It is common place to see popular bodybuilders using special techniques and exercises to try to isolate individual muscles, or even parts of muscles. Sometimes they even claim to be able to change the shape or add striations or contours to the muscles by doing certain rep ranges, rep tempos and specific angles.
In reality muscles can only do two things: get bigger, or get smaller.
When they get bigger the striations become deeper, their naturally predetermined shape becomes more apparent, new veins crop up to provide blood supply and the fat covering them is stretched to show more definition. But in reality all that is really happening is a change in size.
The only other factor that affects the way muscles look is reducing the layer of body fat that is covering them.
The Elite Level
Now that being said, there is some wisdom in what these iron-veterans are doing. When you get to the top level of physique development it is often the minor details that set apart the good from the great. Minor imbalances in symmetry can crop up and need to be addressed, this can be due to a dominant synergist (like the delts overpowering the chest or the hamstrings overpowering the glutes in certain movements), or it can be simply a visual issue: having narrow clavicles requires more focus on medial delts, or bad bicep insertions require some extra arm size. I myself have to do some very specific pull down movements in order to activate and train the lower fibers of my lats because my teres major takes over in most pull down movements. However, an experienced bodybuilder and a beginner or intermediate lifter should train very differently!
You better believe that long before I started doing weak point training I was trying to get my deadlift over 500lbs, my squat over 400lbs and my bench over 300lbs. 80% of my development I can attribute to spending a good half-decade to simply getting stronger in the compound barbell lifts that train the whole body.
For every pro bodybuilder you see doing a single arm cable exercise, you’ll see thousands of gym rats who have been following the same techniques for years who hardly look like they work out. This is the consequence of applying a customized technique that an advanced athlete has developed after decades of training haphazardly into your routine. Remember, the body awareness, control, and the amount of time that top level bodybuilders have spent with their bodies in the gym is immense. It literally has taken me over seven years before I could actually effectively isolate my lats in a pull down motion without having other muscles dominate the movement.
Simply put, advanced techniques are for advanced lifters and doing them as a beginner will not make you advance; it will make you stagnate.
Muscles, while aesthetically pleasing, have always been designed to move. Thus, the best way to get maximum muscle activation has always been, and always will be to move heavy things. For 99% of lifters in the beginner and intermediate stage, deadlifts, squats, free weight chest presses, free weight shoulder presses, free weight rows, and pull ups or pull downs are all that are needed to develop a fantastic physique.
Compound lifts allow you to use heavy weight, target multiple muscles, and follow the natural movements of our bodies in order to develop symmetry.
A Beginner’s Approach
Beginners do best training their bodies frequently because they aren’t yet able to do so much damage that they require a lot of recovery. They also grow quickly and their physiques are ready to put on size. Research has shown that muscle recovers and is ready to be trained again in 24-48 hours, that only one or two sets is needed for beginners to grow maximally and that beginners don’t have the capacity yet to truly put themselves in a recovery hole. So, what makes the most sense is a full body split for a beginner, a setup that is low on volume per session, and is done three times per week on either a M/W/F setup or a T/Th/Sa setup.
Examples of great routines that have been developed for hypertrophy are the HST program designed by muscle physiologist Bryan Haycock and Starting Strength designed by the famous strength coach Mark Rippetoe. Depending on your goals, be they strength or size, you could go with either.
The List: Compound Exercises
Flat bench presses (barbell, dumbbell or machine), incline/decline bench presses (barbell, dumbbell or machine), dips
Deadlifts, chinups, weighted pull ups, pulldowns, rows (barbell, dumbbell, or machine), T-bar rows
Military presses (barbell, dumbbell or machine), upright rows, and remember front delts are worked on all presses!
Underhand-grip chinups, underhand-grip pulldowns, underhand grip rows (all types), and remember biceps get slightly worked on all rows and pulldown movements regardless of grip
Dips, close-grip bench presses (barbell, Smith machine), and remember triceps get significantly worked on ALL presses
Deadlifts, sumo Deadlifts, stiff legged deadlift, back squats (low bar), RDL/SDL, leg press (high foot position press through heels), lunges (long step, press through heel), step-ups (step leg at 90 degrees press through heel), Hip Extension (Barbell, bodyweight, dumbbell or machine)
Front Squat, back squats (high bar), hack squat, lunges (shallower step, press through midfoot), Leg Press (normal foot position, press through midfoot), step-ups (step leg at ~45 degrees press through midfoot)
Just remember, you will get maximum recruitment of your entire lower body when you go heavy on squats. Leave the close stance, feet turned out partial range of motion leg presses to the pros and the beginners who don’t know any better!
Author: Eric Helms – Pro Natural Bodybuilder, BS, CSCS, CPT, PES