Category Archives: upper body training
Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, my Mom starts asking me what I want for Christmas. When I was younger I’d rattle off a list a mile long, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten progressively quieter because I’m not much of a “stuff” guy.
So that leaves her to guess, which means I usually get a new pair of winter boots that I end up returning, or 12 pairs of socks. Sound familiar?
One Christmas, though, about six years ago, she asked me what I wanted just as I was perusing the Elitefts Christmas sale. As I scanned the various goodies, a pair of blast straps caught my eye. Mind you, this was before suspension training was all the rage and well before you could sign up for full-body “TRX classes” in commercial gyms.
At the time I didn’t know much about suspension training and thought it looked pretty lame, but I figured it’d at least be a good way to supercharge push-ups, so I asked for them.
Had it been my own money I definitely would’ve passed but hey, kick-ass push-ups beats getting another ugly sweater.
It proved to be a good investment because I still have those blast straps today and have since expanded my suspension training arsenal well beyond just push-ups. I don’t see them as a “be all end all” by any means, but I definitely like them a lot for certain exercises, particularly for the upper body.
Just to be clear, when I say blast straps, I’m referring to all suspension training systems: blast straps, rings, TRX, jungle gym, etc.
With that in mind, here are my favorite blast strap exercises to build the upper body.
I’ll start with push-ups because it’s the first exercise I ever used the blast straps for and they’ve been a staple exercise in my program ever since.
It was really a love-at-first-try type of thing. I always love a good challenge, and the blast straps definitely provide that. The first few times I tried them I was shaking and could only muster a few reps, but after a little bit of practice, my stability improved rapidly to where I could start to crank them out more easily. Once I got better at them, it quickly became one of my favorite upper body exercises, and still is today.
The one problem I’ve continually had, though, with both push-ups and dips on the blast straps is that when the blast straps are set up at just outside shoulder width (i.e., the way most people do them), they tend to chafe my triceps. Wearing long sleeves helps, but who wants to wear long sleeves when it’s hot in the gym?
As I got stronger and started to load the exercises more, the chafing got worse, to the point that after every time I did the exercise I’d have people asking me, “What happened to your arms?” because there were massive red marks, similar to a rug burn.
A little chafing certainly isn’t enough to stop doing a good exercise though, just like you wouldn’t stop deadlifting because it can bruise your shins or stop front squatting because it can hurt to hold the bar – at least I hope you wouldn’t.
I guess when you’re in love, you’re willing to put up with a little pain and bullshit.
The chafing started to bug me though, so as a way to eliminate it, I started hanging the blast straps wider. I do all my blast strap work in a power rack, so rather than hang them straight down from the pull-up bar on the front just outside the shoulders, I hung them from the sides of the rack.
What a difference that small tweak makes! Not only did that eliminate the chafing, it also enhanced the exercise significantly from a chest-building perspective because it forces you to actively squeeze your pecs like crazy throughout the set to keep your hands in tight to your body.
The key is not to allow the wider ring position to alter your arm position, so you still want to keep your elbows tucked in close to your body.
Keep in mind though that the wider the blast straps are, the harder the exercise becomes, so start at shoulder width and move out gradually over time as you feel more comfortable.
You may want to elevate your feet slightly as well to account for the straps being raised off the floor. Other than that, perform them just as you would a normal push-up.
I alternate between doing them weighted in the beginning of a workout and unweighted at the end for a massive pump that also doubles as a good core exercise, killing two birds with one stone.
If you’ve got push-ups down and are one of the masochistic types looking for a way to punish your pecs even more, flyes might be something to consider. They’re not for everyone – especially people with shoulder issues – but if your shoulders can handle them, you’d be hard pressed to find an exercise that fries the pecs like ring flyes do.
Just like with push-ups, you can make them harder by setting the blast straps wider.
Be warned though, regular ring flyes with the blast straps at shoulder-width are tough enough as it is, but setting the blast straps wider makes them downright brutal. As a point of reference, several months ago I could do regular flyes with my feet elevated and a 50-pound weighted vest for sets of 8-10, but couldn’t even do one full rep with the blast straps wider unless I did them from my knees – and even that was a struggle.
With practice I can now do 6-8 unweighted wide flyes with my feet on the floor when I’m fresh, but if it’s at the end of the workout, I can’t even do one. So if I do them at the end, I’ll do them on my knees, which is still an awesome finisher.
Like blast strap flyes, dips are one of those “off-limits” exercises for people with shoulder issues, but if you can handle regular dips okay, using the blast straps makes them that much better. And in fact, a lot people that have problems with parallel bar dips find they can do them on the blast straps pain-free.
However, prepare to be humbled the first time you try them because it’s a whole different ballgame than regular dips. When I first tried them I could do regular dips with four plates for reps so I’d figured it’d be a breeze.
I made a complete fool of myself and couldn’t even do one rep. After about an hour of practice I could knock out a whooping 3 reps while shaking so badly it probably looked like I was being electrocuted. And that’s with no weight. Talk about embarrassing.
Looking back, though, I don’t feel too badly because every one of my buddies that tries to work in when I’m doing them now goes through the same humiliating experience, so I think it’s just part of the process.
Swallow your pride and stick with it because after a few times of getting acclimated to the blast straps, it gets much easier and your performance will shoot right back up. At this point, my weighted blast strap dips are almost as strong as my bar dips, and when I rep out I’m within 4-5 reps. Not only that, but they just feel much better on the blast straps, meaning they feel safer and seem to work the chest more.
Just as with blast strap push-ups, start with the blast straps set just outside shoulder-width so your triceps can press against them for support. As you improve, try moving the blast straps wider to increase the difficulty (and chest stimulation) and eliminate chafing of the upper arms.
To keep constant tension on the chest, stop an inch or two short of locking your arms out at the top. This may seem like it’s cheating, but with the blast straps set wide it actually makes it quite a bit harder.
Wide Grip Chins
I’ve allows loved the way wide grip chin-ups (or pull-ups) feel in my lats, but when I do them on the bar they usually really piss off my shoulders and wrists. I know many people have had a similar experience, and I’ve also heard complaints that using a wide grip really bugs some peoples’ elbows.
So usually I just avoid them and use a shoulder-width grip – that is, until I started using the blast straps.
Using the blast straps allows for a more natural rotation of the arms, so it feels much cleaner. I just wish I’d started doing these sooner.
Here’s what they look like:
Beyond being more joint-friendly, setting the blast straps up wider than your wingspan makes it a lot harder – the blast straps will want to go out so you have to squeeze hard to counteract that force and keep them on the right path, which makes for a huge contraction in the lats.
The set-up is really easy. If you have blast straps, just set them up on either side of a power rack. If you have a TRX, just throw it over the top of the rack.
You’ll probably need to bend your legs, but that’s no big deal.
Keep in mind that they’re a lot harder than regular chins – especially if you’re strict on the form – so don’t expect to hit your usual numbers, but expect your lats to be fried more than normal.
You’ve been warned.
I may’ve bought the blast straps primarily for push-ups, but I’ve gotten the most use out of them for inverted rows, which has become my favorite rowing exercise – meaning I like them more than barbell rows, dumbbell rows, t-bar rows, cable rows, etc.
I like them so much because it’s an awesome way to overload the upper back without stressing the lower back. This is obviously appealing for people like me with lower back issues, but it’s also valuable even for healthy folks because it allows you to keep your lower back fresh for your heavy lower body exercises like deadlifts and squats.
Even a healthy lower back can only handle so much abuse, so why not save it for the exercises that are inherently lower back intensive rather than use it up on upper body exercises? Especially since you can overload the upper back just as much in an inverted row as you can in a free weight row.
If you think that last sentence is malarkey, you probably haven’t done inverted rows the way I do them. I’ve done more than my fair of heavy-ass free weight rows (and still do) and I’ll say unequivocally that inverted rows can be made every bit as hard as anything else I’ve ever tried.
My favorite variations include:
Weighted: either with weighted vests or putting plates on your abs
1.5 reps: row up, come halfway down, row back up again, and come all the way down
Wide inverted rows: set the blast straps wider, as I’ve described for the chest exercises
Decline rows: elevate the feet higher than the head
Row/reverse fly combo: one arm performs a row while the other arm extends straight out the side
One-arm inverted rows: using one ring only
I have video demonstrations of all these variations on my You Tube page.
So as you can see, there are tons of effective ways to do this exercise. I usually do some variation of inverted rows twice a week, which alone has made buying the blast straps worth it.
3-Way Shoulder Finisher
All the chest and back exercises I’ve shared also work the shoulders quite a bit so you really don’t needanything else – but if you want something to work them more directly, here’s a quick three exercise finisher that I like to use at the end of upper body workouts when I’m looking to fry my shoulders, particularly the posterior delts.
The three exercises are reverse flyes, external rotations, and face pulls, done in that order. They’re ordered from hardest to easiest and are done in succession as a mechanical drop-set, so don’t rest in between exercises.
Here’s what it looks like in action. I usually do 6-10 reps of each exercise, but I’ll just show three reps of each for the sake of brevity:
While this is a high rep finisher, it’s still important to keep good form and do each rep deliberately as opposed to just pumping them out. Trust me, you’ll still get a huge pump.
1-2 sets (meaning 1-2 drop-sets) is all you’ll need.
I don’t do curls often (as evidenced by my puny arms), but when I do, these are on my short list of go-to’s.
Set-up just as you would for an inverted row with a pronated or neutral grip and your feet on the floor, but rather than row to your sides, curl your hands to your forehead while supinating your wrists. Be sure to keep your body straight by squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs.
I could pull something out of my you-know-what and say I like them because they also double as a good core exercise to give you more bang for your buck and make them more “functional,” whatever that means.
But that’s not why I like them. I don’t do curls to be “functional” in the athletic sense – I do curls to get bigger biceps. And if bigger biceps is the goal, it doesn’t get more functional than curls.
Barbell curls tend to piss off my wrists and forearms, but using the blast straps allows for a more natural range of motion, much like dumbbells, which is not only more joint-friendly but also lends itself to a hell of a contraction.
Most importantly though, it’s an excuse to do curls in the squat rack.
Bodyweight Triceps Extensions
Bodyweight triceps extensions are a great exercise no matter how you do them, however, doing them on the blast straps is better than using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine because it increases the range of motion. It does so by allowing you to extend your arms further out in front of your body (since you don’t have to worry about your head hitting the bar), thereby increasing the stretch on the long head of the triceps.
The blast straps also allow you to rotate your hands naturally through the rep, taking stress off the elbows and makes for a stronger contraction in the triceps.
The lower you are to the floor, the harder it is. Start as low as you can go for 6-8 reps and then walk your feet up gradually and keep knocking the reps out for a brutal extended set, similar to the idea of a drop-set but not exactly (you’re actually going upwards).
Keep your body as straight as possible and it doubles as a core exercise, or you can pike your butt up a bit towards the end of the set to get a few more reps in to really smoke the triceps.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you can use the blast straps for, but it’s certainly enough to get you started and give you a great upper body workout.
I wouldn’t recommend using blast straps-only for upper body, but I think you could probably build a great physique doing so if you were so inclined and got really good at using them, as evidenced by gymnasts with their rings.
To me though, they’re just a tool in the toolbox that I sprinkle in here and there with my other strength training.
But when you consider they cost my mom around 50-60 bucks six years ago, I’d say they’ve been well worth the small investment. Thanks Mom!
In our last installment of TMUSCLE Twitter, we put a few of the TMUSCLE coaches on the spot and asked them to come up with their five essential kitchen tips to kick-start fat loss.
This time, we’re sticking with fat loss but switching to the subject of training. Because after all, even if diet is the biggest player in the fat loss equation, how you train matters, right? Or does it?
Before you take your Christmas bonus and buy the Kung Fu 5000, that latest infomercial fat loss gadget that doubles as an autoerotic asphyxia device while folding up neatly in the closet, give this article a quick read. You might learn a thing or two.
Check it out!
I have one exercise that is 100% guaranteed to expedite your fat loss gains. I’m not kidding, guys and gals, this one’s foolproof. It works for EVERYONE.
A little interested, aren’t ya?
They’re called Table Pushaways. Push your fat ass away from the table more often, and it’s amazing what kind of progress you can see.
I’ll be frank — fat loss programming is pretty easy. Maybe not going from 6% to 4%, but the start of the journey is easy with regards to programming.
The diet/nutrition is where people get lost.
Whether it’s peer pressure from friends, emotional issues tied to food, or simply being lazy, if you can get your diet in check and eat a little bit less, you should be pleasantly surprised at the success of your next fat loss training program.
I don’t have a specific favorite fat loss routine because they vary a lot from client to client, but I certainly have a favorite fat loss protocol.
The idea is to rotate multiple training styles over the course of the week: one day bodyweight, another day density based fat loss training, another day complexes.
Taking it a step further, each workout would use variations of different exercises, but always include one variation of the squat, lunge, press, pull, dynamic abdominal exercise, and static/stability abdominal exercise.
A single workout might be: jump squat, floor press, plank, alternating lunge, pull-up, and ab rollouts. These exercises would be done according to a set up determined by what style of training we’re doing.
Doing this keeps the workouts fresh, the client motivated, and the training stimulus both challenging and varied enough to ensure consistent progress.
For my athletes looking to drop fat, I go to my Hurricane Training. Of the five categories, my favorite version utilizes a treadmill and simple weight exercises.
Do a 30 second sprint on the treadmill at 10% grade and about 10 mph (or whatever is comfortable), followed by 10 reps each of two weight exercises like the bench press and barbell curls. Then, you jump right back onto the treadmill and sprint again. The sprints and two lifts are repeated three times to equal one “round.” Rest one minute between rounds and perform two to three more rounds with two new exercises between the sprints.
Good choices are high pulls, chin ups, triceps pushdowns, and push jerks. Keep the intensity high and not only will you lose fat, you’ll gain some muscle too!
For fat loss, I like total body strength training workouts with “finishers” at the end. I believe that the Airdyne and Prowler are the two greatest pieces of equipment for fat loss.
With the Airdyne, you’re using your upper body pushing and pulling muscles and your legs to pedal the bike as fast as possible. I like alternating intervals of 20 seconds fast and 40 seconds slow.
With the Prowler, you’re using your lower body to push the sled while contracting your upper body and core muscles for transfer into the sled. I like 30-meter sprints with the Prowler with 60 seconds of rest in-between sets.
An important caveat to these two activities is that there isn’t too much technique to them; any healthy, somewhat athletic individual can do them.
It’s more of a technique than a routine. It’s called “put the fork down.” There’s also the advanced version called “stop eating, you fat bastard!” But in all seriousness, there are a few routines that I used when I was training athletes that were always very effective.
This one was a “favorite” of one of my hockey players who played in Europe. Back in 2001, he started the summer at 195lbs and 12% body fat, and ended the summer at 192 and 6% body fat; all without any particular attention to his diet.
A1. Power snatch from hang: 3 reps using around 70-75% of your maximum.
A2. Sprint 200m: (basically 100m, turnaround, 100m back to the starting point).
A3. Power clean: 3 reps with the same weight you used for the snatches.
He started at two sets, and by the end of summer was able to do 14. No, I’m not kidding; but he was also the freakiest overall athlete I’ve ever worked with. Besides him, the most anyone ever did was 8, with three minutes between sets.
If you’re training indoors and can’t do sprints, do burpees (15 reps) or sprint stair climbing (30 seconds).
For fat loss, fast full body exercises are best since they create a large metabolic demand. I’ve used the following sequence for years with clients that need to lose fat and build athleticism.
Start with 50 revolutions of rope jumping, then drop the rope and perform two burpees (a squat thrust with a push-up, and be sure to jump in the air and reach overhead).
Next, do 50 revolutions and four burpees. Then, it’s 50 revolutions and six burpees. Keep adding two burpees each time until you each 10. At that point, decrease the burpees by two each time and work your way back to 50 revolutions and two burpees.
This is an excellent way to finish up your fat burning workout to bring out those “hidden abs.”
Dr. Clay Hyght
All of my fat loss clients that have access to a Step Mill (aka Gauntlet) do a killer 20-minute HIIT routine on it.
Warm-up two minutes, then go ALL OUT for 30 seconds (skipping a step with each stride), followed by 60 seconds at a normal pace (normal single steps). Repeat 12 times. Five of these sessions per week will get you lean FAST!
If someone wants to lose weight and will do anything I tell them, I have them get up earlier in the morning and do a brisk 30-60 minute incline walk before breakfast.
Most people should start out walking at 4 mph with a 2% incline for 30 minutes, and try to work up to 4.5 mph with a 4.5% incline for 45 minutes in a couple of months. Do this four or more times a week and you’ll get leaner, guaranteed.
The beauty of walking is you can put it in your regular routine and you won’t overtrain; in fact, you’ll probably recover even better. You can also do this walk after your workout or before bed if necessary, but I do think fasted in the AM is the number one choice for it.
Fat loss training is about maintaining muscle, burning calories and cranking up metabolism. The best programs have always used a combination of weight training and some kind of cardio or interval training (with solid nutrition planning).
However, the fastest training method that I’ve used (with several hundred clients) is a hybrid that we call metabolic resistance training (MRT). Basically, it’s higher rep, density based, short rest-period resistance training.
The usual argument about high reps not working for fat loss is bullshit. Traditional interval training (e.g. running) has always worked for fat loss and that uses VERY high reps! MRT is just taking that same principle and using more muscle than traditional cardio while doing lower reps (albeit still high).
Think higher rep (or about 45-60s work), superset or tri-set style with incomplete rest periods.
I’m with Coach Robertson, my favorite fat loss exercise is Table Pushaways. Most people just eat too much and need to push themselves away from the table with greater frequency.
The old saying that you can’t out train a bad diet is so true. I tell my clients seeking to lose fat to forget the word meal and substitute the word “feeding”; five to six small feedings a day is the key. Combine Table Pushaways with Airdyne intervals and you have a pretty good start on fat loss. For intervals, try riding a half mile for time on the AirDyne at a 2-1 rest to work ratio, or better yet, use a HR monitor and just rest until your heart-rate goes under 120 BPM.
But first and foremost, fat loss is primarily a psychological exercise, and requires more mental strength than physical strength.
Are people really this confused? Fat loss doesn’t have to be complicated. Push something heavy: a Prowler, a truck, a shopping cart loaded with a couple of your fat fucking friends, it doesn’t matter. Run up hills or stadium stairs. Do this four to seven days a week. Lift four days/week.
Eat less, type less, and train like you have a fight. Repeat.
First off, the only thing that separates a fat loss exercise from a conditioning exercise is the diet. So, if you’re trying to lose fat, tighten up the diet!
One of my personal favorite fat loss exercises are good old fashioned 300-yard shuttle runs performed at the end of a workout, two to three times per week. Depending upon your available space inside or outside, place two cones either 25-yards or 50-yards apart.
Sprint as fast as possible, completing six 25-yard round trips or three 50-yard round trips for a total of 300 yards. This should take you roughly one minute to complete. Perform two to five 300’s per workout, resting three to five minutes between sets.
Be warned, until you adapt to it, this workout will have your legs feeling like over-cooked spaghetti. Exorcist-inspired projectile vomiting is also a common side-effect, so please be kind to the guy who owns the gym and adjust your pre-workout food choices accordingly.
My favorite fat loss routine combines German Body Composition Training and a ketogenic diet.
For all you fat sum-bitches, follow a 4-day Poliquin GBC program such as the following:
|A1)||Trap Bar Deadlift||4-5||4-6||30X1||60 sec|
|A2)||Sternum Chin-up- supinated grip||4-5||4-6||2010||60 sec|
|3 mins after circuit|
|B2)||Dips – Chest||3-4||8-12||30X1||60 sec|
|3 mins after circuits|
|C1)||Glute-Ham Raise||2-3||6-8||30X0||45 sec|
|C2)||Seated DB Shoulder Press||2-3||6-8||30X1||45 sec|
|C3)||Cuban Press||2-3||6-8||30X1||60 sec|
|A1)||Javorek Wave Squats||4||(5,5,5,5)||10X1||60 sec|
|A2)||Hanging Leg raise||4||6-10||2010||60 sec|
|3 mins after circuit|
|B1)||Incline Thick Bar Press||3-4||4-6||30X1||60 sec|
|B2)||Pull-Up-Pronated, close-grip||3-4||6-8||2010||60 sec|
|B3)||Drop Lunge-front||3-4||6-8||X0X0||60 sec|
|3 mins after circuit|
|C1)||One-Arm Cable Row-offset stance||3-4||6-8||21X1||45 sec|
|C2)||Reverse Hip Extension||3-4||6-8||2010||45 sec|
|C3)||Low Pulley Upright row||3-4||8-10||30X1||45 sec|
Combine this with a ketogenic diet such as Dr. Mauro DePasquale’s Metabolic Diet.
I have personally lost up to 10lbs of fat in less than a month on this type of regimen with no loss of strength or muscle mass. I have many clients who’ve achieved similar results.
Well, first off, no one can out train a lack of diet consistency for fat loss.
Next, people are too concerned with the “immediate” aspects of fat burning, as in calories burning, rather than the cumulative effects of application and diet. And yes, circuits are great, but they can take people too far away from muscle-development work.
I have dozens of finisher type moves that are strategically placed once or twice per week in programs to enhance fat burning, while not adding too much time, or too much unrelated work. I’ve paid special attention to other sports and have noticed what I call “sequential activation” as a common thread in leaner athletes’ training. I’ve since been implementing various new versions around this concept.
Check out the following two examples at the right: the Shoulder Girdle Core Sequence and Power Sequence, which are samples that can be used after a workout, within a training block to pronounce fat burning.
Although what you do in the kitchen remains king, there are a few things you can do in the gym to strip away fat.
Fat loss is a psychological war, not physical.
Keep telling yourself she finds chubby guys attractive.
Training like a fighter is never a bad idea.
You don’t need to get to a crowded gym to get your heart rate up.
The Power Sequence
The Shoulder Girdle Blast
by John Romaniello
Specialization is My Specialty
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with athletes who want to perform better, cougars re-investing in their assets, and more fat-loss clients than I can count.
However, I’ve recently found myself designing more programs for guys who want to bring up lagging body parts.
Perhaps it’s because I take an approach to training that’s based primarily on improving aesthetics and symmetry, or maybe it’s because I’ve always been outspoken in my opinion that goals are intensely personal and the idea that people “shouldn’t” want big arms over big legs is laughable.
Whatever the case, I’ve always been an ardent proponent of specialization programs, and have encouraged people to use them in their training.
Because full-body muscle growth slows dramatically for advanced trainees, I firmly believe that specialization programs are superior to programs aimed at increasing overall size.
Here are a few reasons why I prefer specialization programs.
Significant muscle growth happens in spurts.
For intermediate and advanced trainees, significant growth happens in bursts. Whatever theory of training you subscribe to and whatever program is your “go-to” for mass gain, if you’ve been training for a few years chances are you’ve gotten to where you don’t add a pound of muscle at a time. Instead you grow in five to ten pound growth spurts.
This is true for the vast majority of my clients and athletes, and it has certainly been true for me.
At higher levels of development, full-body growth becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.
The more muscle you have, the harder it is to gain muscle. Although in a broad sense this is because you’re getting closer to your genetic ceiling, one of the more specific reasons is that your body simply cannot continue to grow under the same conditions.
More advanced trainees are (hopefully) stronger. Lifting heavier weight for a comparable number of reps is more taxing on the nervous system and the general metabolic processes involved in recovery.
In almost all cases, as you progress your ability to train for full-body growth will be far greater than your ability to recover from such training.
On an already developed body, training your ass off for eight weeks to gain three pounds of muscle—which probably makes a minimal visible difference—is lame.
When you put on some muscle in a given time period it’s generally distributed over your entire frame.
Gaining a few pounds of lean body mass is always nice, and I would never say it isn’t a goal worthy of effort or achievement. It just sucks when you achieve it and you can’t see it. And when you’re already pretty well developed, that’s often what happens.
Recently, I was working with a college lacrosse player who wanted to put on some size in his off-season. At 6’2” and 180 pounds, I didn’t blame him for wanting to get bigger. We packed 15 pounds on him during the summer, and when he walked through the door on the first day of pratice the coach looked at him and said, “I thought I told you to gain some weight.”
This kid went from 180 to 195 pounds, with only three pounds being fat, and his own coach didn’t pick up on it until he got on the scale.
Granted, it’s partially a height issue; if a guy who’s 5’8″ put on fifteen pounds it would be a lot more obvious. But my point is most people aren’t putting on fifteen pounds over a summer; they’re adding five to ten, tops. And since it’s spread over their entire body, no one really notices.
Everyone notices when you put an inch on your arms, or add significant chest size.
Training with the goal of increasing the size of a single muscle or muscle group has a lot of benefits, but the main one is visibility. People notice. More than that, you notice. Nothing is as satisfying as actually seeing the results in the mirror or in your clothes, instead of having to account for infinitesimal changes on a measuring tape.
So if you can only have the occasional growth spurt, why not dedicate a spurt to something that will be visibly noticeable, intensely satisfying, and realistically achievable over a short duration?
The Bottom Line
I believe in short, single-minded bursts of training for three to six weeks, and no more. I prefer to spend those weeks getting as much out of a training program as possible, putting on some noticeable size and keeping fat gain to a minimum.
(Did I mention that specialization programs don’t require extreme “bulking” diets that usually lead to excess fat gain? Unless you’re specializing legs, in which case you need to eat a lot. But honestly, who trains legs? Everyone knows you’re just going to use this information to get bigger arms. There’s no point lying about it.)
Principles of Specialization Programs
When writing a specialization program, the first things to consider are volume and frequency. It should go without saying that when prioritizing a muscle, you need to train it more. Not only with more sets and reps, but a much greater frequency, too.
For a specialization program to be optimally effective, it must meet the following criteria:
High Overall Frequency — In a perfect world, I’d have people training once every 36 hours. When that isn’t possible, every other day is the next best option. At the minimum, you should be able to figure out how to squeeze in three workouts per week.
High Weekly Volume, Moderate Workout Volume — Your total weekly volume is going to be pretty high. Between three and four training sessions per week, you’re getting a lot of total work for the selected muscle group. I recommend that you generally aim for 40 to 50 sets per week, broken into as many sessions as possible.
Of course, that recommendation doesn’t account for reps or load, so here are some more specifics.
50 Sets Per Week:
15 Sets of High Reps — 12-15
15 Sets of Moderate Reps — 8-12
15 Sets of Low Reps — 6 or below
5 Sets of Very High Reps — 18-25 Reps
Moderately High Intensity — Given that you’ll be training with both high volume and high frequency, finding the right intensity is important. As a starting point, I recommend using roughly 90% of your max in a given rep range.
So if your 10RM on the bench press is 225 pounds, use roughly 200 pounds for sets of 10.
This recommendation stands regardless of the rep range.
One of the best things about specializing a body part is you get to shy away from the basics and really get into some fun exercises. While it’d be impossible to list all the combinations of all the exercises, I’d say that each workout would need to consist of the following:
Compound Exercises — I hope I don’t need to define this for you. Just know that big movements are always at the core of any program. Examples include squats, deadlifts, overhead press, pull-ups, close grip bench press, dips, lunges, bent-over rows and floor presses.
Each workout should have at least two compound exercises.
Explosive Exercises — Movements requiring explosiveness are great because they increase strength, power, coordination, and recruit muscle fibers that other exercises leave behind. Examples of explosive exercises would be: jump squats, kipping pull-ups, push presses, cleans, explosive push-ups, jump lunges and cheat curls.
I recommend including one explosive movement per workout.
Isolation Exercises — Stop pretending you don’t like biceps curls. Sure, you can probably get big arms without them, but how sweet is that pump? Other examples include lateral raises, leg extensions, leg curls, cable flys, triceps extensions and calf raises.
For the purposes of specialization, I recommend adding two isolation movements per workout.
Unilateral Exercises — Specific to specialization programs, unilateral movements are effective because they recruit a greater number of High Threshold Motor Units. I normally recommend that your unilateral movements correspond with your heavier workouts for the purposes of maximally recruiting HTMUs. Examples of great unilateral exercises are: single leg pistol squats, single arm over-head presses, single arm dumbbell chest presses, Bulgarian split squats and dumbbell rows.
You should include at least one unilateral exercise per specialization workout.
Wacky Exercises — These are the exercises you aren’t really sure how to classify. Oftentimes, it’s stuff that crazy strength coaches like me come up with just to fuck with you. While they tend to be really bizarre things that make people look at you funny, they are often also radically effective and innovative movements that can help bring your training to the next level. Included in this category are: Siff lunges, fly-aways, javelin presses, drag curls, Bulgarian jump squats, lumberjack presses, renegade rows, side-to-side pull-ups and pike push-ups.
At least one exercise per training session should be new, innovative, and wacky. As a reference, check out the articles series “Exercises You’ve Never Tried” here on TMUSCLE.
It should go without saying that a lot of these may overlap: a wacky exercise may also be explosive, or a compound exercise might be somewhat wacky. Use your best judgment to figure out which exercises are going to make the program the most fun and effective for you.
A Note on Maintenance
One of the things I notice about most specialization programs in other magazines is that almost no one mentions how to train the rest of the body. You’d think increasing the size of a single muscle was as simple as adding in a few extra sets and whatever they decide the Chest Exercise of the Month is.
At best, you’ll see something along the lines of “put all other body parts on maintenance.”
It’s not that simple.
Correct manipulation of volume is tricky, and honestly, I like to err on the side of caution. I’d much rather have people do a bit too much for the prioritized body part and a bit too little for everything else. To that end, I really tone down the volume for other body parts.
When people make broad recommendations like “put everything else on maintenance” it leaves trainees with a lot of room to screw things up by doing too much and inhibiting results.
After all, what does “maintenance” really mean? You need to define it. For me, it means you need to accept that your focus is your focus, and everything else takes a back seat.
So when I tell someone to put something on maintenance, I mean they should train it as little as necessary. That means not losing strength or mass. In most cases, this is a lot less than you think.
The majority of people can hold onto muscle mass by doing a full body circuit once per week, which is is a pretty decent starting point.
I do understand the concern and fear of losing mass, and I’m not discounting the validity of it. I just take a more pragmatic approach to things. If all you care about is having big legs, who cares if it feels “wrong” to only train chest once every 10 days, or even less?
If at the end of the program you have bigger legs, you accomplished your goal and you and your big legs can go back to training chest again.
I’m certainly willing to agree that you can gain muscle—even as an advanced trainee—on programs focused on whole body growth, but the result is usually not impressive. I know there are a lot of great programs from a lot of great coaches that can lead to significant growth over a considerable length of time.
For me, that’s not good enough.
I believe in acceleratory, single-minded bursts of focused training, intentioned to produce dramatic results in a relatively short timeframe.
Given that mindset, specialization programs are great for someone like me. They’re quick, fun, and the visibility of the results are intensely satisfying.
Bigger arms in four weeks? Sign me up.
A shoulder specialization program is the perfect way to use the “bodybuilder illusion” to your advantage: get bigger shoulders and make your waist look smaller.
Specialization: results you can actually see.
About John Romaniello
Author, coach, and self-professed pretty-boy John Romaniello is the owner of Roman Fitness Systems, LLC, a personal training and online coaching business servicing the greater New York area. When not training professional athletes and aspiring cougars, Roman can be found playing D&D and starting fashion trends. Email him at: Roman@RomanFitnessSystems.com
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