Struggling With a Lagging Muscle Group? Try These Training Tips - Coach Mark Carroll

Lagging Muscle Group? Try these training tips!

Jul 19, 2022
Mark Carroll

It’s really common to have muscle groups which are less developed than others. Unfortunately, it’s often the muscles we most want to grow the most that are the areas we struggle with. I guess we really can’t have it all hey?

The amount of times I am messaged by women, something along the lines of “My quads won’t stop growing but my glutes don’t grow at all!” – or by guys saying “My arms just won’t grow no matter what I do!” I’ve heard it all! 

All I have to say is that it’s normal (as annoying as that is). We are all prone to having areas, which for a variety of reasons, are better developed and other areas which seem to struggle no matter what we do.

Before I was an online coach exclusively, for 12 years, I was a face-to-face personal trainer. This taught me a whole lot of invaluable information with a big thing being that people would tell me how great their training was, and how great their technique was, and how hard they train, in their initial consultation every single time. But then, when I would finally see them train in-person I could see where the issues lie.

Even when I was an in-person personal trainer, the people who came to me screaming they have done everything in the world to grow x,y, and z and nothing works were also the same people who faced the same common issues that can easily be fixed:

  • Their training technique was far from optimal for that muscle group. 
  • They didn’t rest long enough between sets.
  • They stopped a working set well before failure and had a poor understanding of what true failure was.
  • They didn’t follow a training program and made it up on the day.
  • Their exercise order impaired what they most wanted to improve upon in their sessions.
  • They did too many exercises for a muscle group that trained the exact same thing. 

Now, let’s break these down quickly so I can explain how we get a solution for all of them.

1 – Training technique is not optimal

Since I am known for training women to develop great glutes, I will use glutes as our example. I can’t count the number of times I have been hired by women to build their glutes after they have done “everything” to build with no results. After I see them on their first session, I quickly realise one key factor they never did: they never learnt how to lift with proper technique. Their hip thrusts are all momentum – all quads; their lunges are quad biased, not glutes. They exceed their active range of motion for their glutes in an RDL, therefore loading up hamstrings and erectors. You name it, they’re focusing on quads over glutes!

Yes, they did the right exercises, but pretty much every exercise was done poorly. Technique is not just about having form that looks nice. It’s also important to ensure that when we move a weight, we are loading the muscle tissue we want to be targeting – NOT other muscles. 

The solution was and is always regression – take weight off the bar. Let’s lower the weight, slow the reps down and learn optimal technique to load the muscle we want to grow. When it comes to building muscle, remember it’s not just about moving a weight from point A to point B, it’s about putting as much tension as possible in the muscle we want to grow. 

Technique people! This is always the first thing you want to attack when you are noticing a lagging body part. People blessed with great genetics can often get away with poor training. It’s not fair, I know, but for the rest of us, technique matters.

2 – Not resting long enough between sets

All too often people rush through their sessions. Rest means we have a greater ability to lift more weight in the next set. The more weight we can use, the more tension we can potentially create in the muscle to create hypertrophy adaptations. Use your rest periods!

I remember I had one client who I literally had to stop from grabbing the weights to go on to her next set after only 30 seconds. If you want a time efficient strategy that will allow you long rests between muscle groups, but also an efficient session, read my blog on antagonist partnerships

When it comes to building muscle, utilise rest periods. I would rather a client do a little less total sets but ensure it’s all quality, than rush through their session and have low performance. Rest! Simple guideline is, lower the reps, longer the rest, but that doesn’t mean high rep sets don’t require rest periods too. 

3 – Stopping a working set well before true failure

As a trainer, I have worked with a lot of different clients. I’ve had clients who will take a set so far past failure I am literally lifting the weight for them hoping we both won’t die, whilst they are telling me they have another 2 reps in them…don’t be that person! Then on the flip side, I have had clients who as soon as they get a hint of a burn or a struggle, then drop the weight and say that’s it! This is not what we want either.

Building muscle is about tension. We want to take at least some sets in the workout very close to failure, within 1-2 reps. This is a key component of creating adaptations, but if every set you stop 5, 6, even 7 reps short when it gets a tiny bit hard, you are severely damaging your chance of improvement. Remember, we have to give the body a reason to grow – it’s an adaptation growth. If all your sets are stopping before you get a little uncomfortable, you are not giving the body a reason to adapt. Sure, in the short term you will notice some improvements, but the more advanced you become the more you need to really understand some sets are going to hurt, and that, despite it hurting, you have more reps left in the tank. 

I like to use a ramping method in my programs. Meaning, each set we add a little bit of weight. If you do 3 sets, ideally the last set is the hardest. This is a good way to do things. Have 5% increases in weight set to set, then in the final working set, try to take the set to within 1-2 reps of failure. In the following week, aim to beat that weight. This is not saying you need to take all sets to failure and work so hard you can’t walk or throw up. But at the very least, some of your sets in a workout need to get uncomfortable as you take them to within 1-2 reps of true failure.

4 – Not following a proper training program

A key concept of improvement in life is repetition. When we learn any skill, we need to practice it to get better. Experts in life come from people who master a skill through repetition. In the gym, it’s a similar concept. You get better by practicing those movements over and over again. This is what leads to progressive overload. 

All too often, people rock up to the gym and jump on any exercise that’s free. Last Monday you did squats. Cool. This week the hip thrust machine is free so you do that. Then the next week, the leg press is free so you go do that. And so on. Last week you did 10 reps. This week let’s do 20 reps. 

The problem with chopping and changing every variable each week is that it does not allow you time to actually progress. Imagine doing one class of learning German. Then the following week, you do a class on Italian. Then, the next week, you do a class on French. How great would you be at speaking German on the 4th week? You probably wouldn’t remember a thing! Why? Because you did it once, then didn’t come back to it to continue to build up your skills. Same with the gym! 

This is why it’s imperative you follow a training program. Yes, you should do the same workouts for weeks back to back! This is how all my clients do it with my training programs and why they get better and better. Through consistency! Allowing yourself practice and repetition – that then leads to progress! 

Follow a plan! Ideally mine if you want great results 🙂 

5 – Exercise order does not prioritise areas you want to improve

All too often, I find the order of exercises in a workout does not reflect what the person most wants to improve. For instance, a lot of clients come to me wanting to hit their first pull up. When I ask them where they usually place the pull up in their workouts it’s always a vague answer of either “it depends” or “after I train shoulders” or “after I do my deadlifts,” etc. 

The point is, when it comes to improving a lift, we know that exercise order matters. If you want to improve at a specific lift, aim to place it first in your workout. This means you will be doing it when you are fresh and with 100% energy to give it your best. The later you do an exercise in your workout, the more fatigue you will have accumulated, even if you are doing other muscle groups beforehand. Fatigue still carries over.

Try to build your workout around the exercise you want to improve on the most. Say it’s a squat, a deadlift, a pull up, you name it – try to build your workout around that lift. Place it first. Then, keep it first in your workout – not just for one session but for weeks and weeks. This is the best way to improve a lift quickly! Give it the attention it deserves by placing it first in your workout! 

6 – Exercise selection is repetitive for the muscle group

Our final point comes down to exercise selection. The more advanced you become, the more you need to really analyse your exercise selection. Simply doing 2-3 exercises for a muscle group back-to-back initially may bring nice progress (anything works at the start when you are new to training). However, the more advanced you become, the harder it is to create adaptations. This is why each exercise needs to be carefully selected. Let me give you some examples:

You train glutes. You choose 2 glute exercises to do – lunge and a squat. Two good exercises, but they are both training the glute max the same way in that they both are training the glutes in a stretch position. Meaning, they are training the lower division of the glutes only. The upper division of the glute max is best trained with exercises which are hardest when the muscle is shortening such as a hip thrust or 45* back extension. A better strategy can be to choose 1 movement for each glute max division, not two of the same. 

Let’s take the back for another example. When training the back, regardless if it’s a vertical pulling movement (lat pulldown) or a horizontal pulling movement (seated row), your arm position relative to the torso is what will impact recruitment the most. To train the upper back, a flared elbow will best target the upper back musculature such as traps and rhomboids. To target the lats, we want our elbows tucked by the sides of our torso.
Often I see clients come to me and they are doing a wide grip lat pulldown and then moving to a wide grip seated row. They complain that their back is not developing. It’s because they are training a very large muscle group with movements which focus on the one area only. A more complete back workout would be to have an elbows tucked movement and an elbows flared movement. 

Our takeaway here is that, for hypertrophy, we want to ensure we are training as many muscle fibres as we can in a muscle group. Make sure you are choosing movements for a muscle group which don’t just repeat the same thing over and over. 

So there you go! 6 common training issues I find that hinder clients’ progression, which inevitably, leads to lagging body parts. It’s important to understand, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Some muscles grow like weeds without trying for people. Some muscles seem like they just don’t want to respond no matter what you do. 

All is not lost! Assess your training and look at these 6 points. This is exactly what I look for and what I address in new clients who come to me to finally get that breakthrough. If it has worked well for 100’s of my clients then I confidently think these strategies, if addressed correctly, can positively impact your own lagging body parts. 

Good luck!

Coach Mark Carroll

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