There’s always some genius at the gym, ready to fill you in on the latest muscle-building strategy. They’re the jacked up sage of the weight room, more than ready and willing to spread their gospel far and wide. Sarcasm aside, you know probably you shouldn’t take advice from these lifters—about anything—even if they’re bigger and stronger than you are. And yet chances are you’ve come to believe that what they’ve told you about building muscle is the irrefutable truth.
But Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is not one of those false muscle prophets. Samuel’s techniques are tried and true from his years of training and knowledge of muscle science and biomechanics. He created of the New Rules of Muscle program (available on DVD and the new streaming All Out platform) to share his knowledge with you, so you can stop listening to those guys at the gym.
Here are five “rules” for lifting that you need to start breaking if you want to see gains.
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1. “You Have To Go Heavy”
It’s true that the more weight you lift, the more muscle you have the potential to recruit—but going super heavy on your exercises can also make you cheat form, and that deprives your muscles of growth stimulus while also raising your risk for injury. According Samuel, you should perform most of your exercises with lighter weights, and focus on making them feel heavier by doing them more strictly.
“Don’t cheat yourself on a rep,” says Samuel. “People are always letting their elbows come forward and up to their chests on curls and skull crushers just to lift more weight. All this does is take tension off the muscles you’re trying to train.”
2. “Pump The Weight”
Yeah, we know it’s called “pumping iron,” but that’s a misnomer. You get more out of your muscles when you lift weights at a slower, steadier cadence, rather than bouncing your reps out of the bottom position or blasting through sticking points with momentum.
“We all need to slow down our reps to get the most out of them,” says Samuel, who recommends you count to three (in your head) when you’re lowering your reps. “You can also experiment with pausing your reps for a moment at the midpoint, which really helps to lock in your form and make the muscles work.” For example, as you raise the dumbbell on a curl, stop when your elbow is bent 90 degrees and hold the contraction.
Slower, more controlled sets increase the muscles’ “time under tension,” the duration they spend contracting, which is a proven stimulus for growth. While it will require you to use a lighter weight than you could performing your reps pump-style, load isn’t the ultimate factor in getting big (ahem, see rule #1).
3. “Monday Is Chest Day”
For an unofficial rule, it sure seems to be well enforced. Go into any gym on a Monday and you’ll see guys loading up on bench presses (presumably because they’re fresh from the weekend and want to attack their favorite muscle group with full energy). But Samuel says chest work shouldn’t be your top priority, even if getting beefier pecs is your ultimate goal.
“In the New Rules of Muscle program, we train back before anything else,” says Samuel, “because back is weak for most guys, since they sit at desks all day.” Doing twice the amount of rowing and reverse flies that you do pressing will help to improve your posture and ward off shoulder injuries. Try putting your back day first in your training week to prioritize it, or at least alternate sets of every chest move you do with a row, face pull, or band pull apart, so that you can keep the opposing muscle groups in balance with each other.
Over time, you’ll find that stronger back muscles help to draw your shoulders back, spreading your pecs. This makes your chest muscles look bigger all by itself.
4. “You Have To Press Overhead”
No doubt about it, pressing a heavy barbell straight overhead is one of the manliest things you can do—unless it wrecks your shoulders and back. And most guys find that, over time, it does. “We have very few exercises in the New Rules program that have you lifting your arm above shoulder level,” says Samuel, “because most men have muscle imbalances that lead to shoulder injuries, and overhead work will make it worse.”
Another problem for many men is that they can’t even press the bar in a straight path anyway—their upper backs are too stiff from sitting round-shouldered in front of computers and looking at their phones. As a result, they have to arch the low back excessively to press the weight up, and that can lead to back pain.
Samuel says that overhead pressing is overrated for delt development anyway: “The front of your shoulders gets plenty of stimulus when you do bench and incline presses. Lateral raises will take care of the side delts, and the rear delts get a lot of work from rows, reverse flies, and pulldown variations.” Therefore, there’s no dedicated shoulder day in the New Rules program, but your delts will grow just fine without it—and even more importantly, they won’t ache afterward.
5. “You Have To Train Abs Every Day”
This one is actually partly true. You don’t have to work abs every day of your life with old-school moves like crunches and situps—but you should make your core a priority, and you can save time and effort by training it in conjunction with your other exercises.
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“Everything we do in New Rules starts at our core to offset the weakness that results from all the sitting we do these days,” says Samuel. “We have one day where we really kill the core directly, but in every other workout, I’m challenging viewers to use their core in stealth ways—stabilizing the body on exercises where you work one side at a time, be it presses, lunges, or even curls.”
Unilateral moves, and any others where you have to fight to maintain balance, give you plenty of ab work while you train the bigger muscles, maximizing your time in the gym. Sometimes the core involvement will be so subtle, you won’t even think of the exercise as working your abs (such as in a single-arm, single-leg row, or a one-arm cable fly done kneeling on the floor)—that is, until you’re sore the next day.
For more tips and tricks to explode your muscle gains, pick up The New Rules of Muscle program on DVD or on the All Out streaming service.
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