (the last rep I can do without my technique breaking down).
Stopping a set short leaves potential growth on the table. You may have nothing left to give at that weight or with that movement, but that doesn't mean your set has to be over. That's where extended sets come in. Just don't overdo it with these techniques. Using them on the last set of an exercise is enough.
The best extended set techniques:
In a standard drop set, you take the set beyond volitional and/or technical failure by dropping the weight by 10-20% and continuing your set. Exercises performed on selector pin machines or with dumbbells tend to be the most convenient for drop sets.
Run-the-rack drop sets have enduring popularity for exercises like lateral raises and biceps curls. To run-the-rack, start with a set of dumbbells that allows you to hit 8-10 reps and then continue the set by dropping to dumbbells 5 or 10 pounds lighter and rep out again. Continue in this way all the way down to the lightest set of dumbbells on the rack.
Devil's Drop Sets
My personal favorite drop set protocol is one I call Devil's Drop Sets. They strike a nice balance between strength and hypertrophy through the use of relatively heavy weights and high reps. It's pretty simple: 6-6-6.
With a weight somewhere around your 8 rep max, complete 6 reps (meaning you should only be a couple of reps shy of failure). Drop the weight by only 10% (one pin slot or 5-10 pounds per dumbbell) and bang out another 6 reps (with maybe one left in the tank). Finally, drop the weight a further 10% and fight through the pain to hit another 6 reps. This time, if you selected your weights properly, you should hit technical failure.
Mechanical Drop Sets
Instead of decreasing the weight to extend your set, you switch to an easier modification of the exercise, usually with the same weight. A great, growth-inducing mechanical drop set can be done with pull-ups:
- Perform as many standard wide-grip pull-ups as you can. Use a weight vest or added load hanging from a belt if you can do more than 15.
- Next, go to volitional failure on eccentric pull-ups. Jump up to the top position, then lower yourself as slowly as possible.
- Finally, drop down under a bar and perform as many horizontal rows (feet on the ground or elevated, depending on your level of fatigue) as you can. You may burn a hole in your favorite training shirt due to the fire in your lats. Here's Christian Thibaudeau coaching the horizontal row:
A rest-pause is where you bring your original set to volitional failure, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds, and then do as many more good reps as you can. Two rest-pause bouts are usually about right. For weight selection, start with a load you can complete for a solid 6 reps. You should be able to do 3-4 on the second mini-set and 1 or 2 reps on the last.
7 – Do Your Mobility Work
Do mobility work at the end of your workout when your muscles are flushed with blood and your joints are well-lubricated. Just take a few minutes for these six simple mobility drills and stretches. You'll want to do each one for a good 10-30 seconds:
Sit way back on your heels and paste your ribs to your thighs to stretch out your lower back, hips, and groin.
Deep Bodyweight Squat
Grab onto something solid if you need to and sink as deep as you can into a squat. Make subtle weight shifts from foot to foot and from heel to toe. Flex and extend your spine. Relax and let things open up.
Stand with one foot on a 45-degree angled platform or on the edge of a step if that's the best you've got. Shift your weight around your foot in a clockwise rotation for 2 or 3 rotations and then do the same counter-clockwise. The movement should be so subtle that someone watching would barely notice you're moving. This will be a big help to your ankle dorsiflexion mobility.
Grab a pull-up bar at about shoulder width, keep your shoulders down and back in a solidly packed position, and enjoy the vertebral decompression effects of just hanging around. Ideally, find the highest pull-up bar you can. Extend your entire body out nice and straight for the most benefit. If you're too tall or the bars in your gym are all too low, extend your legs out slightly in front of you with your feet just off the floor rather than tucking your feet behind you.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Your hip flexors, chronically shortened from too much sitting, will thank you. Dr. John Rusin coaches the best way to do it here:
Elevated Pigeon Stretch
Using a box or other horizontal surface at about knee to mid-thigh height, place your leg on the box so that your lower leg is perpendicular to your torso. Lean over that leg and gently oscillate forward and back and right to left. This is simply incredible for hip mobility.