Why does training for muscle growth have to be complex?
Whenever I am asked a question about training, especially chest and arms training, it seems that people want an incredibly complicated answer involving periodisation, Eastern Bloc adaptation principles, and esoteric exercises that even Charles Poliquin has never heard of.
Let me tell it to you straight – the main secret to gym success, the secret to bigger and a more muscular chest and arms is being able to consistently smash yourself in the gym…and then knowing the appropriate time to back off.
I’ve written this on countless occasions in the past, but if you give me the hungry man who tears the gym up with passion, rage, and an unstructured training routine, and contrast him with the man with the ‘perfect programme’ but who lifts like a p*****, then there will only ever be one winner.
Always remember, you get what you train for. If you train like a beast, you will eventually become a beast. If you train like a maggot…
One chest and arms training session I did is a great example of just going for it, but also using a measure of common sense and what I like to call ‘educated effort’.
I do think that on occasion a total ‘smash-up’ session is called for, but more often than not you will achieve better results by understanding what it is you are trying to achieve and then letting loose with all the joy and fierceness that you can muster.
To set the scene, I was in a modified hypertrophy stage with my own training, trying to very slowly lean up to about 6/7% body fat while keeping my weight around the 120kg mark.
Before this makes me sound like a professional bodybuilder, bear in mind that I am 6ft 3in, so there is a lot of room to spread that weight over.
Normally in this current training phase, I’d have trained twice in one day, but my spare gym time was plummeting, so I needed to optimise my session for one workout.
And the final factor to bear in mind when planning this chest and arms workout is that I was coming to the end of a volume phase and that my next chest and arms workout after this one were then going to be low volume of about 3-5 sets per body part.
The answers as to what I needed to do in this session are all indicated in the paragraph above. I wanted muscle growth/hypertrophy, and I wanted volume. That’s it.
I can structure anything I want around that, so long as I have those two things in mind.
I don’t believe in unnecessary complications for workout routines, or anything in life to be honest, and right then I certainly didn’t have time to be planning my gym sessions weeks in advance.
So as I drove to the gym I planned the session out with only one intention – to trash as many muscle fibres as possible and to ultimately drive as much blood into my chest and biceps/triceps as humanly achievable.
If you think about this for a second, this is something of a dual purpose because I am not merely thinking of doing a tonne of giant sets for maximum pump, although I do want the sarcoplasmic growth stimulated by higher repetitions, stretch movements and peak contractions. But I also want the myofibrillar thickening of the muscles’ protein filaments caused by stimulating the fast-twitch muscle fibres and high threshold motor units when doing heavy, more explosive, lower repetition work.
Chest & Arms Training – The Thrash All Muscle Fibres Workout
A1: Flat Dumbbell Press: 4 sets/5 reps/4110 tempo/90-180 secs rest
This was my heavy, semi ‘neural activation’ movement. The plan was not to go to failure and tire myself out but to peak with the heaviest weight possible for 3-5 repetitions. The tempo indicates a pause at the bottom of the movement, which does slightly restrict the weight lifted as it takes out momentum and the stretch reflex, but I was more concerned with waking up my nervous system so that I could better hit all my muscle fibres later in the workout.
The rest periods got longer as the sets got heavier, as I was pyramiding up in weight. The first work set was with 140lbs, then 145, 150, and finally I hit three reps with the awkward (the handle is too small for me to get a comfortable grip) 160s.
B1: Decline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets/10-15 reps/3010 tempo/75-90 secs rest
In total contrast to the first exercise, these were done in a continuous tension fashion with no lockout and as much squeezing and stretching of the pectoral muscles as possible. I went a bit too light on the first set and hit 15 reps (to failure) with 110lb dumbbells, but then this fried me so much that with the same weight on the second set I only achieved seven reps and did a quick drop set to achieve the desired 12-15 rep range.
C1: Pec Minor Dips: 3 sets/10-14 reps/2020 tempo/no rest
With all the heavy lifting out of the way, I wanted to focus on getting more blood into the muscle, hit a stretched position (flyes below), and try a different type of an angle/movement to keep my chest muscles from stagnating and firing different motor units via different movement patterns.
So this is where you can get a bit fancy (IF you have been training a long time) and throw something unusual into the equation. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to be willing to experiment to keep on learning.
I can’t claim I invented this ‘pec minor’ dip variation, far from it, as I read about it just on the morning of the workout in the always interesting elite fts website.
This is the brainchild of a bodybuilder called John Meadors who writes with massive sense about all matters pertaining to training and nutrition, and who consistently comes up with some interesting exercise variations.
This dip variation involves pushing yourself up by flexing your pecs and don’t allow more than a 10-degree bend to come into your arms.
Driving your chin into your chest and closing your eyes to really focus on moving yourself up and down with pectoral contractions is the key. And if you get the right groove you should find that while it doesn’t really feel all that much whilst you are actually doing the exercise, once you jump off you should really feel swollen pectoral minor muscles, which can be notoriously hard to hit with more conventional movements.
C2: Incline Flyes: 3 sets/10 reps/3110 tempo/60 seconds rest
At this stage, it is all about stretching and squeezing the muscle, and weight is utterly irrelevant.
In this case, I used a partial range of movement for 75% of the repetitions, sticking in the bottom portion in order to keep the stress on the chest muscles. To further add to the pain/stimulus I also used a trick whereby at the maximum stretched position I first internally rotated and then externally rotated my humerus (upper arm) to further stretch and damage the muscle fibres.
On to Biceps and Triceps…
D1: Incline Hammer Curls: 4 sets/8 reps/4010 tempo/45 secs rest
Pyramided up to 32.5kg and hit four working sets of ultra-strict eight reps. I had ‘strength’ in mind at this first arm superset so wasn’t pushing to failure, although the last couple of sets were pretty tough.
Remember, flex your triceps as hard as possible at the bottom of the movement as this stretches the biceps and you’ll get an extra kick to the following rep!
D2: Seated Overhead Cable Triceps Extensions: 4sets/6-8 reps/4010 tempo/45 secs rest
Just used the stack here and focused on really contracting the triceps as hard as possible at the top of the movement, while always keeping the elbows tucked in as tightly as possible.
E1: Seated Preacher Cable Curls: 3 sets/10-15 reps/3010 tempo/30 secs rest
Stepping up the pace here, both in terms of workout density and effort. Each set is now taken to failure, and I threw in partials at the end of each set. I find that cable movements lend themselves very well to continuous tension and extending the set via partial range movements once you have reached regular muscular failure.
If you do this exercise right then your biceps will blow up with blood. Cock the wrists back, keep the shoulders down, and squeeze the weight up. Think about flexing your biceps, not curling your hand up towards your anterior deltoid.
E2: Triceps Pushdowns/Kickbacks: 3 sets/12-15 reps/3011 tempo/30 secs rest
This is a bit of a funny movement to describe as it just doesn’t have the same effect as regular pushdowns or kickbacks, the latter of which I would never do, other than in this variation.
We have a 4ft-long cable attachment that is a dual chain attached to two handles.
It allows you to do a pushdown/kickback type combination where you can lean forward and squeeze the chains not just in front of your body (as with a regular triceps pushdown) but also to the side and even behind you a little bit. This gives a massively strong (and painful, cramping) contraction and is my personal favourite pushdown variation by a multiple of several thousand.
F1: Prone Dumbbell Concentration Curls: 3 sets/25 reps/ screw tempo! No rest
A super light, peak contraction, deeply painful movement. Leaning with my chest on a 45-degree incline bench and arms hanging down I grasped a pair of very light (25lb) dumbbells and then curled them up. This sounds easy, and as ever it is all about the most effective execution.
Elbows forward, wrists cocked, and squeeze! Can you sense a pattern here when it comes to squeezing a muscle?
F2: Incline Triceps Extensions (extended set variation): 3 sets/25 reps/2020 tempo/no rest
At this stage weight it totally irrelevant, but I think I used the same 25lb dumbells as with the curls. As a different variation I started with palms facing down, and upper arms angled backwards so the dumbbells travelled behind my shoulders, and then as the set became progressively difficult, the hands became more semi-supinated (thumbs pointing down at the floor).
When failure was hit in this position I used the principle of mechanical advantage and pushed my elbows forwards so that the dumbbells came to rest on my upper pecs at the bottom of the range of motion. Then when I could no longer even do a rep that way I flared my elbows right out and finished off with Tate presses.
Would you be surprised that I could no longer drink from my water bottle as my arms were so swollen?!