Trying to get in shape nowadays is not easy. The sheer amount of information available is completely overwhelming, especially since the development of the web and the explosion in the amount of information available online since the early 2000's. If you are searching for workout programs and diets online, you are probably more confused and frustrated than anything else. You have my complete sympathy, and trust me, you are one of the vast majority of confused readers. For any one program, there is easily nine to ten other programs, propagating a completely different way and means to achieve the same result.
What if I tell you that this is nothing new? Since starting working out seriously in the 80's and 90's, your primary source of information were magazines like Muscle & Fitness, Iron Man, and on the more general health and fitness side, Shape Magazine and Men's Health. It was (and still is) not uncommon for one article to completely contradict another one, or even for the same magazine to publish vastly contradicting views on the same subject months and years apart.
One good thing that came out of following so many articles and news through the years, is that certain patterns start to immerse that not only stand the test of time, but are supported by trusted sources as well as the mainstream media. One such pattern or approach is subject of this article, the 3-Step approach as I would like to call it.
What Is The 3-Step Approach?
Simply put, the 3-Step Approach refers to the three types of exercises that can be performed for each major muscle group that provides the maximum amount of stimulation. (Maximum stimulation is necessary to force growth or help shape a muscle group.) These exercises targets the three positions that is crucial to make sure the whole muscle in its entirety is fully exhausted. I will first explain the three different positions and then continue to illustrate how these principles can be applied to each major muscle group individually.
1. Position Of Power (POP)
Also referred to as the mid-range movement for a muscle, this exercise normally allows the largest amount of weight to be used and is normally done as the first exercise in your routine. They are usually multiple-joint movements and stimulate the whole muscle, especially the fast-twitch fibres in the muscle that responds well to short, powerful movements.
Due to its ability to handle the maximum amount of weight, this exercise are able to completely exhaust the muscle to a large extend, This makes the following exercises easier to perform to the point of failure with less weight and in a shorter period of time.
Examples of this type of exercise, is the squat (for leg muscles), the barbell bench-press (for chest muscles) and the lat pull-down (for back muscles). You will notice that all these examples are considered to be "power movements" which are normally associated with heavy weights and are all multiple-joint exercises.
(Multiple-joint refers to the exercise deploying more than one joint and muscle group during the movement. For example, during the bench-press both the shoulder and elbow joints are used. Also, apart from the pectoral muscles, the triceps and anterior deltoid muscle are used as well to a lesser extend.)
2. Position Of Stretch (POS)
Whenever you reach the point in an exercise where your muscle is fully extended, to the point where you can actually start feeling it stretch, that point in the movement is called the Position Of Stretch (POS). For each muscle group there are at least a two or three exercises that allow your muscle to be stretch to its maximum. Emphasizing these exercises that allow the POS to be reached, is a very important part of stimulating additional muscle growth. To understand how this work, we need to get a bit technical...
Deep underneath your skin is a complex network of tough fibrous tissue that surrounds your muscles called the fascia. This tissue is essential for survival, but can also be restricting muscle growth as it is tightly wrapped around your muscles, allowing very little space for growth and any form of muscle shaping.
As you exercise the muscle, it naturally fills with blood. Performing an exercise where your already blood filled muscles are stretched to a maximum, a process called Extreme Facial Stretching (EFS) takes place. The complete underlying components at work here are still under debate, but the working theory is that during this extreme stretching, the facial tissue opens up and allow some space around the muscle, allowing the muscle to expand and grow (process called hypertrophy).
Apart from this very important process, the natural micro-tears that occurs in your muscle fibres during intense stretching, also contributes further to muscle hypertrophy. Combined, these two processes that occur during an exercise that put emphasis on the POS can play a vital role in stimulating especially stubborn muscle groups.
Examples of this type of exercise are lying dumbbell flyes (for pectoral muscles) and incline dumbbell curls (for bicep muscles). These exercises illustrates how a muscle can be stretched past the point where it is limited by a joint. How far your muscle can be stretched here is only limited by the flexibility of your muscle without causing real damage to your muscle (like muscle or ligament tear). For this very reason it is worth noting for any such exercise to be performed, the muscle must already be properly warmed up.
3. Position Of Flex (POF)
Also commonly referred to as the "peak contraction" part of an exercise. This position in any exercise is reached whenever the muscle is fully contracted while still subjected to the full load of the weight. Not all exercises allow the "top" of the movement to place the muscle under the maximum amount of stress when fully contracted. It can be explained as follows:
Whenever you perform an exercise like a standing barbell curl or lying bench press, your muscle has already pass the point where it is under the biggest amount of stress when you reach the top of the movement , and is now in a semi-rested state. When you perform flyes on a pec deck machine however, and your hands are squeezed together at the "top" of the movement, your pectoral muscles are fully contracted while under the full load of the weight as it is still pulling at the muscle. This point in the exercise is called the Position of Flex (POF).
This exercise can be made even more effective and recruit more muscle fibres if the the position is held for one or two seconds. Additionally, squeezing the weights together as hard as you can at the top of the movement may cause more micro-tearing to occur in the muscle fibres, resulting in potentially more muscle hypertrophy.
Two other good example of POF exercises, are chin-ups (for bicep and back muscles) and seated leg extensions (for leg muscles, especially quads). You will see with both these examples how the muscles are fully contracted while still under the full load of the weight.
Muscle Group Application
Now that we have a thorough explanation of all three positions and how they function, it is important to illustrate how they can be applied to each of the major muscle groups. You will see that some exercises can fulfill a dual purpose, as they can be used for both a POS and POF muscle movement. (More on these exercises and how to approach them later on.) Illustrating how these positions (or key stages) can be deployed for the individual muscle groups will not only help you to train each muscle more thoroughly, but also help to explain the definition and use of each of the three positions in more detail. We will start with the bigger muscle groups and work our way down to the smaller ones:
By far the biggest muscle group in the body, your legs also have a huge variety of exercises available to thoroughly train them.
Position Of Power: The first movement that immediately comes to mind for power and maximum muscle activation, is the squat. Considered by many as the king of all weight exercises, the squat allows you to use a heavy weight (including your own body weight). As a multiple-joint movement, it deploys a number of secondary muscles as well, making it a perfect mid-range movement. It is also the ideal exercise to start your leg workout with, as it requires the biggest amount of energy and also help to warm up all the leg muscles for the exercises to follow.
As good as the squat is, for many people it is problematic and very difficult to perform. Purists will argue that the excuses used not to perform squats, is simply a matter of an unwillingness to put in the effort to perform this admittedly very hard and exhausting movement.
There are a few very legitimate reasons why the squat may not be the right exercise for you though. Spinal issues or weaknesses due to injuries or preexisting conditions, simply rules out performing squats altogether. The danger of worsening an already serious problem simply is not worth the risk.
Other factor, such as length and age also play a big part. Tall people with a skinny build can find it very difficult and awkward to perform a squat. The difficulty in keeping your balance and getting down as far as possible to perform a proper squat, is just a simple result of human anatomy that will always count against some taller people, especially with a longer spines. Age plays a role as well, especially if you start training much later in life. You will find that you lose flexibility, combined with a natural weakening of your joints as you age. Some people are able to adapt, but for some it is simply too difficult and that is perfectly normal and understandable.
This is where the leg press comes in. Before you start bashing this exercise as an "excuse to not perform a proper leg workout", the reasons why squats may not be suitable for many people are very real and legitimate reasons as already explained. Ignoring them can not only lead to serious injury, but also improper form that may stint growth which have been the cause for many weight trainers to give up on leg training altogether.
When performed properly, the leg press can be just as effective as squats. You can use a progressively heavier weight while also deploying multiple joints (hips and knees), making it a great strength and mid-range exercise. As you take the spine out of the equation, leg presses are not only much safer, but also helps you to focus completely on your legs without having to worry about balance and other problems related to squats. Yes, it is not as "prestigious" as squats, but when performed correctly, is just as effective and if you follow a balanced workout program that target all the major muscles, all other muscles that are involved while performing squats, are also exercised during other workouts.
I know I went on a bit long about this issue, but it's very important to address this "squats vs leg presses" debate. Too many people has given up on leg training due so many misconceptions surrounding this whole issue.
Position Of Stretch: This is one of those cases where one exercise can serve the dual purpose of targeting more than one of the three positions. Here, both the squat and leg press can be used for the POP and POS positions. When performed properly, and you lower the weight far enough that you can feel the back of your leg almost touching your calves, you will experience a thorough and very effective stretch in your quadriceps.
One effective way of "solving this problem", is to use your squat as your POP movement, using the maximum amount of weight and strength. Then, using less weight than usual, you perform the leg press and focus on your stretch by lowering the weight as far as possible before powering it all the way up again.
I would advice against using the same exercise for more than one position. Using the squat for both the POP and POS positions for example, will not nearly be as effective as using two different exercises for 2 reasons. Performing the same exercise over twice as many sets as normal may make the muscles and joints more susceptible to injury. Secondly, you remove the variety provided by using different exercises. It has already been shown that using different exercises for the same muscle group leads to better growth and bigger overall muscle stimulation, as you target the muscle from different angles and positions.
Position Of Flex: One exercise that immediately comes to mind for maximum leg contraction, is the seated leg extension. At the top of the movement the muscle is fully contracted while still under the full load of the weight. As with all other exercises focusing on the POF, holding the position while contracted for one or two seconds while squeezing it as hard as you can, maximizes the amount of muscle fibres recruited.
Back (lats and trapezius)
Mainly consisting of the lats (latissimus dorsi) and trapezius muscles, together with quite a few smaller muscles, your back is one of the biggest muscle groups in the body. It is actually a close second only to the leg muscles.
Position Of Power: The bent-over row is a power movement that targets all your back muscles. It also allows you to use a substantial amount of weight and utilizes multiple joints.
Position Of Stretch: A very effective exercise for stretching your back muscles is the lat pull-down. While seated, allow the weight to stretch your back muscles while your arms are fully extended. This allows the back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi (lats) muscle to be stretched to the maximum.
Position Of Flex: One exercise where you can actually literally feel the muscles contract in your back, is the seated cable row, when performed correctly. Using a bar with a close grip (hands together), adjust the seat far enough back to allow you to stretch your back when lowering the weight. In your seated position, lean forward and take hold of the weight. Start straightening up until your upper body is upright ( at about ninety degrees to the floor) while pulling the weight into your stomach. (Very important! Make sure your back is kept straight at all time and you only move at the hip joints. Bending your back can cause serious injury). In the upright position, make sure you are pulling the bar as far as possible into your stomach while your shoulders are pulled back and you can feel your back muscles contracting. Squeeze and hold the position for a few seconds.
Chest (Pectoral Muscle Group)
Mainly consisting of the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and subclavius, your chest muscles are considered as one of the most visually important muscle groups in the body. No muscular body is considered complete without a fully developed and visually striking chest. It is no wonder then that the majority of men working out, are fixated on chest development.
Position Of Power: Creating maximum and explosive power can be achieved by both the the flat barbell bench-press and the lying dumbbell press. Both these exercises allow the use of the maximum amount of weight and are also both multiple joint movements.
Position Of Stretch: A very effective exercise for stretching the chest muscle is the lying dumbbell flye. Allowing your chest to be stretched to the maximum when lowering the weight (while keeping your elbows locked in the semi-bend position) as far as possible, allows the maximum amount of muscle fibre recruitment. Pausing briefly in the stretched position can further promote muscle hypertrophy.
Position Of Flex: Also used as an example earlier on in this article, the pec deck flye is the perfect illustration of an exercise where the muscle is fully contracted while under the full load of the weight. If you are looking for an alternative, the same result can be achieved with cable crossover flyes. As you reach the peak of the movement when your hands come together and your chest muscles are fully contracted under the full load of the weight, you can make the exercise even more effective by crossing your hands at this point, emphasizing the contraction to the maximum with potentially great results.
Your shoulders consists mainly of your deltoid muscles (anterior, lateral and posterior) and the upper trapezius muscles. (The rotator cuff consists of four muscles, namely the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor. They do not show up as visually prominent as the deltoids and trapezius muscles however, so mostly they do not get mentioned when discussing shoulder training)
Position Of Power: Few exercises can beat the shoulder press when it comes to power movements for maximum overall muscle stimulation. Whether you choose the seated barbell press, seated dumbbell press and even standing dumbbell press, all of them produce the same results, depending on your form and preference. Personally I would always recommend a seated shoulder press on a bench with backrest, as it gives maximum protection to the spine.
(As you would know from this and many of my other articles, I always put a lot of emphasis on protecting the spine. This is simply because I realize how devastating a spinal injury can be and how it can not only effect your back workouts, but almost all your other muscle groups as well, since many of those exercises also depends on a healthy spine.)
Position Of Stretch: The ideal exercise for maximizing this position is probably not a well-known exercise, but so effective I cannot leave it out. Called the one-arm cable crossover lateral raise, this exercise is arguably the best way to properly stretch your shoulder muscles while exercising.
I am going to try and explain it here, but I suggest you watch some Youtube videos to get a proper idea of how it should be performed. In essence, the movement is performed the same way as a lateral dumbbell raise, with one big exception.
Instead of starting with the cable handle next to your side, you position yourself far enough away from the pulley that the cable crosses your body to the point where you can feel the weight pulling at your shoulder. Even better, you move far enough away that the weight actually lifts off its resting position. This way you ensure constant tension on your shoulder muscles even when the weight is lowered.
You start the movement by pulling the weight across the front of the body and then lifting and finishing it off like you would a normal lateral raise. When you lower it, let it cross in front of your body again until you feel the weight stretching and pulling at your shoulder muscle. This way you get the full range of movement with a thorough stretch at the bottom of the movement.
Position Of Flex: Here, your traditional lateral dumbbell raise is the perfect exercise for maximum shoulder muscle contraction. Try not to use too heavy a weight, as this movement can only be performed with proper form. When lifting the weight in a controlled movement, make sure you reach the point where the muscle is fully contracted. The contraction under full load is one of the best that can be obtained for your shoulder muscles (especially the deltoid muscles). Again, as with all other POF exercises, remember the squeeze-hold to greatly enhance the effectiveness of the exercise.
Together with the triceps, biceps makes up the bulk of the of your upper arms. Next to a well developed chest, biceps are probably the muscle group which is shown off the most, and seen as a symbol of power and a great physique. (Personally I don't get it, as there are many other muscle groups that helps add to a much more complete overall pleasing physique.) Point is, it is a very popular muscle group whose proper development is a priority for any aspiring and established weight trainer.
Position Of Power: Both the standing barbell curl as well as the seated dumbbell curl are very good examples of exercises that put emphasis on the POP. They allow a full range of movement while being able to cope with a heavier weight load than other bicep exercises. As with other POP exercises, keep in mind that proper form should be maintained as much as possible. Using heavier weights sometimes make it tempting to use momentum and other forms of "cheating" to complete an exercise. Although there are "ethical and effective" forms of cheating, in general it makes the exercise less effective and put yourself at risk of potential injury.
Position Of Stretch: It is not a very natural position to obtain to allow your biceps to properly stretch during an exercise. Incline dumbbell curls gets past this obstacle by using a bench with its back in a declined position. Angling the back of the bench at 45 degrees or more, allows the the bicep muscles to be thoroughly stretched at the bottom of the movement. Take care not to swing the weight and control it all the way down to the bottom to emphasize the stretch and recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibres.
Position Of Flex: There are two exercise that can help you achieve this position. Preacher curls performed with machine-weighted machine and the dumbbell isolation curl. Even though both allow maximum contraction while under the full load of the weight, I would like to focus on the isolation curl. As it is performed one arm at a time, you can really focus on the contraction while squeezing the dumbbell at the top of the movement, making this exercise far superior in my opinion. Obviously it takes a bit longer as only one arm is being worked at a time, but completely worth it.
What many people fail to realize, is that the triceps is by far the biggest muscle group in the arm, making up two-thirds of the overall arm size. Next time you marvel at someone with an impressive set of well-developed arms, remember that the triceps are mostly responsible for that impressive look. As a result, you may want to start paying much closer attention to your triceps workouts.
Position Of Power: A very effective power movement is the standing tricep pushdown. As with other POP movements, you are able to cope with heavier weights. It is also very easy to lose form with this exercise, so make sure you keep your elbows tucked in against your side and you don't use your back to get assistance from the momentum created throughout the movement.
Position Of Stretch: One movement providing your triceps with a thorough stretch, is the lying tricep extension. While lowering the weight over you head, make sure you lower it far enough to feel your triceps stretching properly at the bottom of the exercise. (Sometimes called "skull-crushers", this exercise is expected by some to be performed by lowering the weight to just above your forehead before extending the weight back up again. Using too heavy a weight can have disastrous consequences, hence the name. For the purpose of this exercise, it is crucial that you lower the weight behind your head to achieve the stretch you need to make this exercise effective.)
Position Of Flex: A very versatile exercise for chest exercises, can be a just effective for triceps. I am referring to parallel bar dips. By keeping your body upright and not lean forward, while keeping your elbows close to your sides instead of a wide stance, you take the emphasis away from your chest and focus them on your triceps. At the top of the movement your triceps are fully contracted while still carrying your full body weight. (If your triceps are not strong enough to handle your full body weight, most modern day gyms have machines that assist your body weight to varying degrees, making it much easier to perform this movement.)
After all this information, you may have quite a few questions and I will try and address some of them in this section. We will use a Q&A format to make things easier.
Can the 3-step approach be used in its entirety as full muscle workout? Yes, many people use it as the cornerstone of all their workouts. There are exceptions where it may not be ideal. When you are pressed for time, performing 4 sets of 3 different exercises will not fit in your tight schedule. You may also require just a little stimulus to your muscles and not require the extensive combination of all these exercises to achieve complete muscle hypertrophy.
Is this approach relevant for women? Absolutely. Just remember, women don't build muscle the way men do. They also need to adjust their diet to create a calorie surplus to stimulate proper muscle growth. As a women you often struggle with difficult body parts you just want to shape without any success. Utilizing this approach to shock a lagging body part may be just what is needed to create change. When trying to tone down and you reach a sticking point, applying this approach to a full-body workout, can kick-start and boost your metabolism significantly and stoke your fat burning furnace while improving overall muscle tone.
For how long should I follow this approach? If you are working out on a weekly schedule, I would give the new approach at least three to four weeks. Muscles and your metabolism do not change overnight. After four weeks, if you see substantial positive changes in your body, you can continue for as long as you find it beneficial. It you find it disruptive on your time schedule or energy levels, you can always return to your normal routine and see if the changes and progress are maintained.
You will have noticed that I didn't cover all the muscle groups in the body. This would have taken way too long and is not the point of this article. It was important though to illustrate how each of the 3-step approach can be applied to the major muscle groups.
As with all exercises, and I have said this before and will repeat it again in future articles: Don't be afraid to experiment! You can choose to incorporate the whole three-step approach or just elements of it into your routine. You can only win in the long run. If this doesn't work for you, you just found one less thing that doesn't work.
This approach is just one of many different approaches and techniques you can incorporate in your workout programs and exercise routines. More of these helpful solutions will be discussed in future articles, so stay tuned.
Just remember, at the end of the day, there is just real secret to success: Consistency. Many other attributes will help you achieve you goal. In the long run however, being able to stick to your program/schedule, week after week, month after month and year after year, no matter how you feel or what your circumstances, will make the difference between reaching your goal and falling short.
As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my mailing list to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.
Until next time, take care and let me know if there is a specific new topic you would like me to discuss.