Whether a client is new to resistance training, or has been practicing different methods of body building for years, the first few sessions are always the same. Drilling in the fundamentals behind muscle growth and hypertrophy.
There's always one factor that I cannot emphasize enough no matter who the client is.
And that is optimal muscle contraction.
There it is. One of the most vital factors for successful muscle building and it's barely mentioned or overlooked. Most likely it's mentioned with as much fervor as "feet apart" "shoulders back".
But it requires so much more than that.
Why is this simple factor never stressed? Maybe because it’s neither a sexy new technique, nor an intense shortcut, but a simple fundamental element of every single exercise that should be focused on until it becomes second nature.
This is easy said than done. This is where the training must become more customized to the individual. For example, how do you know if you are getting a maximal muscle contraction if you've never really felt it before?
Now this may be obvious to a lot of you guys, but even a lot of gym veterans take it for granted. Many people go through their entire gym lives without actually feeling the correct contraction for a specific exercise, meaning they’re getting nowhere near the full value out of that particular exercise.
It is well know that developing a good mind muscle connection is necessarily to see results from your hypertrophic training program. Whilst this is true, it is not the same thing as optimal muscle contraction. Yes, you need good mind muscle connection to be able to optimally contract your muscles, but it is just the first step. Often our bodies need to be tricked and leveraged with outside stimulus to really contract the right muscle. Knowing how and when to use these tools is the key to any muscle building success.
Now, obviously to do any exercise involves a contraction of some sort, but what I’m taking about is specific targeted contraction. Compound exercises will be felt by a bunch of different muscles, but it usually takes extra focus to make sure you feel it in the main agonist muscle you are trying to work.
Ever done an exercise and said ‘I didn’t feel it’? It’s due to a lack of optimal muscle contraction.
The biggest culprits of this are the bench press and Lat pulldown.
If you just go through motions of the bench press without actively focusing on engaging your pectoral muscles, then you are wasting the exercise. Most likely your arms and shoulders tire first and you finish the exercise, barely having worked the chest at all, but unable to continue because your supporting muscles are already fatigued. The problem is, most people don’t realize they are not engaging their muscles properly until one day they accidentally do and then suddenly realize they’ve been missing out for years!
Case in point – can you tense your pecks? You know like this:
No matter what size pecks you have, you should be able to tense your pecks if you're a consistent weight lifter. This is because you've developed good mind muscle connection. If you can’t tense your pecks whilst standing still, how can expect to force your chest to contract optimally when your arm muscles are actively trying to take over?
To get the most value out of any exercise you need to contract the targeted muscle for the entire duration of the exercise – Not just the ‘push’ portion, but both the negative and positive part of the rep.
If you can’t efficiently contract your muscle without weights, how can you expect to contract them optimally during the exercise?
The two main ingredients to building muscle
= Time Under Tension + Intensity of correct muscle contraction.
Basically the harder you can contract a muscle for the longest amount time the more impressive muscle gains you will see.
The million dollar question. If only it was as easy just to tell someone to ‘contract your chest’! Most people when they start out need to undergo certain protocols and routines to enhance their neuromuscular connection so that they are able to effectively contract the appropriate muscles. Unfortunately each muscle group have their own special strategy which is far to exhaustive for this article.
However to get you started, here are a few rules to live by
1. Always initiate the exercise movement by contracting the muscle you are targeting. Over time this will become subconscious to you and you'll naturally work the correct muscles.
2. Focus on Squeezing the muscle at the two extremes of the movement I.e the peak and the stretch.
3. Drop the weight and do slow higher volume ‘light’ reps so that you mind gets more time to feel the muscle as it gets more tired. This also stops other perhaps more developed muscles from taking over and sabotaging the exercise.
4. Concentrate! Don’t just go through the motions, constantly squeeze and think about that target muscle, eventually your body will get the hint.
5. Incorporate slow negatives into your routine: squeeze the muscle the entire away
6. Pay attention to proper form and leverage, the worse your form is, the less likely the target muscle will be worked properly.
7. Make sure your wrists are straight: A lot of force is lost in the arms. Ever notice your arms tire before your back or chest?? Make sure there is a straight line form your knuckles, wrist and elbow. Usually this means rolling your wrist slightly inward.
8. Advanced: In between movements practice tensing the target muscle whilst relaxing the surrounding muscles. Not only will this help build and cement the neuromuscular connection but also has the added benefit of pumping more blood to that muscle and giving it a little extra time under tension, resulting in more gains.
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