Let me set the scene.
The gym. You walk in, see an oddly shaped fellow on the bench press. Three plates dawn either side of the bar – a lot of weight, especially considering the guy isn’t that massive by any means.
He presses the weight, stands up, face as red as mine was after I called my first grade teacher “Mom” on my third day of class. He looks like he’s in good shape, not great. Has decent muscle mass, but he doesn’t have the body you’d want.
His shoulders hang forward because he’s so obsessed with this one lift. He’s constantly pressing, always trying to add more weight to his bench press, never going past that 4-6 rep range. He want’s muscle, but he wants to be one of the strong guys in the gym even more. His strength doesn’t seem to dictate how much muscle he has.
So what gives?
He’s clearly strong. I mean the guys pressing 315 lbs for reps. Aren’t strength and muscle directly linked?
Well, to be truthful, no. I mean, yes… but no.
When he’s pressing the weight, he’s focusing on the press – or the concentric contraction. For each set, he only spends 1-2 seconds with his muscles under tension (on the press). After he presses he either brings the weight down as fast as possible, as to not waste any power resisting gravity, or racks the weight.
He’s neglecting the second half of the exercises: the eccentric contraction.
The eccentric contraction is where we’re going to add more time under tension to our workouts.
Don’t get time under tension mixed in with the time of a workout. Longer workouts lasting over 60 minutes actually result in cortisol being released (i.e. we burn ze muscles we’re trying to build). Time under tension is exactly what it sounds like, the total time our muscles are experiencing tension, or the time spend exerting ourselves against weight and the forces of gravity – in this case, our very bestest of friends.
Time under tension = Muscles
A workout can last 20-45 minutes (which is how long mine last), but can include more optimal time spent under tension than a workout lasting 120 minutes.
By adding some resistance to the eccentric contraction, we’re going to have our muscles under tension for longer periods of time. This can bring a set that would normally take 30 seconds to complete, to 60-90 seconds (where we want each set to be).
Think of your workouts in terms of sets, not total time. Increasing the time of your set doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be increasing the time of your workout.
From top to Bottom
KEEPING the muscle under tension is also very important within each set. We don’t want to be resting at the top of the lift, nor at the bottom. At the top of a bench press for example, pause for 1-2 seconds, and squeeze your chest, shoulder, and triceps muscles.
This will allow you to maintain tension even though you’re not actually moving the weight up or down.
Leave your ego at the door.
Lifting heavy weights is fun, it’s pretty cool too, and it can be good for building muscle. However, much of the time it’s simply an ego stroker. I’ve been there, so you’re not alone with this. When I first started lifting I was intimidated lifting next to a guy who was pressing 3x the weight that I was.
So, I compensated. I worried more about weight than my real goal, which was to build muscle.
We want to lift heavier weights so we can puff our chest out and ‘be one of the strong guys’ in the gym. The problem is that this doesn’t always align with our goals.
First, really think about your goals. Are your goals to increase your bench press for competition, enter strongman competitions, or are they to build muscle?
If building muscle is your goal, first and foremost, check out this video made by a good friend of mine, Vince DelMonte. It goes into how you should be lifting, eating, and recovering to experience maximal muscle gains.
So you want to build muscle?
Now, let me get this out there, this article is for guys who are after pure muscle gains. For looks. For the confidence that comes from this muscle. It’s a great ‘building a base’ article. The next article I write talks about taking these gains to the next level with performance-focused training… i.e. why so many athletes have ideal physiques.
For this article, however, there’s one goal and that’s to build muscle. So here’s what to do…
1. Lift lighter weights.
Yes, drop the weight and make each exercise as difficult as you possibly can with a few of the other tips below. Really work on proper form and full range of motion.
No swinging when you lift. Just working the muscle that you’re trying to work.
2. Flex your muscles.
When you’re doing a biceps curl for example, flex the bicep as you’re lifting the weight. This will make the exercise much more difficult than it would be otherwise.
At the top of a shoulder press, flex your deltoids and traps. You want to squeeze the muscle you’re working. You want to make each rep as painful as it can possibly me.
3. Increase the time under tension.
Always have the concentric contraction (CC) as fast as possible. But by adding time to the eccentric contraction (EC) we’re going to increase the difficulty of the exercise, create more muscle damage, and have that muscle under tension much longer.
Try this cadence:
CC:1 sec – EE: 3 sec – as you progress with your training, add more time to that EE, even bringing it up to 6 seconds.
4. Feed your muscle.
Our muscles need fuel, as do our bodies. If we’re not having a good source of carbohydrates before, during, and after our workout, we’re risking burning the muscle as fuel.
BCAAs also help us maintain and gain muscle, even when we’re in a caloric deficit.
5. Make sure you’re right hormonally.
Testosterone is one of the most powerful – if not the most – muscle building hormones in our bodies. We need to be right hormonally if we’re going to experience optimal muscle gains. This means having fats before bed and upon rising, cold showers at the same times, and getting your 8 hours of sleep.
6. Have a heavy week once a month.
So, we’ve talked about cadence, lifting lighter weights, now it’s time to throw that all out the window for one week each month. Another part of building muscle is avoiding plateaus – something that we’re going to cover more extensively in the next article.
To avoid plateaus we need to be changing the reps, sets, even time under tension and volume if we’re going to get maximal muscle gains. So lift heavy for one week a month, activate different muscle fibers, and watch them muscles get bigger.
Have 1 heavy week a month.
Always explode on the concentric contraction
Don’t forget to check out this video:
How to kick your muscle building into overdrive by focusing on performance.
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