Ask a Trainer (Vol. 10)

Hi everyone, and welcome to Ask a Trainer, Volume 10.

If you’ve missed some in our running series, head on over to the Ask a Trainer archives and read on!

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Today we’re talking about targeting specific muscle groups, Progressive Overload in weight training, and exercising when you have a time crunch.

How do I target a specific muscle group to improve appearance or performance?

For most people, engaging in full-body exercises week to week, primarily focusing on compound movements like squats, sit-ups, presses, etc. will meet their needs for improved health and general fitness. These movements engage larger muscle groups and their support structures, so even if you’re not focusing on one muscle in particular, you see still whole-body benefits. In contrast, you may have the need to specifically target a given muscle for a variety of reasons including:

  • Rehabilitation from injury
  • Strengthen particularly weak muscles
  • Prepare for a bodybuilding competition
  • As an accessory movement to a compound lift that you are trying to improve

For any of these reasons, you can add Isolation Exercises into your routine. An Isolation Exercise is one which primarily uses a single muscle group to complete the movement, and may go through a smaller range of motion than most compound (i.e. multiple muscle group) exercises.

Here are some isolation movements you can use to improve seven of the most common trouble spots:

Abdominals – Hanging Leg Raise | Exercise Ball Crunch | Oblique Crunch

BicepsBarbell Curl | Reverse Plate Curls | Hammer Curls

CalvesCalf Raises – With Bands | Standing Barbell Calf Raise | Calf Raise On A Dumbbell

ChestDumbbell Flyes | Cable Crossover | Butterfly

GlutesButt Lift (Bridge) | One-Legged Cable Kickback | Single Leg Glute Bridge

ShouldersAlternating Deltoid Raise | Car Drivers | Front Dumbbell Raise

TricepsBody-Up | Seated Triceps Press | Standing Towel Triceps Extension

When adding these movements to your routine, pick 1-2 isolation movements for each muscle group you want to target, and add 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps at a moderate weight for each movement. This will add some extra work to that muscle, and you should see incrementally more gains in strength and appearance as compared to other groups that you’re not targeting.

What is Progressive Overload?

Exercise is all about adaptation. When you run, lift weights, or do burpees you are putting your body under enough stress that you force it to adapt and grow stronger in some way. We use the Principle of Overload (defined in a moment) to help our bodies adapt over and over again. So what is it, exactly?

Principle of Overload

The body is an adaptive machine with specific parameters. In order for training adaptation (i.e. gaining strength/speed/endurance) to take place, a greater than normal stress, or “load”, on the body is required. The body will adapt to the stimulus over time, and once it has adapted to one level of stimulus (i.e. a given weight) the stimulus must be increased to further adaptation (i.e. see more gains).

We normally talk about adaptation in terms of getting stronger, but placing your body under stresses that ignite the adaptive response can improve your health in many ways. Some of the benefits of overload include:

  • Increased muscle hypertrophy (i.e. getting bigger muscles)
  • Increased muscle strength (i.e. lifting more weight)
  • Increased power output (i.e. moving the weight faster)
  • Improved endurance
  • Stronger and denser bones, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage
  • Increased blood flow to the exercised areas
  • Improved neuromuscular connections from brain to muscle (i.e. your body gets better at doing what the brain wants, improving movement)

The safest way to use overload in your routine is a method called “Progressive Overload”, wherein you gradually increased the amount of work being done over time during a training regimen. Progressive Overload uses a few different factors to make the training effective. First we’ll define the parts that help make Progressive Overload work, and then we’ll look at an example routine for Deadlift training.


This is the total amount of weight moved during an exercise, determined by multiplying Sets X Reps X Weight. For instance, if you do 5 sets of 5 reps, all at 100 lbs, then you’ve done 2,500 lbs in Volume for that movement in that workout. Over the course of 6-8 weeks, the volume should gradually increase, progressing towards near-failure overload in the last 1-2 weeks of the training.


For a given movement, how close to your maximum effort are you working. An easy way to determine this is by finding your One Repetition Maximum, which is defined as the highest weight you can lift with good form for a single repetition, before you need to take time to recover. For example, you may be able to Deadlift 100 lbs one time, and then rest 3+ minutes to do it again. Now, you know that if you Deadlift 70 lbs during your workout, then you’re working at 70% of your One Rep Max (1RM).


The time between workouts for a given muscle group. The recommendation is to allow 48 hours of rest between workout sessions that use the same major muscle groups. For example, if you do Squats on Monday, don’t do them again until Wednesday. This principle operates day to day, week to week, and between overload programs. Constantly adding more weight, essentially attempting Progressive Overload which continues week to week unabated, can cause the body to enter into an “overtrained” state, increasing risk of injury and loss of function. Most programs will last 6-8 weeks and then provide 1-2 weeks of light weight, active rest before starting another overload program.


This is more of a mental factor, because humans like variety. To keep from getting bored, most programs will include accessory work to the main lifts, so your mind stays active and engaged during the workout.

Sample Routine: 7 week Progressive Overload Targeting Deadlift

For this routine you will be doing two major movements and three accessory movements. The idea is to strengthen the muscles responsible for the targeted movement, as well as the supporting structures around those muscles. To make it simple, you’ll be working out three times per week, with one day between sessions (Mon/Wed/Fri or Tue/Thu/Sat).

For all days, your exercises will be:

  • Major Lifts
    • Deadlift
    • Back Squat
  • Accessory Work:
    • Sit-up
    • Kettlebell Swing
    • Back Extension
  • Rest:
    • 1 minute between sets of the same Major Lift (e.g. between sets of Deadlifts)
    • 2 minutes between Major Lifts (e.g. when going from Deadlift to Back Squat)
    • 2 minutes between the Major Lifts and the Accessory Work
    • 1 minute rest between Accessory Work moves (e.g. when going from Sit-up to Kettlebell Swing)
    • 30 seconds rest between Accessory Work sets (e.g. between sets of Sit-ups)

Weeks 1-2

  • Day 1
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 60% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 9 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 26 lbs)
  • Day 2
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 65% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 12 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 26 lbs)
  • Day 3
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 70% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 15 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 26 lbs)

Weeks 3-4

  • Day 1
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 70% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 12 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 35 lbs)
  • Day 2
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 75% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 15 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 35 lbs)
  • Day 3
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 80% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 18 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 35 lbs)

Weeks 5-6

  • Day 1
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 80% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 18 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 44 lbs)
  • Day 2
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 85% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 21 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 44 lbs)
  • Day 3
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 90% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 24 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 44 lbs)

Week 7 (rest week)

  • Days 1-3
    • Major – 4 sets of 5 reps at 60% 1RM
    • Accessory – 3 sets of 10 reps (Kettlebell Swings at 26 lbs)

If you dissect the routine above using an estimated One Rep Max for each movement, you can see how the Volume and Intensity progress linearly between steps, with each two week period representing one step. The increase in work completed is about 14.5% between steps, on average. Even with modest One Rep Maxes for both lifts – maybe 100 lbs Back Squat and 150 lbs Deadlift – you would be doing a total of 27,000 pounds of work on your Back Squat and 40,500 lbs of work on your Deadlift in just 6 weeks.

At the end of the 6 week period, take week 7 as an active recovery week. Drop your working weights all way back down to 60% of your One Rep Max for all three days, and drop the accessory work down to 3 sets of 10 at lighter weights as well. This level of activity should give you enough time to recover, while still maintaining your activity level. This helps prevent muscle/strength loss from resting on an extended schedule. If you feel the need, extend the rest for one more week, and create a full 8 week cycle. You can then repeat once you’ve rested.

What can I do to exercise when I don’t have a lot of free time?

The most common excuse you get as a trainer for why someone doesn’t exercise is that they “just don’t have the time” to really workout. While a lot of people are balancing work, social life, kids, kids’ social life, school, and a myriad of other responsibilities day to day, it’s very unlikely that your schedule is truly too tight to add in exercise day to day. A lot of the “no time” excuse comes from two places: common misconceptions about what exercises you need to be doing, and a lack of will to actually put in the work itself.

The most common misconception about exercise is that you need to put in a lot to get even a little benefit. People laboring under this thought will usually cite travel time, getting dressed, 45-60 minutes of working out, showering, getting dressed again, and more travel time to show that they don’t have two hours to devote to the gym. That’s all well and good, but since you don’t need to do all that to add basic exercise to your routine, the excuse kind of falls flat. While it’s nice to have the machines, weights, and atmosphere of a gym during your workouts, all you really need is some space and your body to have an effective exercise situation. Leg Press Machine? No, just do squats. Bench Press? No, try push-ups. Ab Crunch Machine XL? No, knock out some sit-ups. If you’re struggling for time, skip the gym and the machines; use bodyweight movements instead!

What about that 45 minute workout you were worried about? Well, we can cut that down to 16 minutes in the morning and 16 minutes in the evening, for the same benefit but 2/3 the time. Here are two simple routines that you can do 3 days a week, with one day of rest in between that will get you started.

Morning (on waking):

  • Drink 8 ounces water
  • Stretch for 4 minutes
  • Set a timer for 8 minutes, and do as many rounds of the following as you can in that time:
    • 5 Squats
    • 5 Sit-ups
    • 5 Squat Jumps
    • 5 Leg Raises
  • Stretch for 4 minutes

Evening (about an hour before bed):

  • Drink 8 ounces water
  • Stretch for 4 minutes
  • Set a timer for 8 minutes, and do as many rounds of the following as you can in that time:
    • 5 Push-ups
    • 5 Burpees
    • 10 Jumping Jacks
  • Stretch for 4 minutes

You can easily find the time by waking up a little earlier, or cutting out time spent watching television/playing on the Internet/staring at your phone/checking email/scrolling Facebook. We all waste time with things that don’t require our time; make small changes and your schedule will open up.

The second problem is the Will to workout, and using “no time” as an excuse to not do so. If this is you, and you know who you are, listen (well, read) carefully:

I understand. Most of us – me included – struggle with motivating ourselves to exercise and eat right, because it’s so much easier to not do the things that keep us healthy. Doing things is hard. But something being hard is not a reason for being in poor health when it’s so simple to make healthy changes. It’s okay that you think it’s hard, but it’s not okay that you let that stop you from being healthy. It’s not okay to sit around feeling sorry for yourself about being in bad shape, but never making the minimal effort it takes to change it. It’s not okay to shorten your life, live with more pain than you need to, and just generally ruin your body just because effort is harder than you like.

And here’s the secret: the longer you wait, the harder it is going to be. When you start to workout, it is going to hurt a little (or maybe a lot). It’s suppose to; that’s how you know you’re putting in effort. There is no magic pill, and there never will be.

If you keep telling yourself that you’ll do it when you’re ready, you will never be ready.

You’re ready now. Get started. Stop making excuses.

[This message brought to you by a guy who was once so fat he had no neck.]

And that’s it! Join us next time for more fitness and health goodness!