In over three decades, I've worked with athletes who want to perform better, MILFs re-investing in their assets, and more fat-loss clients than I can even remember.
However, I've recently found myself designing more and more programs for guys who want to bring up lagging body parts.
It may be because I take an approach to training that's based primarily on improving aesthetics and symmetry, or maybe it's because I've always been outspoken in my opinion that goals are intensely personal. Whatever the case, I've always been an ardent proponent of specialization programs, and have encouraged people to use them in their training.
Since full-body muscle growth slows dramatically for advanced trainees, I firmly believe that specialization programs are superior to programs aimed at increasing overall size many times.
In intermediate and advanced trainees, significant growth happens in bursts. Whatever theory of training you subscribe to and whatever program is your "go-to" for mass gain, if you've been training for a few years chances are you've gotten to where you don't add a pound of muscle at a time. Instead you grow in spurts.
This is true for the vast majority of my clients and it has certainly been true for me as well.
At higher levels of development, full-body growth becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.
The bigger you are, the harder it is to gain further. Although in a broad sense this is because you're getting closer to your genetic ceiling, one of the more specific reasons is that your body simply cannot continue to grow under the same conditions.
Avanced trainees are (supposedly) stronger. Lifting heavier weight for a comparable number of reps is more taxing on the nervous system and the general metabolic processes involved in recovery.
In almost all cases, as you progress your ability to train for full-body growth will be far greater than your ability to recover from such training. Very unfair.
On an already well developed body, training your ass off for ten weeks to gain two pounds of muscle–which probably makes a minimal visible difference–is lame.
When you put on some muscle in a given time period it's generally distributed over your entire frame. Now gaining a few pounds of lean body mass is always nice, and I would never say it isn't a goal worthy of effort or achievement. It just sucks when you achieve it and you can't see it. And when you're already pretty well developed, that's often what happens, sadly.
Everybody notices when you put an inch on your arms, or add significant chest size.
Training with the goal of increasing the size of a single muscle or muscle group has a lot of benefits, but the main one is visibility. People notice. More than that, YOU NOTICE. Nothing is as satisfying as actually seeing the results in the mirror or in your clothes, instead of having to account for infinitesimal changes on a measuring tape. Then if you can only have the occasional growth spurt, why not dedicate a spurt to something that will be visibly noticeable, intensely satisfying, and realistically achievable over a relatively short time?
I believe in short, single-minded bursts of training for four to six weeks, and no more. I prefer to spend those weeks getting as much out of a training program as possible, putting on some noticeable size and keeping fat gain to a minimum,if any at all.
To develop a specialization program, the first things to consider are volume and frequency. It should go without saying that when prioritizing a muscle, you need to train it more. Not only with more sets and reps, but a much greater frequency, too. For a specialization program to be optimally effective, it must meet the following criteria:
In a perfect scenario, I'd have people training once every 36 hours. When that isn't possible, every other day is the next best option. At the minimum, you should be able to figure out how to squeeze in three workouts per week. That'd still be ok.
-HIGH TOTAL WEEKLY VOLUME, MODERATE WORKOUT VOLUME
Your weekly volume is going to be pretty high. Between three and four training sessions per week, you're getting a lot of total work for the selected muscle group. I recommend that you generally aim for 30 to 35 sets per week, broken into as many sessions as possible. This recommendation alone doesn't account for reps or load, so here are some more specifics.
35 SETS PER WEEK:
10 Sets of High Reps: 12-15
10 Sets of Moderate Reps: 8-12
10 Sets of Low Reps: 4-6
5 Sets of Very High Reps: 20-25 Reps
One of the best things about specializing a body part is you get to shy away from the basics and really get into some fun exercises. While it'd be impossible to list all the combinations of all the exercises, I'd say that each workout would need to consist of the following:
I hope I don't need to define this for you. Just know that big movements are always at the core of any program. Each workout should have at least two compound exercises.
Exercises requiring explosiveness are great because they increase strength, power, coordination, and recruit muscle fibers that other exercises leave behind.
I recommend including one explosive movement per workout.
You don't fool anyone, so stop pretending you don't like biceps curls. Sure, you can probably get big arms without them, but how sweet is that pump? Other examples include lateral raises, leg extensions, leg curls, cable flys, triceps extensions and calf raises.
For the aim of specialization, I recommend adding two isolation movements per workout.
Some Due Notes on Maintenance
One of the things I notice about most specialization programs is that almost no one mentions how to train the rest of the body. You'd think increasing the size of a single muscle was as simple as adding in a few extra sets and whatever they decide the Chest Exercise of the Month is.
At best, you'll see something along the lines of "put all other body parts on maintenance." Well It's not that simple.
Proper manipulation of volume is tricky, and honestly, I like to err on the side of caution. I'd much rather have people do a bit too much for the prioritized body part and a bit too little for everything else. To that end, I really tone down the volume for other body parts.
When people make broad recommendations like "put everything else on maintenance, it leaves trainees with a lot of room to screw things up by doing too much and inhibiting results.
After all, what does "maintenance" really mean? You need to define it. For me, it means you need to accept that your focus is your focus, and everything else takes a back seat. Accept it.
So when I tell someone to put something on maintenance, I mean they should train it as little as necessary. That means not losing strength or mass. In most cases, this is a lot less than you believe.
The majority of people can hold onto muscle mass by doing a full body circuit once per week, which is a pretty decent starting point.
I do understand the concern and fear of losing mass, and I'm not discounting the validity of it. I just take a more pragmatic approach to things. If all you care about is having big legs, who cares if it feels "wrong" to only train chest once every 10 days, or even less?
If at the end of the program, you have bigger legs, you accomplished your goal, and you and your big legs can go back to training chest again. In the mean time, no sweats, it's not going to shrink.
I'm definitely willing to agree that you can gain muscle–even as an advanced trainee–on programs focused on whole body growth, but the result is usually not that impressive. I know there are a lot of great programs from a lot of great coaches that can lead to significant growth over a considerable length of time.
But for my taste, that's not good enough.
I believe in acceleratory, single-minded bursts of focused training, intentioned to produce dramatic results in a relatively short timeframe. Something you can clearly SEE.
With that mindset, specialization programs are great for most. They're quick, fun, and the visibility of the results are intensely satisfying.
Bigger delts in four weeks? Sign me up now!