Lagging muscles: seek for the Holy Grail or... go back to school?

Lagging muscles: seek for the Holy Grail or... go back to school?

by in Workouts

last updated: December 16, 2015

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Even though we may make a concerted effort in our sweaty workouts, we all have certain muscle groups that are more resistant and difficult in terms of growth: thanks to certain basic training practices, we can still get good results


Even though we may make a concerted effort in our sweaty workouts, we all have certain muscle groups that are more resistant and difficult in terms of growth, conditioned by a genetic disadvantage.

Often "old-timer" athletes have poor posture during certain exercises encouraging the involvement of muscles that are secondary to the target.

Sometimes we are also affected by our desire to lift the heaviest load in the belief that this is the best way to stimulate hypertrophy.

Thousands of methods, theories and intensity techniques are attempted, sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. Subjectivity is always the variable that dictates the law, whether we have certain muscle-tendon attachments, or a specific number of red or white fibres ... Mother Nature determines what muscles we can or might have, but thanks to certain basic training practices, we can help to develop them as early as possible.

Overload and muscle tension

The ultimate dogma of progressive overload has an undeniably important role in muscle development.

Striving to increase the load over time is a fundamental rule, especially in multi-joint exercises, but it should not be the only we abide by and pursue.

Overload and muscle tension

We often see that there is always a response in terms of muscle corresponding to the increase in force. To ensure long-term progress, there are several factors that must be taken into consideration, even more so when this refers to muscles that are "resistant" to growth. First and foremost, it is essential to establish the best possible mind-muscle connection, in order to generate an increasingly improved and more effective muscle tension in relation to the target muscle, which is then followed up with an increase in loads to support the targeted stress levels.

A concept that is repeatedly referred to by the font of knowledge and brilliant mind of my friend and one of my greatest mentors in "technical training", with whom I have the honour of be in regular contact, namely Ben Pakulski (IFBB PRO).

Mind over muscle! Re-educating movement

A key aspect that we need to keep in mind when we see a PRO in training, perhaps someone like Ronnie Coleman and Branch Warren that impressed at the time with their "slamming" loads, is their advanced ability to recruit the muscles that are working.

They know how to create and take advantage of the maximum tension and muscle contraction, even while carrying out an approximate movement.

All this stems in large part from a very strong neuro-muscular connection that has been developed through years of training, allowing them to involve a greater number of motor units (although it would be interesting to see the results using other methods).

But it is not so easy for the "mere mortal" that stresses out to increase the muscles in his legs or back, for example. It needs time and presence of mind to optimise the neuro-muscular pathways that need to become a platform for immediate connectivity without any secondary disruptions.

And the first step is to go back to the principles of Biomechanics regarding the movements we are interested in and enhance the concept of muscle tension referred to above.

Dear Ben "Pakman" coined the term "intentions." Knowing how to maintain, enhance, or better emphasize continous tension during a movement thanks to the countering applied with the direction of the hands in the movement's trajectory.

It is a re-education technique that requires time to be learned and used at its best. But once this level has been reached, each exercise will then provide sensations of muscles working at a new level, which will manifest not only in a brutal burning in the affected muscle, but in an effective reawakening of "dormant" muscles.
It is essential to focus the mind on the muscle you want to train and start every movement with a contracted muscle and then hold this without any "respite" from the tension across the entire range of motion.

Another concept to keep in mind is that a muscle is at its weakest at the extremes of movement, so more emphasis needs to be placed on these.

We will find and adjust certain exercises which given their bio-mechanical characteristics of leverage, will emphasise the "lock-out" contraction phase. These exercises will serve as activators of the central nervous system at the start of the session, and will then be followed by basic exercises from the complete range, which will be the movements that need to characterize the core training.

There will also be situations like in the relaxation exercises for the leg or chest, where the execution will be "partial", meaning without full distension or joint blocking, leaving all the work, the continual "tension" to the muscles, among other things, to keeping them in a condition of temporary partial hypoxia (another significant metabolic factor that we will explore further).
So, before relying on wishful training systems developed by various gurus or abusing intensity techniques, let's re-establish the "contacts" and get back to basics.

Essential help rules

1 - Initiate the movement with the target muscle contracted

The muscle involved should be the first to contract and the last to let up.

Initially, we can practice contracting before starting the movement so as to gain confidence and call on those neuro-muscular pathways that will become actual highways in connecting to the best contraction and activation.

2 - Maximum extension and maximum contraction

Even though especially in basic exercises, we are stronger when adopting the intermediate range of motion, (with the "stronger" ones more frequent than the partial), we must try for the maximum range of movement, especially when starting this "re-education" . In trying to also become stronger at the extremes of the movement where we are "weakest", we will open up new horizons of potential stimulation in the single exercise.

Maximum extension + maximum contraction = potential maximum fibre recruitment.

Maximum extension and maximum contraction

All these concepts may seem trivial, ridiculous, and almost humiliating especially for veterans, but it often happens that the ego to lift weights using partial ROM, is one of the reasons for various exercises being partially effective.

It is always hard to "go back", and perhaps all the more in the case of us boys, but I think the reset is important, to the extent that this the first condition that I adopt.

Subsequently the weights will increase once again, but with a corresponding muscular effect. Once you've understood this, it becomes properly established, perhaps with some variation on the Time Under Tension, such as emphasizing the negative phase. Each additional technique to extend the set or variation in execution will become the real added value. Third step, one that brings us back to the "upper" classes, is the the search for the AROM, or "active range of motion". The non-minimal "partial" executions are therefore not something to be thrown out completely, but rather something we need to know how to interpret. But as they say in the States, "more on this later".

3 - A muscle is fully extended when its antagonist is fully contracted

Years and years ago, my dear teacher Emilio They explained this concept to me many times over. Even while training the antagonists in supersets with the agonists for example, and more recently, by analyzing the many Ben training protocols, I once again discovered this important physiological rule.

To ensure that a muscle is fully stretched, it is very effective to try contract its antagonist at the end of the negative portion.

For example if we wanted to extend the biceps curls in the best way possible, we would try to contract the triceps. We would then notice that there is some margin of movement that can still be exploited to its fullest growth potential. I guarantee that the simplicity of this method is significantly effective.

4 - We contract the muscles unabated during the entire movement and try for the maximum contraction

Based on everything we've said previously, it does not mean that shifting the weight at its maximum range of motion is everything. The best part and the crucial factor is to contract the training muscle as hard as possible during each centimetre! As my friend Ben often says: "squeeze it like it owes you money!"

5 - No break in the extension and contraction stages

When we want to optimize the maximum hypertrophic stimulation, continual tension is a "must", without any stop during the extension or shortening phase. The time under tension must not be broken, but the contraction of the muscle must remain on the target for the duration of the movement.

Extension and contraction phases

There are also isolation movements, using machines or cables, which lend themselves to performing powerful peak contractions, which in addition to prolonging the time under tension, are excellent as tools to raise the awareness that we are looking for.

Sometimes effective as pre-fatigue and "activating" of the group concerned.

6 - Optimal time under tension from 40 to 70 seconds per set

We do not have much scientific literature available on the subject, but experience in the field including some of the leading trainers such as Poliquin, suggest that the optimal time under tension should last between 40 and 70 seconds for most muscle groups.

If we were to go over this time, the work would become excessively long dissipating the impact of the tension on the muscle, and would mean that the load is too light for hypertrophic purposes. Keeping it around 40 seconds would be preferable because we would be maintaining a greater load.

We could then possibly adopt longer movements towards the end of the workout.

7 - Carrying out the slowed eccentric phase

We all know that the eccentric (negative) phase in movement causes the most micro-traumas to the muscular fibres, resulting in a significant stimulus for potential hypertrophy (if recovered properly!).

The standard time for the eccentric phase that ensures complete control of the load and emphasis on tension is 4 seconds, with a concentric of 1 second.

8 - Cheating is not allowed

The general rule would be that the muscle in question is the one that has to work.

If "thrusts" or other secondary groups become involved to lift more weight, then it is always a good idea to lower the weight.

If we reached a stage of giving in with the targeted execution and wanted to cheat with a few reps to become properly exhausted, then it could become a further added value. We should rather concentrate on trying to find the "perfect" repetition and then if we wanted to move onto turbo, we could then call on a bit of thrust or push some secondary movement muscles.

9 - Deficit muscles and multi-frequency

It is a known fact that the best way to improve an area with weaker muscles is to exercise it more often, preferably with different sessions as a type of stimulus.

For example, at the start of the week, we could train a muscle group with heavy loads, medium-low reps, a substantial level of work and limited intensity techniques. Then after a few days train once again with a different "pump mode" system and go onto other fibres, sweat blood again, go back over the neuro-muscular pathways, without overly burdening the nervous system and joints.
For some people, exclusively training one group, two or even three times a week is almost a heresy, raising the cry of over-training. Problems that could actually exist. I hasten to remind you that is a condition that refers to the body at a systemic level, and not the individual muscle.

It is a chronic condition that relates to the central nervous, endocrine and muscular system. If we allow the body to rest adequately and the right time to recover, enabling it to start training again as soon as possible, we can provide double or triple stimulation to the synthesis of proteins.

Deltoid Workout

If the conditions for muscle recovery are met with the necessary food and dietary supplements, the results will be favourable. But if these two or one of these factors are not adequately met (rest and a substantial diet with the support of supplements), then the entire recovery could be compromised, with the risk of becoming bogged down in an inflammatory condition that is too excessive to recover from, to the extent that it becomes chronic and counter productive . So do not be afraid to train a priority muscle several times a week running contrary to the "single-frequency" dogma, but if you do choose to do so, let's try to adapt the whole split with different stimuli. "Beating" a muscle two or three times a week with surplus negatives, forced or increased loads could well lead to an easy trauma.
Generally, when you choose to specialize in a muscle group, you should consequently reduce the amount of work in respect of the other muscles without using too many intensity techniques; in short it would be preferable to decentralize or better still involve the strongest growth stimuli with regard to the weaker muscles so as not to overload the entire central nervous system.

Because this is where the critical factor lies; not so much in the risk of over-training a muscle group (which easily recovers and often with reduced subsequent levels, shows bursts in improvement), but in overly straining and inflaming the whole body (nervous system, adrenal glands and joints). Recovering from these conditions then effectively becomes much more difficult.

Isolating the weaker muscle groups

Knowing how to "isolate a weaker group" is basically a summary of the entire article.

Also remember that when we talk about isolating a muscle, it means being able to understand how it works at its best while moving, and that the same movement may for reasons of form or subjective structure, not be appropriate. Sometimes, certain people have difficulty in perceiving muscle tension even though the movement is "correct", so that it could happen for example that they do not "feel" the chest flys using dumbbells, in which case the alternative would be to substitute with the cables or pectoral fly. The athlete or experienced trainer should know how to use any variation that could prove more effective.

Machines should not to be demonized. On the contrary if they are designed according to the correct bio-mechanical criteria, they are suitable and really effective in dealing with problematic areas.

The are very few alternatives to the exercises that you cannot "feel"! Very often you "just" need to adopt a different posture in the shoulder blades or adjust a simple hand grip and bang! You can feel the muscle working.

Let's increase the tension

One of the factors influencing the increase in muscle tension is the TUT, i.e. the "time under tension". This represents the total duration of the contractile stress that the muscle is subjected to during exercise.

Much has been written in articles regarding the variations and the effects this has on the muscle. In this respect, Ben Pakulski in his training protocols ("mi40") recommended guidelines where the "ideal set" should consist of 8 reps, lasting about 40 seconds, with a portion of eccentric movement for 4 seconds and an explosive concentric phase.

This time duration for the set could vary according to the exercise or the training cycle. So one could also try for more dynamic movements with a less slow negative to encourage greater loads and stronger neural activation or slower and more steady fluidity at 3 seconds upwards, and with no break in the extremes of motion 3 seconds downwards, extending the set's duration and the hypoxic phase of the muscle to provide a more "metabolic" stimulation.

Varying the rep range

As stated above, the time under tension and the tension itself applied on the muscle must also be varied, and accordingly a set of 8 reps may have a different time under tension. We could also vary the number of repetitions depending on the type of fibres that we want to engage.

We have always known that the classic 6-12 reps are those more inclined to hypertrophy, but we should not disregard including even higher ranges like 15-25.

Lower ranges around 1-5 have more to do with the neural stimulation rather than building up, even though this works indirectly for whoever wants to concentrate on more strength.
More recently various articles have been published that restore the dignity of the much-scorned red fibres by body builders because they had relatively little significance in terms of hypertrophy compared to the white portion, bringing to mind the classic comparison between a sprinter and a marathon runner.

The fact is that in analysing the latest research on exercise physiology, where different stimulation methods involving both type I and II fibres are examined, it has emerged that the real potential in stimulating type I fibres means that it should not be excluded from our training sessions.

This represents something completely intriguing and innovative. It reinstates the light-moderate load and the higher rep range to boost the blood flow (increased hyperaemia) to the muscles with everything that goes with it at the metabolic level, and the importance of changing the duration of the TUT from shorter timing, and in any case incorporating exercises focusing more on pumping in a single session or in a training cycle, which ultimately translates into better results.

Lower ranges with higher loads remain crucial for greater mechanical tension generated on the neuro-muscular pathways and on the muscle itself, but implementing higher ranges can no longer be considered "pussyfooting".

Similarly in this case, the athlete can experiment with which range is better suited to his muscles (for centuries, there have been those that prefer training their legs with high reps!), or better still he should know how to manage them within a training cycle in order to achieve the most extensive stimulation to the fibres that is possible.

Negative but decidedly positive series

Like all good things though we should not abuse them! One of the most obvious ways to stimulate hypertrophy results from the local hormonal effect arising from damage (micro-trauma) to the fibres, thanks to series emphasising the eccentric or negative phase of the repetition.

Systems that use this method are different, and even by only emphasising the lowering of the load to 4 or 6 seconds creates sufficient muscle damage to be potentially effective. We then have systems that implement negative repetitions post the concentric failure (find yourself a very trustworthy spotter!), or there are also various techniques that increase the load in the negative phase. All of these are however highly risky in terms of traumas and still require adequate recovery periods because of the extreme muscle damage and significantly enduring DOMS over the days that follow.

And the intensity techniques?

Intensity techniques are effective and need to be included, but with a marginal role and should not characterise the entire training if we want to achieve long term progress.

The purpose of the article was in fact to show that when we are dealing with deficient muscle groups in particular (but this certainly applies to our entire routine!) we need to get "back to basics" as the Americans say, and once again find and involve the neuro-muscular pathways that have little fixing or "connection" so that we can find a new, different muscle stimulation that perhaps has some exploitable potential (this is often the case), before terrorising ourselves with theories that are largely futile that we may have heard from some athlete/champion that used them or with the latest fad.

So then, we firstly need to reorganise our exercises, study them, and ask ourselves whether they really are effective or if we need to vary them, by finding the most effective changes and taking advantage of everything that science now has to offer. Then we can welcome the techniques that I personally adore, bringing on the supersets, giant sets, drop sets, isometrics, and set extensions, but first we need to check that the connection is right.

Once we've found the key and are set on our path, any system that we want to use will definitely be more effective, obviously with the right recovery and supported by table exercises and supplements that can provide equally effective support. Every body is a world apart to be studied. Every person's genetics are different and limited, but using the necessary tools, there is always room for improvement, even if to a slighter or greater extent, it is always possible. Enjoy the journey of discovering your body. This is real bodybuilding.

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