Get your Lagging Muscles Back to Life and Grow
Everyone has some body parts that are weaker than others. This can be from a strength perspective but also from an aesthetic point of view. The fact that a muscle doesn’t grow at the same rate than others is a sign of under stimulation during training. It can also be due to less advantageous genetics.
For example, a long limb will always need more muscle fiber to look full and round than a shorter limb. Longer limbs can also affect strength and impact growth because of a longer resistance lever. However, to some extent, there are always strategies we can use to make improvements.
When you’ve given everything you can, working this muscle to the best of your ability, but nothing moves, take a step back and analyze how you could optimize your muscle recruitment using the strategies listed below.
Promote muscle recruitment before performance
The first mistake I see in those who are trying to work a lagging muscle is sending a rush of sets and reps on the targeted muscle thinking they will break it enough to get it to grow. What you have to understand is that the muscle that gets little stimulation from a workout is basically a muscle that does not contract optimally.
The muscle may be too weak causing adjacent muscles to assist during repetitions, or innervation can be insufficient and the ability to contract the muscle intentionally (mind-muscle connection) is very low.
In either case, we must rethink our training plan so as to promote the recruitment of the muscle during training. I strongly suggest starting the training session with isolation exercises that are easily workable. What I mean is that you should look for exercises that easily make you feel a pump.
For example, for myself, starting a chest workout with push ups in slow tempo or flyes on a TRX with accentuated stretch quickly generates congestion in the muscle without much effort. I do not get as much local impact on a dumbbell fly or pec deck machine.
Decrease the neurological demand of the exercise
A machine press will be much easier to execute than a barbell bench press from a neurological point of view. A leg extension will target the quadriceps much faster and easier than a back squat. The main idea is to facilitate recruitment and allow to send a contraction signal to the brain. You must feel the muscle working. So, invest your first sets in an exercise that will provide a local reaction quickly.
Target frequency over volume
A muscle that is difficult to recruit is a muscle that has not worked in the same way as the others. So, training experience of the muscle is often less, and recovery abilities as well. It is often a muscle that gets tired faster. So, with experience, I noticed that training a muscle frequently caused more visual change quickly than increasing the volume in a session itself.
Think of it as learning a concept like language. If you want to learn how to speak Italian, doing a 3-hour session once a week may take a very long time before you get comfortable with that language. Your brain can store a limited amount of information in a given time, some of the information received in the session would be lost or misunderstood.
The same goes for your muscle, since it needs to learn to generate more effective contractions. You will get better learning by performing local muscle work frequently than by working with bulky sessions once a week.
Reduced volume for other body parts
When applying such a strategy, it is necessary to modulate the volume per session down to avoid the accumulation of fatigue and give way to the stimulation frequency. Once the contraction capacity is increased, you can achieve incredible results in a short time by targeting the training frequency from 3 to 4 even 5 times a week for those who have the opportunity.
As long as you control the training volume, there is no limit to stimulate the muscle every day. For my part, I have found that a frequency of 3 sessions per week is the fastest way to achieve remarkable visual results.
This strategy requires us to also review the training of the other muscles of the body. Since we have limited recovery capabilities, working the specificity of a muscle will require us to decrease the volume of work on the other muscles. We must put ourselves in maintenance mode to allow the body to send the maximum growth factor to the target muscle.
Let’s go back to our Italian course. If I asked you to also learn German and Mandarin in addition to learning, you would be very inefficient and slow. As the efforts are spread across too many different subjects, the information retention capabilities are greatly reduced.
Modulate intensity downward
The same is true for the intensity of work. If the muscle is hard to recruit, applying too much work intensity (heavy load) can harm its optimal recruitment since some motor reflexes can take over. Thus, reduce the intensity, work time under tension, quality of execution and eccentric phase as well as the stretching phase.
A well stretched muscle under tension always contracts more efficiently. Use a weight that allows you to control the different phases (eccentric, stretch, concentric) to get the most out of local muscle damage.
Avoid intensification methods such as drop-sets, rest-pause or any other form of extended series. Save your nervous system during these difficult learning phases.
Our learning courses of Italian would be very inefficient if we started with the most complex notions of language to begin with. On the contrary, to become familiar with the language, the ideal scenario would be to start with simple words and easy to pronounce vocabulary.
Go from less neurologically demanding exercise to more neurologically demanding ones in your training plan
The majority of people who train start their training with the most neurologically demanding exercises, like squats, bench press or overhead press, deadlift and chin-ups. Our energy reserves are fresh at the beginning of the session, so the reflex is to aim for the hardest work first.
In the case of a lagging muscle, we want to reverse this order and allow to focus our energy on the muscles that are difficult to activate early on in the session. Reverse your plan. Get started with the easiest muscle exercises for which you get the most muscle contraction as listed in the beginning of the article.
A very simple leg training to maximize quadriceps development might look like this in a regular case:
- Back squat
- Leg press narrow/low stance
- Leg extension
- Machine adductor
In the case of someone with lagging quads, I would do something like this instead:
- Machine adductor
- Leg extension
- Leg press narrow/low stance
- Back squat
Use pre and post fatigue to allow more time under tension and more density
The idea of combining pre and post fatigue exercises was not born yesterday in the world of bodybuilding. Wanting to maximize muscle congestion, bodybuilders have always superset exercises to promote the “pump”.
In this case, we will use this strategy to promote not only muscle congestion and time under tension, but also the degree of work during more neurologically complex exercises.
For example, the following superset would prove to be very effective for quadriceps:
- Leg extension (pre-fatigue, less demanding exercises)
- Back squat (most neurologically demanding movement)
- Leg press narrow/low stance (post fatigue, less demanding than B but more than A)
In this case, exercise A is used to activate reactivity from the quads.
B is used as the main stimulation. Since they have been activated by A, quads will be more reactive during the set and you can also feel the muscle better even if it’s more fatigued. The mind-muscle connexion is increased and makes recruitment easier.
C is used as an extended stimulation from B, but with less neurological impact and easier form to execute in a fatigued state.
In exercise A, you would use low weight and slow tempo to get a good contraction but not too much high reps, you need some power for exercise B. Just get a nice pump here, something like 8-10 reps with a slow tempo of 303 can work well, or anything that you feel increases the quality of the contraction.
In exercise B, you would use a weight high enough to be challenging but low enough to allow for movement control and be able to put the tension where you want it to be. Target sets of anywhere between 6 to 15 reps depending on the muscle worked.
For exercise C, the best option would be to accentuate the eccentric in a classic 8-12 reps set. Try something like a 5-sec eccentric, a nice stretch at the bottom, and a fast concentric.
Of course, those methods are not without effort, but sometimes we need to find ways to overcome things that won’t change.
Volume must refer to fluid. Fluid must refer to water. One of the most important factors of performances and proper muscle hypertrophy is hydration. Protein synthesis and protein breakdown are highly dependant on this factor to be efficient. Make sure you are well hydrated before, during and after the workout.
For example, a 200-pound male who is in pretty decent shape should drink at least 300ml for every waking hour. I would add 1.5 to 2 liters of water peri-workout to ensure maximal hydration.
Maximize peri workout nutrition
Adding muscle mass is pretty simple math to do if we look at the basic principles of it. Shifting the balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown in favor of the protein synthesis process is the key to muscle growth success.
Now, while working out a muscle activates protein synthesis, it also activates proteins breakdown. How can we fight this process and stop the protein degradation? Peri workout nutrition is the key here.
Considering we are trying to maximise anabolism prior to working a lagging muscle, one would try to consume the biggest carbs meal 1-2 hours prior to the workout, leaving sufficient time to digest and absorb the food without feeling too full.
Creating a higher insulin blood level before the workout will ensure an anabolic environment that is ideal for muscle growth. Insulin not only activates amino acid transport, but also increases cell volume by inducing glucose uptake.
I would also continue to consume carbs in liquid form during the workout. Something like HBCD (highly branched cyclic dextrin) would bring and keep insulin levels steady all along the workout and ensure maximal anabolism.
Adding free amino acids or fast acting and easy digestible proteins (isolated, hydrolysates, etc..) would add to the benefits. Amino acids are themselves osmolytes, when transported into cells they pull in additional water, increasing cell volume in the end.
Once the workout is done, don’t stop there, have another meal rich in carbs and proteins to stop any protein breakdown. The lagging muscle group will need ample amount of recovery and nutrients to get back to the level of your other body parts. So, make sure to have adequate peri-workout nutrition.
Sodium, potassium and magnesium are of most importance if you want proper muscle contraction, performances and a nice pump feeling during the workout. Amino acids uptake from the cells is also highly dependant on sodium and potassium. The pump you get from working out needs sufficient blood volume. Sodium around a workout becomes a very important notion.
Sodium and potassium are also essential to complete the electrical signals sent from nerve cells that tell your muscles to contract. You also need calcium and magnesium for proper contraction and relaxation. Calcium and magnesium work together to control muscle contraction.
Both minerals interact with the proteins actin and myosin, these are the structural proteins that shorten with each muscle contraction, then lengthen to relax your muscles. Calcium allows actin and myosin to shorten and contract the muscle by letting the signal bind to the receptors in the muscle. Magnesium lets the signal out and relaxes the muscle after contraction.
So low calcium levels equal low capacities for muscle contraction, and low magnesium levels equal abnormal muscle contraction and tension.
To make this simple, you should consume sodium and potassium-rich food prior to the workout. Calcium should be added under the form of supplements with magnesium-rich supplements that also contain sodium and potassium during the workout.
I would then finish the workout with a complete meal and some post-workout magnesium to make sure electrolytes are replenished to adequate levels.
The basics of muscle growth are already a challenge themselves, improving weaknesses and lagging muscles requires even more precision. There is no perfect balance and muscle growth is a never-ending process.
As soon as you get a weakness better, other body parts will look weaker. That’s the beauty of self-improvement. Implement some of these strategies, and you can’t go wrong. Good growth to you all!