Got a hard-to-grow body part or weak muscle group? Here’s how 7 of our experts brought theirs up.
What was your most stubborn muscle group and how did you make it bigger or stronger?
Before turning pro and shortly thereafter, the biggest complaint from judges regarding my physique was back thickness and arm development. But after having won three IFBB pro 212-class competitions last year, the overwhelming response was that I sealed those wins when I turned around and hit a back double biceps: a back and arm pose.
So what did I do differently? Two things: increased frequency and focused on feel. My training went from 4 days a week to 6-7. Where I used to hit body parts once per week, I now hit them 2-3 times.
Increased frequency invariably provides more growth opportunities so long as you’re not wrecking your CNS and you’re fueling recovery. This required intelligent programming of intensity techniques and supporting my training and recovery with Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon) and Mag-10.
Secondarily, this meant dropping my ego and training with weight that best stimulated hypertrophy, NOT weight which upped my gym-bro bragging rights. The unpopular truth is, bodybuilders should train muscles, not movement patterns.
Getting a max weight from point A to B matters in powerlifting, but not so much in bodybuilding – especially if you’re not feeling the targeted muscle group. A slower tempo, specifically on the eccentric (lowering) portion of a lift, can dramatically increase the difficulty of an exercise. It’s not always about how heavy a weight is, but how much you feel the muscle working when you lift it. Bigger isn’t always better.
When I first started to lift, I spent a ton of time doing curls but didn’t see any significant results. Two decades later, I see guys across the country and abroad struggling with the same problem.
The game changer for me was learning the anatomy of the biceps – knowing the biceps brachii is made up of two heads (long and short) and the brachialis. You can’t begin to maximize the size of your biceps peak and arm circumference without also addressing the underlying and often-overlooked brachialis.
Like the biceps, the brachialis is an elbow flexor. Due to its underlying location, it pushes the biceps up as it gets bigger, making the biceps appear taller. Likewise, a well-developed brachialis increases the overall circumference of the upper arm. I learned how to hit both of these. Here are two lifts that have helped:
This exercise hits both heads of the biceps. Generally, biceps exercises are set up so the upper arms remain roughly parallel to the torso and the resistance reduces as the hands get closer to the chest. But the guillotine curl requires the upper arms to be perpendicular to the torso with the shoulders flexed (arms forward with respect to the torso). That makes the resistance increase – instead of diminish – as the cable moves down toward the body. Hold and squeeze the biceps at the peak contraction for two seconds.
Do 8 reps on the preacher bench with the EZ bar. Then go straight into seated dumbbell curls, working one arm at a time, progressively increasing the number of reps from 1 rep on, working up to 4 reps each side. The progressive building of reps, supersetted after the preacher curls, will recruit more muscle fibers and hit them hard.
The angle of the preacher bench puts the arm in a forward arm flexion position, which places an emphasis on biceps brachii. As such, the brachialis is active throughout the exercise. Preacher curls are much harder to complete than standing curls and place stress on the muscle at both ends and throughout the entire range of movement. Also, they prevent you from pulling your arms into extension to gain additional assistance from the long head of the biceps or assistance from the delts.
Assuming you’re not overtraining or have an injury of some kind, there are two things that will take you through a weakness: frequency and doing the thing you’ve been avoiding.
I remember talking to Branch Warren after qualifying for the Olympia, and he told me that if I wanted to place I’d have to start doing the thing I hated the most. In my case, that was high-rep leg work.
Up until then, I’d never gone over 8 reps and was always fairly strong, but my quads refused to grow. So I made a rule: for a whole 6 weeks there would be no set under 15 reps in my sessions. Some of those were drop sets, extended, or giant sets. Some were upwards of 50-100 reps. The puke bucket was always nearby. My quads, however, grew more than they had in the two years prior.
To clarify, the thing that made them grow wasn’t the high reps, it was the fact that I gave my body a type of stimulation that it hadn’t received before, and THAT was key to overcoming the growth plateau.
For many, the solution is the opposite of what I did. Others are used to working for the pump and slower/medium twitch fibers. So if they focus on low reps, heavy weight, and explosive movements they’ll start to see more progress.
As for frequency: most people don’t train hard enough or with enough volume to stimulate growth. Adding more sessions will automatically increase the volume and for many people (assuming technique is decent) this will reinforce good movement habits, increase efficiency, and improve muscular “awareness” during training.
Practice is essential. It forces you to train your weaknesses. And if you’re smart, you’ll incorporate different angles, tempos, exercises, grips, etc. and that will inevitably get you doing the things you don’t usually do.
Now, when we’re talking about strength and power, it’s a little more complicated. Increased frequency can help in some cases and hurt in others. Strength isn’t just about your muscular system; it’s also dependent on your nervous system which burns out much more easily.
If you don’t develop a mind-muscle connection and really feel the target muscle in a peak contracted state, then it’s probably not working very hard. That’s what holding shrugs at the top on every rep for three seconds did for me.
Despite having done shrugs with over 700 pounds for reps, my traps didn’t grow. Once I started using lighter weights, I could actually feel them contract hard, and they grew like crazy.
That said, it wasn’t the actual exercise that made my traps grow. It was the manner in which I did them made the difference. Movement selection is worthless for bringing up a lagging body part if you can’t feel that muscle working – getting into a fully lengthened or shortened position – during the movement.
This is why answers like “do deadlifts for a big back” or “do squats for big legs” are inherently wrong. Because it’s HOW a movement is performed that matters most, not necessarily which exercises are selected.
Granted, movement selection is important. But it’s only part of the answer. If someone chooses to squat to grow bigger legs, that’s not a bad choice, unless he performs the squat in a manner where the hips are the most loaded and doing the brunt of the work.
Something as simple as barbell curls can be a worthless movement for building bigger biceps if the lifter is swinging the weight up and down, and not loading the biceps by locking down the scapula and reducing the amount of involvement the upper back.
Tension distribution depends on movement execution. So if you want to bring up a lagging body part, then you need to lock down all the joints associated in the execution of the movement so that the tension needed for moving the weight is created by the muscle group you’re primarily trying to work.
I was a member of the big-arms, small-back club. My biceps would take over on everything: rows, lat pulldowns, pull-ups, chins, etc. And as a result, my back didn’t have the proportional mass or definition.
This dilemma wouldn’t be so bad if big biceps on a chick were coveted. But they’re kinda not. My biceps’ peaks can get so prominent with just a couple weeks of consistent 21’s and hammer curls that they easily look like they belong to a dude.
So to build my back, first I had to stop training biceps directly. This helped diminish the strong mind-muscle connection that I had with my arms on seemingly every lift. Second, I had to be patient with back exercises, slow down, and figure out through FEEL what was working and what wasn’t.
Part of the process was making adjustments like changing grips, posture, arm position (elbows tucked or flared), the initiation of the lift and retraction of my scaps, the speed of the reps, total time under tension and reps of a set, and even weird details like the seat height of a machine. And after all those adjustments, if an exercise still didn’t set my back on fire or give it a pump, I’d cut it out and move onto something that did.
Sometimes dominant muscles (ones that feel the most tension and grow effortlessly) can make it hard for you to build an adjacent area. That’s why compound lifts don’t always build what you’re wanting them to build. This scenario has happened to me on three occasions: quads were more dominant than glutes, pecs were more dominant than delts, and biceps were more dominant than back. So the solution that tends to work goes like this:
- Stop isolating the dominant muscle group.
- Isolate the lagging muscle group with more deliberation.
- Do compound lifts and notice the feel of the lagging group.
- Notice the lagging group become easier and easier to stimulate.
- Add back the isolation exercises you did for the (formerly) dominant group when you feel like that area no longer takes over. Don’t prioritize them unless they start to lag.
A Russian dip is more commonly seen on the parallel bars in gymnastics. Its main purpose is to build strength in the transition phase of a muscle-up, which brings you from underneath the bar to above. The Russian dip is basically the missing link of the muscle up. If you can do 100 pull-ups and dips it won’t matter if you lack the strength through the middle.
Not only does it make you look like a badass, but the constant tension you’re under when performing sets of Russian dips is phenomenal for stimulating growth and strength in the arms through a full range of motion. It promotes great shoulder extension, which is an area that’s often left out when performing dips due to partial reps.
Because the Russian dip requires you to maintain a strong core and manipulate your entire bodyweight, it basically becomes a full-body exercise and helps to increase your proprioceptive awareness.
Six sets of eight reps as slow as possible will be enough to make you wince every time you try to straighten your arms for the next two days. Depending on your level, you could use them as a drop set after weighted dips, or if you want to really step it up, a finisher of elevated push-ups after your Russian dips will really leave you not knowing where to put your guns.
- Set up two boxes (or benches if you have no boxes) shoulder-width apart. Ideally, stack them to shoulder height so your feet are off the floor. To scale, simply reduce the height and use your feet to take weight off your arms.
- Put your weight onto your forearms, depress your shoulders, keep your neck long, keep your abs tight, and lean back away from your hands.
- Transfer your weight towards your hands and lift your elbows so that you’re in the bottom of a dip position.
- Keep your elbows in close to your body and press out of the bottom until your elbows are locked out straight.
- Lower back down to the bottom of the dip and GENTLY lower your elbows back down to the starting position.
Don’t forget to do a thorough warm-up before performing the Russian box dip, especially for your shoulders and your wrists.
I’ve always been weak off the floor with my deadlift. Now, conventional wisdom would tell us that the deadlift targets the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, erectors, etc. And that’s true, it does. So naturally, most think they have to hammer away at accessory movements like GHRs, RDLs, and the like in order to address technical or muscular weaknesses in the deadlift.
However, think about what has to take place on the initial movement off the floor: you have to break inertia by PUSHING (putting force) into the floor via the quadriceps. One of the best ways I’ve helped improve my deadlift is by placing more of a priority on quad strength. And one of the best ways I’ve improved quad strength is by giving myself a steady diet of front squats.
Thing is, I’ve always hated front squats and would rather wash my face with broken glass than put them in my own program. They just never felt great. But then again, when does lifting heavy things – let alone front squats – feel good?
I came to the realization that the reason front squats never felt right was because I never did them. Weird, right? So I did more. And wouldn’t you know it, before long I learned to appreciate them more. I got better at them. That vomit-in-my-mouth-ish feeling I got whenever I saw them in my program steadily diminished. Now, I look forward to them. And I’ve seen a nice bump in my deadlifts where loads that felt challenging a few months ago now feel (and look) easier.
Moral of the story? Stepping outside your comfort zone isn’t a bad idea, frequency matters, and on an unrelated note, bacon is delicious