July 31, 2011

Specialization - How To Effectively Shock A Large Muscle Group Into Newfound Growth

When a muscle that once responded well simply refuses to grow, a change needs to be made because what is being done obviously isn’t working. Therefore, the only real options are to:

Do less – or to simply stop training the muscle because it may be overtrained as is, and needs time to actually grow.

Do more – crank up the volume and hit it with a speicalization cycle. Basically you want to overtrain, and then give sufficient time to recover.

Since cessation requires no strategic planning or effort, the focus moving forward will be based on effectively developing a specialization cycle.

The parameters for specialization differ based on which bodypart is the main focus, but the general idea is to simply crank up the overall volume. This can be done by adding more sets, more reps, or more training sessions (or all of the above).

A specialization cycle should only focus on one major bodypart at a time, as the volume needed to shock a muscle to grow would be overwhelming, and completely counterproductive, if applied to more than one major muscle group at a time. In fact, since the volume is being increased, a sacrifice is needed elsewhere, so it’s a good idea to cut back the volume on all other bodyparts by roughly 40%, especially when prioritizing a large muscle group like the chest, back, or legs, as the goal is simply to maintain strength so you can pick up where you left off when the specialization is complete.

This is done by reducing the amount of sets, and reps being performed, NOT by lowering the amount of weight you are using. The weight should never take a back seat to the amount of work being done. An example of each would be to reduce 15 total sets down to 9, or reducing 90 total reps over the course of a workout down to 54.

Using the back as an example, an effective large bodypart specialization program could look like this:

Training split

Day 1 – Back and Chest (Full Recovery)

Day 2 – Back (Incomplete Rest Interval)

Day 3 – Back (Giant Sets)

Day 4, 5, 6 – Legs, Shoulders, Arms (which bodyparts you train, on which days, is up to you, just make sure to reduce the volume in one way, or another, by 40%, and if you can, try to fit it all in, in two days, that way you’ll have an extra day of rest)

Day 7 – Rest

Variety is the key when shocking a muscle as the goal is to recruit and fatigue as many muscle fibers as possible. Therefore, an assortment of exercises and loading parameters are needed.

Logically it makes most sense to lift heavy at the beginning of the week, as you’ll be able to use more weight when you’re fresh, and this will set the tone for the remainder of the week.

Also, the lower the rep total, the lower eccentric contraction total, which should minimize the amount of soreness, which facilitates the use of greater loads in the following workouts. However, soreness is generally indicative that fast twitch muscle fibers are damaged, as they are the ones preferentially recruited during eccentric contractions at the expense of slow twitch fibers, and the heavier the weight is, the more fast twitch fibers are recruited, leaving the slow twitch muscle fibers to take on the brunt of the work for the rest of the week, which is appropriate since the parameters shift in favor of greater time under tension at the expense of the load to deplete what little glycogen is left after each respective workout.

Exercises should be determined by the nature of the parameters for each given day. Logically, compound exercises should be chosen for the lower rep/heavy work, while isolation exercises are preferred for the higher rep/light work to fully exhaust the muscle through its entirety. Since the goal with specialization is to spur new growth, there is no need to use same exercises twice between the 3 days.

It’s necessary to balance the intensity and volume throughout the 3 days to allow for high quality work to be performed, but not so much that it reduces the ability to train hard on each respective day. Therefore, on day 1 and 2, only 2 exercises are needed, while up to 5 can be used on day 3 to really fry the musculature. That’s a grand total of 9 exercises divided over the 3 days, and there shouldn’t be a problem with selecting different ones for each day.

Since the goal is to recruit, then fatigue, agonists can be paired with antagonists on day 1, because doing so enhances motor unit activation (MUA) to the agonist of each movement, thus increasing the quality of work performed, while also increasing the rest interval.

Sample workouts

Day 1
A1 – Close-neutral grip chin up
A2 – Dip
5 sets, 4-6 reps, 2 min. rest between A1 and A2

B1 – One-arm dumbell row
B2 – Low incline dumbell press
5 sets, 6-8 reps, 2 min. rest between B1 and B2

Day 2
A – Close-neutral grip pulldown
4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1 min. rest between sets

B – Barbell row
4 sets, 8-10 reps, 1 min. rest between sets

Day 3
A1 – Chin up, 6-8 reps
A2 – Wide-neutral grip pulldown, 8-10 reps
A3 – Wide-overhand grip pulldown (leaning back), 10-12 reps
A4 – Wide-overhand grip pulldown (sitting upright), 12-15 reps
A5 – Straight-arm pulldown w/rope, 15-20 reps
3 sets, 2 min. rest between sets

The same parameters could very much be used for other large bodyparts as well, like the chest, or legs, for example.

Due to the high volume of specialized work, this type of routine should be limited to a maximum of three weeks. The goal with specialization is to overtrain for a very brief period of time, and then back off and allow your body to go through a period of supercompensation. This is when you will reap the benefits of all the hard work. If you don't allow your body to supercompensate, then you're efforts will likely be counterproductive.

If you have any questions about specialization, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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