By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning
You may think of bodybuilding as a sport or activity, but in reality it’s a science, and the field of study is called exercise science. As such, there are a number of “truths,” just as you see in other scientific fields like physics and chemistry. Understanding these concepts means the difference between lifting weights in which you expend a great deal of energy with no discernible changes and big-muscle gains that come fast. If you want to belong to the latter group, here are four ideas you’ll want to remember each and every time you hit the gym.
1. The Overload Principle
We start with probably the most important constant in bodybuilding: the principle of progression and overload. Overload is simply making your muscles work with a resistance they’re unaccustomed to. The progressive part kicks in when, over time, they grow stronger and you need to keep upping the ante, so to speak, continually increasing the weight (or number of reps). Progressive overload, then, is the practice of continually increasing the intensity (amount of weight or reps) of your workout as you become stronger over time. Anything and everything you do once you walk into the gym is governed by that axiom. One of the best ways to begin ensuring proper and effective overload is to start keeping a journal, logging in every exercise, set and rep. That way, next week when you attack a bodypart, you’ll know exactly what you have to minimally achieve (and surpass) in order to abide by the first law of bodybuilding.
2. When To Be A Failure
“Failure” is one of those words that guys throw around as easy as they do 15-pound dumbbells. But make no mistake, muscle failure is the time during a set where the muscle or muscle group being trained is completely fatigued, and you can no longer do another repetition of that exercise (at least with good form or without help). Knowing that, when you think back to your last set of 10 reps, if you could’ve squeaked out an 11th or 12th, you did not reach failure.
That said, there are some quick facts about failure you should know. If building size or mass is your primary goal, you should choose a weight that allows you to fail at the rep range most important for size (8–12). If you’re trying to maximally increase strength on the other hand, the rep range most critical to elicit those gains falls between 3–6. Hence, a bodybuilder and powerlifter may be doing the same exercise but the bodybuilder would be doing it with a slightly lighter weight for slightly more reps. And while the bodybuilder takes multiple sets to muscle failure, the strength athlete should take — at most — only his last set of a particular exercise to failure. Research shows that failing on multiple sets is good for size gains but will hinder gains in strength.
3. Get A Better Angle
The body’s diverse anatomy means it requires more than just a single exercise to ignite each and every muscle group. Whether you’re talking biceps or quadriceps, the muscle fibers run in various directions, and to reach all of them you’ll need multiple exercises. As you assemble various exercises for a workout, pay attention to subtle changes such as a shift in hand, body or foot position. Depending on the muscle group being trained, you’ll also integrate various bench angles, as well as different pieces of equipment, each of which provides a slightly different kind of stimulus than its cousins. Hence, a chest workout may consist of flat-bench barbell presses, incline-bench dumbbell presses, or a machine decline press. Just remember, if you get stuck doing just your favorite moves with the same body position and grip, you’ll get stuck with the same results.
4. Rep Speed
If you’re working with a sufficiently heavy weight, you should be moving it as fast as you can on the positive (concentric, or lifting) portion of the rep. That’s right: as fast as possible! When pushing a fairly heavy weight off your chest in the bench press, for example, even though it’s moving relatively slowly, you should be trying to move the bar as fast as you possibly can. That’s critical, because when you powerfully drive the weight through the full range of motion, you’re calling into play the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers produce the greatest muscle force and have the highest potential for muscle growth. But if you’re “controlling” the bar on the positive portion — holding back force — you’re just holding back your progress. Even if you’re working with a weight that’s relatively light, you should try and be explosive with it to target the fast-twitch fibers.
That’s not to say doing slower reps has no place in bodybuilding, because when done in this manner you can improve form, reduce momentum and help correct bad habits. You just don’t want to base your training on a slow-rep mentality.
Finally, resist the downward (negative) portion of the repetition, controlling the descent, which will also contribute to muscle and strength gains. In sum: Explosive up, controlled down. END
Here are three more key tips that are critical factors to your bodybuilding success.
1) Start with Multijoint Moves —
Not all exercises are created equal. The ones you want to focus on early in your workout when your strength levels are highest are the ones in which you can push the most weight, and those are the ones in which multiple joints are in action. Squats are better than leg extensions, bench presses are better than flyes, etc.
2) Rest Between Sets —
Make sure you take at least 1–2 minutes between sets of 8–12 and up to 3–4 minutes between your strength-focused sets of 3–6. All other things being equal, rest longer on your heavier sets and exercises for larger muscle groups (legs, chest, back).
3) Hit It Hard, Then Rest It —
You may think training hard and heavy is the key to muscle and strength gains, but that’s only half the equation. Actually, the muscle repairs itself in the days following a hard workout, so good nutrition and rest are key to optimize gains. If you keep pounding a given muscle group on consecutive days, all your hard work will go for naught.