1. Stability Is King
Let’s use the extreme example of the naïve trainee who’s attempting to shoulder press while standing on a Bosu ball. Now, this person may be doing something which is ‘hard’, but it’s hard for all the wrong reasons.
The key principle for muscle growth (for most people) is always going to be progressive overload while maintaining perfect form. You need to challenge your body to do more each time if you want it to grow. The problem with the aforementioned exercise is that while it’s considered ‘hard’, it’s all for the wrong reasons.
Instead of attempting to lift heavier loads with good form, you’re more worried about not trying to fall over. Your resources are going towards ‘maintaining the house on the sand’, as opposed to have a solid base to build upon.
When you’re stable and set in the right position for all exercises, you’ll be able to produce more force, which in turn will translate to more weight being used, or more reps achieved. Which is what will add up in achieving improvements in your physique.
How do I become more stable?
The scope of this answer deserves an article itself, so I’m going to give more high-level pointers here that you can immediately implement into your training.
If you’re not stable, you’ll experience some of the following:
- Injury in a specific joint
- Limbs or joints moving from side to side when pressing or pulling
- Whole body movements swaying or shifting when lifting
- Your progression on one particular exercise has stalled while others are increasing
- You can’t feel your muscles contract
- Create full body stiffness. This applies all the way from your feet pushing into the floor, right up to the head pushing against the bench.
- Grip the bar tighter. By doing so, you’ll create an irradiation effect throughout your entire body while allowing the muscles to engage in sync together.
- Keep your shoulders blades together back and down. This applies to most upper body lifts.
- Push your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes. This can apply to a wide range of both upper and lower body exercises.
- Practice breathing and bracing correctly. Few things will have as much of an impact on your spinal health, posture and ability to recruit while stable as this will.
- Focus more on the muscle. Create an even stronger internal focus on the muscle in question to improve stability around the nearest joint.
- Remove energy leaks. The ‘tighter’ you can be, the less leaks there’ll be in the body that could potentially bring the house down.
2. Doing More
3. Stack the Joints
What happens if I don’t stack my joints?
You’ll find this issue occur most often in pressing, pulling and/or single joint movements that involve the wrist. A large part of creating more stability and improving qualitative progression starts in the wrist. You’ll find that if you don’t control the wrist (as in the bench press example earlier), you’ll create instability, faulty recruitment patterns, improper ‘force transfer’ and expose yourself to injury.
4. Internalise Your Focus
The topic of ‘thinking about squeezing your muscles’ has been a hot topic in the fitness industry. For some, it’s the best thing since sliced bread. For others, it’s a waste of effort. The answer? As always, it’s somewhere in the middle.
You can’t expect to squeeze your way to a better physique by just picking up light weights, exaggerating a slow tempo and thinking deeply about the weights. At the same time, you can’t just heave weights around with no focus on which muscle you want to target.
If your goal is body composition, you focus in general should be keep your mind in the muscle and make it work as hard as possible.
At the same time, using a 6 second negative, a 3 second concentric and a 3 second peak contraction would be overkill. If you place all your emphasis on squeezing, you forget a big tenant of muscle building: progressive overload.
Instead, you need a combination, and to play the movie of every rep of every set from both an internal and external perspective.
If your goal is a bigger chest bench press, you should be taking this approach:
- External (how the set looks from the outside): you need to be thinking about completing all the reps with the right form while stacking the joints, setting records and being able to move the weight from A to B.
- Internal (what you think about during the rep): you want to think about your chest lengthening, contracting and tearing apart, so when you do move the weight from A to B and provide overload, it’s the chest that’s being stimulated on every rep.
It’s easy to keep adding weight to the bar and forget about your technique.
As you get a little more experienced, and you’ve learnt the basic technique, that’s when you find the middle ground and develop a stronger internal focus into your reps. When you’re advanced, you can marry the two without taking anything away from each other, and this is what helps you continue to make progress past the beginner gains.
There is one caveat to this. If you’re struggling to feel a muscle working during an exercise, or you’re struggling to engage the muscles when trying to be stable, then it may be appropriate to ‘think and squeeze’ before applying the first three tips.
The Perfect Rep
It’s when all the joints are lined up to produce maximum force.
It’s when you feel the target muscle through every inch of the rep.
It’s when you can do this for as many reps of a set throughout a workout that you’ll start to repeat the benefits of your training program to the maximum.
Remember, 3 sets of 8 doesn’t mean anything on paper. It’s all in the execution.