Q: I notice that some of your ultimate exercises for each bodypart [listed in the e-book The Ultimate Mass Workout] are done on machines, and you include machine exercises, such as pulldowns and Smith-machine incline presses, in that e-book as well as your others [like X-traordinary Muscle-Building Workouts]. Most of the pros say to stay with free weights. If I want ultimate mass, shouldn’t I just stick with barbells and dumbbells?
A: Is it better to travel by horse or car? It depends on the terrain. Yes, in many instances barbells and dumbbells are best because they allow a more natural movement—more freedom. Machines tend to restrict the stroke to one plane, as in the vertical bar movement on Smith-machine incline presses or squats.
But—and this is a big but—whether your best individual choice is a barbell, dumbbells or a machine depends on the feel of the exercise, which is a function of a bodypart’s neuromuscular efficiency; that is, the nerve-to-muscle connections.
For example, I have low neuromuscular efficiency in my pecs. When I do incline presses with a barbell or dumbbells, my delts and triceps take over almost completely, and I get very little chest stimulation.
On the other hand, when I do incline presses on a Smith machine, I have to worry only about moving the bar, not balancing it, so I can better focus on my pecs—I can stay locked in on the target muscle and drive my hands inward isometrically to better innervate my upper chest. Plus, end-of-set X-Rep partials are easier to control on a machine, which adds to fiber recruitment.
Keep in mind that the huge bodybuilders who suggest all free weights all the time have superior neuromuscular efficiency in almost every bodypart. If you fall into that category, then, yes, free weights will probably be best for you on almost every exercise because you can target the appropriate muscles, getting optimal feel and innervation.
If you’re not in the genetic-superman category, a number of your bodyparts will require special attention to get a growth response. Those are your lagging muscle groups—and hardgainers have a majority of muscles that are slackers. If you can’t feel a bodypart working, it’s probably got deficient nerve connections, and you’ll have to experiment with various exercises, including machine work, to get at the most growth fibers possible.
Something else to consider: Some angles are impossible to attack with free weights. For example, the ultimate exercise for hamstrings is feet-forward Smith-machine squats. The key is the body angle, with your feet out in front of your hips as you squat. You can’t achieve that with a barbell unless you’re a levitation wizard. There is no compound free-weight exercise for hamstrings—stiff-legged deadlifts are a stretch-position move.
What about pulldowns vs. chins? Research shows that different lat fibers come into play depending on the angle of pull—in other words, the amount of torso lean emphasizes some sections more than others. You can’t vary your torso angle much, if at all, on chins. Don’t get me wrong: The chinup is a great exercise, but you should augment it with pulldowns as well—one set of chins, one set of pulldowns with a slight backward lean, one set of pulldowns with a more severe backward lean.
Anyone who makes a blanket statement that free weights are better than machines isn’t thinking things through. You must use all the tools at your disposal to create the best muscle development you can—and sometimes that means training on machines. Incidentally, Jay Cutler uses many machines, including a Smith machine for squats and Hammer Strength chest machines, regularly.
Q: I know the big, midrange exercises, like squats and presses, are most important for mass, but is the stretch-position exercise or the contracted-position exercise really the best follow-up for extra muscle growth? The reason I ask is that I don’t have a lot of time to train, so I’m going to do the ultimate exercise for each bodypart and one more, either stretch or contracted, whichever you say will give me the most growth.
A: Interesting dilemma. Both the stretch- and contracted-position exercises are important for different reasons. Each triggers growth along different pathways—but there’s an easy solution to your problem I’ll get to in a moment.
I often reference the animal study that produced a 300 percent muscle-mass increase—that’s a triple-size gain—in one month of progressive-stretch “workouts.” The researchers believe the stretch overload caused hyperplasia, or fiber replication, as well as hypertrophy.1
In a more recent study that produced significant growth via stretch overload, the researchers said, “Excess muscle stretch promotes the orderly lining of sarcomeres within muscle, leading to a stronger muscle contraction and setting the stage for architectural changes in the muscle that precede growth.”2
So stretch-position exercises like incline curls for biceps, flyes for pecs, sissy squats for quads, pullovers for lats, etc., are excellent for getting extra anabolic effects after you’ve done the big, midrange move.
Contracted-position exercises, like leg extensions, leg curls, concentration curls, pushdowns, etc., produce continuous tension and occlusion. Japanese researchers got an 800 percent mass increase with occlusion compared to standard training; that is, occlusion produced 800 percent better results, not an eightfold size increase. Other studies show that tension/occlusion triggers more lactic acid and muscle burn, which is key to growth hormone production, setting up an optimal anabolic environment.3
So which do you choose? The easy solution is to alternate them at successive workouts. At one workout do midrange and stretch; at the next workout for that bodypart do midrange and contracted. That’s split-positions training, and it’s very effective due to automatic variation.
In other words, the midrange exercise stays constant, but the second exercise alternates between a contracted-position movement and a stretch-position movement. You have an A and a B workout. For chest the A workout might have Smith-machine incline presses, the constant midrange exercise, followed by incline cable flyes, a contracted-position upper-chest move; the B workout would be Smith-machine incline presses again, followed by incline dumbbell flyes, a stretch-position exercise.
You can construct your own program with the ultimate exercises followed by either the stretch- or contracted-position move from Positions of Flexion—there’s an excellent split you can use below. [Note: The X-Rep-Hybrid Mega-Mass Program on pages 67-71 of the e-book Beyond X-Rep Muscle Building is set up as a split-positions workout. There’s also a home-gym split-positions program with basic equipment on pages 72-75 of that e-book.]
Q: As a practitioner of 3D Positions-of-Flexion methodology who’s seen tremendous results, I want to thank you for everything you contribute to the bodybuilding community. Additionally, I have a question regarding the original 10-Week Size Surge routine that worked so well for Jonathan Lawson [who gained 20 pounds of muscle on it]. I’ve seen great results with that program, but no matter how short my rest periods are, the first POF workout—legs, chest and triceps in Phase 2—always lasts well over an hour. Would the effects of the workout be diminished if I were to split it as follows: Day 1, legs; day 2, chest, triceps; day 3, back, delts, biceps, abs; day 4, rest; day 5, repeat? Would the single day of rest be enough to allow my body to recover?
A: If you’re young and an above-average gainer with high recovery ability, you may be able to get good gains from that three-on/one-off split, but you must ratchet down your intensity every four to six weeks. It’s what I call phase training. The split you’ve listed is a lot to bite off and stick with, however. Here’s a better solution:
Monday: Chest, triceps
Thursday: Back, delts, biceps, abs
Friday: Chest, triceps
Monday: Back, delts, biceps, abs
Thursday: Chest, triceps
Friday: Back, delts, biceps, abs
Notice that you work legs once a week, every Tuesday, while the two upper-body workouts alternate over Monday, Thursday and Friday. So the first week your chest and triceps get hit twice, and the second week your back, delts, biceps and abs get two hits—excellent change and recovery-time variation.
For a bit more leg work, you could add regular deadlifts to Friday’s workout when back falls on Friday (week 2 above); however, if and when you do that, eliminate most of the POF midback work that day. Deads are very taxing on your lower body as well as your back. [Note: Jonathan’s 10-Week Size Surge program is listed in the e-book 3D Muscle-Building.]
1 Antonio, J., and Gonyea, W.J. (1993). Skeletal muscle fiber hyperplasia. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 25:1333-45.
2 Seynnes, O.R., et al. (2007). Early skeletal muscle hy- pertrophy and architectural changes in response to high-intensity resistance training. J Applied Physiol. 102:368-373.
3 Gotshalk, L.A. (1997). Hormonal responses of multiset versus single-set heavy-resistance exercise protocols. Can J of App Phys; 22:244-255.