Fixing Lagging Muscle Groups
You all have at least one.
A muscle that is lagging behind in development.
And it’s driving you mad. No matter what you try, you can’t seem to fix it.
I understand your frustration, as I’ve been plagued by it myself. For years, my chest and lats were sorely lagging behind my deltoids and traps/rhomboids. I seemed to be doing all the right things, they simply did not grow as fast as my other muscles. In my case, this came from my background in Olympic weightlifting, where the shoulders and traps are always solicited, the pectorals are the most inactive muscle group and the lats play mostly a supporting role.
The result is that I became very efficient at using my deltoids and traps (meaning that I became better at recruiting their fast twitch fibers) while I remained inefficient at recruiting my pectorals and lats. Every time I did a rowing exercise, my traps, rhomboids and rear delts would take over and, every time I did a pressing exercise, my delts and triceps would do most of the work. I was eventually able to fix it using several strategies, but it took me a lot of time because I operated without a good plan and had to find my way from scratch.
However, I can now use that experience to share with you 5 great ways to fix your weaknesses. Whether it is for cosmetic/aesthetic, injury-proofing or performance enhancement, fixing weak links is the most important (along with training effort) element in reaching your goals. I’m about to tell you how to do that as quickly as possible.
The Five Levels
There are many strategies for fixing lagging muscle groups, but I believe in using a systemic, logical approach. For example, don’t go right for the nuclear weapon of using a specialized program (drastically increase frequency and volume for the lagging group while putting everything else on maintenance level) while you might simply be making obvious bad exercises choices.
My belief is that we should always try to fix problems with the least amount of changes to the normal program. To me, simply adding more work is the inelegant way of doing things. It might come to that at one point, but there are many things you can do before resorting to that approach, as it comes with a price.
This is why I use a 5-level approach, and I progress through them in order. In other words, I do not try to use the fifth level if the problem is at level 2.
These levels are not just strategies, but also an insight into how to build your training. My old mentor used to say: “if you cannot justify the use of an exercise, or if it’s not the best choice for what you are trying to do, take it out”. Most people don’t do that, they simply pick any exercise for the body part they are training. Maybe they saw the big guy at the gym doing it, or they saw it online, or “they’ve always done it”, none of which are appropriate justifications for using a movement.
We will now look at how to fix weaknesses via a logic-based approach and an elimination process. This is by far the best way to fix a problem. Otherwise, you will always be left wondering if what you are trying will work. With this approach, you take the guesswork out of the equation.
Level 1 – Fixing The Obvious Flaws
When you have a lagging muscle group the first thing to do is rule out the causes that could directly impair growth of a specific muscle.
A) If you are not training a body part enough or hard enough, then it’s no surprise that it is lagging behind. Here are some examples:
- Maybe you are barely training legs or not training them hard. This is quite common. People who do tons of volume for their upper body and train legs once a week with much less effort and drive. It’s not surprising that these people lack in the lower body development. Listen, there is a huge carryover between upper body muscles. Every time you press, the triceps, delts and pectorals get some work. Every time you pull, the upper back, biceps and forearms get stimulated, and that’s on top of the direct work. A lot of people end up hitting each upper body muscle directly or indirectly 3 times a week, while only hitting leg muscles once a week. They also put in significantly less effort in their lower body training.
- Some people do little if any isolated work for biceps, triceps and delts for example. In fact, a few years back, this was a big trend in the training community: only do big compound movements. Which I can respect, as I did that when I competed in Olympic lifting, and yes you can develop your arms and delts to some extent by doing only the big compound lifts. But unless you are genetically gifted in the arms or deltoids department, you will need isolated work to maximize these muscles.
- Others just don’t like training certain muscles. They force themselves to train them but because they don’t like it, it’s often done with a token effort and trust me, it’s not about just doing the work: you need to work hard and with focus to maximize growth. The fact of the matter is that subconsciously, you will hold back when you don’t like something. You can force yourself to push hard for a few weeks, but it’s difficult to sustain. If you’ve been putting less effort in training a certain muscle for years, no wonder it’s lagging behind.
B) You could have an injury or a former injury that decreased the activation of a muscle or led to compensatory mechanisms: using other muscles to do the job of the one that once was affected. Both of these can make it harder to stimulate a muscle.
C) It could be a neurological issue like an impingement. For example, I had a C5-C6 and C7 nerve impingement that led to atrophy in my triceps and rear delts (because I had a hard time activating these muscles). This will also lead to compensatory mechanisms (that can last for a while even after the problem is solved), making it hard to stimulate the muscle to grow.
D) If you are using bad form, too much cheating or excessively restricted range of motion, you could also severely limit growth in a muscle. How many times have I seen someone with arms that are 4” smaller than mine (maybe more!) curling a lot more weight than me (with bad form, no mind-muscle connection and partial movements)! I get it, getting stronger can help you grow bigger. But there is a difference between having a stronger muscle and moving more weight. If moving more weight comes from compensatory mechanisms, cheating, reducing the range of motion, etc. it doesn’t represent a gain in strength and will not help you build more muscle.
So before resorting to advanced methods to fix a lagging muscle, take an honest look at yourself and your training.
Level 2 – Better Specific Exercise Selection
This one is simple: if you don’t feel the contraction when doing an exercise, or don’t get a pump in the right muscle after a set, then the exercise is not adequate for you.
Even if an exercise is touted by a friend, an article, the big guy at the gym, or even an expert, if you don’t feel the target muscle well when doing the exercise it will just not work optimally.
The thing is that we are all different in our biomechanics. Some have longer limbs, some have different ratios in femur/tibia or humerus/radius. Some have dominant shoulders, others have pectorals that overpower their shoulders. Some are quads dominant while others have a stronger posterior chain.
When you do an exercise, your body will always look for the “easiest” and most efficient solution. This means utilizing muscles that you are better at using. As such, if your deltoids are much stronger than your pecs, most pressing exercises will be ineffective at growing your pecs, except a decline that takes the shoulders out of the movement a little.
So when you are at this level, you must examine your exercise selection carefully. Do you feel the exercise you selected for your weak muscle(s) properly in the target muscle or do you feel it more elsewhere? Do you get a pump in the right muscle after a set? This is important: when you want to fix a weak link, you shouldn’t stick to an exercise because it’s a “must do”, or because you read about it on the internet. Go with what gets you the best mind-muscle connection.
Level 3 – Overall Exercises Choices
One underused way of fixing weaknesses is selecting exercises that involve your lagging muscle group even when training other muscles.
For example, if you want to improve your traps you might want to go with a Zercher squat instead of a back squat when training legs. You could also do trap bar deadlifts with a squat technique. Higher reps of lunges might also help because the traps will be under tension for 40+ seconds which can lead to hypertrophy.
Here are some examples:
Lagging biceps: Use a supinated grip more often on pulling exercises, use the Zercher squat or Goblet squats when training legs, include front raises with a supinated grip when training shoulders, use the standing cable traps row or Kirk shrug instead of shrugs when training traps, use the Zercher carry or Rowing ergometer for conditioning, etc.
Lagging triceps: Include more pressing exercises when training chest and deltoids, use a slightly narrower grip on all your pressing exercises for chest and deltoids (not necessarily a close-grip, but closer than usual), use straight-arms pulldown and pullovers when training the back, try overhead shrugs for traps, etc.
Lagging deltoids: Do more incline work when training the pectorals, do more horizontal pulling when training the back, use incline DB curls and incline hammer curls when training biceps, finish your standing curls with a slight shoulder flexion (lifting the elbows up), do incline close-grip bench and dips when training the triceps, use fairly high rep Goblet squats when training the lower body (they keep the deltoids under tension and help stimulate growth), etc.
Lagging calves: Include more standing work in your training, include a lot of carries and prowler pushing for your conditioning (or strength-building work), utilize the push press when training deltoids, you might consider learning the simpler versions of the Olympic lifts like a power clean from the hang and use it when training the back, etc.
Lagging hamstrings and glutes: Use the upper back deadlift when training the back, learn the easier versions of the Olympic lifts or high pulls and use them when training the back, include the back extension in your back workout too, use power shrugs when training traps, do a lot of prowler pushing for conditioning, etc.
Lagging quadriceps: Use deadlift variations when training the back, include the push press in your shoulder workout, do prowler pushing for your conditioning work, include power cleans from the hang or high pulls in your back session, do more standing work overall, etc.
Lagging traps: Include some of the following exercises in your leg sessions: Zercher squat, high rep lunges, Goblet squat, trap bar deadlift, Romanian deadlift, Zercher goodmorning, do more standing curls in your arms workout, do overhead arm extensions when training the triceps, raise the dumbbells higher than your shoulders on laterals and front raises when training delts, include a lot of pull aparts and rear delts machine in either your back or shoulder sessions, etc.
Level 4 – Neural Reprograming
Contracting a muscle is a motor skill, and you cannot maximally stimulate a muscle if you are not good at contracting it. As Dave Tate says “if you can’t flex it, you can’t isolate it”.
I believe that one of the most important thing to stimulate a muscle to grow is to be efficient at recruiting and contracting it.
My quads grow at nothing because when I was a kid I would stand in the “chair” position when watching TV (I would hold the chair positions during the commercials), did that for years, starting when I was 12. I also played baseball for 10 years, playing catcher (so the quads where also constantly under load) and when I got to high school, I started training with weights, but I only trained legs!
I wanted to play receiver or running back and figured that I only needed strong legs to run fast. For my first two years of training I hit my legs 5 days a week! All that constitutes “recruitment practice”, and as a result I’m extremely efficient at stimulating my quads.
My ex-girlfriend who was a national level bodybuilder worked on a farm for years. She would carry stuff around all day long. As a result, her back and arms grew at nothing! I could go on and on with several examples, but the point of the matter is that the more you practice contracting a muscle, the better you become at contracting it, and this makes it easier to stimulate it to grow.
If you have a lagging muscle group, chances are that you suck at contracting it. Your mind-muscle connection with that muscle is low and you have problems getting a big local pump. If that is the case, fixing the lagging muscle might require reprogramming: training your nervous system to be more efficient at recruiting and contracting that muscle.
To do that, the first thing to remember is that contracting a muscle is a motor skill, and the most important thing for motor learning is the frequency of practice. To reprogram using a muscle you must use it every day (if possible). In practical terms, it means doing one exercise for the lagging muscle at every training session. Pick an exercise where it is easier to isolate that muscle group.
You don’t need to use volume and don’t go all out on the intensity, use enough weight to feel it, but not so much that you start to compensate. Think about flexing a muscle against resistance instead of lifting a weight. At the beginning, using a slower lifting speed will make it easier to focus on the contraction.
In your actual training session(s) for that lagging muscle, there are several techniques you can use to reprogram your brain to become better at using the lagging muscle:
Pre-fatigue isometrics: On this technique, you start a set by holding an isometric contraction in the position where you can more easily contract the target muscle and then you do your reps. For example, you can hold the peak contraction position on a seated row, really focusing on contracting the back, hold that for 20 seconds then do your 6-12 reps. Normally, the position of the hold is either in the peak contraction position or at the mid-range point.
Pre-fatigue supersets: This is a method that teaches you to better integrate a lagging muscle into a big lift. You pre-fatigue the lagging muscle prior to doing a big lift to prime that muscle to be recruited (by increasing peripheral activation) but also by increasing the awareness of that muscle. The slight pump you will get will make you feel that muscle more when doing the big lift, which can help you better integrate it in the movement.
Pre-fatigue: This approach is similar in principle to the preceding one, the main difference is that it is not done as a superset. Rather, you perform one or several isolation exercises for a lagging muscle then you do your big compound lift. You can even go the extreme like my friend Paul Carter and do the big lift last in your workout. Sure, you will lift less weight, but it is a good strategy to fix a weak point, then you can switch things around and lift bigger weights.
Tempo contrast sets: Here’s an oldie but a goodie. I’ve been using this method for a good 15 years, but it has always been one of those approaches that gives me the greatest mind-muscle connection and as such, can really help me become better at contracting a specific muscle. It’s also very effective to build muscle. You alternate between 2 slow reps (5050 tempo) and 2 normal reps in your set. For example, 2 slow reps, 2 normal reps, 2 slow reps, 2 normal reps. With a goal of 8-12 total reps.
Partial reps pre-fatigue: Here the approach is similar to the pre-fatigue isometric method: you start your set by doing partial repetitions in a range that target your weakness better, then you do full reps. This is especially effective on compound movements. For example, if your quads are lagging you can do 5-10 half squats at the top followed by 6-8 full squats. If your glutes are lagging you would do 5-10 half reps in the bottom position and then 6-8 full reps. If your triceps are an issue you would do 5-10 top half reps on the bench followed by 6-8 full reps. If your pectorals are an issue you would do 5-10 bottom half reps before your 6-8 full reps. You get the concept.
Level 5 – specialization phase
“Specialization training” is an advanced strategy where one focuses on the development of one or two lagging muscle groups at one time. To do that you use both a high frequency and high volume of training. Now, these are normally inversely proportional: the higher the frequency, the lower the volume per session and vice versa.
So why do both?
To provide a shock to a body that is already well adapted to training stress making it hard to force further adaptation.
But to do it you must follow these four rules:
- Drastically reduce the workload for the other muscle groups: lower it to maintenance level to compensate for the increase in volume for the focus muscles. This is especially important when it comes to the muscle groups that have a crossover with the specialized muscles. For example, if you are specializing on your deltoids, the volume of pectoral work must be extremely low, and the volume of triceps work should also be low. Overall the total amount of physical work you do in your week should be the same as it normally is.
- Only specialize on one or two muscles at a time. Spec phases are extremely focused and are based on devoting most of your recovery capacities/energy to make one or two muscles grow. If you Spec on three or four muscles, you will not get that effect and you might very well end up not progressing at all by exceeding your capacity to recover and grow.
- Specialization means more isolated work. Yes, you still include some multi-joint exercises, but by definition a lagging muscle group is one that you are not efficient at recruiting and contracting hard (or recruiting its fast-twitch fibers). As a result, you are more likely to compensate with other more efficient muscles when doing the big compound lifts and thus won’t fix the issue. Most of the work should be on isolated exercises to maximize your chances of fully stimulating the lagging muscle(s), but also to “practice” recruiting it, which will be an investment in future gains.
- A spec phase should only be 3-4 weeks at the most. Anyway, you will notice that the biggest gains occur once you stop the spec phase, when your body can fully surcompensate. It will also make all your subsequent training more effective at growing these muscles because you will have improved the mind-muscle connection.
I will write an article specifically on how to build specialization phases. But the general rules are:
- Train the lagging muscle(s) 3 or 4 times a week. If you want to specialize on two muscle groups at a time, train both on the same days even if they are unrelated muscles.
- Train the rest of the body over 1 or 2 days. This means that if you have 3 spec workouts you will train 4-5 days a week and if you have 4 spec days you will train 5-6 days a week.
- Do not increase the total volume of work for your training weeks. For example, if you do a total of 80 sets per week normally, then you still do 80 sets when you specialize. If you “invest” 60 of these sets on the two lagging muscles it leaves you 20 sets for the rest of the body. I personally prefer to really increase the workload for the specialized muscle groups and leave the minimum for the rest of the body, I find this to be more effective at fixing the weak links. If you do the few work sets for the non-spec muscles all-out to failure or beyond you will easily maintain muscle mass and maybe even increase it.
- Use around 75% isolated exercises for the specialized muscles groups and mostly compound for the other muscles.
- For the specialized muscle groups, it is best to use different exercises on the 3-4 sessions. The goal is to become better at recruiting a muscle. By varying the exercises, you practice recruiting this muscle in more different actions and you will more easily transfer the skill to recruit and contract it in multi-joint exercises.
- Specialization phases work best if you use more “bodybuilding/hypertrophy” techniques than very heavy lifting. First, because it is easier to improve mind-muscle connection and “flexibility” of a muscle when you go lighter and focus on squeezing the muscle than when you go heavy and just try to go from point A to point B. But it also decreases the neural stress of the program. Don’t forget that neural stress is systemic: if you drain your nervous system by doing pectoral work it will still negatively affect a subsequent leg or back workout.
Bonus – What About Left To Right Imbalances?
Most people will have some degree of left to right imbalances. For example, left biceps smaller than right biceps. There a lot of complex approaches to fixing this issue floating around, like adding isometric work, doing more sets for the weaker side or adding forced reps for the weak side.
I personally prefer to use a very simple approach.
First, train the imbalanced muscles by using unilateral exercises.
Unilateral is not the same as independent: independent is when each limb is holding its own source of resistance; unilateral means that you only do the movement one side at a time.
All unilateral exercises are independent but not all independent exercises are unilateral. For example, a DB bench press is independent (one DB in each hand) but it is not unilateral because the movement is done with both sides at the same time.
However, an alternating DB bench press would be unilateral. Here you hold one DB in each hand but you do reps one side at a time, left, right, left, right, etc.
When I work on fixing a left to right imbalance I start the workout with a unilateral exercise. I start with the strong side and the number of reps achieved (to failure) represents the goal for the weak side. When I do the weak side, I must complete the same number of reps as I did for the strong side. If I come up 2 reps short, I rest 10-15 seconds and complete those 2 reps. It’s as simple as that.
The second (and third if you do more volume), would be an independent exercise where both limbs work against their own resistance but at the same time.
The last exercise would be a barbell or machine exercise using one source of resistance for both limbs.
If the problem is more severe, do 2 unilateral exercise and 1-2 independent ones.
Sure, I’ve use more complex approaches, but a good coach is not the one who uses the most complex solutions to fix an issue but rather the one who can fix the problem with the simplest approach.
By the way, don’t forget that a lot of left to right imbalances can be neural and might require working on posture and/or seeing a chiropractor.
Fixing a weak point is an emotional issue: we are frustrated that one muscle just doesn’t grow… that’s all we see and we want it to be fixed yesterday! This often leads to using excessive approaches that sometimes won’t even solve the problem because they do not address the underlying issue. When it comes to fixing problems, as you can see, I never go complex if simple does the trick. I proceed to the next level only if the preceding one didn’t work. The more you have to alter the way you train to fix an issue the greater the chances of negative repercussion are. Never lose your objectivity because of emotions, this always lead to bad or even destructive decisions.