Being strong is empowering: exhilarating, even, much like Rose must have felt out there on the bow of the Titanic. Before it met its demise of course.
Getting strong makes you feel more confident and capable – for everything that life tosses your way, including sinking ships (probably).
But I also like to look like I lift. Maybe I’m becoming a vain old lady. But I don’t care. Seeing my muscles get bigger and stronger is a reminder of all my hard work. Plus people don’t always realize an important truth: you can’t train only in that low rep, heavy range all year long.
First of all, it can be really hard on your body to train hard and heavy 100% of the time.
Second, it becomes really boring to do the same training regimen all the time.
And finally… at a certain point, you need to grow your muscle. That means less of the big heavy stuff and more of the higher rep, lighter movements. You want hypertrophy – that’s muscle growth – to happen.
That’s how I’ve been working during the last few months. My own coach, Jordan Syatt, has been introducing me to all sorts of hypertrophy work. And I’ve shocked myself with just how much fun I’m having in the gym. My joints feel great. I’m building muscle and getting stronger.
Like so many others who do hypertrophy training, I’ve been using several “old school” gym classics. The ones that bodybuilders have been using since back in the day, when Arnold and Lou Ferrigno went head to head to compete in Mr. Olympia. You can watch that play out in the movie Pumping Iron. It’s fantastic. It’ll get you pumped too.
Which brings me to these muscle pumping tricks you should try. There are scores of techniques that bodybuilders use to maximize things that will help you sculpt lean and mean muscle.
Why do they work? Because they play on some of the big mechanisms that allow muscle growth to happen: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Those three ideas are big enough that they deserve their own article.
But in short:
1. You need to be doing movements that maximize your time under tension. You’ll still include heavy enough lifting to exert large amounts of force.
2. You’ll do work that gets “the pump” – blood flowing into your muscle cells, will help your muscles grow.
3. Fatiguing your muscle fibers is a must. You wear them down – break them down, actually. And in repairing that damage you’ll grow them.
These techniques were used by lifters long before we even understood many of those principles that explain why lifters used them with success.
Serious lifters have tinkered and toiled with all sorts of training variables. It’s key to remember that not everyone will respond the same way to them. But there are many tried and true ways of building muscle that may help you get over humps, maximize your effort, and invigorate your time at the gym.
Give these a try as you move through your training year:
I’ve been doing them before my main lift of the day. This seemed crazy to me at first. Why would I want to wear myself out on purpose?
When you’re building muscle, your goal isn’t to PR your bench press total. It’s to build your muscles that help you bench press. Pre fatigue sets help you break down muscle tissue more effectively when you work on that big lift. They also help me connect my mind to my muscle as I prepare to do the big work. This allows you to work your muscles even better during your lift.
How to do them:
Before one of your heavy “big” lifts: like a bench press or a squat, use an isolation movement at a fairly light weight first. Before I bench press heavy sets of 6 reps, I might do 2-3 sets of something to target my pecs: like the squeeze press or a pec fly. It lets me both fatigue my pecs and also get a good feel for those muscles, which helps me hammer them better during my main work. Try 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.
If you want to maximize intensity and fatigue, a rest pause set can do the job. It also lets you squeeze in some more reps, giving you the opportunity to spend more time stimulating your muscles over the span of a set. These work especially well in slightly lower rep ranges. And they work great for not only building muscle but building strength. Particularly with moves that you feel limited to doing for only a few reps because they’re really difficult.
I used rest-pause training to get more quality reps done in my chin ups when I could only do a few at a time.
How to do them:
Complete your reps for your set. Let’s take lat pulldowns for 8 reps.
After you perform your set, wait 10-15 seconds.
Do your lat pulldowns again for as many reps as you can do.
Wait another 10-15 seconds. Then do it again.
You can add another mini set to your one big rest-pause set. Wait a few minutes, and then do 1-2 more rounds.
The Arnold called these “strip sets”. And no, you’re not stripping, though that would be quite something at the gym. But this technique allows you to fatigue your muscles like crazy, which is key to growth.
How to do them:
Use these as an accessory lift during your session. Start with a weight you can lift for 6-10 reps. Do as many reps as you can, then lower your weight. Either take plates off your barbell, grab lighter dumbbells, lower the weight on the cable stack… you get the idea.
Now immediately complete as many reps as you can at this lighter weight – which is usually 25%-30% lighter than what you chose the first time. It will be hellishly hard.
But wait, there’s more: lower the weight again. And maybe even one more time, for funsies. Do that. Now rest a few minutes, and do it all again.
Try 3 sets of drop sets the next time you frolic at the gym. I’m doing them this month with hammer curls and triceps press downs.
Create more time under tension to build more muscle. Eccentric sets slow down your movement during the eccentric, or lengthening muscle contraction. They also force you to maintain better control, which translates to better technique and bigger gainz.
How to do them:
Pick any move that you want to improve or focus on for more muscle building. I’ve used them on the lowering phase of a lying hamstring curl; the lowering portion of a pushup; the second phase of a lat-pulldown as I control the rise of the bar to its starting position. And an eccentric squat is a particularly brutal way to build strength and control by taking a full 4 to 5 seconds to lower yourself into the bottom position.
Keep the reps on the lower side for these, as you’ll already be spending more time on each rep. Anywhere from 5-10 reps is a sweet spot.
Training coach Bridget Schmitt of Guns and Poses Fitness is also a figure pro and powerlifter who loves (and loves to hate) AMRAP sets. AMRAP means “as many reps as possible” and it’s a tool for not only building strength and muscle: it allows her to test her limits.
“I like to be competitive with myself every time I lift. Mentally I have to push everything else aside when I AMRAP”.
How to do it:
Schmitt doesn’t always use AMRAP in her training, but when she does, she uses them after completing a few working sets. On her final two sets she pushes herself to take them to their limits – AMRAP.
Finishers – the final burn.
Want to make sure you REALLY fatigue and burn out a muscle group? Try a sweeping, final flourish using light weight and a ton of reps.
Jenny Leonard, aka “JennyB”, a nutrition/wellness coach with Guns and Poses, also competes as a bikini competitor in bodybuilding. She finds that many popular hypertrophy techniques like drop sets don’t work as well for building her physique. But she loves high rep finishers for building her glutes. Jenny uses banded hip thrusts, glute bridges, monster and lateral band walks, and body weight frog pumps to set her glutes on fire – and help them grow.
How to do it:
Pick a move to tack on to the end of your main strength work. I’ve been doing 1 set of 50 bent rear delt raises at the end of my upper body workouts. For glute work, I often do 2-3 sets of banded hip thrusts in an AMRAP, or create a mini finisher circuit of several moves that all target one muscle group.
If using additional weight, choose a load that is light enough to make these hard but completable. You may have to pause for a few seconds during the work, but try to keep it going with little to no rest.
Fit pro Tanner Baze shared one of his favorite variations for a final flourish: century sets. Perform them alone, or better yet, with a partner.
How to do them:
You complete 100 reps with light weight, and then your partner does the same. I imagined that you’d do this only one time, but gym crazies may actually do a few of these. The partner will definitely help keep you going because you may want to quit the gym about halfway in.
Run the Rack
Tanner also reminded me of another of Arnold’s favorite moves: running the rack. This is another workout finisher that turns that brutal, fatiguing work you do into a game of sorts.
How to do it:
Choose a dumbbell exercise for your last move of the day. Pick up some dumbbells that are heavy enough that you will only be able to do around 6 reps. Complete those reps, then put them back and immediately grab a pair that are 5 pounds lighter. Complete another 5-6 reps. Keep “running the rack” down until you hit a weight that is so light that you can easily do more than 6 reps.
All of these moves have the ability to boost your muscle building mojo. Many of them will feel hellishly hard. But your mind will stay engaged and I’m willing to bet you’ll have fun.
For the long haul, enjoying what you do and staying present during your workouts is going to help you make just as much progress as following a solid program. Stay present, work hard, and enjoy the process. Then go flex.
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