As the New Year approaches it is again time to kick your bodybuilding progress into overdrive with a view to beginning 2010 in your best possible shape with the high energy levels and positive attitude pride in one's appearance can bring.
Found on Bodybuilding.com are a variety of training and nutrition programs, the likes of which are being constantly added to, and which will provide an informational foundation from which to build muscle and strip body fat in the fastest and most efficient manner possible.
However, while many programs are excellent in their description of what to do and how to do it and why, there are many tricks of the trade that can enhance and transform the effectiveness of any program to where it becomes more advanced, enabling even faster progression.
While a prescribed training routine including and stipulating three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions on the bench press followed by two incline dumbbell press/cable crossover supersets of 12 to 15 reps, for example, is great, it is what occurs during each set and on either side of it that really counts, the real nuts and bolts concerning the preparation, execution and maximization of all workout aspects.
The same thing applies to nutrition. Eating certain foods at certain times is a great start, but how do we incorporate supplementation to maximize the effectiveness of what we eat, and what are some of the often overlooked areas of sports nutrition that perhaps due to being too controversial are placed into the "too hard basket"?
Those who tend to progress fastest in bodybuilding - after the initial growth boost that accompanies one's early training efforts - are usually those who have experienced many years of trial and error, and have learned what works for them and discarded for good what doesn't.
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Some people never learn and continue to make the same mistakes over and over thus presenting themselves as the living embodiment of the term insanity.
The smart ones find patterns within their training that signal when something is working and note these indicators of progress. This applies especially to nutrition where individual metabolic requirements dictate what certain people can eat, at what times and the quantity of each meal.
With these thoughts in mind and considering that attention to detail and all aspects of the training experience will trump blind faith every time, I will now outline several key tips that can be incorporated into any training and nutrition program to advance bodybuilding progress.
Use them accordingly and monitor how they work for you. And remember there is a major difference between simply lifting weights from point A to point B and using these weights to their best advantage through excellence in execution and attending to factors that ultimately govern each set.
While the training and nutrition tips featured below are hardly revolutionary in their design and function, those who complain of slow progress unsurprisingly frequently overlook them. It is worth repeating that a workout is not simply a process of entering a gym, hoisting massive weights and going home.
There are many factors that dictate a workout's success. Once these can be understood and regularly considered and acted upon there will be much less frustration among those seeking bodybuilding success.
One of the more expedient ways to enhance blood flow to the working muscles is to fully stretch the top fascial layer positioned directly beneath the skin and which surrounds a grouping of muscle fiber bundles (each muscle fiber and bundle of fibers is also covered with their own fascial layer).
The most effective way to stretch this fascial layer is to hold the target muscle in a stretched position between sets for 15 seconds before flexing it to a full contraction for a further five seconds.
Perform this directly after one to two sets of each exercise. Stretching the muscle fascia in this way will allow for even greater gains as this layer can restrict a muscle's growth potential due to its holding the fibers in a specific alignment and in a certain configuration; stretching it out will enable the muscle it surrounds to eventually push through the fascial layer to become larger.
No Negating The Negative
One of the more common mistakes seen among those who train intensely is the lack of emphasis they apply to the negative (or eccentric) aspect of each repetition (the downward or lowering phase where the muscle under tension is fully stretched).
When training to failure with maximum intensity the body will often stop short of reaching a full negative repetition as a precautionary measure to preclude potential injury, as it is often during the negative part of a rep that muscle tearing can result.
Therefore, proper negative reps are very seldom done. However, though potentially dangerous if rapidly performed in an uncontrolled fashion, negative repetitions done correctly are essential for muscle growth as they further serve to stretch the muscle fascia while creating the muscle microtrauma necessary for individual fibers to heal and rebuild larger and stronger.
As with anything worth doing correctly, performing a negative repetition must be done with intense concentration and proper technique. To perform a negative, lower the weight from a complete contraction while controlling its descent at all points.
Once a full stretch has been achieved, immediately press the weight to the starting position in a fluid and controlled motion.
Though at certain stages during a set a slight pause might be necessary (at the completion or full contraction of a positive, or concentric, repetition), the perfect set should be completed with no interruptions, as one fluid series of negative and positive contractions.
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Eliminate Momentum And Sloppy Technique
The perfect set is also achieved through strict adherence to correct technique. Using momentum through excessive body movement - described in other publications as "the cheating principal" - is often touted as being an effective way to generate the assistance needed "to power the weight up".
However, "cheating" is also often practiced as an excuse to use sloppy form, which will not only compromise your gains due to insufficient tension on the muscles through a full range of motion but can also cause injury (a common site being the lower back through its excessive swinging when assisting the concentric part of a barbell curl).
To fully get the most from each set it is always best to maintain strict form. Considering the lifting of maximal weights to be the best indicator of progress, many people will attempt to force the iron up any way they can.
You see it all the time, especially when the bench press movement is performed: curving the back until there is enough room to drive a truck through while bouncing 300 pounds off your chest to create momentum will probably result in injury (a chest tear or lower back strain being likely candidates) before any appreciable muscle gains will be noticed.
By using a fraction of this weight while maintaining a slight back arch, and controlling the bar up and down while focusing on achieving a full stretch and complete contraction you will experience greater muscle development so when you do eventually tackle the heavier poundages you will have the muscle as well as the power to justify your strength claims and bodybuilder status.
Rest For Success
It is by now pretty clear that resting outside the gym is crucial for muscle recovery and subsequent growth, but probably equally important for, and an underestimated and under appreciated component when working towards size gains are the periods between sets.
While one school of thought posits the importance of shorter rest periods (less than one minute between sets), as these are thought to compound the intensity of that set and exhaust the working muscles faster, experience also suggests that longer delays (one to two minutes) can significantly enhance size gains (this author's experience certainly shows this).
Remembering that strict technique with the heaviest weight possible for 8 to 12 repetitions will promote muscle hypertrophy probably better than any other method it is then reasonable to expect that subsequent sets during the same session performed under these conditions will further create this desired stimulus.
However, if your sets are rushed and the rest periods between them are excessively short then the weights will need to be reduced and technique will often be compromised as the muscles under tension will be in a weakened state having not recovered sufficiently from the last set.
By keeping rest between sets to at least one and a half minutes your muscles will be properly prepared for the next intense set.
Though supersets - where two exercises can be employed back to back to compound the training stimulus (which can really be classed as one compounded set) - can be used sporadically to generate additional intensity, muscle will always respond best to optimal rest periods during which they are able to recover before creating as much force, if not more, with each passing set.
Prepare To Pump
There are various ways to ensure that the muscles being trained absorb as much blood and nutrients as possible: that they stretch to capacity to allow extreme growth over the long term.
Firstly it is important to begin each training session adequately hydrated (muscle cells are comprised mostly of water and will contract more forcefully when fully hydrated - without adequate hydration they will appear flat and will lack power) and with enough stored carbohydrates to power through each set to failure (carbohydrates - the major fuel component for anaerobic exercise - will ensure muscles generate enough energy to complete the necessary workload responsible for a full pump).
A light warm up of around five minutes of moderate aerobic exercise followed by stretching the muscles to be trained will also assist greater blood flow and training intensity, two major factors responsible for the expansion of muscle fibers that promote the pumping sensation.
By priming the pump before each workout the muscles can be more thoroughly worked - the psychological feeling of extreme tightness the pump creates also serves to boost training energy, which translates to better workouts and faster progress.
All of the training advice and detailed analysis of each and every workout component will mean very little if you lack focus during your workouts.
Elite bodybuilders know when to get down to business and have a seemingly innate ability to channel their focus into each and every set, to where a mind/muscle link is established and all that is relevant, important and desirable in their life at that moment in time is the completion of their next repetition.
A trick many a champion has employed to establish and maintain complete and necessary training focus is to run through what is to be achieved in the gym before they actually touch the first weight.
Knowing what you wish to accomplish and committing yourself to its attainment is the first - major - step toward realizing it. And this also encourages an ability to focus when applying 100 percent effort is needed.
If you have a certain expectation of yourself and know that you are capable of achieving it (even if it is slightly out of reach, which, for self-advancement, it should be), not meeting your goal will engender a sense of failure.
You may feel you have cheated yourself. The best way to ensure this does not happen is to focus on making your objectives reality. Operating from a self-constructed reality where nothing else is of importance, while knowing what is expected, will naturally foster the concentration needed to really focus on the work in front of you.
Doing this will, almost always, help you to reach any target you may have. Once training is done and you have achieved your objectives then you can step back into regular life.
Seamlessly transitioning back and forth between the training context and other areas of life, where focus is switched from one objective to the next and distractions do not warrant a moment's thought, is what real champions do best.
Train To Failure
Applying the focus, strict form, sufficient rest periods and nutrition already mentioned in this article will undoubtedly enhance training intensity, but training to failure, underpinned by all of the above, is what is needed to truly maximize a muscle's growth potential.
The HIT (High Intensity Training) method works on this very premise: that if a set is fully maximized there is no need for more within the same exercise. There is definitely merit to this approach and this is why most knowledgeable trainers will not advocate excessive sets, but rather will promote no more than three per exercise.
A perfect set must always end with complete exhaustion if maximal muscular stimulation is the aim. This means the last rep of a set - the most important - should be almost impossible to complete in good form.
Rather than using incorrect form to assist your lift or having your training partner hoist the weight from you (which can be employed sporadically in certain situations - when emphasizing negative repetitions, for example) it is always best to complete your final rep adhering to correct form.
And this is another reason for extending rest periods to around two minutes: if true failure is reached, so exhausted are the working muscles that it is all but impossible to move to the next set without first properly recovering.
Eat Before Bed
There is a divergence of thought on whether eating before sleep is good practice or not. An individual thing and something definitely worth exploring, consuming your final meal of the day before bed is in theory and practice a great way to ensure your muscles continue to receive the nutrients needed to promote recovery and growth.
Though people with a super fast metabolism can, and perhaps should eat carbohydrates (complex, or the slow digesting form) at this time, it is usually recommended that this final feeding is limited to protein, preferable low fat and casein-based and /or of a high biological value: cottage cheese and egg whites are perfect sources at this time.
An eight-hour sleep can be viewed in bodybuilding terms as an enforced fasting period. While this is of no significance to a normal being, for the bodybuilder with his requirement for a continual supply of nutrients to offset the catabolism caused by the high stress training he undertakes and to promote the high nitrogen balance from which protein synthesis occurs, it could negate all that he has worked toward establishing.
Some of the more hardcore amongst us even set their timer and wake to eat another early morning high protein meal. Now that is dedication.
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Fat Is Your Friend
Another myth worth dispelling concerns fat's reputation as an evil substance that if included in any diet will over time turn you into a blubbering mass of lard. In fact there are diets that advocate zero added fats.
The truth is fat is extremely beneficial for many reasons. First of all, the saturated variety produces cholesterol, which is valuable for forming and maintaining the integrity of cell walls and biological structures within the body.
It is also used to insulate nerve cells, generate the production of bile to process and digest fats and synthesize several critical hormones including testosterone (a key precursor to the development of muscle size and strength), progesterone and estrogen.
Essential fats such as the Omega-3 fish oils are also important for general good health and optimal physical performance.
Of course what is advised above does not provide an excuse to gorge on excessive saturated fat loaded foods. Saturated fats and the cholesterol they produce can indeed cause many health problems, heart disease being prominent among these.
Since the body produces around 80 percent of its cholesterol naturally, with around 15 percent coming from food sources, to maintain safe cholesterol levels requires achieving the correct nutritional balance of it.
If tests show your blood cholesterol levels to be normal (as with water and oil, cholesterol and blood do not mix, the result being the congregation of cholesterol - the LDL - low density lipoprotein - type - on artery walls) there should be few if any health concerns.
But don't completely neglect foods containing saturated fats and cholesterol (such as steak and egg yolks respectively), as these will help to ensure testosterone levels are optimal, and that bodybuilding results continue on the upward trajectory.
As far as trans fats are concerned these should be off limits to everyone. The hydrogenation process of oils that creates these fats renders them nutritionally inert and extremely harmful. Most commercially developed snack foods contain trans fats. Yet another reason to avoid junk food.
The Ultimate Anabolic Activator
Supplementation is becoming increasingly recognized as an essential component of bodybuilding success.
The big three in terms of muscle building and recovery are L-glutamine, creatine and whey protein and including these in one's diet - blended together in a "power" shake - two to three times per day is one of the most effective ways to boost training progress.
While glutamine and whey protein assist recovery and muscle building, creatine will ensure greater water volume within the muscles and the production of the energy molecule ATP to enhance training intensity and further, indirectly, support muscle growth.
Including all three of these supplements together will have the ultimate synergistic affect on size and strength.
Do Not Cheat
Though relaxing one's diet is thought to be a nice way to stave off the routine and boredom associated with strict dieting, and is touted as a way in which to boost the metabolic rate to further heighten the body's fat burning potential, in practice this "cheat day" system will probably cause more harm than good.
The so-called cheat days that are often cited as being psychologically beneficial for the dieter are really nothing more than an excuse to relent to one's emotions. To diet successfully you should not become a slave to your emotional needs.
Rather, you must aim to disassociate emotion from eating. There are even serious psychological disorders and addictions associated with eating and emotion. Eating for physical gains must become, as your training is: a tool used to reach a specific objective.
We do not plan sloppy training days where incorrect technique can be used, so why should we plan cheat days, where any food regardless of how detrimental can be gorged on?
Being a bodybuilder means you are a cut above the average person, that you are not a slave to compulsions and emotions, and that you know how to get the job done as far as fat loss is concerned (the bodybuilding diet emphasizing high protein, moderate complex carbohydrates and low - and only essential - fats is thought to be the best way to remove fat and maintain an ideal bodyweight).
To gorge on harmful foods that can hamper progress - foods that drain valuable energy resources and interfere with protein synthesis and muscle growth seems counterintuitive in the extreme.
If you are happy with mediocre results and enjoy eating harmful foods that is fine, but to be at your best requires proper nutrition at all times. And, yes, there are ways to structure your diet to where you can eat wholesomely yet not feel deprived (look for a future article on this subject).
More than an activity comprised of isolated components incorporated haphazardly - if at all - bodybuilding is one sport/art that demands all factors for success to be in place in perfect precision for the best results.
The several areas of importance detailed in this article have proven their worth for many physique champions. Indeed, what separates these people from the average muscle-head who plods along making very little progress from one year to the next is an enquiring mind that seeks new ways to grow, and an adherence to the so-called details from which all bodybuilding success stems.