Times have changed. Gone are the days when people were satisfied to build and shape a physique that would look good at the beach, but would leave you wheezing after climbing a flights of stairs. Today people have higher expectations. Gym-goers now demand athletic, functional muscles that perform every bit as good as they look – if not better. Think Porsche® SUV: broad-shouldered, do-anything capability, with sports-car handling and performance.
Now that doesn’t mean the training strategies of old are obsolete. Fact is, they are still the basis for most successful workout routines. Tweaking some of the old methodologies, and incorporating some of the new, will have you on the path to a physique that screams, “built for action.” Here are our top 10 tips to building strong and functional muscle, plus a hardcore workout that brings it all together and delivers incredible results… that is, if you’re up to the challenge!
TIP#1 Pick Up the Tempo
Slow-on-the-way-down; slow-on-the-way-up; six-seconds-up; three-seconds-down: these are axioms that have been used to describe the speed at which an exercise should be done. There are many ways to perform a rep, but if you want explosive muscle, then your training tempo should be explosive. For any concentric movement of an exercise, the tempo should be fast and forceful. Fire the weight, or blast through the movement with as much power and speed as possible – while keeping proper form.
Recent research presented at the International Conference on Strength Training showed that metabolic stress was much greater when the subjects lifted (during the concentric phase of the movement) as quickly as possible. These findings revealed that explosive contractions trained for a higher volume and with moderate weight were the most effective for achieving the dual goals of fat loss and muscle development. Another study confirmed this and showed that subjects who lifted with an explosive tempo had 11% more energy expenditure and burned 5% more calories for the hour following the training. The take-away from this research is that, if your goal is to build a lean, functional physique, using maximum safe speed during your lifts is more beneficial than using a more moderate tempo.
TIP#2 Go Ballistic
Now take the explosive technique to the next level, and you get ballistic training. This training method was first used among elite athletes who were looking for a way to develop the type of speed-strength you see in high jumpers, shot putters and Olympic weight lifters. What’s the difference between ballistic training and other methods? With ballistic training you accelerate through the movement and then release the weight into the air. The most common ballistic training exercises are bench throws, jump squats, cleans, snatches, and push presses. Ballistic training literally forces your body to recruit and trigger fast twitch muscle fibers. And if you’re looking to increase strength and muscle size, these are the muscle fibers that you want to engage. In traditional training you accelerate the weight on the concentric portion over the first-third of the lift. During the other two-thirds of the lift, the weight decelerates and then stops. With ballistic training, the weight is accelerated through the whole range of motion and only starts to decelerate after you have released the bar – or in the case of jump squats, after your feet have left the floor. To perform ballistic training properly you should explode all the way through the range of motion until the point the bar leaves your hands or your feet leave the floor. If you want world-class speedstrength, then it’s time to go ballistic!
Tip#3 Dynamic Stretching
To maximize your training progress, and to avoid injury, stretching should be an essential part of your regimen. But there are different forms of stretching, and they don’t all yield the same results. The typical stretching routine involves doing some static hurdler stretches or toe touches before you squat — but what most athletes and hardcore trainers don’t know is that research shows static stretching prior to a workout or competition can actually decrease performance. Instead, always go through a warm-up period (light running, riding the bike etc) then do dynamic stretching to loosen up the muscles and get the blood flowing. Static stretching post-workout or event is the only time to do it. Below is a list of dynamic movements you can do before training.
- Neck Rolls
- Shoulder Rolls
- Shoulder Circles
- Trunk Rotation
- Hip side to side
- Toe Touch side to side
- Leg Swings
- Hip Circles
- Knee Raises
- Calf Raises
Tip#4 Follow the DOCCS Advice
Deadlifts, Overhead Presses, Chins, Cleans and Squats are the most functional exercises you can perform. These five exercises can be considered the kings of functional movements. All of them force you to use multiple muscle groups and stabilizers. Each one also incorporates a different combination of muscle groups for the concentric movement than is used during the eccentric movement. Most athletes looking to gain explosive strength make these five exercises the basis of their workout routines. And for good reason, they have been proven time and again to produce incredible results that you just can’t achieve any other way. If your goal is strong, functional muscles, make the DOCCS a major part of your workout routine.
Tip#5 Get A Grip
By training with thick grips or oversized bars you dramatically increase hand tension immediately producing an increase in joint flexion and extension, and dramatically increase the recruitment and strength of surrounding muscles. The theory of using thick grips and oversized bars is based on Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation that states: A muscle that’s working hard recruits the neighboring muscles, and if they are already part of the action, it amplifies their activity. The neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle reach other muscles and “turn them on,” similar to the way an electric current starts a motor. Here’s a little test to prove Sherrington’s Law: Make a fist and squeeze with just your hand, next make a fist but this time squeeze your hand and flex your arm at the same time. You should notice you can squeeze your hand a little bit harder. Last, try flexing every muscle in your body while making a fist, including your abs and glutes. You should notice that this is by far the hardest squeeze you can produce and the whitest your knuckles will turn.
The next time you train, grab the thickest bar, rope or grip you can find, or get a pair of those commercially available thick grips, and watch how fast your overall strength increases!
Tip#6 It’s Tabata Time!
Tabata training is a form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and it more than lives up to that “high-intensity” label! Research has shown that this style of training has greater impact on aerobic and anaerobic systems, and produces far greater results, than moderate intensity training. Tabata can be simply explained as 20 seconds of intense training (completing as many reps as possible during the 20 seconds), followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is repeated for 8 rounds and therefore only lasts 4 minutes. You can do Tabata with one exercise, or you can incorporate up to 8 exercises into your 8 rounds. Adding Tabata 2 or 3 days a week will increase both your aerobic and anaerobic performance and will help you build strong, functional, lean muscle. Here’s one of our favorite Tabata workouts – give it a shot.
- Lunges – 20 seconds
- Good Mornings – 20 seconds
- Push Press – 20 seconds
- Hang Cleans – 20 seconds
- Squats – 20 seconds
- Bent Over Row – 20 seconds
- Deadlifts – 20 seconds
- Push-Ups – 20 seconds
Tip#7 Sandblasting and Hill Sprints
Sandblasting (doing sprints in sand) and hill sprints are extremely effective ways to increase speed and power. For sandblasting, try to find a length of sand that’s ankle deep and at least 50 yards long. These can be done either barefoot or with shoes. Hard, gritty sand can be hard on the feet, wearing shoes can help save you from cuts and scrapes that could have you sidelined for a few days. For hill sprints, a 50 yard hill that has at least a 45 degree angle will do the trick. Both have the ability to increase leg strength, increase ankle stability, force you to use proper sprint techniques (arm swing, leaning forward etc.) and provide a killer power and fat-burning workout. And, let’s be honest, they provide an awesome change to conventional sprints done on a treadmill or track.
Tip#8 Caveman Training
Our predecessors, whether they liked it or not, consistently performed feats of strength just in order to survive. They were forced to flip boulders to uncover lunch, throw rocks to fend off predators, wield logs to build shelters and climb trees to forage for food. Exercises like tire flips, sled pulls/pushes, rope climbs, sledgehammers, sandbag training and medicine ball throws and slams are all alternatives to these types of movements and bring building caveman strength into the 21st century. They all force you to use multiple muscle groups from both the upper and lower body. These exercises also force you to use a ballistic movement to complete them. Many top athletes are using these exercises to increase explosive power with incredible results. Definitely take advantage of these unique training methods to quickly grow muscle that’s ready to take on anything!
Tip#9 Split From Your Old Routine
Strong, functional muscle needs strong, functional training splits. Far less common are the days of doing specific body parts on specific days. For more effective performance-based training try breaking down your training split by function. Use splits like upper body, lower body, push/pull, core etc. This will allow you to perform exercises that incorporate both major muscle groups and secondary muscle groups in one workout. These types of training splits makes more sense for those looking to increase performance. There aren’t a lot of sports that rely specifically on one major muscle group – in fact most sports require all muscle groups to work together for you to play… and win!.
Tip#10 Change is Growth
Your body is very adaptable, but it prefers being in homeostasis (a state of equilibrium) neither adding nor losing muscle. When you train, you cause your body to react to that stress – and that’s when the most gains come. When your body adapts and gets accustomed to the stress, then training plateaus occur. This is the reason that you see most of your gains when you’re new to training. Your body is shocked by the stress you put it under and reacts by getting stronger and bigger to overcome the stress. By switching up your routine every 8-12 weeks you consistently change the stress you put your body under, and therefore you reduce the chances of hitting a training plateau. And plateaus are something that everyone truly wants to avoid, since they can be hard to break out of, and very demotivating. Don’t get complacent — continuously change up your training routine to see optimal results.
We’ve put together a killer workout that makes use of many of the principles we’ve outlined. Give it a shot for 8-12 weeks then go back to your old routine. We’re positive that you’ll notice incredible strength gains, muscle growth and fat loss. But be warned, this workout is not for the faint of heart. Are you up to the challenge?