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How to fit lagging muscles

Christian Tibado not only writes on T-Nation, he now has his own website – with b̶l̶e̶q̶d̶j̶e̶q̶o̶m̶ paid training programmes and the best articles of his own pen.

Renowned athlete and bro-writer Christian Thibadeau shares (through the lens of our translation) the tips you might have asked – in this case about lagging muscles.

Each of us has at least one muscle group that does not grow (or grows much slower than others) even on the most well-thought-out and balanced programme.

For example, when I took up bodybuilding after weightlifting, my pectorals and broad shoulders lagged behind my delts and trapezoids. This is quite understandable: in weightlifting the pectorals work least, while the broadest muscles are mainly strained in statics. I spent a lot of time on training experiments to correct this imbalance. Let me remind you that proportional muscular development is important not only for aesthetic purposes (bodybuilding), but is also important for sports performance and health.

I have developed a 5-level programme correction system to fit lagging muscles. In my opinion, before landing on specialization (when you stupidly increase the training volume and intensity for slowly growing groups), you should try to get by with the least program changes.

Of course, in extreme cases, you will need to increase the load and frequency, but first, just analyse the situation and correct the most obvious mistakes. To make it short, if the problem is solved by means of the second level, there is no sense in using the fifth level right away.

Level 1: obvious flaws

First let’s look at the underlying causes.

А. The lagging group is not getting enough of a load to grow.

For example:

  • – Most people work hard on the upper body and neglect the lower body. At the same time the upper muscles are repeatedly worked in different exercises: triceps, delts and pectorals are involved in press movements, biceps, forearms in pulling movements, and so on. In addition, there are separate exercises for each group. As a result, shoulders girdle is loaded directly or indirectly three times a week, and legs only once. No wonder they lag behind.
  • – The other extreme is the lack of separate exercises for small muscles (biceps, triceps, forearms). This approach was popular a few years ago: do only “basic” multi-joint exercises. And I understand it, as while competing in weightlifting, I increased my delts and arms to some extent. However, if you don’t have these muscles very responsive by nature, extra work will be needed to hypertrophy.
  • – Some people simply do not like to work certain muscle groups and when it is their turn, they work them overhand. Understand that it’s not enough to mechanically work out a program to develop balanced muscles. You have to concentrate on the workout and give it your all, time after time. If you’ve been messing around with a group for years, it will fall behind sooner or later.

Б. A current (or past) injury has resulted in decreased activation of a specific group and development of compensatory mechanisms – other muscles will take over the load in the exercise.

В. A neurological problem, for example, I once had a pinched cervical nerve causing atrophy of the triceps and posterior delta bundles (not being able to fully activate them in exercises, stimulating hypertrophy).

Г. If your health is okay, the lag can be caused by cheating or reduced range of motion. I’ve repeatedly encountered guys in the gym with biceps that were 10 centimeters smaller than mine, although they were working with heavier weights. There was a nuance: I did not cheat and performed a full range of flexion, and they did partial reps, helping the other muscle groups. I understand wanting to brag about the weight lifted, but for hypertrophy it’s more important the quality of the movement.

Level 2: choice of exercises for the lagging group

Here it’s simple: if you do not feel how it contracts in the exercise for a certain muscle group, you need to select a different movement.

Even if it is a great exercise suggested by your best friend, the biggest jock in the gym or a scientific expert, it might not work for you. People differ not only in their personalities: some have long limbs, some have short limbs, some have more delts activated in the presses, some have pecs, some are quad dominant, and some have stronger posterior muscles.

When we lift weights, the body looks for the “easiest” (i.e. effective) way to perform, loading those muscles it knows how to use better.

So at this level, analyse all the exercises for the lagging group – can you feel the target muscle working in them? If not, then pick up a replacement.

No matter what anyone says, there are no “must do” exercises for everyone. Do what works for you personally.

Level 3: Choose exercises for other muscles

A very efficient (but seldom used) way to load up a stubborn group is to find exercises for the other muscles that also need to be engaged.

Examples of substitutions:

Biceps lagging – do more supine grip pulls, train legs with Zercher squat or cup squat, for trapezius try bar or arm flexion (Kirk shrug), for OHP/cardio work on rowing machine and so on.

Lagging triceps – do more press moves in chest and delts training instead of isolation; try to make the grip narrower in all presses (not till touching the hands, just narrower than usually), add pulverizer or straight-arm block pulling to back training, work out trapezoids with barbell exercises over the head and so on.

Delts lag: train chest more on inclined bench (head up), for back train more horizontal pulls, biceps on inclined bench, triceps work through push-ups on uneven bars and bench press, for legs try cup squats with higher reps and so on.

Lagging calves – perform more exercises standing on your own two feet, add farmer’s walks or sledge pushing for OHP, work up delts with push presses (“schvung bench press”), and for the back, try simplified TA-movements, such as lifting the bar to the chest in a half squat (“rack”), etc.

Gluteals and biceps lag behind: try a standing position with emphasis on the upper back, add simplified versions of TA-movements or jerk/push pulls, hyperextension, for OHP more like sledge pushing etc.

Quadriceps lagging behind: choose variants of deadlift with greater load on legs, push press for delts, sledge push for wrapping, more standing exercises, etc.

Lagging trapeze: work on legs using Zerher squat or cup squat, multi-repeat lunges and stanova with a trip bar, for the back do Romanian rack and Zerher incline, do standing biceps raises, overhead extensions for standing triceps, increase range of lateral raises for delts (by raising dumbbells above shoulders), etc.

Level 4: neuromuscular adjustment

Even with the perfect exercise choice, muscles may not grow well because you can’t get them fully activated by recruiting maximum fibres. The brain-muscle connection is weak, and you just can’t do a good job on a lagging group.

The good news is that conscious contraction is a motor skill developed with regular practice. Choose the exercise where you feel your target bundles work best and perform it at every workout (and even at home). You don’t need high volume or intensity, just try to tense stiff muscles more often.

When it’s time for a full workout of the lagging group, try the following techniques:

Isometric preliminary fatigue: At the beginning of the work approach with the problem muscles, pause (this can be the end point of the movement or somewhere in the middle of the range – where you feel better) for 20 seconds, and then perform the set number of repetitions in the normal mode.

Pre-fatigue in a superset: Before a multi-joint movement for the lagging group, do an isolation exercise for the same group. This will help better incorporate it into the “big” exercise.

Pre-exercise fatigue: Same, but not superset; do one or even several isolation exercises before the multi-joint exercise.

Contrast tempo: Alternate 2 slow repetitions (5 seconds each lifting and lowering) and 2 regular repetitions, 8-12 in total.

Preliminary fatigue with partial repetitions: Similar to isometrics, only do 5-10 partial repetitions in the area of amplitude where you feel the lagging group works best, then go to full 6-8.

Level 5: Specialisation

This is the ultimate measure: the training programme is almost entirely dedicated to the uncompensated muscle group, with the rest of the muscle group receiving a supportive workload. For a detailed description a separate article is needed, here I will only list the basic rules:

Specialise only on 1-2 muscle groups and for a short period of time – 3-4 weeks,
Significantly reduce training volume for the rest of the muscles, especially for the synergists of the “chosen” muscle; for example, when specializing in delts, it is necessary to work less of the chest and triceps,
Mainly load the “specialised” group with isolating exercises (about 75% of volume) and often 3-4 times per week, and support the rest with multi-joint exercises on 1-2 trainings,
Keep the weekly training volume the same. If, for example, you had 80 work approaches before specialisation, then temporarily allocate 60 to the problematic group, leaving only 20 for the others.

Bonus: how to correct asymmetry

If obvious asymmetry develops (e.g. the left biceps is noticeably smaller than the right), I use a very simple method for balancing.


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