Even great delt workouts stop producing results sooner or later. Here’s how to mix it up to keep on growing.
If you grew up in Southern California, one of your dreams as a kid was to spend a day at Disneyland. I recall the first time I went there, I was so excited that I raced from one adventure ride to the next. I’d frequently take a day off from school to travel with my older sister on subsequent visits, and later on would drive there with friends. While the Magic Kingdom no doubt lived up to its name, over time something decidedly unmagical also happened: It just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.
An economist might say this is the law of diminishing returns in action, but it’s not cited as a condition specific to Disneyland. In fact, it’s evident in many aspects of our lives. This being a magazine on muscle building, you’re one step ahead of the game if you’ve already figured out that diminishing returns also applies to your weight-training efforts. In fact, it’s probably the No. 1 reason you aren’t making gains any more. Here’s why.
That great shoulder workout you did a few months back, the one that gave you the tremendous pump and feel-good next-day muscle soreness and the same one you’ve done on shoulder day every workout since, doesn’t seem to be so effective any longer. As you hit your body with a training stimulus and overload a target muscle, your body responds (given rest and good nutrition) by growing stronger and bigger. But soon enough your body plateaus because the novel training stimulus isn’t new for very long, and each subsequent workout becomes less valuable — see, diminishing returns. Eventually you can expend a lot of effort in the gym and go absolutely nowhere.
In the theme park example, one way to make sure your excitement levels don’t taper off (or at least diminish as quickly) is to visit other amusement parks: Six Flags, Universal, SeaWorld, Knott’s Berry Farm, each of which has different and unique attractions. Changing up your training can have a similar effect: By choosing slightly different exercises that work the target muscles in similar yet different ways, the muscles can never quite fully adapt because you’re always changing your approach to some degree.
While this particular article focuses on changes you make with your exercise selection, order and rep ranges, you can also try variables such as volume, rest periods (between sets and workouts) and intensity-boosting techniques (forced reps, drop sets, rest-pause and the like) to introduce additional variety into your routine. Because just like riding Space Mountain for the 100th time, after a while it’s just not the same as it used to be.
Gyms offer a variety of types of equipment — barbells, dumbbells, machines, cables — and while you may not know how to use them all at first, in time you’ll want to. That’s because most any move can be done a variety of ways, and each one is slightly different from its cousins. Take the overhead shoulder press. It can be done: 1) seated with dumbbells, 2) seated with a barbell, 3) seated on an exercise machine, 4) standing with a barbell or dumbbells, 5) brought in front or behind the neck (careful with this latter variation) or 6) in combination with any of these permutations.
The fact is, each one is slightly different from the others. The barbell, for example, lets you use more weight and is easier to control than dumbbells but doesn’t require as many stabilizer muscles. With a machine you hardly engage stabilizer muscles at all so you can really load up the weight without having to worry about balance. When standing, you can use a bit more body english, generating momentum through the knees and hips, which enables you to push more weight than you can in seated versions. In addition, because hand position is slightly different on each variation, the muscle-recruitment pattern is slightly different with each one as well, meaning you can build the muscle from a greater number of angles for better overall development.
Hence it behooves you to learn as many variations of a given exercise as you can. Not only is that helpful navigating around the lines of people clogging a particular piece of equipment that’s next on your workout list, but the variety will do your body good as well.