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How to Train Smaller Muscle Groups for a Bigger Physique

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Learning the importance of training smaller muscles can help your overall strength and muscle gains.

By: Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro; Photography by: Kris Gethin; Model: IFBB Pro Johnnie Jackson

[Q] JJ, do your incredibly well-developed traps play a part in your overall strength? How should I train mine?

[A] When I was young I used to finish every workout by throwing seven 45s on each side of a barbell and shrugging for sets of 12–15. I had no idea I was actually growing my traps. I just wanted to impress people with the weight! Eventually my traps started really growing. Now, they’re helped through a lot of heavy deadlifting, but they also help with the deadlifts, particularly in the top position when I’m locking out and getting ready to descend into the next rep. They can also be an important supporter with all your other shoulder movements. My upper traps may be part of the reason I can do lateral raises with 100s. The one drawback is my traps are so overdeveloped that I have to squat with the bar very high on my back. Being a low-traps squatter would allow me to move more weight.

[Q] I love watching video of you pulling off a huge deadlift. I want to get there, but my grip always gives out first and I’m trying not to use straps. Are there other ways, besides just deadlifting, that I can improve my grip strength and stamina?

[A] Part of the reason I have a strong grip is my big hands, but you can keep your grip from being a limiting factor by modifying your technique. Make sure you take an overhand grip with your weaker hand and an underhand grip with your stronger hand. You should also do some specific training for your wrists and forearms. I recommend four sets of 20 with wrist curls and reverse curls after training chest, biceps or triceps. Don’t go too heavy, though. Your wrist is a small joint and you don’t want to injure it.

[Q] My calves are so stubborn I’m about ready to give up on them altogether. Do I really need to train calves? Won’t they just catch up if I’m adding mass everywhere else, especially in my legs?

[A] Ha! If that were the case, everyone would have awesome calves. I know I’d be happy! I think consistency is the key factor. I train mine every day, hitting them with four sets of 30–50 reps. You almost have to take the opposite approach of having to overtrain your calves because you use them so much in daily activities. You can’t just ignore them. You need balance – athletically and aesthetically – and that means giving all bodyparts their due attention.

[Q] My back training involves lots of pulldowns, pullovers and rows, but I don’t have any dedicated lower-back training. Should I?

[A] Definitely. Your lower back comes into play in anything you do, especially heavy squats, bent-over rows and deadlifts. What do you think holds your torso upright when you’re squatting with 300–400 pounds? If you’re going to compete, you need to show those strong erectors and that Christmas tree. Attack your lower back with stiff-leg deadifts or back extensions for four sets of 15–20. You can also use the back-extension machine, which decreases your risk of injury if your lower back is presently undertrained.

[Q] My rear delts get blasted when I row heavy. Isn’t that better overload than bent-over lateral raises for rear delts?

[A] That’s a good question because your rear delts do get a lot of work on back day. But so do your front delts and triceps on chest day, and you don’t skip those workouts do you? Your rear delts absolutely need dedicated work, not only for you to be strong in other movements but for symmetrical shoulders (remember you want all three heads to look balanced with one another) and also for you to have a better shoulders-to-upper-arms tie-in. I learned a long time ago from a Flex Wheeler video to train my rear delts first because otherwise the stronger delt muscles will end up overdeveloped. I’ve been following Flex’s advice ever since.

“I know for sure the strength crowd doesn’t like to train what I call “accessory muscles.” That’s good for me in competition! I’ll be able to balance heavy weight better and without compression or support suits. Train these muscles and you’ll improve all your lifts, guaranteed.”

– Johnnie Jackson

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