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Unchained: Contraction Reactions

When lowering the bar, you should focus on pulling the weight down with your triceps. When curling to the contracted position, keep the triceps under tension but curl with the biceps.

Q: I am new to bodybuilding and lifting weights, and I often find it difficult to work my muscles as I should. Sometimes I just seem to be going through the motions and not feeling the muscle group I’m trying to work. When I do barbell curls, for example, I find my forearms and wrists burn but not my biceps. When I do bench presses, I feel my shoulders and triceps but little in my chest muscles. Is there a simple method of focusing on the muscle I’m trying to work, something not too complicated?

A: Sure, there are several things you can do. First of all, as you suspected, you can assume that if a muscle fails to respond, you’re not training it correctly. Even if you think you’re using textbook exercise form, training with high intensity and taking each set to failure or close to it, if you don’t feel a burn and ache in the target muscle group, your method is wrong. Here are a few simple rules to keep in mind when training any muscle group. Follow them, and you’ll get better results.

Rule 1: If you cannot feel a muscle as you train it, assume that you’re training incorrectly.

Rule 2: The purpose of lifting weights is to build muscle, not to see how much weight you can lift. You’re trying to work the target muscle group hard, to work it to failure. If you feel muscle exhaustion and muscle ache in the wrong muscle groups, it’s almost a given that you’re using too much weight for muscle isolation and bringing in other muscle groups to help lift the weight. Champs cheat to overload an already exhausted muscle group, but novices and intermediates usually cheat because it’s the only way they can lift the weight.

Rule 3: Arthur Jones used to say, find a way to make an exercise harder, not easier, and you’ll make your muscles work harder and your workouts more productive.

Rule 4: Focus on working the muscle, not on just counting repetitions.

Slow down your repetition speed, especially during the eccentric, or lowering, phase. Focus on keeping constant tension on the muscle and on getting a contraction in the muscle on each repetition. Think ‘stretch’ as you lower a weight and ‘squeeze’ in the contracted position. Say the words in your mind on each rep.

John Parrillo has his athletes use a push-pull method during their sets. They pull with the antagonist muscle group as they lower a weight and push with the opposing muscles as they lift it. Using barbell curls as an example, when lowering the bar, you should focus on pulling the weight down with your triceps. When curling to the contracted position, keep the triceps under tension but curl with the biceps. That method reduces cheating and helps work the muscle more effectively.

Q: How often should a bodybuilder change his workouts? I usually try to change every six to eight weeks, but I notice some good bodybuilders change their routines more frequently. How do I know when to change?

A: The most obvious answer to your second question is to change your routine when your workouts are no longer producing gains. If you’ve hit a plateau, it’s time for a change. Any kind of change will produce better stimulation. If you were performing repetitions in the six-to-eight range, simply increasing your reps to 10 to 12 will challenge your muscles in a new way. If you were resting two minutes between sets, reducing rests to one minute will increase muscle stimulation. Changing to new exercises will stimulate new gains. As I said, any change will do, but be aware that any change will only work for a short period. Then it’s time for a new approach again.

Although any kind of change will bring some benefit, I find it’s best for novices and intermediates to focus on how the repetitions are performed. Because they have not yet grooved the neuromuscular pathways to their muscle groups, frequent exercise changes tend to confuse them. Advanced bodybuilders can benefit from more frequent changes.

Although changing the number of repetitions and the volume of sets are the two most obvious ways to mix things up, some experts also change exercise tempo. Charles Poliquin, whom I consider one of the supreme strength experts on the planet and who trains many world-class Olympic and professional athletes, likes to use that method. He’s not just concerned with sets and reps. He likes to vary the repetitions while also changing the tempo of the repetitions’the time it takes to raise and lower the weight and the time the weight is held in the fully contracted position’and the amount of rest taken between sets. He has a number of preset workouts and planned variations that bodybuilders can use to increase strength or intensity or the amount of pump in the worked muscle.

Charles likes to list the variables so you have a goal for each rep and each set. That way there’s no confusion about the number of sets and reps, the tempo or the duration of rest between sets or between reps. When he writes a routine for an athlete, he prescribes the tempo using four numbers. The first is the duration in seconds for the eccentric phase, or lowering the weight. The second is the duration of the pause in the fully stretched position. The third is the time for the concentric, or raising, phase. The fourth is the duration of the pause in the fully contracted position.

To use an example, if he marked 5010 for bench presses, he would be telling you to take five seconds to lower the weight to your chest and one second to lift the weight to the fully contracted position, with zero rest in both bottom and top positions. If you were to do 3221 on bench presses, however, you would take three seconds to lower the weight, pause for two seconds at the bottom and lift the weight for two seconds, with a one-second pause at the top. To denote sets done with a slow eccentric and an explosive concentric’lifting the weight with as much acceleration as possible’Charles uses an X rather than a number, so the instructions for a set might read 30X1 (lower the weight for three seconds, lift it explosively as fast as you can, and hold it for one second in the contracted position).

Charles has found that world-class athletes adapt most quickly to the number of repetitions. In fact, most athletes adapt to a given number of repetitions in six workouts. Since you train most muscle groups twice a week, that means the maximum you should train a muscle with the same factors’number of repetitions, tempo and percentage of maximum’is about two weeks, three weeks at most. ‘After that,’ says Charles, ‘the rate of progress is so insignificant that it’s futile to continue the same program.’

I highly recommend Charles’ two treatises, Modern Trends in Strength Training and Winning the Arms Race. Both contain loads of state-of-the-art methods and training principles for developing muscle, strength and power. His athletes have won gold medals at the Olympics and top awards in the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball. Charles is world renowned for knowing how to get the best of every athlete he trains.

To order Charles Poliquin’s books and for information about articles, products, exercise equipment and upcoming seminars, go to or, or call (888) 797-7729. IM

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