It can be a bit degrading when everything except for a few muscles grow consistently, and imbalances in your overall shape start to become apparent. One of the most frustrating things is when you put your heart and soul into your gym and dieting efforts but just can’t seem to get certain muscle groups to grow.
I’ve always had trouble getting my calves and forearms to grow… until recently when I started implementing a few strategies based on research I had come across. Read on as we dive into four effective, research-backed ways to bring up stubborn/lagging muscle(s) and keep them growing.
GENETIC & ENDOCRINE CONTROL
Before we get into the tips on how to deal with lagging muscles, it’s worthwhile to have an understanding of why certain muscles don’t grow as efficiently as others. For one, genetics do play a role in muscular development and help explain why certain muscle grow more for certain individuals than others.
In fact, a recent study suggests that micro RNAs actually heavily regulate muscle protein expression, and these non-coding ribonucleic acids differ greatly in humans. (1) Why is this important, you ask? In short, if you are someone with l ow amounts of muscle micro RNA expression, resistance training doesn’t induce nearly as much of a muscle protein synthetic response as individuals with high expression of muscle micro RNAs. Does this mean you simply can’t grow any muscle if you have low amounts of these ribonucleic acids? Certainly not; it just means that unfortunately, you won’t experience as much muscle hypertrophy in response to resistance training as someone with more abundance of particular ribonucleic acids.
I know, that may be a bummer to hear, but the way to look at genetics is that you can’t change them, so why worry so much about them? Be happy that you c an at least train and grow in some capacity.
It’s important to note that the endocrine system also plays a role in why some muscles grow better than others. Testosterone and related androgens (male sex hormones) play a crucial role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy, Testosterone is the most potent, endogenous hormone in humans and men produce a much greater amount than women and thus naturally carry more lean mass than females.
In order for testosterone to exert its anabolic effects, it must bind with androgen receptors in muscle tissue. Herein lies one of the biggest issues for stubborn muscles, as certain parts of the body have much less density of androgen receptors. For example, the calves and forearms are generally the least dense regions for androgen receptors, while the upper back tends to be the most dense. This is precisely why many bodybuilders have such wide lats and traps.
So while genetics and the endocrine system play a role in determining muscular growth (or lack thereof), it’s still is no excuse to not train stubborn body parts and put effort into developing them to their potential. Genetics might set the boundaries of development, but it is still ultimately up to you to push these limits through proper training and diet; especially since exercise has been shown to greatly increase androgen receptor density in t rained muscles.
Tip 1: DOING THINGS THE WRONG WAY
Let’s talk quickly about how not to train stubborn muscles (or most any muscle for that matter). In a word – bouncing. We have all seen it at one time or another, some scrawny meat-head trying to bench a ton of weight by bouncing it of his chest with little control. Skeletal muscle tissue (and other tissue, like tendons) are elastic. This means that they can stretch and return to their original form afterwards (much like rubber bands).
When you bounce a weight up and down, you ’ re simply use the elastic energy of the associated tendons to move the weight while putting little- to -no tension on the targeted muscles. In short, leave the ego at the door and use a weight that you ca n actually lift in controlled fashion.
Tip 2: DOING THINGS THE RIGHT WAY
If a muscle is going to grow, you need to put tension on that muscle so that it fatigues. Therefore, we want to minimize “cheating” and abusing elastic energy for moving the weight and instead focus on using the actual target muscles.
The best way to do this is count your rep tempo and being strict with form, especially when isolating muscle groups. Start by using a 3-1-2 tempo for stubborn muscles, meaning you take three seconds to lower the weight, one second pause at t he bottom of the movement, then two seconds to lift the weight.
Tip 3: INCREASE YOUR TRAINING FREQUENCY
• Frequency = The number of times you train a muscle in a given time-frame (ex: training chest twice per week.)
Studies have shown that the muscle protein synthetic response to training is only elevated for about 48-72 hours after the bout has occurred (depending on the volume), and that there is a cap to how much hypertrophy is induced.(2) Thus, it doesn’t make sense to only work each muscle group once a week with absurdly high volume (like most “traditional “bodybuilders do).
Instead it’s much more pragmatic to train each muscle (especially stubborn ones) at least twice a week (if not three or four times) and split the volume over the workouts. Think of it like this, do you want to give your muscles 52 opportunities to grow (by training them once per week) or 104 opportunities (by training them twice per week)? Or maybe even 156 opportunities to grow? The answer should be quite obvious.
Tip 4: TURN UP THE VOLUME
• Volume (of work done) = Sets x Reps
• Intensity = Amount of weight in relation to your maximum capability
Studies consistently show that volume, not intensity, is what controls muscle protein synthesis response to training (as long as the exercise is done to failure or “close to failure”). (3)
For example, doing 3 sets of 10 with 60% of your one-rep max results in the same muscle growth as doing 10 sets of 3 with 85% of your one-rep max. But obviously the lighter loads are not as taxing on the nervous system and your recovery.
Thus, for stubborn muscles, it’s prudent to increase the volume slightly (as well as frequency, which we just discussed). The key is to provide sufficient stimulation (volume) to the muscle to maximize the hypertrophy response to each training bout. So if you ’ re currently only training your forearms with two to three sets per session, try doubling that and see how they respond.
Example Program for Stubborn Calves Using the Above Tips:
Exercise 1— Straight-legged calf raises (machine or with barbell)
1) 5-6 sets of 6-8 reps
2) Execution: from a 1-2 second pause explode up as hard as possible, squeeze and hold for 2 seconds, then take 2-3 seconds to slowly lower, and repeat as needed.
3) Keep it intense and take one minute rest between sets
Exercise 2 — Seated calf raise (knees bent 90°)
1) 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
2) Execution: from a 1-2 second pause at the top, take 3 seconds to slowly lower the weight and 2 seconds to raise the weight with a brief pause at the top (and repeat as needed).
3) Use a weight that allows you to maintain proper form and rest 60 seconds between sets
That’s it! Simple, right? Apply these tips to most any stubborn muscle and you’re sure to see some added growth. Keep in mind that you need ample calories to facilitate muscle growth. You can’t turn any stubborn body part into much with just wishful thinking and no nourishment. I can’t guarantee that these tips will turn your small calves, for example, into massive, veiny calves, but compared to how most people train stubborn muscles they will only help.
1: High responders to resistance exercise training demonstrate differential regulation of skeletal muscle micro RNA expression, Peter K. Davidsen, Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 February 2011 Vol. 110 no. 2, 309-317
2: Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J., & Thomeé, R. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports medicine , 37 (3), 225- 264.
3: Burd, N. A., West, D. W., Staples, A. W., Atherton, P. J., Baker, J. M., Moore, D. R., … & Phillips, S. M. (2010). Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high- load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PloS one , 5 (8), e12033.
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.