The human body is amazing. No matter what we throw at it, it adapts, and it adapts quickly. The body’s fast adaptation to change is the reason why bodybuilders and strength athletes experience “plateaus”. You know what I’m talking about, you’re not getting bigger, you’re not getting stronger, no matter how hard you train.
The whole process of building muscle is about your body adapting to increasing loads and stress. Put simply, it works like this:
- Lift X weight, your body grows more muscle to cope.
- Increase to X weight, your body grows more muscle to cope.
- And so on…
If it was that simple, we’d all be massive!
As experienced lifters know, you’re not going to get continuous growth using the same program, week in week out. The human body adapts to the stress too fast. Once your body adapts to the stress level of your current routine it will see no need to keep growing.
Regular changes in your workout are essential for long term growth. Professional bodybuilders cycle their workout continuously, change their exercises and add advanced training techniques. Using their experience they know exactly what type of training and diet they need to build muscle or burn fat.
So what can you do to switch up your routine and blast through plateaus? There are plenty of techniques used by the pros to stimulate muscle growth. Here are 15 techniques you can use to switch up your routine and build more muscle!
15 Ways To Switch Up Your Muscle Building Routine
1. Increase Intensity
Intensity builds muscle. I have put this one at the top because I believe it is the most important. A lot of the techniques mentioned in this article increase the intensity of your workout. Drop sets, supersets, negatives and slow reps are all classic examples. Other ways you can increase the intensity of your workout are decreased rest times, circuits, forced reps etc. When you’ve been using the same routine for a while it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, you think you’re training hard but your intensity level has been dropping slowly without you knowing it.
2. Switch Up Your Exercises
Each muscle group has a variety of different exercises that can be used to train it. A lot of weight trainers get stuck into the same exercises week in week out. They cut out exercises they “don’t like”. To continue to grow you need to hit your target muscles with a wide array of exercises. You should be switching regularly. Many experienced bodybuilders never do the same workout twice.
3. Introduce Drop Sets
Drop sets are one of those shock techniques that if done correctly can blast you through a tough plateau. Drop sets work by forcing more reps out by dropping weight off gradually, this forces more blood into the target muscle group and causes more muscle tearing, which promotes more growth after the repair of muscle tissue. Drop sets are simple. Do a set until you can’t perform another rep, drop the weight, do another set, drop the weight…and so on. You can do anywhere from 3-6 sets in total. One of the most popular types of drop sets is “down the rack” dumbbell bicep curls where you start off at a normal curl weight and move down the rack, going to failure on each set.
4. Switch the Days You Work Each Muscle
Changing the order of your workout days can have a big impact on results. In general, you should work your weakest muscle groups at the beginning of the week when you have the most energy. But like everything else in your routine, you’ll benefit from change. One point to remember though when switching, always make sure you give each muscle group enough rest – keeping in mind that the muscle group may be hit as a secondary. For example, you shouldn’t do biceps Monday then back Tuesday – you need your biceps as a secondary muscle in all your back (pulling) exercises. You can also cycle your workout days so that on the first day of your workout week you focus on a different muscle group.
5. Utilize Supersets
One of the most effective ways to promote growth in a stubborn muscle group is to follow a big compound exercise with an isolation movement. One of the best examples would be bench press-flat bench flys. You complete your bench press as usual, but immediately after you hit out a strict set of dumbbell flys. You don’t need big weights on the second set, your focus should be on muscle contraction. This means slow down and squeeze at the top of the movement. Here are some good compound-isolation supersets:
- Military press then front raises
- Close grip bench then skullcrushers
- Squats then leg extensions
- Bench press then dumbbell flys
- Wide grip pull up (or lat pull down) then straight arm pull down
- Chin up then barbell curl
6. Weekly Rep Cycling
Weekly rep cycling works like this. Week 1 – hit out 12 reps per set, week 2 – hit out 10 reps per set, week 3 – hit out 8 reps per set, week 4 – hit out 6 reps per set, week 5 repeat. No one knows exactly how many reps you should be doing for optimum muscle growth. What we do know is, it’s between 6 and 12. So cover all bases by starting at 12 reps and over 4 weeks decrease to 6, increasing the weight as you go. If you’ve got your diet right (which you should have if you want any of the techniques in this article to work) you should find that by week 5 you can lift considerably more than you could in week 1 for 12 reps.
7. Change the Number of Days You Train
In muscle building, less is more. If you want to get bigger you don’t workout more. This is one of the most common mistakes of new lifters. You think that dropping back to 3 days from 4 or 5 will mean you build less muscle? You’re wrong. Your body will probably benefit from the extra rest.
Negatives are extremely helpful in building strength, working up to exercises/weight and beating plateaus. Negatives are where you focus on the negative part of a movement by using very heavy weights (more than your 1 rep max) and a very slow movement. Spotters are needed for almost all types if negatives, so if you train alone, don’t bother with these – you’ll do yourself an injury. Good examples of negatives are bench press, barbell preacher curl, close grip bench, pull ups (jumping up and slowly lowering) and leg extension.
Can't do pullups? Just do as many as you can then finish the set with negatives. You'll build strength fast. Use a very wide grip to emphasize you lats and not your biceps.
9. Slow (Controlled) Reps
Slow reps are all about control and contraction. Using a lighter weight, with a slower movement, for the same number of reps. You should be using a 3-1-3 count. Meaning count “1 one thousand” 3 times on the way down, pause for “1 one thousand” and count “1 one thousand” on the way up. Using slow reps you do the same number of reps as you usually do but your muscles are under strain for a much longer time.
10. Partial Reps
Like slow reps, alternate reps work the muscle group harder by keeping it under strain for a longer period of time. What you do is, take an exercise and modify it by not completing a full rep. For example, alternating dumbbell curls. Instead of letting your left arm hang while your right arm curls you do not complete the full rep, keeping your left arm slightly bent and under strain. This does not let the blood escape from the muscle (keeps "the pump") and makes it work extremely hard to hold the weight. After the set, your muscle has been under strain for twice the time as regular alternating curls. You can use this technique with loads of exercises like dumbbell shoulder press, dumbbell bench, dumbbell tricep extensions and kickbacks.
11. Change the Order of Your Exercises
If someone asked me how they should order their exercises I would tell them big compounds first, followed by isolations. But like everything else in your routine, your body quickly adapts. Switch up your exercises…do dips first on your chest day, extensions before squats etc.
12. Pre-Fatiguing (or Pre-Exhausting) Your Muscles
Pre-fatiguing (AKA pre-exhausting) is another one of those plateau busting techniques that has been around for ages. Using this technique you pre-fatigue the muscle group you want to hit with an isolation exercise and then immediately hit it with a big compound exercise. Here’s some good examples:
- Leg extension followed by squat
- Flys followed by bench press
- Rear delt fly followed by row
- Front raise followed by military press
13. Forced Reps
Forced reps are simple, do as many strict reps as you can without any assistance, then use a spotter to help you force another 2 or more reps out. You can use forced reps to get an extra 2 reps out (for example you hit out 12 on your regular 10 set) or you can up the weight by about 15% and use your spotter to help you force out your regular 10 reps.
14. Pyramid Sets
As the name suggests, pyramid sets start from a low weight and work up to a heavy weight and/or then back down. After completing a proper warm up, the first set in your pyramid will be with a weight that you can push out 12 reps with good form. Your next set will be 8-10 reps, then 6-8, then 4. Then you can always work your way back to 12 reps. Technique is important here, no cheating. You want to do slow and controlled reps on ALL sets.
15. Take the Week Off
Rest is the most abused aspect of weight training. Bodybuilding is not like marathon running, less is more. Sometimes you’ll find that taking a week off from training is the best thing for you. Our bodies (and minds) need regular rest breaks from intense resistance training. Our training routines put stress on the entire body, not just the muscles. How do you know when to take a break? You’ll know it, your body will tell you. But as a rough guide, every 8-12 weeks.
So there you have it, time to get back into the gym and put some of these techniques into practice! If you need any more help or advice on muscle building and fitness head over to our muscle building forum and ask one of our experienced members.
We also have a good collection of bodybuilding workout routines right here on M&S! Our members are using these routines and we're seeing excellent results. Good luck!