The Approach to Muscular Development and Overcoming Lagging Body Parts
If you have found yourself here, you probably feel as if your physique is not reflecting your time and efforts in the gym. That certain muscles are just not where you would like them to be, or, they are just not responding to exercise programming and stimulus. In essence, you just want to gain muscle. Ironically, it is often those muscles that we train the most that just refuse to grow; we fully understand and feel your pain. Thankfully, the solution is much simpler than we think….
A lagging body part consists of two dimensions; aesthetically and functionally. An aesthetic imbalance is a muscle group or area of the body that lacks size, shape or definition – it is undeveloped. From a functional point of view, a lagging body part is evident when a muscle or muscle group does not engage during an exercise or recruitment pattern – it is weak when compared to its surrounding muscle groups. Whilst they often overlap, sometimes they are not the same. It is not rare to see within a gym environment people with extremely strong quads that do not look very developed – functionally they have progressed but aesthetically they have not. It is important to remember that the key difference between aesthetic and functional is the imbalance being either visual or performance based.
Adopting a laissez-faire attitude when focusing on the weak body part will not suffice. What do we mean by this? – No programming, no structure, no progressive overload – just an increase in volume or incorporating different movements for that body part. Programming needs to be strategic to ensure optimal physical symmetry, the underlying aim of building weak body parts and an essential piece of the aesthetic jigsaw. Symmetry enables us to look impressive from afar, an overall masculine developed physique that looks solid and dense. Nobody should want to look like the top-heavy chicken with legs so inferior he looks as if he has never visited the squat rack.
The Mind-Muscle Connection
So how do we gain muscle, ensure balanced progression and prevent over development of any one body part. One of the first things we should focus on with a body part we want to work on, is mind-muscle connection. Meaning that you are connected and actively using the muscle being targeted in the exercise performed. An easy way to imagine this concept; the muscle moves the weight, not that the weight moves the muscle. A common area we often see a lack of mind-muscle connection and subsequent underdevelopment is the Glutes. Poor neurological connection means it is not fired correctly, and thus is not being placed under the required stress to grow and develop. A recruitment difficulty to this area is common. The reason being that extended sitting tilts the pelvis into hip flexor and quad dominance, which is then reinforced once we restand and begin moving. Yet, when we walk, our Glutes should be a primary mover in taking us forward, but instead the calves and quads overcompensate. This fuels a perpetual cycle of a postural forward lean, making the Glutes weaker and lazier, causing a reduction in range of motion and enhancing the imbalance. In this sense, you could include all of the best exercises that are supposed to improve the Glutes but optimal results still will not be achieved. And this applies to any muscle. If you have weak shoulders and delts for example; you likely have a recruitment pattern issue. This often occurs despite a lack of targeted training using dumbbell and overhead presses, side laterals and rear-delt work. In fact, it is not uncommon to see these exercises being used excessively, or being conducted incorrectly. Too often on side lateral raises the shoulders swing and the traps take the load of the deltoids.
The Focus of Training and the Cardio Dilemna
Moreover, it is imperative to ensure cardio based endurance exercise is not interfering with any measures employed to gain muscle or correct a lagging body part. In many of these pursuits, particularly running, posterior recruitment is minimalized and this can reinforce bad recruitment patterns. If building the lagging body part is centered as the priority, it should be viewed as such and become the focus. This is not to say one cannot enjoy these other pursuits, but to be aware that it can limit the effectiveness of any additional focus work and could be working directly against your goal. Simply put, when you are trying to change your recruitment pattern, it is imperative to understand it takes practice to change that pattern. The practice that gets the most attention will win the recruitment pattern battle.
The corrective measures for a weak and lagging body part will require a change of focus to part of your workout, particularly the beginning. By placing the lagging body part at the start of the workout, it will ensure it is engaged in the exercises that follow, and that it is worked adequately when motivation and energy levels appear to be at their peak. Studies have proven, the we receive the most tangible results from the most prioritized exercises.
Specifically, very light weight, super concentrated and controlled movement should be utilized where there is focus in just trying to feel a particular part of the muscle. Is this a muscle builder? No. But it is an important prerequisite to building mass in that area. By going straight into the compound exercise, without sufficient connection, a minimal stimulus would be received from what the compound movement can ultimately provide. Likewise, many joints are multi-faceted, with a lot of different ranges of motion it can work through. By staying fixed in only one plane, and not employing a variety of movements, the muscle is only going to look a certain way. Whereas if different angles and different ways your muscle is supposed to produce movement is incorporated, a more well-rounded physique can be built. This is where single joint isolation exercises provide real value; they provide psychological reconnection to a muscle and enable them to fire later in the compound. Ultimately, they help us gain muscle where muscle does not want to be gained.
A final corrective measure that can help develop a weak body part is frequency. It is rare to find anybody that uses a repetitive motion over and over again that does not have that area well developed. This is for good reason, the skill and the movement has been mastered; just think of a plumber with big forearms. It is important to remember however, that with increased frequency, intensity must be observed and reduced. Think of frequency and intensity as in direct contrast to one another on two sides of a seesaw; when one goes up the other must come down.
So, if we take a typical workout programme schedule; 2/3 days of the week should focus on compounds lifts and intensity should be increased. To ensure we do not spill over our recovery and adaptation abilities whilst simultaneously increasing frequency and use of our weaker lagging muscle, the other ‘rest’ days should utilize lighter weight, low intensity work with full ranges of motion, squeezing and gaining a pump. An ideal way to do this, is to use resistance bands and complete targeted isolation exercises tailored towards your weak muscle groups on these rest days. This could be one muscle or many, for example:
Lagging Rear Delts: Resistance Band Read-Delt Lateral Raises – 3 sets 20 reps
Lagging Side Delts: Resistance Band Side Lateral Raises – 3 sets 20 reps
Lagging Chest: Resistance Band Chest Press/ Push-ups – 3 sets 20 reps
Lagging Traps: Resistance Band Shrugs – 3 sets 20 reps
A circuit could be established; cycling through the above exercises. The aim is to spend 5-10 minutes really focusing on the muscle being worked. Intensity is low but mind muscle connection is high.
Resistance bands such as those found below are optimal as they vary in resistance. This is key as resistance needs to be aligned with the isolation exercise selected. A chest press variation would need more resistance than a rear-delt lateral raise for example; due to the relative strength of each muscle:
To conclude, a three way approach: focusing on the muscle (mind muscle connection), ensuring your focus is solely on your weak body parts, and frequent use of those muscles will ensure that you can gain muscle in areas where muscle does not want to be gained.