Training Small but Mighty Muscle Groups
Training smaller bodyparts shouldn’t mean an easy day at the gym. All-out intensity, variety and rest are the keys to a complete physique.
By Craig Richardson, IFBB Pro, Photography by Ralph DeHaan, Model: IFBB Pro Craig Richardson
[Q] Craig, I do plenty of barbell shrugs but my upper traps seem reluctant to grow. Are there other exercises besides shrugs I should be adding to target this group?
[A] Building upper traps is tricky muscle because all the movement is essentially the up-and-down shrug. Barbell, dumbbell, behind the back, seated, Smith machine ⎯ it’s all shrugging. I like to change it up. Sometimes, I’ll do very high reps. Always use a weight that you can control so you don’t have to jerk or use your knees and hips to assist in the movement. If you’re not doing them correctly, you’re not targeting the muscle effectively. You should also squeeze at the top ⎯ this is the most important aspect of this group of exercises. Sometimes, I’ll superset barbell shrugs with dumbbell shrugs. Other weeks, I’ll go very heavy, doing just 8–10 reps. Other times, I’ll do 15–25 reps. If you train shoulders once a week with upper traps, maybe try to change it up every week to shock the muscle. No matter what you do, it’s all about some kind of shrug, so variety is helpful.
[Q] I do a lot of sets and reps for my calves but they’re still not growing in proportion to my legs. What exercises have you tried that have really worked?
[A] Calves aren’t like some skeletal muscles because they contain a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers ⎯ the ones that don’t grow much. But that doesn’t mean you train them radically differently because you still want to make those fast-twitch fibers grow larger. I don’t want to train them too many times a week because you can overtrain them. So when I train calves, I go all out. I do 8–10 sets, 2–3 exercises. Whatever I do ⎯ heavy weight with low reps or light weight with high reps ⎯ I like to go until I simply can’t move them anymore. Then, I stand up and do a few extra reps ⎯ 10 or 15 ⎯ with just my bodyweight. You’re on your feet all day, meaning the calves are used to taking a beating, so I think you definitely need to do a little extra to stimulate growth.
[Q] With all of the heavy rowing I do, is it even necessary to train my forearms specifically?
[A] It depends on your physique. I use wrist straps, which takes some of the work off my grip and forearms, so I have to train my forearms separately and I do so every other week. I don’t have the biggest biceps and triceps so if my forearms took off and really grew, I’d be out of proportion. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can train back and arms and get your forearms to grow, don’t mess with it: Continue to do what you’re doing. But if you feel like they need to catch up with your arms, then yes, dedicate some time to working your forearms with reverse curls, wrist curls and reverse wrist curls.
[Q] Craig, my training partner likes to extend our workouts with a ton of ab work. I tell him that we get plenty of ab work through our heavy compound lifts like squats and deadlifts and that we don’t need the extra sets. What’s your opinion as one who does a lot of heavy, multijoint work?
[A] I believe that doing abs is very important. Sometimes when you do those other exercises, you get some core work, but a lot of that requires the abdominals to contract isometrically to hold your body in position, as say during a heavy squat or bent-over row. But you do need some dynamic work on your abs through a complete range of motion ⎯ from bottom to top ⎯ to ensure that your abs are nicely defined. And that’s something that you won’t get from the other compound moves.
Recipe for Growth
I like to treat all my bodyparts the same. I’ll work each muscle group once a week and go as hard as I can until I simply can’t do anymore. I rarely even count reps, in fact, because I just go until I’m completely fatigued ⎯ no more, no less. That formula has worked well for me. Some individuals may respond better to greater frequency, say twice a week or every 4–5 days. Just remember, you grow when you rest. If you’re training full bore, you’ll be sore for a few days after each workout. If you’re not feeling it, increasing the intensity of your workout is a better plan than simply increasing the frequency of low-intensity workouts for better overall muscle growth.