My mentor, Barry Fritz, has been lifting weights for longer than I’ve been alive. In fact, he started lifting back in the 70s – before it was even a popular thing to do.
Sure, back in those days you had your bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympics lifters. But nobody was lifting for sports performance. At the time, Fritz’s football coach actually discouraged him from strength training, warning him that it would make him slow.
Fritz was already plenty fast, though. His problem was that he wasn’t as big and strong as his opponents. So he decided to go against his coach’s wishes, and he never looked back.
Although his days of barbell rowing 405 pounds may be long behind him, Fritz continues to train himself and a hundred or so aspiring personal trainers each year out of NPTI Philadelphia.
Over his forty-odd years in the game, Fritz has accumulated a wealth of practical experience and wisdom. Moreover, he’s been witness to the explosion of the performance training industry – an industry that barely even existed when he first started lifting.
Recently, I was lucky enough to catch up with Fritz to discuss eight tried-and-true tips for building muscle.
1. As a finisher, do 100 reps with a 20RM load and minimal rest
Perhaps you’ve heard of occlusion training, whereby blood flow is restricted from reaching working muscles in order to create a hypertrophy response. But who wants the hassle of tying off tourniquets around their upper arms?
It turns out that this same effect can actually be elicited through ultra high reps with constant tension and minimal rest. Fritz recommends starting out with a 20RM set. After the first set, shake it out for no more than five seconds, then go right into the next set of max reps.
By the end, you may be down to doing doubles or even singles, and that’s okay. Just try not to get discouraged when the scrawny guy next to you is repping out with a heavier weight.
This type of high-volume training is best reserved for the end of the workout (after the heavy lifting is done). In terms of exercise selection, Fritz’s favorites are leg press, lateral raises, curls, and machine presses. Avoid complex exercises where fatigue could increase the risk of injury.
Related: 5 Brutal Chest Workout Finishers
2. Train every body part every day, including legs
Instead of having one leg day a week, make every day leg day. For example, Monday could be your heavy squats, Wednesday could be your high-rep lunges, and Friday could be your stereotypical bodybuilding routine of sets of 6-8 reps of leg press.
You can apply this high frequency training to any body part, though you probably don’t need to train your biceps every day. Of course, if biceps are a weak spot, you certainly could by mixing up incline curls, preacher curls, barbell curls, hammer curls, and drag curls throughout the week. After all, the body adapts slightly differently to each variation.
If you train more often than every other day, Fritz does advocate for utilizing a movement-based training split, alternating between days of hip-dominant and knee-dominant exercises for the lower body paired with alternating days of upper body pushing and pulling.
3. Focus on the mind-muscle connection
“Put your mind in your biceps,” Fritz says. He’s referring, of course, to the mind-muscle connection.
Sure, many lifters can do a 60-pound cable curl easily enough if they simply focus on moving from point A to point B. But what if, instead of focusing on the movement, they were to concentrate as hard as possible on the contraction of their biceps?
Specifically, on both the concentric and eccentric phase of every rep, contract the biceps as hard as possible – even if the weight doesn’t require it. It should feel like your biceps are going to tear apart after just a few slow reps.
Fritz recommends 3 sets of 6-10 reps, but notes that volume will depend on how much discomfort the lifter can endure. Fortunately, that tolerance usually improves with experience.
Fritz hypothesizes that the neurological ability to contract the muscles harder could be what separates the good bodybuilders from the great ones. And for Fritz, the best part about this type of training is that his elbows still work when he wakes up the next morning.
4. Drive your hands in towards each other when you bench
Add to the hypertrophy stimulus of an exercise by starting the joint action before you even begin to move. To target the pecs on barbell or machine bench press, isometrically drive your hands towards each other, and continue that inward pull throughout the eccentric and concentric phases of every rep.
Although from the outside looking in you won’t even be able to see that this is being done, the added stimulus will necessitate a significant drop in load. Fritz recommends starting with one-third of your normal weight.
This same strategy can be applied to other exercises, too, like pull-downs and machine rows. On pull-downs, pull the hands apart. For machine rows, drive the hands toward the floor.
Note that if you’re training for maximal strength, these cues do not hold. In fact, for bench press you should do the exact opposite (i.e. “pull the bar apart”).
5. Work muscles when they're long
It’s been said that working a muscle in it’s stretched position leads to a high degree of hypertrophy via muscle damage. In some exercises, like Romanian deadlifts and pullovers, it’s easy to put the working muscles on stretch. In other exercises, it’s more challenging.
Take the lat pull-down, for example. Many lifters make the mistake of arching their upper back at the end of the eccentric phase of the pull-down, which is counterproductive because it shortens the lat when you want it to be stretched.
The lifter should actually round the upper back subtly and allow the shoulder blades to elevate. You know you’re doing it right if you feel the lats pulling from all the way down at their origin on the iliac crest of the pelvis, Fitz says.
Just beware of losing tension completely, though, as that can shift the stress onto the tendons and ligaments of the shoulder.
6. Work muscles when they're short
Many muscles are known to achieve their peak activation in their shortened, or contracted, position. As such, it’s important to work them in this position, too. Of course, to get a muscle into its most shortened position, you have to know exactly what that muscle does.
Fritz gives the example of the pecs in a cable crossover. The pecs are responsible for horizontal adduction and internal rotation of the shoulders. One of the biggest mistakes lifters make on this exercise is reversing the motion as soon as their hands meet, thereby missing out on additional range of motion – and growth.
Rather than stopping there, you should actually overlap your hands and add a slight twist into internal rotation as you bring the handles in. To avoid asymmetry, alternate the forward hand from set to set.
7. Train spinal flexion like any other exercise
Over the last decade and change, there’s been a pretty big fuss over whether sit-ups and crunches are safe for the human spine.
While many elite athletes have been known to perform hundreds of crunches every day without issue, some experts recommend avoiding spinal flexion at all costs.
So who’s right? Maybe neither of them, says Fritz, who instead treats these exercises the same as any other.
Just as you wouldn’t do 100 deadlifts every single day, neither should you perform hundreds of sit-ups or crunches daily. For people with healthy backs, though, a day or two per week is likely okay.
Fritz’s favorite variation is the decline sit-up with a 25- or 45-pound plate for a moderate number of reps (stopping when you feel fatigue). If you feel stress in your lower back, simply straighten up and it should subside. If not, switch to an anti-extension core stability exercise like a plank or rollout.
8. The right amount of aerobic training won’t destroy your gains and will probably even help
For years, the idea that “cardio kills” was ingrained in every lifter’s psyche. Fortunately, for the sake of general health and performance, the tide has finally begun to turn.
The aerobic system supports the anaerobic system. If you have a stronger aerobic system, then your anaerobic system should also perform better.
Through increased stroke volume, mitochondria, and capillary density, you’ll be able to stay aerobic longer and get rid of the waste products of anaerobic training more quickly.
Of course, there does exist some threshold above which you will lose strength and hypertrophy gains, though that magic number is going to vary from person to person. For most, three sessions of twenty minutes per week won’t hurt and will much more likely aid performance.
If you’re a bodybuilder who hates traditional cardio, there’s no need to panic. Light sled pushes, medicine ball slams, battle ropes and other forms of metabolic resistance training are a perfectly good way to get your cardio in.
Old Man Jack
Back when Fritz started lifting, he remembers being mesmerized by a guy who was still lifting at 35 years old. He and his buddies used to call him ‘Old Man Jack.’
Back then, you hardly ever saw anyone lifting into their forties, let alone fifties, Fritz says. Nowadays, 35 is probably closer to the average gym goer’s age.
At 58 years old now, Fritz credits many of the above techniques for his continued pain-free growth. Having been a traditional 5-by-5 guy early on in his lifting career, he suddenly started making renewed gains when he adopted these strategies.
“If I would’ve done something like that when I was younger,” he says, “god only knows how big I could’ve been.”
Fritz isn’t resting on his laurels, though. Even he still has a lot to learn.
“You’re never going to wake and go, ‘I know enough,’” he says. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”