Use This Hybrid, Total-Body Approach To Build Muscle Faster
“Put these on,” says Tyler English, handing me a pair of 13kg chains. Each one has metal links the size of doughnuts. On English’s cue, I drape the chains around my body like bandoliers. “Now you know what 27 extra kilos feels like,” he says, smiling broadly as he turns me to face a set of parallel bars. “Give me 10 good dips.”
It’s trial by fire, bodybuilder style. It’s the first time I’ve performed this exercise wrapped in steel, and within seconds I’m adding my own grunts to the clinks, clanks, shouts and groans echoing through the gym. But he gets his 10 reps.
“Not bad – maybe you need another chain,” jokes the 30-year-old natural bodybuilding champion as he darts past a trio of dead lifters to cheer on a client who’s pushing a weight sled. Then he’s off to check on a group class. He offers a few pointers on burpees before circling back to the dip area, where I’m searching in vain for a box, a bench or anything at all to sit on between sets. “Most guys spend all day sitting,” he says. “Why would you want to sit when you work out?”
Good question. And it’s that type of thinking that makes English’s 836m2 facility in rural Connecticut different from any other gym I’ve seen – and unlike anything you might expect from the author of Men’s Health The Natural Bodybuilding Bible. There are no cable machines, leg presses or treadmills. No Smith machines, step machines or preacher-curl stations. Plus, not a single mirror hangs on any wall. (English prefers to decorate with inspirational murals that declare “Success ahead!” and “Break through!”)
But this “anti-health club”, as English likes to call it, is bustling. Clients battle ropes, swing kettlebells, pump iron, push sleds and struggle against their body weight in a jungle of suspension straps.
“Heavy lifting is one way to build muscle,” says English, “but there are others, and a hybrid, total-body approach will build functional, real-world strength a lot faster.”
Bust Your Knots
Before you work out, grab a foam roller and hit the floor for some “self-myofascial release,” otherwise known as self-massage. “Most men work all day crouched over a keyboard, so they come to the gym all tight,” says English. “Foam rolling relieves that tension by releasing your knots, boosting your mobility and blood flow, raising your core temperature and increasing your range of motion.” In short, it prepares your body for the workout to come and sets the stage for recovery afterward. “People think of recovery as taking place after a workout,” English says. “But with foam rolling, you can kick it into gear at the start.”
Your Move: “Begin with your calves and slowly work your way up your body – front and back – giving each muscle group at least five rolls,” says English. “If you can stand it, use a ball against a wall to work tough-to-reach spots, like your pecs and deltoids, which are problem areas for many people.” Repeat the process at the end of your workout. You’ll spend 10 to 15 extra minutes at the gym, but the performance boost will be worth it.
Feel Yourself Move
In theory, mirrors in gyms are supposed to help people correct their form. In reality, they often serve two other purposes: vanity and gawking. “They’re very distracting,” says English. “And if you think about it, trying to correct your form by watching yourself in a mirror can have the exact opposite effect because the image you see is the opposite of what you’re actually doing.”
Your Move: Do a 180. “By facing away from the mirror, you automatically focus more on what the movement feels like instead of how it looks,” says English, “and that biological feedback outweighs anything you can adjust by ‘watching’ your form.” If you’re doing a squat, for example, you want to feel tension in your quads and pressure in your heels as you drive the weight up. With kettlebell swings, you want to feel the burn in your glutes and hamstrings and not your back. “Do Olympic lifters or powerlifters use mirrors? No, and they’re the strongest guys in the world,” says English. “Follow their lead.”
Hit The Accelerator
Every muscle in your body is composed of two types of fibres – slow-twitch and fast-twitch – but the second type is primarily responsible for moving heavy weights in the gym. “And most guys lift those weights slowly,” says English. “As a result, they build slow strength.” But there’s another way to target fast-twitch fibres that most men ignore: lifting quickly. “Your workout should include a range of lifting speeds to maximise muscle growth,” says English. “What’s the point of strength if you’re not also fast and powerful?”
Your Move: Add explosive exercises like kettlebell swings and jump squats to your workout, or tweak existing exercises like the bench press and dead lift to focus more on power. “Decrease the load by 35 to 85%, and explode through the concentric [muscle-contracting] portion of the movement,” says English. If you usually dead lift 100kg, drop down to 60kg and perform up to five explosive reps per set, driving through your heels and thrusting your hips forward as you explode up with the barbell.
Schedule A Rest Week
Most people wait until they’re injured to ease off their training programme. “That’s backward,” says English. “You should schedule a rest week every so often to prevent injuries from happening in the first place.” Training at full intensity week after week never gives your nervous system or muscles the chance to fully repair. “By scaling back the volume and intensity of your training for five to seven days, you’ll give your body a chance to regenerate and recharge, which will ultimately pay off in more muscle and less time on the disabled list,” says English.
Your Move: If you’re new to lifting, schedule a rest week every two months. If you’ve been lifting for a while, schedule it every four to six weeks. “Keep doing your normal workouts, but dial them back a bit,” suggests English. For example, if you usually curl 15kg dumbbells, grab a pair of 10s; if you normally rest one minute between sets, rest 90 seconds; if you typically do four sets of an exercise, do two or three. The key is to stimulate your muscles but without overloading them.
Think Beyond Iron
When guys aren’t spinning their wheels on treadmills, they often hyperfocus on their gym’s weight racks. “But barbells and dumbbells are just two of the many tools you can use to build muscle,” says English, who also trains his clients with everything from suspension straps to giant truck tyres. “Incorporating different kinds of equipment into your routine will work your muscles from new angles and in greater ranges of motion.” That, in turn, will help you iron out imbalances and build the kind of strength that translates far beyond the gym.
Your Move: Your gym probably doesn’t have 160kg tyres, but chances are it does have resistance bands. “One of my favourite moves is the band-resisted overhead squat,” says English. Grab a 1cm-wide, closed-loop resistance band (think giant rubber band) and loop it under your feet, spreading your feet about shoulder-width apart. Now press the band straight overhead with both hands so your body is inside it; this is the starting position. Squat until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, and then drive back up to the starting position. Complete two or three sets of six to 10 reps.
Train Your Entire Body
Unless you’re a bodybuilder, there’s no reason to split up your workouts according to body part (for example, back and bis, chest and tris). “And many bodybuilders don’t even do that anymore,” says English. That’s because body-part training is time-consuming and inefficient, and muscles don’t work in isolation in the real world. This training style also typically targets each muscle group just once a week. “You’re better off working your entire body every time,” says English.
Your Move: Try English’s four-week “Six-Pack Powerplay” training plan workout poster: