Lagging Muscle Group: Does this demand special training?

Lots of people have muscle groups or body parts they’d like to look better. This fair enough, in concept, but I’m not sure that average folks really understand some of the implications. Make no mistake, this applies to both males and females that aspire to have better bodies.

The rationale goes that if you want a part to look good, you have to work that part. It’s logical enough if you don’t know any better, I guess. Guys are all about the chest and biceps. Women like the butt and legs. Both seem equally obsessed with abs.

So that’s what gets worked. And this is where the idea starts to fall apart. A few key points to be noted:

I. By and large, the best muscle development will come from compound exercises with moderate to heavy weights. This is just a fact of mechanics and the physiology of muscle growth – the more tension you generate in a muscle, and the greater the ‘dose’ the muscle gets, the more it’s going to respond.

This means that, in practice, the vast majority of your results are going to come from big compound lifts and a focus on progressive overload (getting stronger). This isn’t to say that doing isolation work (bicep curls, leg extensions, running on the stairs to ‘tone up the butt’) can’t be helpful in a sense, but you’re approaching the problem from the wrong direction if you focus on these things.

II. What does ‘look better’ mean, anyway? Ever notice that nobody ever defines what they mean when they say ‘I want X part to look better’? What is ‘better’?

Is it bigger? Leaner? More definition? You don’t have a lot of choices – there are no ‘tone up’ or ‘lean and sexy’ options. You either develop the muscle or reduce the fat covering it. That’s it.

A big part of the issue as I see it is people get hung up on the idea that training a part equates to making it look better in this vague sense – but it doesn’t work that way. Training a part directly can make the muscle grow, sure, but it’s not actually going to ‘tone you up’ or ‘bring out cuts’ or what have you.

You need to define what you want, and then go about it rationally – not just working a part because that gives you instant feedback. If you want to make changes, you have to do what creates changes, not just what feels like it’s working. The two often aren’t related.

III. Following along with that, more work is not always better. If you’re proceeding from the assumption that more work, more sessions, and more difficulty is what causes gains, it’s no wonder you see this obsession with ‘body shaping’ type routines.

As I’ve touched on in the muscle soreness article, discomfort during the workout and being sore the next day have nothing to do with your actual results. They give you feedback yes, but they are not signals that you did anything effective for the muscles in question.

It’s confusing because some seem to feel that discomfort and pain equate to success, but this is not true. In fact, some research shows that too much damage, say from endurance training or even too many sets in a strength workout, will actually compromise growth.

So what will make the guns or the butt look better? Train it with basic exercises. Focus on getting stronger and lifting more weight over time. If you really really feel the need, add some isolation stuff to give it a little extra work. Just don’t go overboard, as you might be causing yourself more problems than you realize by overworking yourself.

2 thoughts on “Lagging Muscle Group: Does this demand special training?”

  1. Are you sure tension on a specific muscle is higher with compound vs. isolation.

    That is, if I'm benching, the stress is spread out across pecs, delts, tris, and everything else.

    If I do flyes, it's pretty much 100% on the pecs.

    Can you be sure that the actual tension seen by the pecs is higher in the compound movement?

    Does it depend at all on the mechanics of the trainee?


  2. I'm thinking more in terms of absolute loads handled. With a compound, may or may not be higher tension on any specific muscle, but in terms of "everything" getting a pretty significant hit.

    And yeah, it'd almost certainly depend on individual mechanics/leverages. If you're a tricep-dominant bencher, you might benefit from flyes or DB presses to hit the chest; if you're someone that doesn't tend to use a lot of "bicep" in a pullup/chinup, then you might benefit from curlz. And I'm sure there's plenty of other examples to go around.

    Of course, the problem is that it's hard to actually measure tension development, so without some lever measurements and trig (which I'm way too math-inept to try) it's hard to say which might actually create "more" tension: a compound movement with relatively heavier weights, or an isolation movement with lighter weights but putting more stress on the target muscle.

    In short: use some of both if you're after muscle development.

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