Building muscle and building strength are not the same thing. But the programming topics we discuss today can certainly help with both. And let us remember that muscle mass is the potential for strength gains.
With that, a body builder’s goal is to put on as much muscle mass as possible, while a power lifter or olympic lifter are working to get as strong as possible within their sports. And these athletes’ training can look very different.
So, let’s look at four aspects of your training and programming that can affect your muscle gains and/or strength gains. Take what makes sense, what you can apply and leave the rest, as usual.
All of these aspects are after ONE THING – mechanical tension. Adding new mechanical tension to the muscle group(s) you’re trying to grow. That doesn’t mean more time under tension, though that can be one way to add tension. You’ll see that load, and other demands like range of motion, or angles used also add mechanical tension.
First up, my favorite
Tempo in short is the amount of time in each phase of movement – so your lowering, ascending, top and bottom positions – also referred to as lengthening phase being eccentric, and shortening being concentric.
Obviously if we add time to any of these phases, we increase the time under tension – the literal amount of time your muscles spend working. That is if other programming factors like sets and reps remain the same.
I also encourage you to keep load in mind when adding time to tempo. Due to more time under tempo, the load may need to come down. This is very dependent on the amount of time that is added and what the scheduled RPE or intensity is. But if we are attempting to add muscle, we definitely want the change in tempo to be a new, challenging stimulus. That is, after all, the point.
For instance if the previous programming was 4×4 @ 85lbs on a 18.104.22.168 tempo, and you want to alter tempo to add time under tension, that new programming might look like 4×4 @85 on a 22.214.171.124 tempo. We’ve now added 1 second of tension per rep at the same load and volume.
Tiny change – very different experience and stimulus. Bless. The simplicity is what we’re after. Simplicity that can be highly effective.
From a client perspective this also changes just enough to not get bored. On paper it is barely a change at all, but now they’re effectively doing pause squats or bench. Two down, two at the bottom or at the chest, then powering out. This is what I want coaches to understand about program design. More often than not, very little change is needed to create change of stimulus. And change of stimulus or increased stimulus is all that we’re after!
That covers slowing tempo down. You can be very extreme with that, or you can use tempo to add an explosive element to the movement. We know that muscle fibers respond to the demand that is imposed upon them.
There is potential to get after more type 2a and b muscle fibers by working explosively. I like to use intent here. Like I mentioned with squats, “powering out of the hole.” Or powering off the chest with bench. In tempo you can add an ‘x’ or a 0 to communicate this intent. Speed and/or velocity is the goal with using a DECREASED tempo.
Alright, let’s move on to the one of the most basic aspects of training one can use to alter stimulus…
Though we won’t dive into both of these – I do want you to keep in mind overall work load or volume for a given session, as well as the volume you’re progressing exercise to exercise, phase to phase.
So the focus right now is – How many sets and reps are you or your client completing of a given exercise?
Like tempo, you can change nothing else but sets and reps. Add a set, or add a rep per set with the goal of keeping factors like load and rest the same.
This is likely not going to work for a more advanced lifter. But can be a very easy way to progress a newer or even intermediate lifter. With that, I will say anecdotally that I follow many competitors who can handle insane volume, and regularly increase volume as a factor of training, even 15 years into their career. So, don’t sleep on the simplicity of adding time under tension and mechanical tension via more volume.
From a practical standpoint, this works for large compound movements or single joint, more isolated work like accessory work.
You can also absolutely zoom out and look at WEEKLY volume by hitting a given muscle group another time per week. So two sessions vs one session. If you or a client is wanting to work a certain pattern like squats or grow a certain area like deltoids, there is no rule against programming more work specific to those desires via more weekly volume.
The next aspect you can consider is possibly the most obvious, most popular and most coveted.
Especially in the last three years or so, I like to think of load as either the actual weight on the bar, or the scheduled stimulus when it comes to demand of effort. That piece can be communicated via RPE or RIR.
Staying with the theme of keeping everything the same apart from one factor, the same can be said for load.
Adding load in order to add tension to a muscle is fairly straight forward. This will also become exponentially more difficult to do as you become more advanced with your strength.
That’s why I wish Globo gyms had plates smaller than 2.5lbs. It can be so incredibly helpful to have 1.25 and .5lb plates when looking to progress load. Especially when looking at upper body. Making 5lb jumps on near maximal loads for upper body is a massive jump.
Adding 1 singular pound would be ideal for many lifters. But often we have to alter OTHER factors of programming to make up for the lack of access to smaller increases in load.
If I find that a lifter is getting close to maximal reps at say 3 to 5 reps, and it looks as though they’re ready to add a pound or two to increase their RPE, I will play with factors like tempo in order to increase the stimulus until we are ready to increase the weight. You can also play with things like back off sets in order to increase the stimulus. So finish the heavy working sets, and then add a set or two of lighter burn out back offsets. Again, I’m a huge fan of Simplicity applied well. And that’s where you get your “fancy” from.
Often times an athlete will be upset that they are not increasing weight as often once they get past their new begins. Which I think is an important conversation to have with clients. Just managing expectations and recognizing that you may be altering several different factors outside of load. Remember that the body understands stimulus. It does not know how much you are lifting.
In thinking about the overall load of a session, I also like to remind my clients that if they increase weight in their main set, that their accessory set may feel more difficult. That’s not definite, but it can be an experience. So maybe they increased weight on benchpress and then when they get to their push-ups or other accessory work they feel more fatigued or those exercises feel harder. And they might think oh my gosh why am I getting weaker. It’s important to put those pieces together. That increasing load in just one part of a work out increases the entire load of that work out Without touching anything else.
Now let’s move onto the last aspect of training which is…
Specifically – Range of motion AND how many
I am looking at exercise selection from these points of view. A workout that has four exercises can be just as purposeful as a workout that has eight exercises. The most important thing is that the program is doing what the program is designed to do.
That’s why we see very different approaches in the worlds of powerlifting or strength sports and physique sports. I don’t believe that certain exercises are limited to one purpose. But I do think that different approaches to training certainly benefit or illicit different results. There is a reason bodybuilders try to hit a muscle group from as many angles as possible. That is to recruit as many fibers as possible within that muscle.
I am biased towards range of motion – For muscle development, for strength development, and for longevity of movement. For absolute strength, an ass to grass squat is not going to be most beneficial. We want to limit the range of motion and the demand of the muscle as much as possible when under a maximal load. But that’s not what most people are training for.
So I want you to look at your overall program when looking at exercise selection. I try to have some level of unilateral work, more than one plan of motion, and ensure that a client is getting into their end ranges or using a variety of ranges of motion. Again that’s looking at a birdseye view of just the exercise selection within a work out. When looking at progressing from phase to phase, I like to look at angles used or overall range of motion.
If you change nothing else just like the other factors, you can change range of motion, grip, the stance that you use, or the angle that I muscle is stressed from. And that will provide in theory, a new stimulus. Or new mechanical tension for those muscle fibers being worked. Think about something as simple as pulling a sumo deadlifts from a deficit. Or doing a reverse lunge and then changing that to a curtsy reverse lunge. So this movement now has a glute bias added to it. You could also play with the stance of a split squat and how wide that stance is to either favor the quads or the glutes. You can look at supinated versus pronated grips or wide versus narrow grips or stances.
These are simple changes that we can make within a single movement pattern without changing load tempo or volume in order to change up the stimulus.
My hope is that going over these examples makes your life easier, not more difficult. Simplicity simplicity simplicity is what we’re after. How can you make your program more effective by using simplicity really well?
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