Lagging Muscle Groups: How to Fix’em?
Renowned athlete and bro-writer Christian Thibaudeau shares tips you might ask – in this case, about lagging muscle groups.
Secret Behind Lagging Muscle Groups
Every one of us has at least one stubborn muscle group that hardly grows (or grows noticeably slower than others), even on the most thoughtful and balanced program.
For example, when I became interested in bodybuilding after weightlifting, my pectorals and lats lagged behind against the background of deltoids and traps. This is understandable: the pectorals in weightlifting work the least, and the lats are mainly tense in statics. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with training to correct the imbalance. Let me remind you that the proportional development of muscles is important not only for aesthetic purposes (bodybuilding) but also important for athletic performance and health.
To fix lagging muscles, I developed a 5-level program correction system. In my opinion, before starting a specialization (when you stupidly increase the training volume and intensity for slowly growing groups), you should try to get by with the smallest program changes.
Of course, in extreme cases, you will have to increase the load and frequency, but first, you just need to analyze the situation and correct the most obvious mistakes. In short, if the problem is solved by means of the second level, it makes no sense to immediately apply the fifth.
5 Levels on the Road to Aesthetic Body
Level 1: Obvious Flaws
Let’s look at the main reasons first.
A. The lagging group does not receive enough load to grow
- Most people train their upper body diligently and neglect the lower part. At the same time, the upper muscles are worked out many times over with different exercises: triceps, delts, and pectorals are involved in pressing movements, biceps, forearms, and so on in traction movements. Plus separate exercises for each group. As a result, it turns out that the shoulder girdle is loaded directly or indirectly three times a week, and the legs – only once. It is not surprising that they are lagging behind.
- The other extreme is the lack of separate exercises for small muscles (biceps, triceps, forearms). This approach was popular a few years ago: “do only “basic” multi-joint exercises“. And I understand it, because, while competing in weightlifting, I increased my delts and arms to some extent. However, if these muscles are not naturally responsive to you, additional work will be required for hypertrophy.
- Someone simply does not like to pump certain muscle groups and, when their turn comes, they work carelessly. Understand that mechanical training is not enough to develop balanced muscles. You need to concentrate on training and give all your best over and over again. If you’ve been messing with a group for years, it will fall behind anyway.
B. Current (or past) trauma causes
Current (or past) trauma has led to decreased activation of a specific group and the development of compensatory mechanisms – other muscles intercept the load in the exercise.
C. Neurological problem
For example, I once had a pinching of the nerves of the cervical vertebrae caused atrophy of the triceps and posterior bundles of delts (it was not possible to fully activate them in exercises, stimulating hypertrophy).
D. Cheating or reduced range of motion
If health is in order, lag may be caused by cheating or reduced range of motion. I have repeatedly encountered in the gym guys whose biceps are 10 centimeters smaller than mine, although they worked with larger weights. There was a caveat: I did not cheat and did full range flexion, but they did partial reps, helping with other muscle groups. I understand that I want to boast of the lifted weight, but the quality of movement is more important for hypertrophy.
Level 2: Choice of Exercise for the Lagging Muscle Groups
Everything is simple here: if in an exercise for a certain muscle group you do not feel how it is contracting, then you need to select a different movement.
Even if your best friend, the biggest athlete in the gym, or a scientific expert advised you to do this wonderful exercise, it may not work for you. People differ not only in character: some have long limbs, some have short ones, some have more delta activation in the bench press, some have pectorals, some have quadro-dominant, and some have stronger muscles of the back surface.
When we lift weights, the body looks for the easiest (that is, the most efficient) way to perform, loading the muscles that it knows how to use best.
So at this level, analyze all the exercises for the lagging muscle group – can you feel how the target muscle is working in them? If not, pick up a replacement.
No matter what anyone says, there are no “must” exercises for everyone. Do what helps you personally.
Level 3: Selecting Exercises For Other Muscles
A very effective (but rarely used) way to overburden a stubborn group is to do exercises for the other muscles so that they also have to connect.
Biceps lagging behind – do more rows with a supinated grip, train your legs with a Zercher squat or goblet squat, for a trapezoid try shrugs on a block or curled arms (Kirk shrug), for GP/cardio work on a rowing machine, and so on.
Triceps lag behind – in chest and delta workouts, instead of isolation, do more pressing movements, try a narrower grip in all presses (not before touching the hands, just normal), add a pullover or block deadlift with straight arms to your back workout, work trapezes with shrugs with a barbell over your head, etc.
Deltoids lag behind – in chest workout, press more on an incline bench (head up), for the back more horizontal pulls, train your biceps on an incline bench, work out triceps with push-ups on the uneven bars, and bench press with a narrow grip, for legs try goblet squats with a large number of repetitions and etc.
The calves are lagging behind – do more exercises while standing on foot, add a farmer’s walks or pushing sleds for general physical training, train delts with a push press, and for the back, try simplified TA movements, for example, lifting the barbell to the chest in a half-squat, etc.
The glutes and hamstrings are lagging behind – try a deadlift with an emphasis on the upper back, add simplified versions of TA movements or snatch/jerk pulls, hyperextensions, more sled push for general physical training, etc.
Quadriceps are lagging behind – choose options for deadlifts with more load on the legs, push press for deltoids, pushing sleds for general physical training, more standing exercises, etc.
Traps lag behind – work your legs with a Zercher squat or goblet squat, multi-repetitive lunges, and a deadlift with a trap bar, for the back, do the Romanian deadlift and Zercher tilt, do biceps curls while standing, overhead extensions for standing triceps, increase the range in lifts through the sides for delts (lifting dumbbells above the shoulders), etc.
Level 4: Neuromuscular Tuning for Lagging Muscle Groups
Even with ideal exercise choices, muscles can grow poorly because you can’t fully activate them by recruiting as many fibers as possible. The brain-muscle connection is weak, and you simply cannot work out the backward group properly.
Find more on that here – Mind-Muscle Connection: How to Build It?
The good news is that deliberate contraction is a motor skill developed with regular practice. Choose an exercise that feels the best for your target muscles and do it every workout (and even at home). You don’t need a lot of volume or intensity, just try to squeeze stubborn muscles more often.
When it’s time to train the lagging muscle groups, try the following techniques:
- Isometric pre-fatigue: at the beginning of a working set with problem muscles, pause (this could be the endpoint of the movement or somewhere in the middle of the range – where you feel better) for 20 seconds, and then do the set number of repetitions as usual.
- Superset pre-fatigue: before the multi-joint movement for the lagging muscle groups, do the isolation exercise. This will help you better incorporate it into the “big” exercise.
- Pre-fatigue: the same, but not a superset; do one or even more isolation exercises before polyarticular.
- Contrasting tempo: alternate 2 slow repetitions (up and down for 5 seconds) and 2 regular repetitions for a total of 8-12.
- Partial reps pre-fatigue: sounds like an isometric, only do 5-10 partial reps where you can best feel the lagging muscle group, then move on to the full 6-8.
Level 5: Specialization
This is already a completely extreme measure: the training program is almost devoted to the stubborn muscle group, the rest of the muscles is a supporting load. For a detailed description, a separate article is needed, here I will only list the basic rules:
- Specialize only in 1-2 muscle groups and for a short time – 3-4 weeks;
- Significantly reduced volume for the rest of the musculature, especially for the synergists of the “chosen” muscle; for example, when specializing in deltoids, it is necessary to work out the chest and triceps less;
- Load the “specializing” group mainly with isolating exercises (about 75% of the volume) and 3-4 times a week, support the rest with multi-joint 1-2 workouts;
- Keep the weekly training volume the same. If, for example, you had 80 working sets before specialization, then temporarily allocate 60 for the problem group, leaving only 20 for the others.
Bonus: How to Fix Muscle Asymmetry
If obvious asymmetries develop (for example, the left biceps is noticeably smaller than the right), I use a very simple method for balancing.
First, I start with the unilateral exercise. Moreover, at first, I do it with a STRONG arm (or leg) and to failure. The resulting number of repetitions is the target for the weak side. Of course, they cannot be completed in a row, so I take short rest pauses (10-15 seconds each) until I get the desired quantity.
Then you can have another unilateral one or immediately the next one – with an independent load for both sides (for example, with two dumbbells). And then the final one – with a barbell or on a simulator with one handle, so that both sides work together.
If the muscle asymmetry is very significant, then do at least 2 unilateral exercises and 1-2 with an independent load.
See more topics:
- Building Killer Deltoid Muscles: Step-by-Step Guide
- How to Overcome Genetics in Bodybuilding
- How to Get Massive Calves: Is it Possible?
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