Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Are you stuck in your efforts to build more muscle? Are you getting a little tired of the same-ole tactics such as strip sets, rest-pause and pre-exhaustion? Read on for a few unique ways to breathe new life into your program and double your muscle-building gains.
#1 - Do the opposite: Are you a stickler for order? Every once in a while completely reverse the order of your exercises. So, for example, try starting your next leg workout with calves then hamstrings and then quads. New perspective, new gains.
#2 - Go totally unilateral: Bench presses, barbell rows and squats populate most mass-gain programs but what about performing an entire workout unilaterally? You will quickly identify weak sides and strong limbs by working just one side at a time.
#3 - High rep it: Stuck doing low rep sets? Has the heavy, low rep mentality stopped working so well? Try going high rep for a while. Keeping your reps in the double digits doesn’t mean that you go easy. Pushing a higher rep set to failure will spur metabolism, jack up testosterone and give you that coveted pump.
#4 - Nothing under 10: Nothing can pack on the muscle all over like leg training. Full-range squats taken to failure will get you big everywhere. Unfortunately, most trainees don’t train legs in the pain zone enough. Try repping out with no less than 10 reps for any and all leg exercises and find out how real lower body training should be.
#5 - Do one exercise: Multiple exercises for body parts are great and all but inundating your routine with too many angles will start to diminish your muscle-building returns. For a few weeks try choosing just one exercise per body part and perform 10 sets or so – keep it simple.
Will you grow faster from training everything once or twice per week? Once per week will yield 52 opportunities per year while twice per week gives you 104.
#6 - Squat three times per week: The fear of overtraining is a trend that is hopefully going the way of the dinosaur. As mentioned above, nothing beats training legs (especially squats) for adding mass. Go ahead, squat three times per week – you have everything to gain.
#7 - Do every difficult exercise (and master it): Anything that will improve your current condition will hurt or cause discomfort somehow. Do the difficult stuff and embrace it. Squats, deadlifts, clean and presses, Romanian deadlifts and bent-over rows. Don’t stay on the easy track.
#8 - No isolation work: For a few weeks ditch all the isolation stuff – cable extensions, concentration curls and even lateral raises. Focus on the big (and I mean big) compound moves such as benches, rows, overhead presses, squats and deadlifts. Go big and then go home!
#9 - Wear a watch: All that texting and talking takes a toll on your muscle-gaining efforts. Do you really know how much time you take in between sets? Not monitoring rest periods can easily be one of the biggest crimes committed against muscledom. Wear a watch, time your sets.
#10 - No phone: If I had my way, everyone would train sans cell phone. Not only will it allow you to focus it would also cultivate a community of like-minded people helping each other. Did the bodybuilders of the golden era seem distracted or antisocial? Didn’t think so.
#11 - Workout semi-fasted: Have you ever trained on a full stomach? Did you feel sluggish, unable to get a pump? All that food in your stomach has attracted a massive amount of blood to help with digestion. Training semi-fasted (a very small meal an hour or two prior to training) will help with hormone regulation and blood flow.
#12 - Do compound sets (for big moves): A compound set is simply two sets done back-to-back for the same body part or group of body parts. Oftentimes these are performed with smaller, single joint moves such as incline curls compounded with standing barbell curls. Don’t be afraid to play with some big exercises like barbell squats compounded with leg presses.
#13 - Go machine gun: An age-old style of training can still build muscle today. If you train with a partner try resting between sets only long enough for your partner to finish his set – no longer. This I-go-you-go style (sometimes referred to as machine gun sets) is a good way to increase pace and stop wasting time.
#14 - Cut weight, go strict: Sometimes you will find yourself putting a little too much “English” on some exercises. Heaving the weight up on rows? Lifting your butt off the bench on barbell presses? Reduce the weight, relearn perfect form and get growing again.
#15 - Have a plan: Are you one (like so many others) that really doesn’t have a plan? You may have a favorite chest or biceps workout but do you have an overall plan of attack when it comes to packing on muscle mass? If so, get one. Earlier I mentioned some tactics regarding not having a structured plan and winging it but sometimes all you need is a solid, sound plan and a heavy dose of consistency to double those muscle-building gains.
Having a cheat meal shouldn’t mean pigging-out on a whole pizza or a gallon of ice cream if lean muscle gains are your goal.
#16 - Double up in less time: Here’s a new challenge you may not be used to: try performing twice as many sets in the same amount of time per workout. Take shorter breaks, get in some supersets or do whatever else you need to do to just get in double the work.
#17 - Keep it simple: Dumbbells, cables, Hammer Strength, the Smith machine and other machines are great and all but try going (really) old school and perform all barbell exercises. Bench presses, bent-over rows, squats, shoulder presses, barbell curls, nosebreakers, Romanian deadlifts. You’ll lift heavier while keeping things basic.
#18 - Super pyramid: Pyramid sets are commonplace for many individuals. Start with higher reps and then proceed to increase weight and decrease reps, but let’s take it a step further (more like 5 steps further) and try going “super pyramid.” Instead of stopping at 8 or 6 reps go all the way down. Reps for a set of incline bench barbell presses could look like this: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1.
#19 - Reverse pyramid: If the whole traditional pyramid thing has been done to death then simply reverse it and try on some reverse pyramids for size. After a thorough amount of warm-up sets start with your heaviest weight for a low number of reps. For each successive set reduce the weight slightly and perform higher reps.
#20 - Do someone else’s routine: It’s tough to venture out of your comfort zone but it may be just what you need to get out of a rut. For a day, week or even a month put your trust in a qualified training partner. You may learn a thing or two and will have new ammunition for when you go back to your regular routine.
#21 - Set a total time limit: It’s tradition to have a plan that includes a set amount of volume – this many sets for that and that many sets for this. But have you ever considered simply setting a time limit on your training and just going until time is up?
#22 - Set a total rep goal: Much like setting a time limit, setting a total rep limit could have a similar effect. This can be applied to either a specific exercise, an individual body part or to an entire workout. Just pick a rep goal and go for it.
#23 - Have no plan: Are you someone who plans your workouts down to the T? Are you meticulous about exercises, sets and reps? Or are you a creature of habit and perform the same routines every day? Give your brain a break and go to the gym without a plan. Whatever comes to mind, do it. If it’s 10 sets of bench presses for chest, then so be it. Let your instincts lead you.
#24 - Go full-body: Your body builds muscle better when things are kept simple. You can’t get any simpler than full-body routines. The benefits are two-fold. One; you get a full-body muscle and hormone stimulation every workout and two; it gives you an opportunity to train each muscle three or more times per week.
#25 - Cut back: How much volume are you doing per workout? Does your chest routine comprise of barbell bench work, dumbbell presses and flyes and then some cable crossovers or dips? Cut back a little and simplify your training. Focus on increasing loads and intensity on presses and maybe some dips for a while.
Stuck doing low rep sets? Has the heavy, low rep mentality stopped working so well? Try going high rep for a while.
#26 - Get more frequent: Quiz time: Will you grow faster from training everything once or twice per week? Once per week will yield 52 opportunities per year while twice per week gives you 104 opportunities to stimulate muscle growth. Train more frequently and watch your gains double – literally.
#27 - Go plyo: Plyometrics have quickly become a mainstream form of training to add muscle. The ballistic-style muscle-action activates fibers and stimulates growth in very unique ways. Don’t believe the hype? Just look at the legs of sprinters.
#28 - Pre-load: Recent research touts the advantage of pre-loading a muscle. What the heck is it? After a thorough warm-up of squats, for example, load the bar with enough weight for 3 to 5 reps without going to failure. Immediately following decrease the weight to your normal working weight and perform your set. You will notice the set is easier than normal.
#29 - Eat fat: Make sure you are eating healthy fats. Why? These fats help regulate key hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone as well as keep your metabolism in check and provide energy while dieting on low calories. Eat eggs, avocado, nuts, olive oil and nut butters.
#30 - Cut out the processed: Are you eating too much junk? No, I’m not talking about cake, cookies and ice cream, those are no-brainers. I’m talking about too much processed foods such as chips, crackers, pre-made dinners, kid’s cereals and anything else that isn’t natural fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and other whole foods.
#31 - Whole food protein: Supplements are great, they provide high-quality protein when convenient and quickly shuttle critical amino acids into the muscle. But our reliance on these powders can become a crutch at times. Be sure you are eating a variety of whole-food protein such as eggs, beef, chicken, turkey and fish. Nothing beats real food for building real muscle.
#32 - Stay consistent, overcome: Sporadic schedule? Training times vary? Having trouble staying consistent? One word – endure. Need another one? How about overcome. Stay the course and be resilient during the tough times. Over time you will have developed the discipline to take on any challenge.
#33 - Cheat smart: Having a cheat meal shouldn’t mean pigging-out on a whole pizza or a gallon of ice cream if lean muscle gains are your goal. Sure, have a dessert or a burger or two but keep it relatively clean for the rest of the meal. It doesn’t have to be chicken and rice (that wouldn’t really be considered a cheat meal) but don’t go to extremes.
#34 - Sleep: Let’s get this straight; training breaks down muscle fibers and stimulates certain reactions, but sleep builds muscle. Get 8 to 9 hours per night. End of story.
#35 - De-stress: If I were to choose the biggest culprit for the reason of lack of gains in hard-working trainees it would be stress. Stress literally kills. You need the positive stress of training to induce growth and change, but the stress provided by everyday life needs to be managed if you want to reach your full potential.