It’s very rare that a physique athlete is “built for the stage” from birth.
Sure, genetic freaks exist, but almost everyone has a body part (or two, or a few) that are a bit smaller, weaker, or less proportional than others.
WHAT ARE LAGGING BODY PARTS?
Logically, since we are attempting to get on stage with as much muscle as possible, you can probably guess lagging body parts are smaller than they need to be — and you would be correct. This is the most obvious “lag” there is.
However, there is also a need to consider symmetry within our sport.
Symmetry, according to the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation, is “judged on balanced proportions; upper and lower body should not overpower the other, and no one body part should overpower the rest of the physique.”
For example, let’s just say that your biceps are, on their own, just as large as most of the athletes of your height that you share the stage with. However, because you have very wide clavicles and extremely large deltoids, your biceps appear small in comparison. So, despite their individual size, your biceps need to be bigger to enhance your upper body symmetry in the eyes of the judges, and now could be considered a lagging body part even though they are not technically small.
ARE YOU SURE THEY’RE REALLY LAGGING?
Once identified, how do we fix weaker muscle groups? While some people think the only logical answer would be to put that less fortunate body part to work and up its volume, there are some things we must consider before making such a decision.
The following “boxes” must be checked off beforehand so that you are not adding unnecessary training volume that could cause a greater need for recovery and/or leave your more susceptible to injury.
Are you completely sure that your exercises are targeting the desired muscle group(s)? It’s quite common that someone’s “lagging part” is simply never getting worked due to poor form or improper mechanics.
Are your lats actually doing the work when performing pulling movements? (If you’re not sure, maybe THIS ARTICLE could help.)
Are you benching primarily with your anterior delts instead of your chest? Or maybe your “weak glutes” could be due to your lack of depth during squats or your quad-dominant hip thrust performance.
While the purpose of this article is not to fix every mechanical error, it’s important to note that a muscle group may seem unresponsive, when in fact it is simply being under-stimulated.
Film yourself training, seek credible advice on proper exercise technique as needed, and focus a bit on that good ole “mind muscle connection” to ensure you work is paying off as intended.
Many of us enter the sport of bodybuilding in hopes of improving our appearance. Let’s face it, being able to see the muscles you work for is pretty cool.
But because of these desires for favorable body composition, chronic dieting is a very common problem for those who would like to gain size. Even when you understand that being in a caloric deficit year-round is not ideal, there is still this fantasy of how great it would be to maintain your bodyweight while growing muscle underneath the fat. You know, the ever elusive “recomposition” that sounds so desirable.
While this is a possible feat at some points in an athlete’s career, it is not the norm. At times, a true caloric surplus is needed to see substantial growth. You might have to lose your abs for a while in order to grow those lagging delts or quads. This is a difficult, but sometimes necessary route for anyone in need of maximizing their growth potential.
SUFFICIENT TIME WITH A SYMMETRICAL PROGRAM
Before you go throwing yourself into a program to attack your weaknesses, you must first ensure that you have given them a fair shot to begin with.
It’s easy to walk into a gym and spend your first few months doing exercises you’re good at. If you have a strong bench press compared to your back squat, you might find it more enjoyable, and perform it more often or with more vigor. This may lead you to think your legs are weak or small, when they are simply getting less attention.
Another reason you might over-power certain parts of your program unknowingly is because you are happy to visually observe the process. Maybe your biceps and delts get hammered out because you can see yourself getting a pump in the mirror during your workout and find this motivating. But if you do this too often, it might leave your back and triceps behind.
If you haven’t already done so, write out everything you do and make sure your volume is equally distributed. Then, run a fully symmetrical training cycle for a few months. Make sure muscle group gets it’s fair and equal share of the training pie before you prematurely deem a forgotten muscle group as a weakness.
CURRENT PROGRAMMING FOUNDATIONS
Since we are talking about bodybuilders here (and not powerlifters), it is quite possible that you might be a pump chaser. You might be one of those people who loves “the burn” and will try to make every set of every exercise take you to a vascular paradise in the 15 to 25 rep range.
While this might seem like a great way to accumulate obscene amounts of repetitions and bulging veins, you could potentially be missing out on the benefits of some higher load training and the mechanical stress that comes with it.
To lay it out quickly and efficiently as to why both low and high intensity exercises should be included for maximal hypertrophic potential, here is a quick snippet from The Muscle and Strength Pyramids:
Issues With Both Low And High Intensity Training.
In 2002 Campos and colleagues showed that with equated volume, 3-5 repetition maximum (RM) loads and 9-11RM loads produced the same amount of hypertrophy, but 20-28RM loads produced less muscle growth .
Also, in a recent study by Schoenfeld , a group doing 20-35RM sets performed three times the total repetitions and twice the volume load as a group doing 8-12RM sets, but achieved the same level of muscle growth.
This disparity in growth despite equal or even greater volume, is because of a concept called “effective reps”. [If we were to hold a pencil as our weight while performing bicep] curls to failure, it will only be the last few reps where we are actually causing enough fatigue and therefore additional fiber recruitment to effectively train our muscles to a point where they might have to adapt, and get bigger.
One thing also worth pointing out here is that according to Dr. Schoenfeld, a significant portion of the participants in his study in the higher rep group experienced a great deal of discomfort during the study. Vomiting during training was a common occurrence. This is important to consider because if you are to use high repetition sets, to ensure you are activating and training enough fibers, they do need to be taken near to failure. Considering that even when taking these high rep sets to failure, that the growth response is less than when using moderate or heavy loads (if volume is matched), the utility of 20RM or lighter loading should be seriously questioned.
To sum up high repetition light load training, growth can certainly be achieved, but it comes at a cost, and may not be as efficient as moderate or heavy load training . Does that mean you should never do any training heavier than 12RM? No not necessarily. In theory, including some high repetition training may be more effective for overall growth as it could theoretically be more effective for training slow fatiguing muscle fibers . That said, this hasn’t yet been adequately researched.
Also, the research showing the superiority of heavier loading over light loading doesn’t mean that we should do a 180 degree turn and solely rely on heavy training either. As I previously mentioned, Schoenfeld also did a study comparing 3RM to 10RM loads and found equal muscle growth, but greater strength in the 3RM group . Slam dunk for the 3RM group right? Not necessarily. First, if your only consideration is hypertrophy, strength isn’t a concern (you could make an argument that for long term progressive overload strength gains are important, but I would put forth that both groups got stronger, and getting stronger, not how much stronger you got, is what is key to continued growth). Second, the 10RM group was able to finish their training in a fraction of the time it took the 3RM group to finish. The 10RM group reported they felt capable of doing much more volume had they been allowed. Third, the 3RM group experienced more joint pain, had more drop outs due to injury than the 10RM group, and regularly felt beat up and tired. So as you can see, from a practical stand point, there are issues with using only heavy or light loading exclusively for hypertrophy. For light loading, it forces you to go near to failure, turning each session into a potential puke party, just to get on nearly (but not quite) equal footing as moderate or heavy loading. When only using heavy loads, the time cost is much higher, the strain to joints and soft tissue is higher, and the overall fatigue generated is higher even at the same level of volume compared to moderate loading.
BASES COVERED – WHAT NOW?
In summary, calling a body part “lagging” before ensuring your program has covered the aforementioned bases could be a costly mistake. The addition of training volume to take care of a problem that doesn’t exist can force you to accumulate unwanted fatigue, cause excessive stress on your joints (especially if the cause of the lagging muscle group is poor form), and simply take away volume from other body parts that could continue to benefit from it over time.
But, if you’re sure the foundation is laid well and your weaknesses are indeed, weaknesses, you can address them in a methodical manner.
My next article in this series will discuss just that — how to implement specialization cycles within your programming. See you then!
- Campos, G.E., et al., Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance- training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2002. 88(1-2): p. 50-60.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Effects of Low- Versus High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res, 2015.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci, 2014: p. 1-10.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2014.