Your Connection is Broken
After a few years of solid training, most lifters ask themselves: should I continue going after strength and PRs, or aim for building more muscle? And more often than not, a lifter will realize that the ongoing task of trying to PR isn't the best way to look good naked.
The problem with solely trying to build herculean strength is that you won't be able to feel each rep and maximize muscle growth. This mind-muscle connection is crucial for hypertrophy. So if you've laid the foundation for strength and have begun to shift your focus toward hypertrophy, you'll need to start "feeling" your way to success. The following methods will get you there.
Strategy 1 – Isometrics
Isometric tension is when you exert muscular tension without moving or altering the length of the muscle. You can do this by holding a weight or your body at a certain position, like a chin-up at 90 degrees flexion or attempting to move an immovable object, like a deadlift to the pins of a power rack.
When it comes to hypertrophy, isometrics recruit the largest motor units and improve neural drive, helping you feel maximum tension in the trained muscle. Not only will this improve strength at the angle trained during the isometric hold, but it'll improve your mind-muscle connection based on maximum voluntary contraction.
How To Do Them
If you use isometrics with strenuous compound lifts, keep them separated as their own workout. Though isometrics don't feel like work the same way a dynamic exercise would, they're still a demanding stress on your central nervous system. Since your goal is to maximize muscle fiber recruitment and neural drive, you need to be fresh to maximize the productivity of your sets.
The following should be done as a separate workout for 3-5 sets of 3-8 second holds with near maximum weights.
This is a dead-stop deadlift to mid-shin, followed by a paused hold for 3-5 seconds before returning the bar to the ground. Since most lifters miss lifts off the ground, this reinforces perfect off-the-ground pulling position. This improves your mind-muscle connection and creates insane-muscle building tension in your quads and erectors. For variation try pausing at mid-shin, below the base of the knee, or just above the knee.
Double-Pause Front Squat
By adding a double pause at the half and full squat positions, you'll build isometric strength through the most difficult ranges of motion – building the mind-muscle connection. After your main lift, perform 4-5 sets of 4-5 reps with 50-70% 1RM, resting 60 seconds between sets. You can also do it with a back squat.
These aren't your only options. Use isometric holds with other compound movements like chin-ups and bench presses. When you use it for benching, pause at your sticking point and you'll make strength gains too. Try your chin-up isometric hold either at the top position or 90 degrees.
Submaximal isometrics are often more practical for the average lifter. After your primary strength work, use isometrics with submaximal weight. Pause and squeeze the target muscle as hard as possible for 15-30 seconds before your reps. Focus on the mind-muscle connection during this isometric hold. This is crucial when you're targeting stubborn body parts. Then, without resting, do 8-12 regular reps on a given exercise. Do this for 2-3 sets.
Here are four examples:
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
Pause at the bottom, actively driving the elbows down for an iso-hold before your set.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Pause just below shoulder height for 10-20 seconds before you start your set then follow it with 10-15 regular reps. Repeat for 3-5 sets with 30-60 seconds rest in between.
Seated Dumbbell Curl
Pause at 90 degrees, squeezing the dumbbells as hard as possible. Then after the 15-30 second hold, do 8-12 reps, or go to technical failure. Use a weight you could curl for 15 reps.
Triceps Rope Pushdown
Do one triceps pushdown and pause at the bottom pulling the rope apart. Squeeze your triceps for 15-30 seconds. Then do 8-15 regular reps.
Strategy 2 – 2:1 Accentuated Eccentrics
In addition to improving the mind-muscle connection, these increase your time under tension. When people say "accentuated eccentrics" what they're basically talking about is lowering slowly and in a controlled manner. Accentuate means to emphasize, and the eccentric is the lowering or negative phase of a lift.
So, for 2:1 accentuated eccentrics, you'd use both arms (or legs) to explosively lift a load, then lower slowly with just one arm or leg. Here's how that looks:
2:1 Leg Extension
- The explosive concentric improves muscle fiber recruitment. With a greater number of muscle fibers stimulated your potential for muscle growth increases.
- The slow eccentric action increases mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and fatigues a greater number of muscle fibers. And since the muscle is under tension for longer, blood can't enter the muscle, creating a hypoxic environment. This boosts metabolic stress and increases growth factors like IGF-1, further boosting muscle gains.
- Using one limb to lower the weight boosts the eccentric load on the working limb by 50%, creating more tension and hitting a high number of muscle fibers.
By recruiting a greater number of muscle fibers, creating a hypoxic environment, then maximizing fatigue of said fibers, you're left with a winning recipe for growth.
Keep the 2:1 technique at the end of training for 3-4 sets of 4-8 reps. The lifting action should be explosive, while the lowering action should take about 5 seconds. Don't go bananas and do them every day. Pick one or two areas of focus for a month, then switch.
Strategy 3 – Pre-Stimulation
Ever feel your shoulders or triceps during a bench press? Or do you ever think your biceps are the only muscle screaming after a chin-up? Both are classic cases of poor mind-muscle connection and poor muscle fiber recruitment in target muscles.
To fix it, use pre-stimulating isolation movements before compound lifts. These are a great addition to your warm-ups. They improve muscle fiber recruitment of stubborn muscles before you use them with compound exercises. The goal with these isn't pre-exhaustion. There's no need to tire out a muscle to the point where you can't emphasize it later.
Here are a few examples of pairing a pre-stimulation exercise with a compound exercise. Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps purely focused on squeezing the target muscle.
- Do cable flies before you bench press. The goal: Improve the mind-muscle connection in your pecs instead of allowing the triceps and delts to take over.
- Do 45-degree banded back extension before you squat. The goal is to pump the glutes, hamstrings, and erectors to improve the stability of the knee and enhance the mind-muscle connection in your posterior chain instead of a quad-dominant squat.
- Do straight-arm pulldowns before you do pull-ups. The goal is to improve the mind-muscle connection and recruitment of the lats, and to a lesser extent, the teres major rather than your biceps and forearms in pull-ups.
Strategy 4 – Drop Sets
Go from either heavy or explosive to very light. When training for muscle growth, recruit as many muscle fibers as possible, then fatigue the snot out of those stubborn little bastards until they grow. One of the best ways to do this is drop sets or burn-out sets.
Here's what to do: After heavier strength or hypertrophy work, like multiple heavy sets between 3-8 reps, drop the weight by 20-30% and do as many reps as possible. If you're a masochist, drop the weight another 20-30% and rep out again.
Why it works: In 1965 Harvard physiology professor Dr. Elwood Henneman created the size principle which dictates there are two ways to maximize muscle fiber recruitment by other methods when lifting: lift heavier weights, lift lighter weights, or move your body faster.
A heavy or explosive lift turns on more muscle fibers. Immediately following this activation drop the weight, rep out, and fatigue the maximum number of muscle fibers to trigger massive metabolic stress and muscle growth.
Strategy 5 – Occasionally Go to Failure
Taking your exercises to technical failure is a fantastic way to build muscle and focus on squeezing each rep. One recent study found that when taken to failure, loads of 30 percent of a one rep max (very light, 20+ reps) were nearly as effective as using loads of 80 percent of your max.
By lifting lighter weights you're able to yield huge gains in muscular size. The reason? When taken to concentric failure you're pulling nearly every usable muscle fiber into action. Going lighter allows you to focus on every portion of every rep, rather than surviving the set.
Failure reps and sets aren't for beginners. The stronger the lifter the more tension they can create and more muscle fibers they'll activate. So failure reps work best with intermediate to advanced lifters with a sound base of strength.
Tips for going to failure
- Keep your failure sets within reason. If debilitating soreness decreases performance over the next few workouts you're doing too much.
- Use low-risk isolation exercises (curls, lateral raises) along with machines to minimize injury risk.
- Don't go to failure on every set or every workout.