As a personal trainer in London, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make my workouts more effective, both for me and my clients. It’s easy to fall into a rut of doing the same old exercises in the same old way, but you need to keep your workouts fresh and challenging in order to make progress.
If you’re trying to build muscle, the key principle is progressive overload. You need to keep challenging your muscles to work slightly harder than last time, in order to force them to grow. If you don’t increase the number of reps, or the weight you push/pull, or if you don’t vary the exercises you perform, you will reach a plateau and stop making progress.
There are lots of ways to stimulate new muscle growth. Here are a few proven tactics:
1. Incremental increase in weights used
The key word is incremental, otherwise you’re likely to injure yourself. If you’re always doing bicep curls with 10kg dumbbells, increase to 12.5kg dumbbells and lower the number of reps. Never sacrifice good form in your exercise technique.
2. Vary the rep range
Many people fail to perform an exercise through the full range of motion. Check in the mirror, or hire a personal trainer, to ensure that you’re lengthening and flexing the muscle through its full range, without locking out the joint and transferring the load onto ligaments and tendons. You can also throw in some partial-rep ranges, for instance by going heavier in a bicep curl just to half way up, and slowly progressing to full range as you get stronger.
3. More isolation exercises
Everyone has weak parts in their body, so you can correct this by adding more isolation exercises that focus on that body part. So for example, if your shoulders (deltoid muscles, or delts) are weak, you can add more shoulder press, and lateral raises, and front raises to your workout. Don’t forget the rear delts: bent-over lateral raise with dumbbells is a great exercise for this neglected part of your shoulders.
4. Eccentric training
The eccentric phase of a rep is the lengthening of the muscle after the concentric phase, the flexing of the muscle. You can exercise with a heavier weight if you get a training partner to help you with the concentric phase, such as curling up in a bicep curl, then you perform the eccentric phase unassisted. The eccentric phase is sometimes called the ‘negative’ phase, and the concentric phase the ‘positive’ phase. Your eccentric strength is around 25% greater than your concentric strength, so with assistance on the concentric phase, you can lift a heavier weight and then lower it slowly unassisted to stimulate more muscle growth.
This is where you exercise two opposing muscle groups without a rest in between. For instance, you can superset biceps and triceps by doing a set of bicep curls followed immediately by a set of tricep pushdowns. This adds intensity to your workout. Another favourite superset is dumbbell bench press followed immediately by pullups, for chest and back.
(Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and online nutrition coach)