#1 Use bands and chains to improve resistance curves
Many exercises have a specific sticking point. That’s the point where the exercise is the hardest and requires the most strength.
For example, on the bench press the sticking point tends to happen after the bar comes off the chest, right before the halfway point.
Meanwhile other points, like the lock-out portion for example, require much less strength.
To give another example, during the squat, the sticking point typically occurs near the halfway point, where the thigh is at about a 30-degree angle to the floor.
Most exercises have these kinds of sticking points. And this is important because when you fail to complete another rep, you might be under the impression that you’ve maxed out and you can’t do more reps, because your muscles are too fatigued to produce further movement.
In reality, the muscle might not be fully fatigued just yet. Instead, it might just be fatigued enough where you cannot complete a specific part of the movement, often corresponding to the sticking point.
Luckily you can use resistance bands and chains to help with this. They allow to change an exercise’s resistance curve by making certain parts of the movement more or less challenging.
For example, during the squat, the resistance bands and chains provide more resistance the closer you get to lockout. This is the part of the movement that’s past the sticking point.
You will more likely be able to handle a heavier resistance as you get closer and closer to lockout. That’s exactly what chains and bands can provide.
Not only will this lead to a more effective muscle-building stimulus, but it can also help you gain strength more effectively. This is shown by multiple studies.
For example, two studies show that bench pressing and squatting with bands or chains builds more strength than doing these exercises without them. (1)
In another 2016 paper published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that more advanced lifters tend to benefit the most from using bands and chains. (2)
Beginners, on the other hand, often don’t have the required coordination and the rate of force development to use bands and chains effectively. So if you’re a beginner, you’re better off getting accustomed to weight training in general, before adding bands and chains.
And for those of you that are advanced, keep in mind that bands and chains don’t improve the effectiveness of all your exercises.
For example, an exercise like the leg press, even though it has its fair share of problems, it generally already has a good resistance curve. So there’s really not much of a point in adding chains or bands to this exercise.
#2 Train either later in the afternoon, or early evening
Now, if you have a solid morning routine, there’s nothing wrong with that. But you should know that your body has an “internal clock” known as the circadian rhythm.
Due to this rhythm, you’re stronger, faster, and have optimal hormonal status for exercise at certain times of the day. If you take advantage of this by training at the right time, you can boost your performance and progress. And we have evidence of this.
For example, a 2016 study compared the effectiveness of a 24-week workout program. (3) One group of participants completed their workouts between 6:30 and 10:00 in the morning. Meanwhile, the other group worked out between 4:30pm and 8:00 at night.
The results showed that those who trained in the evening gained much more muscle, as you can see in the graph below. (4)
On top of that, another study that specifically examined bodybuilders, (5) who either trained before 10am or after 6pm, also found that those who worked out in the evening gained more muscle.
It’s all very interesting, but why are evening workouts proving to be more effective for muscle growth? It really comes down to three reasons. First, post-workout anabolic signaling, which is something that leads directly to muscle growth, is higher later on in the day (6).
Second, you have a more favorable testosterone-to-cortisol ratio in the evening, rather than in the morning. (7) And third, your core body temperature peaks in the evening, which enhances muscle activation, energy metabolism, nervous system efficiency, and blood flow to your muscles. (8)
That’s why it makes sense to train in the evening, if your schedule allows for it. Ideally, this means working out between 4pm and 8pm, although a more flexible timeframe would be 2:30pm to 11pm.
Nevertheless, keep in mind – a morning workout routine that you consistently stick to is way better than an evening workout routine that you don’t or can’t stay consistent with.
#3 Perform the concentric portion of the bench press explosively
The concentric portion of the bench press is the part where you’re pressing the weight up, off your chest. The faster and more explosive your press from your chest to lockout, the more reps you’ll be able to complete.
In a study, participants were instructed to complete the concentric portion of the press either at maximum speed or a controlled half speed. (9)
Researchers found that after 6 weeks, the maximum speed group improved their bench press strength by 18.2 percent on average. Meanwhile, the slower-velocity group gained only 9.7 percent. (10)
Effectively, they were able to almost double their strength gains, simply by performing the concentric part of the movement with as much force as possible.
This is most likely because lifting a weight with as much force as possible causes more muscle fibers to be recruited, compared to just barely overcoming the weight load.
As far as I’m aware, there are no studies that looked at whether similar results could be expected from exercises like the deadlift and squat. But it’s likely that the same effect will occur.
So if you want to improve your strength, or just maximize muscle fiber recruitment during exercises, apply a high amount of force during the concentric portion of your exercise. But please, make sure to lower the weight slowly, with control.
Explode on the way up, but lower the weight slowly. Otherwise you’ll be doing this wrong, and potentially end up with an injury.
#4 Start your workouts by focusing on your priority muscle group/exercise first
This is because the muscles that you train first in a workout improve the most. Conversely, those that are trained later get a less effective stimulus.
This is shown by another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (11) Here, the researchers concluded that “if an exercise is important for your training goals, then it should be placed at the beginning of the training session, regardless of whether or not it’s a large muscle group exercise or a small muscle group exercise.” (12)
In the case of a powerlifter, this generally means starting with either a squat, bench press, or deadlift. In the case of a bodybuilder, this usually means, partly, the same – starting with a big compound movement like the squat, bench press, or deadlift. But it could also mean doing an isolation exercise for a specific lagging muscle group.
For example, let’s say that your calves are lagging and it’s a muscle group that you really want to see develop grow. Then, contrary to what most people would advise, it’s fine to start your session with calf raises first.
#5 Consume caffeine before your morning workouts
This takes us back to what we were talking about before regarding morning vs evening workouts. If you don’t like night workouts, and prefer morning ones, consuming caffeine before can make a big difference for you.
Also, you should do your best to train around the same time every morning. That’s because it’ll help your circadian rhythm adapt to that time and schedule. And, of course, unlike people that work out late at night, you can have caffeine without interrupting your sleep schedule.
Research shows that pre-workout caffeine can help reduce some of the downsides associated with early morning workout sessions. These include impaired central nervous system efficiency and slower muscle activation. (13)
Still, caffeine won’t really fix everything. For example, you won’t improve your testosterone to cortisol ratio by just drinking coffee. What caffeine can do, however, is giving more strength and overall performance boost.
Just keep in mind – if you take it too often, you’ll develop a tolerance and become more resistant to its stimulating effects. To avoid this, I recommend that you take caffeine only occasionally, like once or twice a week.
It can either be as actual coffee or pre-workout supplements, to help boost your performance on particularly challenging workout days.
#6 Implement Staggered Sets
For these types of sets you would alter back and forth between exercises that train muscles that have opposing functions. For example, your biceps flex your elbows, while your triceps extend them. Those are two opposing functions.
A staggered set for the biceps and triceps would be something like performing a set of bicep curls, resting 1 minute, then performing a set of tricep extensions. Then resting for another minute, and going back to the bicep curls. And you would do this back and forth.
By setting up your workouts like this, you’re able to do more training volume within a given period of time, without interfering with your performance.
Doing two tricep exercises in a row would definitely interfere with your performance. But by working opposing muscle groups for every other set, you are able to start each set fresh.
So not only do staggered sets save you time, but research shows that they may help boosting your gains and work capacity, when compared to straight sets. (14)
Specific examples of this were noted in studies where performing rows before chest exercises increased power output. (15) Likewise, in another study, performing rows after bench press improved performance on both (16). So definitely try to incorporate some staggered sets into your workouts.
When you’re selecting what exercises to combine, make sure that the movements don’t interfere with each other. For example, don’t combine an overhead press with a bench press, because both work the front delts, which would impair performance.
Good examples of exercises to combine include: bent over rows and bench press; pullups and overhead presses; bicep curls and tricep extensions; leg extensions and leg curls.
#7 Avoid sex the day before a leg workout
This one might sound kind of funny, but is genuinely backed by evidence! Indeed, it comes from research that looked at whether abstaining from sex could improve lower body strength performance. (17)
In this study, men were instructed to do five sets of five squats with as much weight as they could the day after having sex. Data were then compared to a day without sex.
The results showed that when abstinent, the men could squat about a 2 percent heavier weight load, on average, than they could on a day after having sex.
So, if you have a heavy squat workout coming up, or some weightlifting competition and you want to perform at your best, abstaining from sex the day before might give you a small edge.
#8 Use knee sleeves during squats
In a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers looked at whether knee sleeves could improve squat performance. (18)
The participants performed squats on three separate occasions, wearing either a normal knee sleeve, a tight knee sleeve, or no knee sleeve at all.
The results showed that both the tight and normal sleeves improved the weight load that they could use for squats by about 10 pounds. This increase in performance might be because the sleeves enhance comfort, feelings of stability, and proprioception.
So you can use knee sleeves during some of your leg workouts to help maximize the weight load you can lift. But I don’t recommend using them for every workout, or for every leg exercise.
That’s because when you overuse them, the muscles around your knee that are responsible for stabilization can get weaker. This in turn may increase the chances of a knee injury when you’re not wearing the sleeves.
Only use this hack occasionally when you’re trying to really push your squat strength.
So those are some of my favorite muscle-building tips and hacks that most people don’t know about. I recommend that you try a couple of these in your routine, so you can see the benefits.
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- Two papers show that bench pressing and squatting with bands or chains builds more strength than doing them without, even when total training volume is equated.
- According to a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, more advanced trainees tend to benefit the most from using bands and chains.
- A 2016 study compared the effectiveness of a 24-week MORNING VS EVENING workout program.
- You can see in figure 2 that the evening workout group outperformed the morning group:
- Tim Scheett from the University of Southern Mississippi found comparable results.
- Post-workout muscle anabolic signaling is higher later in the day.
- You have a more favorable testosterone-to-cortisol ratio in the evening.
- Core body temperature peaks in the evening, which enhances muscle activation, energy metabolism, nervous system efficiency, and blood flow to the muscle.
- A study published in the European Journal of Sports Science had subjects train the bench press with either a maximum velocity concentric or a controlled concentric at about 1/2 of the maximum bar speed.
- “one-repetition maximum (1RM) strength (18.2 vs. 9.7%)”
- The muscles and exercise you train first in a workout improve the most while those that are trained later get a less effective stimulus, as shown by a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
- “if an exercise is important for the training goals of a program, then it should be placed at the beginning of the training session, regardless of whether or not it is a large muscle group exercise or a small muscle.”
- Research shows that having caffeine reduces some of the downsides of morning sessions, such as impaired central nervous system efficiency and muscle activation.
- Performing a whole-body workout with staggered sets increases work capacity compared to doing straight sets.
- Doing rows before bench throws increases power output.
- Doing rows immediately after the bench press improves performance in both exercises.
- Research by Kirecci et al. looked at whether abstaining from sex can improve lower body strength performance.
- In a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers looked at whether knee sleeves can improve squat performance.