You see the actors, athletes, and singers on our covers and think, "There's not enough time in the day for me to train in order to look like that." It's their job, yes. But the part about you not being able to look like them? That's false. There is enough time in the day for you to stimulate the kind of muscle growth and weight loss that uncovers a six-pack and builds a wide, masculine physique. And you don't have to spend hours pre-dawn or post-sunset to achieve it. You just need to train smarter.
We consulted with Joel Seedman, PhD, strength and performance specialist and owner of Advanced Human Performance for the very best ways to maximize your time in the gym. These 10 techniques are designed to stimulate more muscle fibers, promote a greater potential for producing strength, and more. They'll allow you to fit in a relatively high volume of work within a short time period, effectively burning more calories, and improving metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning. If you put in the work, they're practically guaranteed to get you faster results.
And for the record, Michael B. Jordan had to work his ass off—in the beginning, he could barely bench 20 pounds—to look and move like a boxer of championship lineage. Check out his workout. For a lean, shredded physique like our January/February cover star Matt Bomer, check out his workout and eating regimen.
If you really want to maximize your time spent in the gym, you've gotta go back to basics. Seedman's first—and most important—tip is to master form, technique, and movement mechanics. "The better your form is, the more muscle stimulation you’ll create with each repetition of every set," he explains. Poor technique does the opposite. Lifting improperly not only increases your risk for injury, it minimizes the effectiveness of your training sessions. It's not exclusive to machines and free weights either. "I commonly see individuals perform pullups or chinups with faulty posture and incorrect shoulder mechanics, making the movement very ineffective for targeting their upper back," Seedman says. "They have to perform an almost-endless number of sets before achieving any significant stimulation in their back muscles." Ask a trainer in the gym (or a buddy who knows his stuff) to watch you while you perform a pullup. Correct any errors in your posture, grip, and execution. With proper technique, a few sets of pullups will be intense, for one, and more than enough to stimulate strength and size gains to the targeted muscles.
Want to learn how to execute proper pullup form? Rookie Mistakes: The Pullup
Gaining muscle isn't just a physical game—not if you're striving to take things to the next level. There's a mental component you're missing. "Individuals who establish a proper 'Muscle Mind Connection,' focus on activating the targeted muscles to produce higher levels of muscle stimulation," Seedman says. By actively thinking about the body parts you're working—say, your pecs during a dumbbell bench press—the movement has "a greater potential for producing strength and size gains, ultimately maximizing your workouts," Seedman adds. Try it out. Instead of mindlessly going through the motions, concentrate on using the muscles you’re intending to target.
Eccentric excercises emphasize the lowering phase of a move; you focus on your muscle lengthening, not contracting. To perform an eccentric isometric (isometric simply means pause or hold), lower the load slowly (a 3-5 second count), then pause in the stretched position for another several seconds, Seedman explains. After the isometric (pause), you want to forcefully drive the weight back to the starting position before repeating this cycle for your desired number of reps. "This method of training helps eliminate asymmetries, increase stability, enhance mobility, and optimize force production," he says. "Emphasizing the negative portion of the lift increases sensory feedback from the muscles, allowing the lifter to fine-tune their body positioning and adjust their mechanics." You can expect increased strength and size, improved muscle function, and movement mechanics. Better yet, you won’t need to complete as many reps. "Due to the potent nature of eccentric isometrics, a few sets of 3-5 repetitions on basic compound movement such as squats, presses, hinges, lunges, rows, and pullups will produce these benefits," Seedman says.
What the heck is PAP? Glad you asked. It stands for post activation potentiation and, essentially, you elevate your muscle performance by using contraction exercises. "Starting your workout session (after warming up) with a few heavy sets such as 80-90 percent of your 1RM for 1-3 reps will increase neural drive, activate more motor units, and increase overall force-producing capabilities," Seedman says. Typically PAP will only have a marked impact on power movements; so if you're doing 3RM front squats followed by box jumps, you'll likely jump higher than if you didn't perform the squat. "It’s as if you’re tricking your body into thinking all sets thereafter feel light in comparison, so you’ll be able to handle more weight for more reps on subsequent sets," he adds. Aside from increasing your strength and size, you’ll see a major increase in caloric expenditure during your gym sessions. If you’re crunched for time, this is one of the best way to maximize reps and load.
"By pairing opposing muscle groups or opposite movements together—such as biceps with triceps, or rows with bench press—you'll save time in the gym and improve your performance on both lifts," Seedman says. In short, the opposing muscles (i.e. back) will be working with your prime movers (i.e. chest) in a bench press, rather than against them. "This allows you to achieve greater force output and torque production, and can be employed for the majority of muscle groups and movement patterns," he adds.
It sounds complicated, but it's not. Compensatory acceleration is just a fancy term describing a scenario where you lift weight as powerfully and explosively as possible during the concentric (lifting) portion of the movement. The more you accelerate, the more force you can put into the movement. "The weight may move relatively slow, but as long as the intention is to produce maximal speed on the lifting phase, then the desired effect will be produced," Seedman says. This technique helps innervate (stimulate into action) more fast twitch muscle fibers, which have the most potential to grow, he adds. To really maximize the benefits, combine this technique with eccentric isometrics (Slide 3). You'll maximize both the lowering and lifting portion of each movement by providing your maximal effort, tension, and recruitment on all phases of the exercise. "Just make sure you don’t get sloppy with your form when lifting explosively," Seedman advises. "Think powerful-yet-controlled repetitions."
"Most trainees could save an incredible amount of time and effort if they stuck to the basics," Seedman says. "That means using heavy compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, bench press variations, overhead presses, pullups, rows, kettlebell swings, lunges, and plank variations." These are some of the most effective muscle-building exercises because they target the large and small muscle groups simultaneously. Take a heavy bent-over row, for example; this exercise hits the entire upper back while stimulating the biceps, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and rear delts. Mastering moves like this will add functional size through your body, aerobic efficiency, and—of course—strength. "For most athletes, 80-90 percent of the results they’ll ever achieve will come from basic, hard, and heavy compound movements," he adds. The majority of guys can stick to larger movements and heavy sets; that's more than enough to stimulate muscle growth. Isolation movements are suggested more for bodybuilders or guys with significant weaknesses in a specific body part.
"Bodybuilders, powerlifters, and professional athletes have produced incredible results by performing low-volume, high-intensity workout routines," Seedman says. By using this technique, you're decreasing the amount of work you’re doing, but working at a higher threshold and intensity. "Rather than performing 3-5 sets of a single movement, try performing 1-2 sets with each set taken to technical failure," Seedman says. "The set stops when your body is no longer capable of performing another rep with perfect form, not when you reach a pre-determined rep." The end result? Strong hypertrophy-inducing stimulus; you'll tax every muscle fiber. "Legendary bodybuilder Dorian Yates was known for performing high-intensity routines using only a handful of total sets per workout, yet always taking each set to failure and beyond, and he produced a physique many consider to be unprecedented in terms of size, mass, and overall muscularity," he adds.
"If you have access to a reliable training partner, try performing heavy negatives using supramaximal loads, or loads greater than your 1 rep max," Seedman says. "For example, if your max on bench press is 250lbs, you might use 275lbs and focus on lowering the load as slowly as possible." Once the weight reaches your chest, have your partner(s) help lift the weight back up. This is another highly effective technique for stimulating strength and size gains because it takes advantage of two of the three primary mechanisms of muscle growth, Seedman explains: mechanical tension and muscle damage. "The heavier-than-normal loads produce extremely high levels of tension within the muscle, while the emphasized eccentrics or lengthening contractions produce muscle damage known as micro trauma," he says. This is a highly potent combination. A few sets of several reps is all you need. Any more can be overkill.
Say you reach failure on a movement like the bench press; to ramp up the intensity, prolong the set by having your training partner assist with additional forced reps, performing partial reps, holding the weight at the mid-range position (static holds), decreasing the weight by 30 percent and performing additional reps (drop set), or racking the weight and immediately performing as many pushups as you can (compound set).
By adding high-intensity techniques as finishers once you reach technical failure, you'll fully exhaust and stimulate your muscle fibers. "These methods take advantage of the hypertrophy-inducing mechanism known as metabolic stress (or cellular swelling) in which case the lifter receives cellular volumization, metabolite accumulation, and muscle pump—all of which have shown to be advantageous when it comes to growth." One or 2 sets per muscle group involving high-intensity techniques are more than enough to trigger new muscle growth. Anything more can lead to overtraining fairly quickly.