Greg Zulak_6SecretsToMaximumGrowth

A lot of bodybuilders are frustrated by a lack of gains. They want to know why they are not making better gains. Many wonder if there are “secrets of the champions” they are not aware of. This is not an article on sets and reps or training routines and training principles. I’m sure you’ve read plenty of articles regarding them. This is my thought on why many bodybuilders fail to make the gains they want. After being editor of MuscleMag International for three years and being a free-lance journalist for over 35 years, and interviewing many top pro bodybuilders, as well as many bodybuilding experts, I have some unique insights on the topic.

What many fail to understand is your body is a riddle. Bodybuilding is all about problem solving, solving the mystery of muscle growth and fat loss. Messages sent by your body, which is a kind of bio-feedback machine, are to be deciphered like codes. Many recreational bodybuilders think there are mysterious secrets about building muscle and losing fat are known only to the champions, like they all got together in collusion to keep these “secrets” from the general public, like the Colonel’s secret Kentucky Fried Chicken mix, and these secrets are a mystery covered by a shroud, wrapped in an enigma. That’s a myth and a fallacy.

Actually many of the real answers to most bodybuilding problems are quite simple and obvious, so simple many cannot believe they are the solutions to their problems. In a nutshell, bodybuilding is just train, eat, think, rest, and grow. Hopefully in this article I can decipher some of the secrets, unravel the shroud and resolve the enigma. There are explanations that explain poor gains, sticking points and plateaus, and things are not as complex and confusing as many believe. You simply have to listen to your body and interpret the messages sent to your body from your brain and avoid common training, psychological and nutritional mistakes.

What I have found over the years is many people tend to put their faith in sets, reps, and training routines. X + Y=Z. Many feel there is a magic routine that will give them fantastic results. If they only knew how Ronnie Coleman or Dorian Yates trained back they’d get back development like them too. If they knew how Arnold Schwarzenegger trained arms and pecs, they’d get arms and pecs like The Oak. If they followed Tom Platz’s or Phil Heath’s exact thigh routine, one day they’d get legs like them and so on.

Unfortunately, bodybuilding doesn’t work that way. There’s this problem called genetics. We all have different body types or somatotypes, different muscle shapes and skeletal structures. We have different length of muscle bellies, and different insertions and different number of muscle cells in each muscle, not to mention different metabolisms and hormone levels, and mental proclivity to training. As much as we want, we can’t train like our favorite champ and hope to look like him or her one day.

Still hope springs eternal, and each month bodybuilders can’t wait to buy their favorite bodybuilding magazine so they can try the latest super-duper training routine and finally make the gains they want.

Many times I have been asked if there are secret training methods that explains why champion bodybuilders are so large and muscular (besides their superior genetics and drug use). There are “secrets” and here is the main one. Champion bodybuilders do not train like your average recreational bodybuilder or wannabe bodybuilders (I wanna-be-a-champion-some-day). When champions train their mental mindset and focus as they do a set is to always first and foremost to “work the muscle,” not lift the weight, while wannabe’s focus on lifting the weight, not working the muscle. As well, champions know when and how to cheat to put extra overload on the working muscle, while novices and wannabe’s cheat because it’s the only way they can move the weight.

Vince Gironda, the famed “Iron Guru,” said “that most bodybuilder’s train incorrectly because it is too hard to train correctly.” If you do not know the difference between “working a muscle” versus “lifting a weight,” you have a lot to learn about bodybuilding. In order to develop your muscles you need to do your exercises correctly and in a way that allows you to work the muscle the hardest way you can. You have to train like a bodybuilder, not a power lifter or weightlifter.

At the gym where I currently train, I notice many members doing only half reps from the top (half way down and then back up) because training this way allows for the use of heavy weights, but it denies the target muscle work. I see half reps on bench presses, incline presses, behind-the-neck presses, dumbbell presses, leg presses, squats, and even lat pulldowns and dumbbell flyes If a professional bodybuilder does half reps, or three-quarter reps, they always lift the weight all the way down, but only half or three-quarters up to maintain constant-tension on the muscle.

Innervation, a term first coined by Canadian personal trainer Scot Able–one of the brightest minds in bodybuilding—is your ability to “feel” and “sense” a muscle as you work it. I also call it bio-feedback training. Innervation relates to the neural control of a muscle by the nerves or nerve impulses, as well as the increased supply of nerve fibers or impulses to a muscle. The basic tenet of innervation training, says Able, is that “in very specific planes of motion, muscles are innervated differentially.”

Innervation is not just your ability to feel a muscle as you work it, it is your sensory ability to sense the sensations of muscular exertion in the target muscle group: muscle ache and burn, muscular contractions, stimulation, fatigue and muscle pump. As well, increased nerve or neural impulses means stronger brain nerve messages are sent to the muscles via the central and peripheral neuro-muscular pathways for increased muscle stimulation due to harder muscular contractions.

In order to innervate the muscles, you must develop the neuro-muscular pathways from the brain to the muscles so you can generate stronger nerve force to make your muscles contract more forcibly during a set. You must make that all important mind-to-muscle connection. Innervation also means you must use greater concentration as you do your exercises and to realize that workouts require as much mental energy and effort as physical energy and effort. In short, you must use the power of your mind to work your muscles properly. Your number one goal as a bodybuilder is to learn how to innervate your muscles so you can “feel” your muscles as you train them, to maintain innervation throughout a set.

Innervation asks a simple question. When you do an exercise for a muscle group do you feel the muscle working or not? When you bench press do you feel your pecs working or is all you feel is front deltoids and triceps? When you do lat pulldowns or bent rows, do you feel the lats working or do you only feel biceps and shoulders? When you do barbell and dumbbell curls do you feel the biceps working or do you only feel forearms and shoulders? When you do squat do you feel your thighs working or do you only feel is glutes and hips and lower back and your knees hurting? If you feel the muscle working, your form is correct. If you don’t it’s not. It’s really that simple, folks.

Many recreational and novice bodybuilders do not realize you can bench press without working your chest. You can do barbell and dumbbell curls without working your biceps. You can do rows, chins and pulldowns without working your lats. You can do leg presses and squats without working your quads. So how do you know when you are doing an exercise properly? Innervation; If you feel the muscle working, you know you are doing the exercise correctly.

I strongly believe you have to feel a targeted working muscle in order to stimulate it optimally. If you cannot feel a muscle as you train it, it’s impossible to isolate it or to send strong nerve impulses from the brain to the muscles via the neuro-muscular pathways to make it contract forcibly. Without muscular contraction there cannot be proper stimulation, overload, or a growth pump. Without overload and a growth pump, there can be no or little growth.

Poor innervation—known as enervation—is defined as “muscle weakness, numbness or lethargy. It’s the major reason for poor muscle growth. The muscle fails to grow because it never gets the proper nerve impulses or messages from the brain. Enervation means an inability to feel or sense your muscles as you train them. This is especially true for muscle groups you cannot see as you train them, like the lats and hamstrings. This results in muscles that are unresponsive to exercise. Enervation is essentially poor sensory ability and is characterized by muscle numbness and weakness. If you cannot feel a muscle as you train it, it is impossible to isolate it or to sense the sensations of muscular exertion: ache, burn, contractions, stimulation, and pump. If you cannot feel a muscle as you train it, it will not grow. There is no bio-feedback and poor mind-to-muscle connection, and poor neruo-muscular pathways.

If you fail to innervate a muscle, you will find it impossible to isolate it. You will find it difficult to stimulate. It will fail to pump. You cannot feel the sensations of muscular exertion. The muscle fails to grow because it never gets the proper nerve impulses from the brain. You feel nothing or at best, numb, mushy feelings. The muscle is never stimulated and has no reason to grow. As Struther Martin told Paul Newman in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It’s like some kind of computer glitch. It is also a kind of chicken versus the egg scenario. While some might argue that a failure to feel a muscle is the reason you cannot isolate it, in truth you cannot isolate it because you cannot feel it.

There are a number of ways to train for innervation and to teach a muscle to respond and grow. To properly innervate a muscle you must concentrate harder, use higher reps (12 to 100), take shorter rest periods between sets (30 to 60 seconds), and  use high intensity training principles such as compound supersets, trisets, drop sets (single double or triple drop), pre-exhaust, rest-pause, heavy-light, 21’s, 1 ½’s, and Super Slow-Motion training. Once you have developed the neural networks and the neuro-muscular pathways from the brain—which usually takes many months–then the muscle can be trained heavier and for less reps and the muscle will respond. But you can’t put the cart before the horse. You have to do the higher rep or high intensity training first.

The scope of this article does not permit me to go into detail about each training principle, I will mention that Super Slow Motion (or Super Slow-Mo) is a brutally and painful way to innervate a muscle. The goal is to take 30 seconds to lower a weight and 30 seconds to raise it (to ensure you are actually taking 30 seconds, count in your mind, one-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two, etc.). Because of the time factors involved the bar moves at most one-quarter of an inch each second, so you’re really doing a series of eccentric and concentric holds, and the muscle works intensely over the full range of motion. Super Slow-Mo is one of the most mentally grueling, physically intense, and brutally painful ways to train and forces a massive amount of blood into the muscle, resulting in extreme pumps because the muscle is under tension for so long.

Super Slow-Mo really works. In a 1996 issue of IronMan there was an article on a bodybuilder named Rob Colacino, a NABBA Mr. USA champion. Rob weighed 245 pounds and had 22 inch arms. Rob said for his biceps all he did was one rep of Super Slow-Mo barbell curls for his biceps once a week. That’s one rep of barbell curls once a week!! One hell of a rep, however!

If you have a muscle that fails to respond to conventional training, that is you have difficulty feeling, isolating, stimulating, innervating and pumping a muscle, I guarantee that Super Slow-Mo will allow you to stimulate and innervate the muscle like never before. Not for the faint-hearted, however.

You can also try the Vince Gironda method of 10 sets of 10 reps or 8 x 8 reps with 30 seconds rest between sets. Vince called this “the honest workout,” while Larry Scott called it “racing the pump.” It was also known as “quality training.” Vince said this was the best method he knew of for taxing a muscle to its limit in the shortest time possible. It sounds simple but it’s a brutally tough way to train.

Vince said to acquire larger muscles you had to increase the intensity of work done in a given time. It doesn’t matter how much work you do, what matters is how fast you do it. While it is harder to run a marathon than a 100 meter dash, sprinters have large muscular thighs because they do more work per second than say marathoners who have skinny thighs. Vince said you should strive to constantly reduce the amount of rest between sets. This is another form of progressive training and is known as the overload principle.

Another secret of the champions is training for a growth pump (I make the distinction between a growth pump and a pump.  You could lift a 5 pound dumbbell for hundreds of rep and get a pump but you wouldn’t grow). Anyone familiar with my articles knows that I am a firm believer in Dennis DuBreuil’s Blood Volume Principle which states “that there is a direct relationship between how well a muscle pumps and how well it grows.” A muscle that pumps the best and the easiest grows the fastest and easiest too, while muscle’s that pump poorly, or refuse to pump at all, grow slowly and poorly, if they grow at all.

I’m sure if you thought about it your best and easiest growing muscle groups are those that pump the best, while your worst growing muscle groups also pump poorly, or refuse to pump at all. I can guarantee you that all champion bodybuilder, from John Grimek and Steve Reeves to Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Phil Heath or Branch Warren all train to pump their muscles to the max.

A good growth pump is a strong indicator that more blood is flowing or circulating to the working muscle group. Increased blood flow brings in freshly oxygenated blood and key nutrients to the working muscle and carries away lactic acid and other fatigue products produced by hard muscular exertion, so recovery and growth can take place. It should be noted that a muscle is not made larger just by increasing the thickness of the muscle fibers. It is also made larger by increasing the number of capillaries, blood cells, and red muscle fibers. This increase is called by John Parillo “cardio-vascular density.” With increased cardio-vascular density, the veins and arteries become larger to accommodate increased blood circulation and volume, and the bodybuilder becomes more vascular.

It’s the reason why many top power lifters and weightlifters can lift very heavy weights without building a lot of muscle mass, especially those in the lighter weight classes who cannot afford to add too much muscle mass or bodyweight so they can compete in a specific weight class. They have good leverages and strong tendons and ligaments and strong white “fast-twitch” muscle fibers but little cardio-vascular density.

To me a skin tight growth pump is a very good indicator that you have been successful in your primary goal of innervating, stimulating, and isolating your muscles. Pump does not occur in a vacuum. It is always accompanied by the sensations of muscular exertion: muscle ache, burn, fatigue, muscle contractions, and stimulation.  When you achieve a rock hard maximum growth pump can there be any doubt in your mind you’ve worked the muscle very hard?

Fortunately, the training principles that cause innervation also cause a growth pump: Supersets, trisets, drop sets, pre-exhaust, rest-pause, 21’s, 1 ½’s, heavy-light, high rep sets (20-100 reps) and little rest between sets (15 to 30 seconds), and Super Slow-Mo.

One last word about pump; Both Vince Gironda and John Parillo believed it was time to stop training a muscle when you lose the pump. This is an indication you have used up all the glycogen in the working muscle, and further training is futile. So for example, if you do nine sets for biceps and your biceps are really pumped, but when you do a tenth set some of the pump goes away. That indicates it’s time to stop training biceps and move on to another muscle group.

4) TRAIN LIKE A BODYBUILDER (Not a Weightlifter or Powerlifter)
This statement may confuse a few people. After all, some weightlifters and powerlifters have pretty good physiques. Weightlifters and powerlifters lift weights, as do bodybuilders but it is how they lift weights that makes them different.

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever seen a world champion power lifter or weightlifter with the muscular development of a Mr. Olympia competitor? No, of course not. If lifting maximally heavy weights gave the most muscle mass and muscularity than world champion power lifers and weightlifters would win the Mr. Olympia and The Arnold Classic each year. But they don’t and can’t. I mean who would you rather look like, Paul Anderson or Steve Reeves or Frank Zane, or Anthony Clark or Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler or Phil Heath?

How do power lifters and weightlifters lift a weight? With speed, momentum and inertia, the easiest way they can. They don’t care if their muscles are stimulated or pumped up. They don’t give a damn about feeling and isolating their muscles. They just want to drive a heavy weight up and make their lift. Bodybuilders need to train differently than power lifters or weightlifters. They need stricter form, higher reps, greater concentration, less rest between sets, and lifting the weights the hardest way they can with pure muscle action. You must focus on working the muscle, rather than just lifting the weight and hoping the muscle is stimulated somehow.

The bottom line is this: Don’t expect to look like a bodybuilder if you train like a power lifter/weightlifter. If you are heaving and tossing around heavy weights and cheating like crazy as you do your sets you are training like a power lifter or weightlifter trying to get stronger without getting bigger, not a bodybuilder. Listen to the bio-feedback you get from your muscles as you train them. They’ll tell you if you’re training correctly or not. Try to use proper exercise form on all your exercises. You’ll know you’re training too heavy if you are forced to cheat excessively and bring in secondary muscle groups to assist in lifting the weight.

You have all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” But that is wrong. “Only “perfect practice” makes perfect. It’s a saying used a lot by golf instructors and baseball hitting coaches, and coaches or any sport that require precise repetitive skill (skiing, track and field, weight-lifting, power lifting, swimming, diving, figure skating, tennis and most sports). If you don’t practice perfectly, you just engrain bad habits. If you continually do an exercise the wrong way, you never get to experience what is right, so you keep doing it wrong. Substitute the word train for the word practice. Now let me ask you, are you training properly or just training?

Strength Versus Size: Do you believe there is a direct relationship between how strong you are and how big you get? That is to say, do you believe every time you get stronger, you will always get bigger too? If you do, you are wrong (some of the time). It is possible to get significantly stronger without developing larger and more muscular muscles if you train primarily for strength, and not for muscular development and size. How do you think Olympic weightlifters and world-class powerlifters train to increase strength while maintaining a certain bodyweight so they can compete in a specific weight class?

Say a guy is a 148 or 165 pound competitive powerlifter. He can’t afford to increase his muscle mass and bodyweight as that would take him out of his weight class. Still, he needs to increase his strength each year so he can remain competitive. So how can he increase his strength without increasing muscle mass and bodyweight?

First of all, he never does high repetitions or takes short rests between sets as that would increase blow flow to his muscles and create a pump in the working muscle. Our powerlifting friend does low repetitions, say 1 to 5, with lots of double and triples. He takes long rest periods between sets, at least five minutes, and as long as 10 minutes on his heaviest sets. Legendary strongman Paul Anderson used to rest 10 to 15 minutes between sets, and an hour between exercises. Why? Power and strength need rest. The longer you rest between sets, the more strength you have to lift maximally heavy weights. In a leading sports journal strength coach Charles Poliquin said even a three minute rest between sets was insufficient when attempting maximum attempts.

Long rest periods between sets ensures there is no pump, no increase in capillaries, red blood cells, red “slow-twitch” muscle fibers, and no cardiovascular density. Instead, powerlifters and weightlifters target white “fast-twitch” muscle fibers which are worked with low reps (1-6). They need explosive power and strength, not 20 inch arms or cross-striated thighs and glutes.

As well, powerlifters and weightlifters may do heavy partials in a power rack to increase tendon, ligament and connective tissue; the entire skeleton structure. They may do some negative only lifting, as it is possible to lower 40 per cent more weight than can be raised concentrically or positively. As well, they may develop better neurological efficiency. Peary Radar, former editor and publisher of IronMan magazine, observed that some champion lifters were able to lift more and more weight each year even though their bodyweight did not increase. He theorized that may lifters can generate what he called “nerve force.” These lifters could literally rev up their nervous systems before maximum attempts, as if they took amphetamines.

Finally, lifters might do extreme fascial stretching, which decreases the body’s protective mechanisms, such as the Golgi Tendon Organ stretch receptors which shuts a muscle down when it is exposed to extreme stretch and stress, which might cause injury. If you can raise the threshold of the Golgi Tendon Organ stretch receptors, you can increase strength without increasing muscle mass or bodyweight.

You have probably experienced the effect of the Golgi Tendon Organ stretch receptors without being aware of it. For example, have you ever run a long distance as fast as you could and suddenly your legs seem to turn to mush and it’s like you are running in slow motion? No matter how fast you try to run, you can only run at a slow pace. That’s the Golgi Tendon Organ stretch receptors kicking in to shut the muscles of the legs down to prevent a possible injury.

It happens with weight-training too. On a set of bench presses for 10 reps, perhaps the first eight reps go smoothly, but on the ninth repetition your arms start shaking and the weight goes up very slowly. On the tenth rep your arms shake even more and the weight goes up half way up but you can’t finish that final repetition. It not just muscular fatigue of the triceps as to why you can’t get that final rep. It’s the Golgi Tendon Organ stretch receptors kicking in to shut the muscle down to prevent injury.

Back to strength training versus training for size, it is true if you get stronger on sets of at least six strict repetitions you will gain size (as long as your diet is sufficient in protein and calories). After all, the basic premise of bodybuilding is progressive training. I am not suggesting you lift ping pong balls. Of course try to get stronger and stronger over time, especially on compound exercises, but never sacrifice correct form for the sake of lifting a heavy weight. As long as you are maintaining correct form, if you feel the muscle working and pumping, if you train for innervation and a growth pump, and performing sets of at least six strict repetitions, then you will get bigger as you get stronger.

Any bodybuilder tossing and heaving heavy weights around, using speed, momentum, and inertia, and cheating excessively and having to use secondary muscle groups to help lift a heavy weight, means you are training the like the powerlifter or weightlifter who is trying to get stronger without getting bigger. Bodybuilders must train differently than lifters because their goals are different. To reiterate, bodybuilders need higher repetitions, stricter form, less rest between sets to maximize pump and resting so long they lose the pump, with the goal of maximizing innervation and a growth pump. They need more isolation exercises to work all the muscle fibers.

Bodybuilders must muscle the weight up using pure muscle action. They must lift the weight the hardest way they can. They must never lift the weight the easiest way they can by using excessive cheating, inertia, and momentum. You will know if you are lifting too heavy when you lose the feel of the working muscle and you are forced to cheat excessively and use secondary muscle groups to assist in lifting the weight. Yes, aim to get stronger and stronger over time, especially on compound movements, but never sacrifice feel and innervation for the sake of lifting maximally heavy weights.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Just because a muscle doesn’t respond to one style of training doesn’t mean it won’t respond to another type of training. If you’ve been training a muscle group for sets of 6 to 8 reps but it fails to respond, doesn’t mean it won’t respond to higher reps (20 to 100), or a high intensity training principle such a compound supersets, trisets, drop sets (single, double or triple), pre-exhaust, rest-pause, heavy-light, 21’s, 1 1/2’s or Super Slow-Motion. You won’t know until you try.

Using myself as an example, for literally almost two decades I trained my thighs with sets of six to eight reps on all my thigh exercises and my thighs didn’t grow even an inch. You would have thought I spend half my life in a wheel chair, not busting my butt doing heavy squats and leg presses. When I did high rep leg presses (4 sets of 50 reps), my thighs grew two inches in three months. It was very grueling and painful to do. Even with relatively light weights my thighs burned like fire and pumped like crazy. After a set I could barely walk. But it worked.

I wasted years because I wasn’t doing what my thighs needed to grow. If something isn’t working, then obviously you must change your approach. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You never follow a losing game plan for too long. If something isn’t working, try something else. It’s so obvious. That’s what the champs do.

Also you should understand that all your muscle groups might require a different kind of training and just because a certain kind of training works for one muscle doesn’t mean it will work for another muscle. In general, smaller muscles such as the biceps, triceps, pecs, and deltoids respond well to sets of 6 to 10 reps while larger muscles like the quads, hamstrings and lats might require much higher reps (sets of 20 to 100 reps). Larger muscles like quads, lats and hamstrings have more nerve fibres and we have less control over than say biceps or triceps, so it often takes more reps to work them properly.

To teach a recalcitrant muscle to respond you must train it with higher reps, take less rest between sets, or employ high intensity training principles. Once you have developed the neural networks to the muscle, as well as a greater blood flow and better cardiovascular density, then you can reduce the reps and train the muscle heavier. Sometimes you have to train a muscle for three to six months with higher reps before it will respond to lower reps. Again, using myself as an example, after doing high rep leg presses for four months I found I could sometimes do sets of only 12 to 15 reps and still get a good pump in my thighs—indicating I had developed better blow flow to my thighs and better neural networks too.

All champion bodybuilders ultimately find the training methods that work for them. So should you. That’s the reason so many champion bodybuilders train differently. Some respond well to heavy weights and low reps while others are just muscle pumpers and they just pump, pump, and pump the muscle some more. As well, the champs know the difference between maximally heavy weights and working weights. They might use only 50 to 70 per cent of their max because training lighter allows them to control the weight and to concentrate on “working the muscle” rather than focussing on lifting the weight. With lighter weights they can better isolate, stimulate, innervate and pump their muscles, and with less risk of injury.

Both Vince Gironda and two-time Mr. Olympia champion Larry Scott have gone on record saying bodybuilding gains are 80 per cent nutrition. That’s not to say you don’t have to train and by following a perfect diet you’ll make 80 per cent more gains. No, they were saying that even if you train properly and follow a perfect training routine in volume and intensity, if your diet is poor you will make 80 per cent less gains.

Pro bodybuilders pay extra special attention to diet and nutrition. To them eating is a job. They often carry coolers with chicken breasts, rice, baked potatoes, and other foods. Every two hours something is going into their mouths, be it a chicken breast and a baked potato, or perhaps a protein shake. I used to sometimes go to the movies with IFBB pro bodybuilder Negrita Jayde. Negrita had a beeper on her wrist watch timed to go off every two hours. Even in the middle of a movie, if her watch beeped, she would get a chicken breast and baked potato out of her cooler, and a handful of branch chain amino acids.

If your body needs 4000 calories a day to grow, and you give it only 3900 calories, you will not grow. That’s less than one baked potato a day. How would you like to train for months and months and not make gains because you didn’t eat one more baked potato?


Give some of these concepts a try and introduce them into your workouts. I can guarantee better results. Hey, if they work for the champs, they will work for you too.


greg-zulakAbout The Author
Greg Zulak has been working in the bodybuilding industry for well over 30 years now. He has written over 700 articles published since he began free-lance writing for Bob Kennedy in 1982. His articles have been published in MuscleMag, IronMan, Flex, Muscle & Fitness and Muscular Development. Many of my articles have been published in 19 different language around the world–even Japanese.

He’s currently in the midst of writing about what’s been going on with him for the past 14 years and he is giving away his latest eBook on Lat Training via his website: