Bret Contreras wrote this article and I thought it was something that most of you involved in strength training should know.
Joe Weider, a.k.a. “The Master Blaster,” remains one of the more controversial figures in the bodybuilding and fitness realm. Still, love him or hate him, his extreme influence in the way gym-goers around the world train can’t be denied.
Joe popularized The Weider Principles, a compilation of guidelines and methods to help bodybuilders achieve their maximal potential. While these principles are often dismissed as bro-science, it turns out that many have solid research to back up their use. Here are six of our favorites.
1. Instinctive Training
The Instinctive Training Principle dictates that training intensity should be based on how you feel during a given session. In essence, you use a combination of experience and “instinct” to guide your day-to-day workouts.
This helps address the fact that outside influences such as sleep patterns, nutrition, relationship issues, stress, and aches and pains can significantly affect your ability to train at peak levels on a daily basis.
Emerging research seems to support an instinctive training approach. In scientific circles, this strategy has been termed “autoregulatory training” and researchers have evaluated its applicability in various flexible periodization models.
In a recent study (McNamara et al., 2010), sixteen beginner weight-training subjects were divided into two resistance training groups. All the participants performed the same volume of training and the same rep max schemes (10RM, 15RM, and 20RM) twice a week, except one group performed the routine in a regimented fashion while the other group was allowed to choose when to perform the given workouts based on how they felt.
At the end of the 12-week training period, those who were allowed to train instinctively increased leg press strength by 62 kg compared to only a 16 kg increase in the control group.
Now, despite these impressive results on novice subjects, instinctive training is generally better suited to more advanced lifters. To achieve optimal benefits, you must be highly in tune with your mental, physical, and emotional state and how these factors affect training capacity.
This only comes with dedicated training experience. A beginner simply isn’t skilled enough in the nuances of training to accurately gauge his daily capacity for peak performance, which can lead to substandard results.
It’s also important to understand that instinctive training has a downside. Namely, unless you’re highly motivated to train, it becomes tempting to give into laziness. The flexible nature of the strategy provides a ready-made excuse to take things easy, even if you’re feeling good.
So be honest with yourself. If you’re the type that needs regimentation to keep you on the straight and narrow, then a more traditional periodization program might be a better option.
On the other hand, you can’t take this to the other extreme and think it’s okay to push through anything short of a broken bone. Remember that the body needs adequate recuperation to regenerate its resources. Otherwise, you’ll rapidly become overtrained and progress will ultimately hit a wall.
So regardless of subjective feelings, make sure to include regular unloading cycles throughout your training program.
2. Continuous Tension
The Continuous Tension Principle states that muscles respond favorably when they’re placed under continuous tension with no resting phases during the repetition. Maintaining continuous tension can be achieved in several ways:
• By avoiding rest periods at the top or bottom of a movement.
• By avoiding the top range of motion during certain movements.
• By minimizing momentum (excessive momentum can cause a considerable deceleration phase at the top of a movement, characterized by decreased muscle activation).
As it turns out, research supports that lifting under conditions of continuous tension can provide a potent stimulus for muscular hypertrophy, even when relatively light loads are used (Tanimoto et al., 2008). The true benefit behind this principle probably has less to do with reduced momentum and more to do with an acute restriction of circulation to the working muscles.
Repetitive muscular contractions cause a compression of blood vessels, impeding both inflow and outflow during exercise and creating a hypoxic intramuscular environment. There’s evidence that the hypoxic effect mediates a hypertrophic response, conceivably by the buildup of metabolites and reduction in pH levels associated with such training.
In combination, these factors are believed to enhance muscular growth through various mechanisms including increased fiber recruitment, acute elevations in anabolic hormones, alterations in myokines, production of reactive oxygen species, and/or cell swelling (the pump).
Here’s our take. When performing the big basic lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and chin-ups, focus on lifting big weights, using good form, and setting PR’s. Go ahead and rest at the top or bottom of the movement if need-be, take advantage of increased momentum when appropriate, and make sure you go deep and lockout (use a full range of motion).
However, for more targeted movements, consider using the continuous tension principle. Think of a piston continuously moving up and down with no built-in rest periods – that’s what you want your reps to look like.
For many exercises, another Weider principle known as the Partial Rep Principle merges well with the continuous principle as some movements lead to a complete drop-off of joint torque and muscle activation in the targeted region.
For example, the top of a chest fly or dumbbell pullover fails to place adequate tension on the targeted musculature. Therefore, partial reps that only rise two-thirds of the way up may be ideal for these movements as it allows for more consistent tension on the muscles.
When performing movements such as chest flies, pullovers, hip thrusts, and certain types of curls and triceps extensions, focus on keeping continuous tension on the muscle. Don’t rely on momentum, don’t be afraid to limit range of motion, and simply squeeze your muscles against resistance.
3. Muscle Priority
The Muscle Priority Principle maintains that you should work your weak points first in a workout. Weider reasoned that since energy levels and mental focus are highest at this time, prioritizing training allows the use of greater intensity and effort on the muscles that need it most.
Although this principle runs counter to the commonly held notion that large muscle groups should be trained before smaller muscle groups, recent research seems to support Weider’s hypothesis.
Studies consistently show that strength gains in exercises performed early in a workout are significantly greater than those performed at the end of the routine (Simao et al., 2010; Dias et al., 2010).
In a recent review of the topic, researchers concluded that, given the magnitude of strength decrements over the course of a workout, it’s beneficial to structure exercise order based on the muscles in greatest need of improvement, regardless of whether they involve large or small muscle group movements (Simão et al. 2012).
Bottom line: if your biceps lag behind your triceps, don’t hesitate to start off your workout with some curls; if your legs look like upside down bowling pins, by all means perform calf raises at the onset.
Many bodybuilders perform an incline movement first during every chest workout, and some hit their rear delts before heavy overhead pressing on their shoulder days. Don’t blindly stick to the “heaviest compound movement first” mantra if you have a glaring imbalance. If you possess a noticeable strength or muscle discrepancy, prioritize that weak link by hitting it right off the bat.
The Flushing Principle entails training a muscle group with multiple exercises in a session. The idea here is to flush the working muscle with blood so that nutrient delivery is maximized to facilitate optimal remodeling of fibers. In other words, train for the pump!
It’s debatable whether the enhanced nutrient delivery from flushing affects muscle remodeling; however, the associated cellular swelling from repeated bouts of reactive hyperemia very well may promote hypertrophic adaptations.
Research consistently shows that a hydrated cell increases protein synthesis while attenuating protein breakdown (Haussinger et al. 1994; Ritz et al., 2003). These effects are mediated by sensors in the muscle fiber that respond to increases in cell volume by initiating anabolic processes as a means to reinforce its ultrastructure (Low et al., 1997). The upshot: better muscular development.
Here’s our take. Progressive overload is critical. You want to make sure you’re getting stronger over time on the big, basic lifts. However, once you’ve performed your heavy compound movement for the day, you should definitely consider choosing some exercises that flush as much blood into the muscle as possible, particularly if hypertrophy is your primary goal.
Every good lifter intuitively learns how to pump up their muscles, and this strategy seems to be unique according to the lifter. Some like performing high-rep bottom range push-ups or dips supersetted with flies or crossovers to pump up their pecs, others swear by “delt-blasters” consisting of multiple tri-sets of 10 rep rear delt raises, followed immediately by 10 rep lateral raises, followed immediately by 10 rep front raises to pump up the delts.
For the glutes, maybe multiple sets of moderate rep hip thrusts with very short rest times do the trick. There could be a particular machine at your gym that produces some serious engorging of muscle.
Learn which methods best achieve a pump for each respective muscle group and be sure to incorporate them at the end of your workout after you’ve performed a couple of heavy exercises focusing on progressive overload.
5. Muscle Confusion
The Muscle Confusion Principle states that exercise selection should be continuously varied over time. Weider proposed that such an approach maximizes muscular development by not allowing the neuromuscular system to adapt to a given movement. In effect, the body is continuously challenged by new stressors, thereby spurring increased growth.
One problem with repeatedly performing the same routine day-in-day-out is that it impedes exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) by the so-called “repeated bout effect.” While excessive tissue damage can be deleterious to training, research suggests a “sweet spot” exists whereby a moderate amount of EIMD potentiates a supercompensatory response that ultimately enhances muscular growth (Schoenfeld, 2012).
It’s believed that the hypertrophic effects of EIMD are mediated by various myokines, which are growth factors that exert acute anabolic effects locally within muscle. EIMD also increases the activation of satellite cells, which aid in muscular repair as well as donating additional nuclei to fibers so more muscle proteins can be synthesized. Performing a variety of different movements staves off the repeated bout effect so that these responses are maximized.
Changing exercises also helps to ensure complete stimulation of all fibers in a given muscle. Contrary to what some believe, muscles don’t necessarily contract along the entire length of the fiber, rather, the majority of muscles are subdivided by one or more fibrous bands that terminate intrafascicularly, thereby creating distinct compartments within the muscle (Heron & Richmond, 1993).
These compartments are often innervated by separate nerve branches, indicating that, portions of a muscle, depending on the exercise, will display greater muscle activation than others (Wickiewicz et al., 1983; Woodley & Mercer, 2005).
The long and short heads of the biceps brachii, for example, display architectural subdivisions that are innervated by private branches of the primary neurons (Segal et al., 2001). The upshot is that elbow flexion targets motor units in the lateral aspect of the long head, supination targets motor units in the medial portion, and combinations of flexion and supination target motor units in the central region (ter Haar Romeny et al., 1982; ter Haar Romeny et al., 1984).
Moreover, the short head displays greater muscle activity in the latter part of an arm curl (i.e., greater elbow flexion) while the long head is more active in the early phase of movement (Brown et al., 1993). As you can see, variety is definitely a good thing as it pertains to muscle hypertrophy!
Now before you start thinking that P90X is the key to muscle-building nirvana, understand that you can’t simply string together a hodgepodge of disconnected movements for the sake of variety and expect to optimize gains. Rather, the idea is to design your program so that training is systematically carried out from different angles and planes of movement.
Thought should be given as to how exercises interact with one another from an applied anatomical standpoint. A combination of both mass-building multi-joint moves and targeted single-joint exercises synergistically affect symmetrical muscular development, as does training with multiple modalities (i.e., barbells, dumbbells, cables, etc.).
The bottom line is that if you’re not getting stronger over time at the big, basic movement patterns, your muscular shape probably won’t change much. You can hit the pecs from every possible angle with every exercise imaginable, but if you’re still benching 135 pounds for 3 sets of 10, your muscular development will likely be inferior.
For this reason, use plenty of variety, but make sure you’re always performing variations of squats, deadlifts, and presses. There are thousands of tweaks you can make with these lifts to “confuse” the muscles while still sticking to the best movement patterns.
For example, for bench pressing variety you could perform bench press, close grip bench press, board press, floor press, rack press, incline press, or decline press. Many of these can be done with dumbbells too, and you can vary set and rep schemes as well. Vary your workouts in an intelligent manner, but never shy too far away from proven methods.
The cheating principle dictates that allowing for a little bit of “English” to use slightly heavier weight or squeeze out another couple reps at the end of the set is worthwhile from a hypertrophy-training standpoint.
Many online arguments have explored whether or not cheating during exercises is worthwhile. Brand new research has taken a close look at this topic, and it was shown that there’s a sweet spot for technical form and subsequent joint torque requirements and hypertrophy stimulus during the lateral raise exercise (Arandjelović, published ahead of print).
According to the author:
“A moderate increase in the load and the use of momentum allows the torque to be increased even further. In contrast, excessive use of momentum results in lower demands on the target muscles, while an excessive increase of the load reduces the total hypertrophy stimulus by virtue of the decreased number of repetitions which can be performed successfully and thus the dramatically shortened time under tension.”
Here’s our take. You don’t want to cheat or use excessive momentum when performing exercises that involve inherent risk to a particular joint, such as squats, deadlifts, or military presses. However, certain exercises such as barbell curls and lateral raises lend themselves well to moderate momentum, or “cheating.” Just don’t cheat too much or you decrease the load on the target muscle and expose the body to increased risk of injury.
Joe brought us the IFBB, he formulated the Mr. Olympia contest, he brought Arnold over to America, and he compiled The Weider Principles. We believe that all regular gym-goers and bodybuilders would be well-advised to learn these principles and put them into practice based on specific training goals. Although they were created decades ago, emerging research continues to support their merit as viable training strategies.