2. Slow it down.
If you want to ramp up your muscle-building results, try slowing down the eccentric, or the lowering portion, of your lift, to increase the time your muscles are under tension—a critical component for adding size. A slow eccentric is more effective than a slow concentric (the lifting portion) because you have fewer muscle fibers available to resist that force. Sothern explains that since it takes less muscle surface area to perform an eccentric motion (because you’re working with gravity), there are fewer muscle fibers available, and the fibers themselves are smaller. “Therefore, the muscle fibers get hit harder and they actually get injured faster,” Sothern explains. Once those fibers get damaged, the muscle-building response speeds up as well, meaning that so long as you’re resting and refueling afterwards, your muscles will grow even quicker.
Experiment with slowing down the eccentric of every exercise during your next workout. Aim to spend two to three seconds lowering the weight. Thomas recommends counting to five when lowering the weight, “because chances are you counting to five might actually be three [seconds].” To really maximize the burn, count to five as you lower the weight, take no pause at the bottom, and take one second to lift it back up. Then go right into the next rep without taking a pause.
3. Mind your muscle.
You can’t think your way to bigger muscles (if only…), but you can use your mind to focus your efforts for greater muscle-building success. Thinking about the muscle you’re working as you’re lifting, as opposed to zoning out, can help you maintain good form, which ensures you get the full benefit of the exercise. “If you don’t isolate the muscle, you can’t push it to the level where you can get the benefits of the overload principle,” Sothern explains. And if you’re not working the muscle hard enough to cause (good) damage, what are you here for?
According to Sothern—and a few small studies done on the topic—it’s possible to train your mind to visualize the exercise technique, which then trains the brain to fire the right muscles downstream. But that takes practice; you have to visualize yourself doing that exercise over and over again.
To get you started on your journey to mindful gym sessions, Thomas recommends you close your eyes and really think about the muscles you’re contracting as you lift. So, if you’re working on biceps curls, instead of mindlessly cranking through your set, focus on the motion of flexing at the elbow and the squeezing sensation at the top. “If you give yourself even a few seconds starting a set to just try and zone into your muscle, it can often just spark that connection,” Thomas explains. “It will come a little easier every time you do it.”