After a bodybuilding competition, it’s common for a competitor who has not won to ask “what do I need to work on?”. Frequently in gyms, we see people putting in extra effort on an area they feel is “weak”. Before we begin examining ways to improve those areas, let’s first identify what people mean when they say a body part is “weak”.
The word “weak” is technically defined as “with insufficient strength”. This suggests a lack of function. However, the word “weak” is usually NOT used in fitness / bodybuilding circles to suggest a lack of function. That would be more the realm of physical therapy / rehabilitation. Rather, the word “weak” – in the fitness arena – is usually meant to refer to a muscle that is “under-developed”. In that case, the goal would be to increase the muscular size of that muscle, or to improve its shape or contour. It’s important to be clear about this, before we begin addressing a possible strategy.
Sometimes the word “weak” is meant to describe an area a person thinks is “flabby”.
The word “flabby” would be defined literally as “soft / lacking firmness”. It’s very common for a woman to jiggle the back of her arms, and say that she wants to “firm up this flabbiness”. Or for a man to say he wants to “firm up his flabby midsection”, as he grabs a handful of flesh in that area. However, it’s important to note that muscles are NEVER flabby – even when they are completely without condition. Rather, it’s the fat that sits on the outside of the muscle, that is “flabby”. That bears repeating – it is the FAT that is flabby, NOT the muscle. And fat cannot be made firm. Fat also cannot be converted into muscle. Fat can only be added to, or subtracted from. And that process is very different than that which works a specific muscle. So, doing an exercise that typically works a muscle, when the problem is fat, is misguided. A different strategy is needed.
So, we have to TWO different issues here: one is related to under-developed muscles, and the other is related to losing body fat in specific areas of the body. Let’s first address the issue of under-developed muscles.
Most of the time, people who are very serious about getting results embark on a workout program, and they seek some kind of guidance. They either hire a trainer or a coach, or they buy a book that spells out a typical fitness program. In either case, it’s very likely that they are following a program that includes one or two exercises for every major muscle group. This would include the following:
- Pectoralis major (“pecs” / chest muscle)
- Latissimus dorsi (“lats” / mid-back / V-taper)
- Upper Back (trapezius / rhomboids / teres major & minor / infraspinatus, etc.)
- Shoulders (side, front and rear deltoids)
- Quadriceps (frontal thighs)
- Hamstrings (back of the thighs)
- Lower Back
Now, let’s ask this question: “why is one body part ‘weak’, if all of the body parts are being worked ?”.
Let’s consider the possible reasons a body part might not be as developed as all the others:
- That muscle is not being worked ENOUGH
- That muscle is being OVER-WORKED
- That muscle is not being worked CORRECTLY
- That muscle won’t develop because of a genetic deficiency
- The shape of that muscle is not “appealing”, because of an inherent abnormality
Again, we’re assuming that you are not neglecting that “weak” body part. For example, let’s say your calves are “weak” (i.e., too small / under-developed), despite the fact that you have been working them regularly. Let’s look at the possible factors, one by one.
It’s unlikely that you haven’t worked your calves enough. Muscles generally grow with as little as 3 intense sets – and you are probably doing at least that many sets. It would be a mistake to think that 3 sets would do nothing, but 5 sets would suddenly produce growth. If your calves are not growing much with 3 sets, adding two more sets is not likely to make much of a difference.
There is a higher likelihood that you are over-training your calves (or all your other body parts), because most people generally do too many exercise, too many sets, or too much frequency – I’ve observed. However, the third possibility is actually the more likely reason your calves (or other body part) are not growing as well as you’d like.
You’re probably not training the muscle correctly (and also doing too many sets, of those incorrect movements). Training a muscle “correctly” includes several things – the right movement, the right range of motion, the right intensity, and the right frequency. (Note: it also includes “the right resistance curve”, but that requires too lengthy of an explanation, for this particular article….stay tuned for more later).
For example, most people fail to use a full range of motion when doing calf exercises. They do short, bouncy reps, which only constitute about 10-15% of the full range of motion. Often times, they don’t even allow their heels to go lower than the block on which their toes (balls of the feet) are pressing / standing. Obviously, that defeats the purpose of standing on the block. The person fails to fully elongate (stretch) the muscle, and they also fail to fully contract it. It would be like doing a standing barbell curl, but only doing the middle 10% of the range of motion.
The solution here is to do the exercise correctly, and to do enough repetitions – not to add more sets and more weight. It’s likely you’re already using too much weight (which is why your range of motion is so short), and not doing enough reps. Calves – and most other muscles – respond as well as genetics will allow – when they are worked with a full range of motion, enough reps (between 30 and 10 – averaging 20 per set), and between 5 and 10 sets, twice per week. More frequency will not help, and is likely to cause over-training.
Some people have a genetic deficiency, in terms of how well a muscle develops. The reverse is also true – sometimes people have a genetic tendency to have their muscles develop VERY well, regardless of whether they exercise them correctly. If you are one of those people who have a genetic deficiency in a particular muscle, training that muscle beyond what is reasonable, will not resolve the problem. The best that you can do is make sure you have:
- elected a very good exercise or two for each muscle group
- You are using excellent form (full range of motion, not too fast, no swinging or cheating)
- You are making that muscle burn (using high enough reps in the early sets, and heavier weight in the latter sets)
- You are doing enough sets (no less than 5), but not too many sets (no more than 10)
- You are training each muscle group twice per week (once every 3 – 4 days) – and that includes abs
Lastly, no exercise will spot reduce an area or muscle – and no exercise will change the shape of a muscle. If you think your “lower abs” are weak, your thinking is entirely wrong. You cannot remove fat from the lower portion of your midsection, by doing leg raises. That fat can only be reduced / eliminated by way diet and total calorie expenditure (which may or may not involve cardio exercise).
Further, if you are lean enough to see your abs clearly, what you see is what you get – in terms of “notches”. You cannot add notches, and get a six-pack, or an eight-pack – if you only have a “four pack”. Those “notches” are created by something called “tendinous intersections”. In other words, they’re essentially tendons, that have been there since birth. You cannot add any of these, nor can you subtract any – if you stop exercising. The best strategy for training the abs is to do crunches (spinal flexion), intensely, but no more frequently than twice per week (five to ten sets), with full range of motion.
The shape of all our muscles is genetically determined. We cannot work the “lower lats”, the “inner pecs”, the “outer quads”, the “lower biceps”, the “outer triceps”, the “inner / outer calves”, etc. These are physiologically impossible to change, despite what some gurus would have you believe. So spending a bunch of time on these is simply a waste of energy.
More is not better, and it probably isn’t necessary. Training your muscles “correctly” is the key to optimal results – with good exercises, good form / range of motion, good intensity, adequate frequency, and not over-training (too many sets). So the answer to “what do I need to work on?”, is probably “everything – equally”. Just continue improving – adding muscle size to all your muscle groups, and getting leaner. And make sure you’re not making any of the mistakes listed above.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition.
Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe, Doug now has his sights set the World Championship of 2014.
He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book.
He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.