“Why aren’t my muscles growing?” many of you ask yourselves. To answer, I’ll outline two pseudo bodybuilding workouts that I observed recently, which are representative of the training of many struggling bodybuilders.
It was George’s lower-body day. He started with abs: four sets of leg raises, and four sets of cable crunches. He grimaced as he did the final few reps of the last set of leg raises. He did them with straight knees, on a incline bench, which worked his hip flexors more than his abs, and irritated his lower back. Poor choice of exercise.
The cable crunch isn’t a bad exercise provided it’s done correctly; but when it’s done like George did it, it is a bad exercise. His rep speed was too fast. He jarred into the top position of each rep (and hyperextended his back), and then whipped himself down. Although he put in some effort, the stress on his abs was minimal, but the incorrect form irritated his lower back further.
Although his lower back was bothering him, he was still determined to squat, but in a Smith machine in order to “spare” his lower back. He set up with his feet well forward. After his warm-up sets he loaded the weight to his maximum for the day for a goal of ten reps. But with his lower back rounding a little at the bottom of each rep, his back woes worsened, and he ended the set after just five reps—long before his quads were worked thoroughly.
And he massaged his knees after the pseudo squat workout—the unnatural foot positioning had yielded irritation in his knees. He took a break for a few minutes, then moved to the leg curl.
His technique on the leg curl was decent, but he quit each work set a couple of reps short of what he could have done had he pushed himself properly.
Next was the leg press, but his lower back was bothering him so much that he quit after his warm-up sets.
What a wasted thigh workout. The Smith machine can be harmful to the lower back and the knees.
You should lean forward when you barbell squat, but you shouldn’t round your lower back. If bodybuilders who think they can’t barbell squat properly would work on their flexibility, and learn the proper technique of the barbell squat, most of them would be able to squat well enough to benefit greatly from the exercise.
With his pseudo thigh workout over, he moved to his calves: four sets of seated calf raises followed by three sets of standing calf raises. He worked hard on the seated calf work, but not as hard on the standing calf raise. The seated calf work hits the soleus hard (if trained with sufficient effort), but doesn’t do much for the gastrocnemius. It’s the standing calf raise that really hits the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
Much better to do a single calf exercise that works both major components of the calf muscle group, and train it hard, rather than to waste energy on an inferior exercise and then have diminished zest for the calf exercise that matters most. (If you insist on doing both exercises, at least do the better one first.)
George finished his lower-body workout with three going-through-the motions sets of back extensions. He’d long since given up on the deadlift, because he didn’t know correct deadlifting technique.
Then he went home, and anticipated a few days of having a sore back.
He had no intention of doing any stretching at the gym, or at home. So his tight calves, hamstrings, adductors and glutes would continue. So it was no surprise to discover that he wasn’t able to barbell squat correctly. With tight calves, hamstrings, adductors and glutes he was too jammed up to be able to squat safely and productively. His lack of sufficient flexibility would probably also prohibit him from being able to deadlift properly.
But not only was he not supple enough, he wasn’t knowledgeable enough on all of the specifics of how to squat and deadlift correctly.
Two days later, George was back in the gym. His back was still bothering him, but there would be no lower-body work today. Today was pecs, delts, traps, lats, and arms.
He started with the pec dec: a warm-up set, and three hard work sets. Genuine effort was given to the work sets.
Then he moved to the incline pec fly—one warm-up set and three work sets. The effort was decent in the work sets, but after each one George would massage his left pec. The exaggerated range of motion he used always irritated his pec-delt tie-ins, especially the left one.
The flat bench press followed. After two progressive warm-up sets, George did his usual three work sets. But because his energy was flagging, and his chest muscles were tired, he had an assistant help on most reps. Although grimacing, George didn’t seem to push himself much, but his helper had quite a workout assisting
For his delts, he did three work sets of laterals, with renewed effort. But when he got around to the seated press behind neck, he quit each work set at least two reps short of his best effort. And, as usual, the press behind neck irritated his shoulder joints.
Then he moved to the machine shrug, but he failed to shrug fully on each rep, and quit each of the four work sets a couple of reps short of what he could have done if he had pushed himself properly.
Next was the T-bar row—supposedly a warm-up set, and three work sets. But after the first work set, George’s lower back problem flared up. Of course, had he not done such a high-risk exercise to begin with—or at least used a chest-supported version, if he really had to do the T-bar row—then he wouldn’t have irritated his back.
He moved to the pulldown. His technique was decent, but his intensity of effort wasn’t high, so again there was no growth stimulation.
George was revitalized for arm work. The tricep pushdown was first. But his wrists started aching on the first work set, because he used a straight bar. (A parallel hand position, using a rope attachment, would make the exercise safer for his wrists.)
With his wrists sore, George moved to the close-grip bench press. With his hands almost touching, he got his sets done, but not with high intensity. Despite the further irritation to his already sore wrists from the close grip, George soldiered on.
The barbell curl followed, with a straight bar. George did close-grip and wide-grip curls. While both irritated his wrists, the close-grips were the worst. And the cheating he did on the final two reps of each set reminded him of the problems he had in his lower back.
His final exercise for the day was the concentration curl. He pushed hard on this.
Actually, it was only some of the small exercises that he pushed himself hard on.
Before he left the gym, he found a corner where there was no one else, and hit a few arm poses. Same size as last year—still under 15 inches—and the same as the year before.
“When am I going to start growing?” he thought.
Never, if he continues like that. More of what doesn’t work now for George, won’t work in the future. If something doesn’t work, change it!
What should George do? Effective bodybuilding workouts, not rubbish ones!
Much less quantity of training, fewer exercises, better selection of exercises, correct exercise technique, and much greater effort level. He should get into regular, well-structured, safe stretching, to produce the flexibility required to deadlift and barbell squat correctly. And he should learn what proper exercise technique is for the squat and the deadlift (and most other exercises).
Then, provided that he was sleeping well enough each night, eating as much nutritious food as he could without increasing his bodyfat, and allowing sufficient days between workouts for recuperation to take place, he would respond to the stimulation from his training by growing fractionally bigger muscles, which would enable him to get a tad stronger.
Then, if he maintained that stimulation-recuperation-progress cycle for month after month, and year after year, he’d be shocked with how much bigger his muscles would become.