The secrets to building muscle lie in the strength training techniques you employ in the weight room. Too many athletes stick with the same familiar training methods, impeding strength and size gains. Spice up your routine and focus on proven techniques that stimulate the body's muscle building processes.
Muscles increase in size after intense exercise because they break down and then rebuild. The process works through placing stress on the muscles by lifting weight, which triggers several growth factors, such as the release of muscle-building hormones. The scientific term for the process is hypertrophy, and the result is an increase in the contractile components of the muscles, promoting bigger size and greater strength.
In a recent article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Brad Schoenfeld, MS, CSCS, discusses four common muscle-building techniques that can be used in your training program.
You may have already performed forced repetitions—perhaps unknowingly. A forced repetition involves a spotter helping a lifter complete a lift after failure—when the lift can no longer be performed as part of a set. The spotter must provide only enough assistance to allow the lifter to complete the rep without sticking through the push or pull movement. Although the technique is commonly used with exercises like the Bench Press, it can be applied to virtually any exercise—assuming a spotter is present [see Part I of our series on perfect spotting technique].
Studies show that forced repetitions increase growth hormone levels more than traditional sets. The presence of growth hormone is a critical indicator for increased muscle growth; however, other factors may also contribute. Schoenfeld theorizes that muscle fatigue and/or stress on the body’s energy systems from forced repetitions also contribute to muscle growth.
Drop sets involve performing an exercise until failure, then immediately reducing the load for additional reps. They are typically done following the final set, when the lifter reps out with lighter weight in two or three incremental "drop set" reductions. However, even one set with a significant weight reduction can be effective.
The idea behind drop sets is to increase the number of reps performed [volume] while working at near maximum intensity—close to failure. According to Schoenfeld, this increases fatigue, which is crucial for building muscle. Also, drop sets increase growth hormone levels, which is important for hypertrophy.
The superset—two exercises performed back to back with no rest—is another productive exercise technique. Normally, a superset consists of exercises that work opposing muscle groups. Examples include Biceps Curls with Triceps Extensions, Leg Curls with Leg Extensions and Bench Press with Inverted Row.
One obvious benefit of supersets is saving time—you perform two exercises in the same amount of time as one, while alternatively resting the opposing muscle group. When you work your biceps, your triceps are resting, and vice versa. Also, according to Schoenfeld, when you exercise the secondary muscle [e.g., the triceps in a Biceps Curl], you are able to lift more weight in the primary movement [the Biceps Curl], thus adding an additional challenge to your muscles. Finally, you can perform a greater number of reps to increase fatigue, contributing to muscle growth.
Heavy negatives are another bodybuilding technique proven to increase muscle size and strength. They focus on an exercise's eccentric contraction [muscle lengthening while resisting a weight load], such as the downward phase of a Bench Press. Since muscles produce their maximal strength during eccentric movements, a weight of 105 to 125 percent of max can be used. Schoenfeld recommends lowering the bar in two to three seconds and using a spotter for assistance to raise the bar.
Since eccentric contractions elicit maximum muscle force, they are the only way to train at or near your strength capacity. Schoenfeld says heavy negatives cause more muscle damage than traditional lifting techniques, thus allowing muscles to grow in size when they rebuild.
The biggest problem with heavy negatives is their slowness—which mimics hardly any athletic movement or skill.
It's important to vary your training program and always allow for recovery. Any of these methods performed too frequently can lead to overtraining, which erases training gains. But, if used properly, these four techniques can be valuable tools for building muscle.
Source: Schoenfeld, B. M. . The Use of Specialized Training Techniques to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33 , 60-63.