We all have them, we usually hate them, hate training them, and when we see someone who has a well-developed version of our weak muscle, we ask them for advice! The following 7 principles can easily help turn your weakness into a strength. Below are all geared toward hypertrophy and physique development, not strength improvements. That is another article entirely.
1 - Caloric Surplus
This is hands down the most important factor!! You’re never going to get a muscle to grow without a caloric surplus! I hear this one the most…people are dieting and trying to lose body fat but also trying to get their glutes to grow. In some RARE cases that may happen but it’s unusual. It can happen with new trainees and “assisted” athletes.
Pro Tip 1 - My overriding question for anyone who complains about being unable to get a muscle to grow is “Is the scale going up?” If not, then you aren’t eating enough and a muscle won’t grow!
Pro Tip 2 - You can use a caloric surplus aka refeeds (higher calorie days) only when training weak body parts. In some clients, this works well and provides a caloric increase for the day which facilitates anabolism in that muscle group.
2 - Priority
Prioritizing muscles by performing them first in workouts. If your calves are small or weak you want to perform them first on leg day, not last. You’ll be able to get the most out of the muscle before fatigue sets in, when focus and energy are high.
Pro Tip -Generally you want to perform exercises that offer the most bang for the buck such as compounds exercises. These involve the most muscle groups and the most fiber recruitment typically
3 - Increase Volume
Bumping up the volume on the muscle, while simultaneously decreasing volume on strongest part. Most men have great pecs because Monday’s are ICD (International Chest Day) and usually spend a good amount of time on chest day hammering away at already great pecs. The popular culture mindset is to just add extra sets to weak body parts. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. However, in theory you should already walking a fine line of overtraining. You can’t just add more sets infinitely for lagging body parts.
Pro Tip - A smarter approach would be to skip training your best body part for a few workouts, or minimizing the total amount of sets that great body part gets. While simultaneously increasing the volume on the weaker muscle group
4 - Increase Frequency
The classic, typical bodybuilder workout split is to train one muscle group per week. Increasing frequency might make all the difference in some cases. This a good principle for some, I think this works well with quick-to-recover body parts such as calves, arms, abs, maybe side deltoids. Training these smaller muscles, every 2-3 days and implementing some other tactics such as different exercises or different rep ranges from the previous session.
Pro Tip -Example Routine to Improve Calves
Mon 3-4 x 6-8 standing calf machine
Wed 3x15 donkey calf
Fri 2x20 single-leg standing raises
*Calves typically have a mixed fiber type of fast and slow. Therefore, low and high reps both work.
5 - Vary Repetition Ranges
The distribution of fiber type someone has in their muscles will determine which rep ranges are ideal for that muscle. While there are subtle differences amongst the populations, never the less, there are differences. Some trainees might not see much progress from heavy weight low rep (6-10) for legs, then when they change to a higher range (12-15) they notice results.
Pro Tip - Train in mesocycles (typically 4-week blocks) and vary rep ranges each block and see which ranges you respond best to.
6 - Isolation then Compound
Just as many trainees use glute activation type exercises prior to starting a leg workout. This piggybacks off the same principle. Using an isolation exercise will usually facilitate and upregulate those neural pathways and increase blood flow and muscle recruitment in the targeted area. This tends to give more “feel” to a muscle and might allow you to feel it “activate” more. Follow it up with a compound exercise which allows a heavier load to be used and involves ancillary muscles
Pro Tip - Here are a couple examples of common pairings: Chest flyes then a chest press, leg extensions then squat, straight arm pulldowns then pull-ups, tricep pushdowns then close grip bench or dips.
7 - Exercise Selection
Choose different exercises that might allow you to feel it more. A great example is Former Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, he has always stated that he dropped squats from his leg day early on in his career in favor of the leg press for quads. He never felt he got good results with squats and they didn’t work for him. While leg press worked phenomenally well for him!
Pro Tip - As you gain training experience and experiment with a multitude of exercises you’ll start to focus on what you feel more than others and which ones might work better for you.
I can assure you by implementing these principles one at a time to assess validity, you will find a few new ways to get your stubborn muscle to respond and grow!