When it comes to weight training, there are a variety of factors that everyone wants to improve. These can all be lumped into power, strength, hypertrophy or endurance. Different workout programs, exercise selections, exercise techniques and strategies are utilised to help improve in these areas. Regardless of which factor you want to improve tough, there are a few timeless strategies that you should always incorporate into your workouts to help you improve results and achieve better gains.
1. Compound Lifts & Free Weights
No matter what program you’re doing, unless you’re somehow injured or recovering from injury, you should always be trying to prioritise compound movements first and exercises that involve free weights. The reasoning is simple. Compound movements are those that require multiple joints to be moving at the same time and multiple muscle groups to be working at the same time. Take the barbell back squat for example; it involves the hip and knee joints primarily and works a range of muscle groups including the quads, hamstrings, glutes and core. Because more joints and muscles are involved, compound movements tend to be more physically taxing, recruiting more muscle motor units and elicits a greater response neurologically and hormonally.
If you tire yourself out doing isolation movements, you aren’t going to be able to go heavy with compound movements, which are going to be much more effective at supporting muscle growth. The rationale for using free weights over barbells and machines is greater achievable range of motion, greater activation of motor units and muscle groups and improved ability to correct imbalances. If you’re keen to obtain better gains, make sure you prioritize compound exercises and free weights first.
2. Exercise Rotation
If you’re after consistent gains over a long period of time, you need to vary your training. Unless you’re a powerlifting or Olympic lifting athlete, you should be doing more than the same exercise week after week. Even those athletes will incorporate different exercises and training regimens to improve their lifts. The best thing about the human body is its ability to adapt. Given the same exercise with the same weight over time and it will progressively become easier and easier, effectively rendering that exercise at that weight useless. This is one part of the equation to progressive resistance training. You need to increase the volume of exercise (whether it be weight lifted, reps lifted or time under tension) in order to continually grow.
Performing the same exercises over and over again will still be an issue. This is because your body will be able to adapt to the movement by improving your mechanical advantages and muscular efficiency. By performing different exercises during each period of training, you are forcing your body to work harder resulting in better results in the long term. Keep the big standard lifts in play such as the squat, deadlift and bench press, but change around everything else every 6-12 weeks.
3. Add Weight
As mentioned before, performing the same exercise at the same weight will not do you any favours if your goal is to grow. Your muscles will easily adapt to the stimulus and the only thing you will be doing is expending energy. In order to continue to achieve gains, you need to progressively add on weight. Now a lot of trainers will either add on way too much weight and sacrifice form or add on weight much too slowly. The key to correct weight additions is to work out your working rep range. If you are working at a rep range of 8-10, use this figure to help guide how much weight you are lifting. If you can’t lift for 8 reps, then the weight is too heavy. If you can lift more than 10 reps easily, the weight’s probably too light.
Use the warm up set/s and first working set to gauge how strong you are feeling on the day and to adjust the weights accordingly. Some days, you might be feeling better than others, but the key is to progressively increase it over time. If you can’t lift what you did last week, don’t stress too much about it. As long as you are putting in a good effort and lifting more weight over a period of up to 12 weeks, then you’re on your way to achieving better gains. Be patient and don’t let weight overtake good form.
Supersets are simply two exercises performed back to back. The best thing about supersets is that it can dramatically speed up your training session and make your workouts much more intense, resulting in more fat being burnt and more taxing muscle stimulus to support greater gains. Supersets can be performed in a variety of ways, however two methods are commonly used. Supersetting between two opposing muscle groups is one of the most common methods. For example you could superset a chest exercise with a back exercise, a bicep exercise with a tricep exercise or a quad exercise with a hamstring exercise. By working two opposing muscle groups, studies have shown that you might even be stronger in the second exercise. Thus, it’s important to alternate which muscle group you start off with when supersetting opposing muscle groups.
Another popular method is to superset the same muscle group. This is an excellent strategy to utilise towards the end of your workouts as it can be incredibly fatiguing. Supersets of this nature can massively increase blood flow and pump to the working muscle and help you achieve muscular failure, an important stimulus for greater muscle growth. Finally, you can simply perform a superset of two separate muscle groups which aren’t opposing such as chest and calves. This is less fatiguing than the other two methods, so you can generally often use more weight. Regardless of which superset method you use, supersets and variations such as trisets (3 exercises performed back to back) and giant sets (4 or more exercises performed back to back) are some of the best ways to boost the intensity of your workouts for improved gains.
5. Eccentric Contractions
If you don’t already know, there are three main types of contractions; isometric, isotonic and isokinetic. The one you would be most familiar with when doing resistance or weights training is isotonic contractions. In an isotonic contraction, the muscle changes length without any significant changes in the tension. Isotonic contractions are separated into concentric and eccentric contractions. In concentric contractions, the muscle actually shortens with the most common example being a bicep curl. In an eccentric contraction, the muscle will lengthen, such as when you are lowering the weight back down from a bicep curl.
Research has shown that muscles are much more resistant to lengthening than contracting. That is, you can use more weight when performing an eccentric contraction. Eccentric contractions also cause more muscular damage, and is a better stimulus than concentric contractions for muscle building. This is often why most trainers will tell you to slow down the eccentric phase of the movement. This includes lowering the barbell down during a bench press or lowering yourself down during a squat. To take advantage of the greater resistance your muscles have for lengthening, use 10% more weight than your max and do eccentric only contractions while your training partner helps you with the concentric contractions. Doing this is a sure fire way to help build some serious muscle in no time.
Use Foundations for Big Muscle Gains
There are always going to be hundreds and thousands of training programs, training methods, styles and tips on how to improve your performance variables, but they will mostly be based on the foundations of muscle building. Sticking with the foundations listed above will ensure that you continually build muscle and make better gains no matter how long you’ve trained or how old you are.