August 20, 2021 4 min read

To get bigger, stronger or leaner, stick to these ten rules from the best in the business.

1. Prioritise compound lifts

Compound exercises, where there is movement at two joints so you work multiple muscles groups, should be the cornerstone of any workout programme whether you’re training for size, strength or fat loss. “The bench press, barbell squat and deadlift offer the most return on investment for your time and effort, and in order to get bigger, you have to get stronger,” says Ben Esgro, an NCSA-certified strength and conditioning specialist.

2. Have a clearly defined goal

“Without a clearly defined and challenging physique goal, you’re never going to get the results you want,” says Ultimate Performance founder Nick Mitchell. “The best transformation candidates I have ever worked with are women wanting to get into shape for their wedding. Why? Because they have a laser-focused goal. You need the same to make major changes to your body.”

Stack your odds of staying on track with your plan by scheduling all your sessions for the week ahead. On a Sunday, get out your work diary and “book in” your workouts, with the first session scheduled for Monday. Starting your week positively will massively increase your chances of sticking to your weekly workouts.

3. Go lighter with isolation lifts

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To grow a muscle to its maximum potential, you must hit it with isolation moves – but that doesn’t mean lifting super-heavy. “Take the arms: your triceps and biceps take a pretty solid pounding every time you train your chest and back, so direct arms training requires a smarter approach,” says leading physique coach John Meadows. “Lifting lighter and prioritising getting a good pump – through perfect range of motion and controlled time under tension – will work the muscle fibres far more effectively. And the better you can isolate a muscle, the bigger it will get.”

4. Keep tension on your muscles

Maximising the tension on your muscles makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of your workouts. “Always be in full control of lowering the weight,” says Eric Helms, coach at 3D Muscle Journey. “If you let gravity lower the weight, you’re doing half reps, because for half of every rep there’s no tension on the muscle. Which means you get only half the results.”

5. Spend more time on mobility

If you neglect mobility you’re limiting your progress. “Good mobility means quality movement patterns, which means getting more out of every lift,” says coach Phil Graham. “You can add more weight and achieve a better range of motion, which is essential for maximising your muscle gain and fat loss efforts. It also reduces your risk of injury.”

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Before upper-body workouts you should mobilise your shoulders, which are the most complicated and delicate joints in your body, and often the weakest link that limits upper-body size and strength gains. For legs sessions, work on quads and hamstring mobility drills: in a study of 150 professional football players, those with tight hamstrings and quads were far more likely to suffer lower-body injuries over the course of a season than those with better flexibility, according to a study published in the American Journal Of Sports Medicine.

6. Get smart with weight selection

“Effective weight training is not about heaving as much weight as possible – the weights are just a tool, and your job is to flex your muscles against those weights,” says Mitchell. “Remember that you’re not lifting for your ego, or to impress anyone. You must lift for the most effective way to build new muscle.” The final couple of reps of the first few sets should feel hard, and the final reps of the final sets should be very challenging. If you finish all the reps and feel like you could have done another five, the weight is too light. If you can only perform half the target number of reps before your muscles fail then the weight is too heavy. Adjust accordingly.

7. Master the movements

“Most people fail to add muscle if there’s not enough direct stimulus on the target muscles, because there is too much momentum at the expense of tension,” says M10 Fitness owner Mark Coles. “Learning how a move is performed effectively, even though you will have to reduce the weight you lift, can take your progress to the next level.”

8. Record your results

If you don’t keep track of your workouts it’s impossible to make smart tweaks to keep progressing effectively. “I’ve always kept a training diary because it’s so beneficial to my progress,” says Mitchell. “It’s an invaluable resource and the more information you collect, the easier it is to spot emerging patterns of what’s working and what isn’t. Record not just sets, reps and weights, but how the session felt, energy levels, DOMS the day after – anything that will inform you about the smart ways to tinker with your plan so you stay on the path to consistent improvement.”

9. Stretch for strength

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Improving your flexibility through stretching is something most men neglect, but doing so not only reduces your risk of muscle injury, it can also increase muscle mass growth. “Stretching can cause massive growth, if done at the right time,” says sports scientist Dr Jacob Wilson. “We’ve tested intra-set stretching, which means stretching the working muscle or muscles during your rest periods between sets, and it can be very effective for bringing up a lagging muscle group, although you may have to reduce the weight you lift.”

10. Follow a progressive plan

To keep getting results, whether your goal is to get bigger, stronger or leaner, a progressive training plan is essential. What this doesn’t means is simply lifting heavier every session. “Progressive overload is the cornerstone of any plan and there are many approaches,” says Helms. “One good approach consists of multiple months where different characteristics are trained, starting with muscular endurance or size, moving to maximal strength, and culminating with power training to encourage progress.”

Photography: Glen Burrows. Model: James Yates@WModels

Written by Joe Warner for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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