By: Michael Mejia
I was stuck. Thousands of biceps curls for months on end, and nothing. Not even half an inch. My arms had simply stopped growing.
I took the Taoist approach: I quit trying. Instead of doing direct arm work, like curls, I concentrated on my chest, shoulders, and back, hitting them with heavy-lifting sets of chinups, rows, presses, and dips.
That’s when it happened. My arms inflated.
Truth is, I hadn’t really stopped working my arms. I was working them harder than ever—by association. The exercises I was using for my chest and back were also enlisting my biceps and triceps, stimulating more muscle fibers in different ways than with the arm isolation exercises.
Since then, I’ve experimented with dozens of rut-busting methods. Here I list five of the best. For maximum benefit, use only one technique at a time, for one exercise at a time, every 4 weeks. If you’ve been lifting consistently for a year or more, you’ll change the look of your workout—and your muscles.
Every guy, on every lift, has a sticking point: that part of the move at which he’s the weakest. Find yours and strengthen it, and you’ll be able to lift heavier weights, which will make your muscles work harder and grow faster. Your weak link is easy to locate: It’s the point at which your movement starts to decelerate.
The fix: “Partial overloads,” an idea from Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., a trainer and the owner of Results-Fitness in Santa Clarita, California. Set a pair of pins in a power rack, level with your deceleration point, so you start at your weak spot. Place the barbell on the pins and perform the exercise in the shortened range of motion. For virtually any lift, follow these guidelines: Do one set of 10 repetitions lifting about 70 percent of the maximum weight you can lift one time. Rest 3 minutes, then increase the weight by 10 to 20 percent and crank out two more sets of six repetitions.
Example: In the bench press, you’ll start at the slow-down point—about two-thirds of the way up, for most men. Each time you complete a repetition, allow the bar to rest on the pins for 2 seconds, then repeat. Wait 3 minutes after each set, and then finish with a full-range set of six repetitions.
“Most men try to increase the load by too much, and stall their training programs as a result,” says John Williams, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Spectrum Conditioning in Port Washington, New York. Adding too much weight too fast disrupts your muscles‘ adaptation process, which should be gradual. A psychotherapist might call it baby steps. We prefer a much cooler term: microloading. It’s the simplest way to see immediate gains when you’re stuck in a rut.
The fix: Increase the weight by the smallest amount possible. This guarantees progress. “Psychologically, increasing your weight more frequently is tangible proof that you’re making progress,” says Williams.
Examples: Use 1 1/2-pound PlateMates for dumbbells instead of jumping up in 5-pound increments. On the barbell, use 2 1/2-pound plates instead of the 5- and 10-pounders you’d normally add on.
Hormones regulate almost every physiological process in the body. Stimulate the release of hormones through exercise and you’ll improve body composition and performance, says Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., an exercise-and-nutrition researcher at the University of Connecticut.
The fix: Start hormones flowing by doing more total sets and repetitions, and limiting rest periods to 60 seconds. But restrict this to a single exercise and switch moves every 4 weeks to avoid overtaxing your body.
Examples: Decide if you’re going for size or strength. For size, do five sets of 10 repetitions with a weight that’s 55 to 65 percent of the amount you can lift one time. For strength, do five sets of five repetitions with a weight that’s 85 to 90 percent of that amount.
Small blood vessels called capillaries deliver oxygen, amino acids, and hormones to your muscles, helping them recover—and grow—faster. Research has shown that heavy weight training decreases capillary density.
The fix: Do high-repetition sets with light weights (25 percent of the amount you can lift once) on your days off, targeting whatever muscle group is lagging. “It’ll increase the number of capillaries in your working muscles, allowing better nutrient transfer,” says Chad Waterbury, a strength coach in Arizona.
Examples: Perform a total of 100 repetitions with the light weight. So if your triceps are lacking, continue to do your normal workout 1 or 2 days a week. But you’ll also do 100 repetitions of a triceps exercise on the other 5 days. Use a weight that’s about 25 percent of the heaviest amount you can lift one time. Do four sets of 25 repetitions, or two sets of 50 repetitions, spaced throughout the day.
When you lift weights slowly, your body uses only whatever muscle fibers are necessary. As those fibers fatigue, others take their place, while the first ones recover and wait to return to action—it’s sort of a tag-team effort. So if you’re doing 10 slow repetitions, a fiber might work for the first three or four repetitions, be replaced by another, and then recover to contribute on the final two or three repetitions of your set. This limits the number of muscle fibers you’re using, unless you’re lifting near maximal weights.
The fix:Lift light weights fast. “Trying to move a weight as fast as you can forces your body to recruit more muscle fibers,” says Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., author of Turbulence Training. This will help you improve strength quickly, while challenging your muscles in a different way than heavy weights.
Examples: For exercises like the bench press, use a weight that’s about 40 to 55 percent of the heaviest weight you can lift one time. Do six to eight sets of three to five repetitions, resting for 60 seconds between sets.
Note: Sometimes you need to overhaul your routine to get your body to the next level. Men’s Health Personal Trainerprovides a multitude of programs to choose from, as well as customization options to keep your body from getting bored. Kick your routine into gear and join today.