Hitting the gym hard but not seeing the results you want? You might assume it’s time to add heavier weights to your bar or increase the amount of time you spend at each session — but that’s not necessarily the case.
“There’s an art and a science to programming an exercise regimen,” says Jonathan Jordan, a NASM-certified personal trainer and nutrition coach in San Francisco. “The most important part, of course, is related to your goals — what do you want your body to be able to do, and how do you want your body to look? Do you want to increase your time for a half marathon? Do you want to lean and tone? Or do you want to get jacked?”
Jordan shares three of his favorite techniques that not only can help with these functional and aesthetic goals but also can help ensure overall health and vitality of your joints and muscles.
1. Time under tension
“Oftentimes, I notice clients let gravity do a lot of the work their bodies should be doing,” Jordan explains. “For instance, in a squat, they let go of control of their muscles and basically collapse or plop down into the squat and then ‘catch’ themselves at the bottom.” This means they aren’t using their muscles like they should, are losing the opportunity to build strength, and are risking injury if they are lifting weight simultaneously because it’s dangerous for joints to move this way. He encourages time-under-tension training as a way to slow things down, create tension and muscular control in the body, and focus on clean, smooth and slower movements throughout the entire exercise. This is not only safer, but it also will help strengthen and tone muscles and burn more calories than sloppy movements.
Try it: When doing a seated row or lat pulldown, grab the handles and “lock in” or “pack” your shoulders and engage the muscles of your back; this creates the desired tension. When performing all the reps of your set, try not to let go of this tension at any point, especially at the end range. Slow, steady and controlled movement with constant tension is the goal.
2. Eccentric training
There are two main phases of any exercise: the concentric and eccentric. The concentric is when your body is exerting force (i.e., when you press your feet into the ground to come up from the bottom of a squat), and the eccentric is when your body is resisting force (i.e., when it’s resisting gravity and whatever weight you are holding when you lower down into a squat). While both are important, it’s the eccentric phase that offers an opportunity to build muscle differently. Why? “Because muscular growth happens when you rip and damage the muscle filaments and they grow back bigger and stronger,” Jordan explains. “The opportunity to do this is greater in the eccentric phase based on the way protein filaments called actin and myosin work in our muscles. So focusing the eccentric phase on the movement and slowing it down for a count of three to five seconds will cause greater damage and subsequent regrowth of the muscle.”
Try it: For biceps curls, for instance, bring the weights up for a count of one second and then slowly lower down for a three- to five-second count. Jordan warns that eccentrics will make you super sore, so prepare for the burn!
3. Plane-of-motion training
There are three planes of motion the body moves in: sagittal, frontal and transverse. Most of us live pretty much exclusively in the sagittal (e.g., sitting, walking, running, spinning, squatting, biceps curls). “We need more frontal and transverse for overall functional movement, joint health and to work muscles more effectively,” Jordan says. “Looking for ways to take a move like lunges that you only do in one plane and shifting to another plane is a great way to add functional strength and to challenge the muscles.”
Try it: If you have been doing reverse/forward lunges or step-ups for your single-leg work, consider shifting to a lateral (side/side) lunge in the frontal plane or a “curtsy” lunge in the transverse.
There’s no need to completely throw away what you are already doing — adding too much variety into your workout may not be the best strategy. “Take a move that you have been doing for a while (many weeks, months or even years) and try adding one of these three variables,” Jordan says. “If you are new to all these, try adding one of each to your weekly routine to start.”
If you work out three times a week, start by adding one of each technique to your daily routine and build from there. For instance, try the following:
- Squat: Eccentric (five-second descent)
- Deadlift: Time under tension (Don’t let go of tension at the bottom — think of just letting the weight gently “kiss the floor” and bring it back up so the muscles are contracted and active the entire time.)
- Lunge: Frontal plane (i.e., lateral goblet squats)
- Pull-Up: Eccentric (five-second release)
- Seated Row: Time under tension
- Lateral Cable Shoulder Raise (frontal plane)
- Bench Press (This is a transverse movement.)
- Eccentric Biceps Curl
- Bodyweight Time-Under-Tension Push-Up (Keep tension the entire time and slow it down.)