Building a lean, muscular, aesthetic physique is no easy task. We all want to get bigger and stronger, without getting unnecessarily fat along the way. Gaining weight is easy; gaining muscle is hard.
If you’re just starting out, you can do just about anything and see results. However, once you get past the beginner phase, you have to work very hard to make those gains. You have to fight for every ounce of muscle, putting in the hard work day after day. A natural lifter with a few years of experience under their belt might be able to put on 3-5 pounds of muscle per year, if they do all the right things.
Once you have the proper mindset, and understand that sculpting an aesthetic physique is a lifelong process, it’s easier to accept the grind and hard work that will be required. Learn to love the process and develop a hard work ethic, and you’ll be well on your way to a body that turns heads at the beach.
However, just because the process takes a long time, doesn’t mean there aren’t tips and tricks you can apply to your own training to make those improvements come just a little bit faster. If you feel stuck following the same old workouts month after month, these tricks may be just what you need to smash your plateaus and start seeing results again.
Use Activation Sets to Prime Your Muscles for Growth
One of the best ways to optimize your muscular growth is a proper warm up. A proper warmup will enhance your mind-muscle connection, get your nervous system firing properly, and force blood and heat into the muscles you are going to work.
A 5 minute walk on the treadmill just isn’t going to cut it. You might sweat a little bit, but you aren’t activating the right systems for growth. Priming your muscles before a workout means activating the right muscles so they fire on all cylinders during your training, not simply increasing your heart rate.
Try using explosive, high-speed compound movements to get your nervous system fired up, followed by isolation movements for the muscle you are going to work.
Let’s use a chest workout as an example. Before your next chest day, perform 2 sets of 10 pushups, trying to drive off the floor as fast as you can. If you can do plyometric clapping pushups, even better. Next, do 2-3 sets of 15 repetitions of cable flies, using about 40-50% of your typical weight. Focus on slow, controlled movements, really trying to engage your chest and get that mind-muscle connection activated.
Now, when you go to perform your first big chest exercise, you’ll feel just a bit stronger, and your chest will be able to do more of the work. Compared to simply walking in, stretching for a minute, and jumping right into your first set of bench presses, these activation sets will make it much easier to use your chest muscles properly and force it to grow.
For legs, you can use jump squats and lying leg curls. For back movements, do pull-ups and straight bar lat pulldowns. For your shoulders, try using a push press and very light dumbbell raises.
Focus on the Muscle, Not the Movement
One of the biggest mistakes lifters make in the gym is trying to move the most weight possible at all costs. This is great if you want to be a powerlifter, but for building a jacked physique, this isn’t going to cut it. Just because you can use straps, a belt, and do bent-over rows with 225 pounds, does not mean you’re actually training your back muscles properly.
To make sure you’re using the right muscles, slow down. Try lowering the weight on each set for at least 3-4 seconds, lift it at a regular pace, and go back to your slow lowering phase. Your set of 12 will now take 3 times as long, and by using proper form and engaging the muscle you want to target, you’ll have a much better chance of seeing results in the gym.
If you’re new to this slow, constant tension style of training, keep in mind that you’ll have to use lighter weights at first. There’s nothing wrong with this, as it’s much better to use a lighter weight and actually engage the right muscles, rather than throwing heavy weights around with poor, sloppy form.
Track Your Volume
It’s very important to track your training volume. This isn’t referring to how loud your gym is blasting music; it refers to the total number of sets and reps you do each workout.
As you get stronger, it’s important to work on overloading your muscles over time, to force them to grow bigger and stronger. Often times, people will tell you to add weight each and every workout, but not only is this impossible, but you’re not a powerlifter. Even the most elite strength athletes have to fight for every pound of strength they gain, and that’s probably not your main concern.
When you want to develop large, powerful muscles, it’s important to pay attention to your total volume, or sets and reps. Strength gains shouldn’t be your primary focus, but if you want to grow, you need to expose your muscles to heavier tension, for longer periods of time.
The best approach is to track your workouts. If you know you used a certain weight on the bench press for 3 sets of 8 last week, try to use that same weight for 3 sets of 9-10 this week. The weight doesn’t have to go up every week, but you should be aiming to increase your muscles’ workload over time. If you aren’t tracking, you have no way to know how much you’re actually doing each week.
Train Your Weaknesses First
Do you have a muscle group you feel is weak, or one you absolutely hate training? Train that muscle first thing in your session, rather than saving it until the end. This is the hard way, but also the way that builds determination, character, and muscle.
If you have weak calves, don’t save them until the end of your leg day. Train them first, before you do anything else. This allows you to put the most focus on your weakest parts, as you are training them fresh, and it greatly reduces the odds of you skipping that exercise later in the workout.
Use Isometric Holds to Activate Problem Muscles
Lastly, it’s common to have issues activating certain muscles, and particularly preventing other muscles from taking over. When you try to train smaller muscles, like the muscles in your glutes, shoulders, or upper back, it’s easy for the big surrounding muscles to take over and do most of the work.
Using isometric holds is like doing a quick pre-exhaust set for an exercise. It both fatigues and activates your target muscle, allowing you to recruit that muscle just a bit better, pushing more nutrient-filled blood into the area with every repetition.
Try this the next time you train your shoulders, which often struggle to keep up with the work your triceps and back can do. Perform a standard dumbbell lateral raise, but use a light weight. On your very first repetition, hold the weight at the top position for 8-12 seconds, and then immediately perform 12-15 repetitions. This will create an intense stress on your shoulder muscle, with a lighter weight that’s easier on your joints and connective tissue.
Go Forth and Make Gains
Remember, building muscle takes time. Once you’ve been at this for any length of time, and progress begins to slow down, it’s time to take a good look at your program. If you’ve been following the same routine for a few months, it may time to change some things up. The five tricks above can be used right away with whatever program you’re currently following, and are sure to help build a better physique.