Back in the golden age of bodybuilding, promoter and media mogul Joe Weider put together a list of ‘training principles’ and called them ‘The Weider Principles’. These were not Weider’s own training methods but rather those he learned by observing and interviewing some of the best bodybuilders at that time: including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane and Lou Ferrigno.
Joe’s list included a number of different techniques that many bodybuilders still rely on today and that form the backbone of many training programs. These included: pre-exhaustion, super-sets, drop sets, pyramid sets, negatives, forced reps, cheats and muscle confusion.
Arguably the single most important technique on that list though was ‘instinctive training’. Instinctive training is the one bodybuilding technique to rule them all and it is the one that allowed all the others to exist. And once you master it, you will be able to build muscle with the greatest of ease.
What Is Instinctive Training?
Ask yourself how any of these other training principles came into being. How did Arnie and the other bodybuilders of the time know to use techniques like negatives? Of course they could have seen that these techniques worked over time by monitoring their progress but how did they know to try them in the first place?
The answer is that they could feel that they were working. Professional bodybuilders back then and now were experienced enough that they just knew when their muscles were responding to training in the right way.
This then allowed them to identify particular techniques that would stimulate the muscles ready to grow in just the right way for maximum growth.
And this is incredibly valuable and important if you’re interested in building more muscle yourself. Not only does this innate ability to feel whether you are training correctly, allow you to experiment with new techniques, but it’s also what allows you to push yourself to the brink during training without risking injury. This is how you know whether to do one more repetition or whether to call it a day and it’s how you know that by stretching your arm out just that tiny bit further, you can create a few more microtears.
Instinctive training allows you to throw the rulebook out the window and listen to your body. This means you can get straight to the part where you’re stimulating growth and cut down your time in the gym while maximizing results. It is ultimately the key to unlimited hypertrophy.
How to Train Instinctively
While instinctive training has a ton of benefits though, it also comes with risks and warnings.
Instinctive training is for those who are experienced in the gym. If you’re not experienced, then you can easily mistake the wrong feedback and end up injuring yourself. If you don’t follow a program when you’re first training, you’ll risk pushing yourself too far and too hard and burning out, or you might do the opposite and not push yourself hard enough to get the results you’re looking for.
So if you’re new to the gym, then you should definitely follow a training program carefully and not try and stray too far from the instructions you’ve been set.
At the same time, you can use this opportunity to listen to your body, to feel what’s working and to try and identify why it’s working.
At the end of the day, building muscle is painful when done right. A lot of people will tell you it shouldn’t be; but most of those people aren’t particularly muscular. Ask any bodybuilder how they got to the size they are currently and they’ll tell you that it took a lot of sweat, straining and discomfort. They’ll talk about how you need the mental resilience to push through a long set even when that long set really hurts. Ever heard of the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’? That expression didn’t come out of nowhere!
But what you need to recognize is that the ‘positive’ kind of pain that is associated with subsequent muscle growth is a specific type of pain. This is not the same pain that you feel if you bruise yourself or if you hurt your knee. What’s very important is that you’re able to tell when you hurt because you’re training well and when you hurt because you’re causing a tear or pulling a muscle.
During curls, focus on the muscles that are working and how that feels. After a long set, or a set with particularly heavy weights, notice how the muscle feels at the end. What is it like to have the ‘pump’? What did it feel right before you achieved the pump?
And if you do one more set, or if you hold the weight in that position just for a couple of seconds, what does that feel like? Vary your training a little as you get more confident and see how that impacts on the way the muscle feels.
What Does Building Muscle Feel Like?
So what should training your muscles feel like?
That all depends on the type of training you’re doing. As mentioned earlier, lifting weights does hurt when done correctly but it hurts in a particular way.
And there are actually two ways this can hurt:
One is the build-up of lactic acid. This is the type of discomfort that feels like the muscle is stinging and it normally comes from spending a long time under tension. If you grab a light-ish weight and do 20 repetitions, the last few reps might feel as though your muscle is swollen with acid. And that’s because it actually is – lactic acid. When you stop, your muscle will feel huge as it is now filled with blood and metabolites to trigger growth.
The other type of pain is the sensation of a microtear. This is what happens when the muscle ‘frays’ under stress and will normally occur when you lift very heavy weights, or when you use a weighted stretch. This feels a lot more like a stretch and is a subtle pain. Often you’ll notice it during the eccentric, lengthening phase of the move. But it’s important that you feel it in the muscle and not in the ligaments surrounding the muscle and certainly not in the bones.
When lifting heavy weights and creating microtears, your muscles will eventually give out as they can no longer lift the weights. As this point you may feel as though you can lift the weight but you won’t have the strength to get anywhere. Your arms might even feel a little ‘floaty’.
It’s these microtears that are most likely to then lead to DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – which is the feeling of pain in the muscles the next day. DOMS is a good sign of an intense workout but it should last for more than one day or you might have overdone it. Believe it or not, the best way to combat DOMS is actually to train again lightly!
Listen out for these sensations then and learn how to push your body just to the point where you’re stimulating growth but aren’t overtraining or risking injury. Take it slowly and keep at it and eventually that innate understanding of how to train will come.
From there, you’ll then be able to train without any guidance and will be able to switch up each set on the fly. You’ll know when to pump out a few extra reps, when you get a bit of a stretch going and when to take five. At this point, you’ll be able to trigger growth whenever you need it in no time at all!