Specialization Training – Making Those Stubborn Body Parts Grow

I don’t put up too many guest posts on my site, but JC wrote one exclusively for my blog that I couldn’t pass on.

I was chatting with him about getting stubborn body parts to grow…and that I haven’t discussed this much on my blog. I know this is one of his specialties, so asked him if he would be up for a guest post.

He came up with a much more comprehensive post than I was expecting. Not only does he give out a great strategy, he outlines 2 different detailed workouts to use to get a stubborn body part to grow.

Specialization Training
Making Those Stubborn Body Parts Grow

Have you been training a while, but have a few body parts you’d like to bring up or actually make grow a bit faster than the rest of your body?

Most of us will have a major need in our training careers to specialize and prioritize certain muscle groups over others, at least for a while.

For some guys, it’s their upper chest. For others, it’s the mid or upper back. For some, it’s their arms, and far too many of us are walking around with tiny calves.

But how do we actually get these stubborn muscles to grow? Are we not training hard enough? Or are we doing something wrong?

In today’s article, I’m going to give you some tools and ideas that you can use to help you bring up those lagging body parts.

Rates of Muscle Gain and How We Grow

As it’s been stated on this site before, we make the most progress in our first 1-2 years of training, and then it slows down considerably after that. In fact, after 4-5 years of proper training, we’ve probably gained the majority of the muscle mass our genetics will allow for naturally.

However, during our first 1-2 years of training, and making gains, we often find that certain body parts grow incredibly fast. For me, my quads and glutes have always grown much faster than everything else.

[See the picture below to view my quad and glute development]

In my case, I wanted to focus on my lats, chest, and shoulders for a while. The problem was I didn’t really know what to do.

I’d done so much squatting and deadlifting in the past and didn’t want to lose my size or strength gains I’d worked so hard for. This obviously hindered my ability to make my upper body grow as I wasn’t doing enough work to produce the growth I so badly wanted.

Enter The Experimentation Period

So I’d done a ton of reading various texts, and articles online, and finally put together a plan of attack.

Due to my time restrictions, I only had 3 days to train, so I was doing upper body training on Mondays and Fridays with a few sets of squats and RDL’s on Wednesdays.

In my case, it was strength work followed by lots of volume on my upper days, with only strength work (3-5 sets of 5 reps) on my lower days.

This worked fairly well for the time being, until I got bored and went back to my usual upper/lower split.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually got quite hooked on traditional bodybuilding-style training that produced pretty good results.

The Theory Behind Specialization Training

Before I go into detail of exactly how to set up your plan of attack, I want to give you a primer on exactly how this works.

If you want to get good at something, you do it often. In this case, certain movements can be performed frequently, as long as the load is managed and you don’t overdo it in terms of intensity, and duration.

If this happens, you might regress, or worse, get injured.

With specialization training, we’re emphasizing 1-3 muscle groups at a time, and deemphasizing the other muscle groups we’re not targeting with simply maintenance work (this is why I only trained legs once per week for a short period of time).

The theory is this: place more focus and load for a short period, and those muscle groups adapt and grow.

For specialization cycles, I’d devote no more than 4-6 weeks to each one to prevent burnout.

The Various Specialization Methods

I’m going to cover two methods I really like and have seen work well. First we’ll go over the Overreach and Rest Approach, and then I’ll touch on the Daily Training Approach.


~ The Overreach and Rest Approach ~

First we have a method that works extremely well, especially if you can commit to 4 days of training.

For example, we’ll place an emphasis on back development. With this particular example, since there are so many muscles that make up the entire back, it’s the only group we’ll focus on.

For all movements outside of rows, chins, and other back work, we’ll place all of our other training into maintenance mode. In other words, our lower body training, and upper body pushing will be minimal in comparison to our back training.

For maintenance training (referred to as Maintenance Work or MW later in the text), it’s good idea to do strength-oriented sets and reps here for the best effect.

An example would be doing 3×5 for squats, and presses, and perhaps, 3×5 for heavy deads, or RDL’s. This is enough work to maintain your leg strength, and as long as you’re doing some type of heavy pressing for the upper body, you’ll maintain your chest and tricep size and strength.

As for the back work, the way I like to set it up is like so.

Strength movement (SM) – 3-5 sets of 5-6 reps (2m rest)

Hypertrophy movement (HM) – 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps (1m rest)

Pump’ work (PW)* – 4-5 sets sets of 12-20 reps (30s rest)

Maintenance work (MW) – movements interspersed within training block (1-2m rest)

Here’s an example of the exercises you might use when doing each movement for a back specialization cycle.

Strength movement – Weighted chins or Heavy barbell rows

Hypertrophy movement – Seated rows, inverted rows, DB rows, hammer strength pulldowns

Pump’ work – neutral grip lat pulldowns, seated rows, just about any machine-based back movement

Maintenance work – presses, squats, leg presses, deadlifts (basically anything we’re not specializing)

*Pump work training needs to be all about feeling your muscles working.  I want you to focus on making the mind-muscle connection as you perform each individual rep. Also, pay attention your form. By this point in the session, you will be very fatigued. This is why I recommend machine-based movements over free weights.

Example Schedule

Monday – Back Emphasis

SM – Weighted Chin-ups

HM – Hammer Strength High Rows

PW – Single Arm DB Rows

Tuesday – Maintenance Mode

Squats or leg press 3×5 (2m rest)

RDL 3×5 (2m rest)

DB Incline Press 3×5 (2m rest)

Face pulls 5×12 (1m rest)

Wednesday – Rest Day 

Thursday – Back Emphasis

SM – Barbell Rows

HM – Body weight chins

PW – Cable rows 

Friday – Rest Day

Saturday – Back Emphasis

SM – Close-grip Weighted Chins

HM – T-bar Rows

PW – Inverted rows

MW – Flat Bench press (3×5)

MW – Skull Crushers (4×8-12)

Sunday – Rest Day


~ Daily Training Approach ~

If you have time for 3 days of weight training, and can commit to doing some body weight work at home, then the daily training approach might be a good option for you.

For this next scenario, we’ll place a focus on the smaller muscle groups: arms and calves.

During your main training days, you’ll be doing a full body split with 4 movements daily, plus some extra arm and calf work thrown in at the end.

An example split would look like the following for 3 sets of 5-8 reps for each movement.

  1. Leg press, lunges, squat jumps (any lower pushing movement)
  2. RDL, leg curls, hyperextensions, good mornings (any lower pulling movement)
  3. DB Bench press, incline barbell press (any upper pressing movement)
  4. Weighted chins, barbell rows (any upper pulling movement)

At the end of each weight training session, you will focus on arms and calves in a circuit-like fashion.

The goal is to rotate through 3 movements for 4 sets of 15-20 each.

Here’s how I’d set up the supersets, but the movement choices are up to you.

Biceps – Rope cable hammer curls

Triceps – V-bar handle cable pushdowns

Calves – Seated machine raises

Pick a weight you know you can do 20 reps with. You want to aim for at least 15 reps on each set, and no more than 20. If you get more than 20, add a few pounds or another plate on the weight stack.

Do each movement until you’re near failure, leaving 1 good rep in the tank. As soon as you’re done with the set, move to the next movement.

Take a 30 second break after each super set, and then repeat until you’ve completed all 4 sets.

What To Do On The Off Days

So now that you know how to attack your arms and calves on the training days, we’re going to focus on doing some work at home.

It’s best if you have some bands and dumbbells at home to get the most out of this training.

Each day, your goal is to get in 30 reps for each muscle group. In this case, we’re focusing on the biceps, triceps and calves.

For biceps, curls with a band or dumbbell are fine. A barbell works, too.

For triceps, extensions with a band, dumbbell or barbell works.

For calves, single-leg raises holding a dumbbell on a step is probably the best option with very little equipment. However if you have equipment at home, feel free to be creative with this movement.

Regardless of the exercise selection, the training principles are the same.

For this daily training, we’re using a Rest-Pause technique, and aiming for 30-35 reps for each muscle group and then you’re DONE. Seriously, don’t do any more work than this.

Here’s how it works.

Pick a rep/resistance that you can do for 10-12 reps. Always aim to leave 1 solid rep in the tank to avoid failure. Since we’re training every day, we want to avoid failure at all costs.

The first set needs to be 10-12 reps total.

After the first set, you will rest for 30 seconds.

The second set will be as many reps as possible while shying away from failure. This is usually anywhere from 5-8 reps if you did the first set correctly.

Then you rest another 30 seconds and repeat until you get 30-35 total reps.

Here’s an example of what a typical rest-pause cycle looks like.

  • Set 1 – 11 reps (30s rest)
  • Set 2 – 7 reps (30s rest)
  • Set 3 – 5 reps (30s rest)
  • Set 4 – 3 reps (30s rest)
  • Set 5 – 3 reps (30s rest)
  • Set 6 – 3 reps (30s rest)
  • Set 7 – 3 reps (DONE!)

As you see, this is a total of 35 reps. The main thing is to not do any more work than this as you’re hitting arms and calves daily.

Ideally, you’ll take 1 day completely off for rest and recovery.

Wrapping Up

These methods can be applied to any muscle groups you want to bring up. However, I’d only focus on 1-2 large muscle groups at once, with the only exception being arms and calves together (3 total muscle groups) because they are smaller.

Just make sure that at all times you’re avoiding complete failure due to the frequency of the programs, as well as to keep progressing.

JC Deen has contributed to Men’s Health, ZenHabits.net, and blogs at JCDFitness.com. He is also the author of LGN365, which is a complete body-recompositon course.

27 thoughts on “Specialization Training – Making Those Stubborn Body Parts Grow”

  1. I did something very similar to the Overreach and Rest Approach some years back, only for my lower body. I started lifting here and there when I was 19, and my upper body grew like a beast’s. My father and all my uncles have huge upper bodies, so I probably get it from them. But my legs: chicken bones. I confess, I didn’t spend nearly as much time on my legs. They didn’t respond as quickly as my upper body, and so they became an afterthought. Three years ago, I resolved to get beastly thighs and calves. I worked them three days per week, with a day’s rest between each workout, and weekends off, and I limited cardio to two days. I squatted and pressed and did extensions, lunges, and standing and seated calf raises, mixing up the rep range and intensity to promote both hypertrophy and mass. At one point, I was squatting and deadlifting hundreds of pounds, thanks to my trusty Breg back support (http://www.dme-direct.com/breg-back-support-with-pocket). Took me about two months, but I finally started to see the mass and striations in my thighs, glutes, and calves. I ate like a maniac, of course, but the back support really came in handy. I’m now happy to report I’ve got jean splitting thighs, cut like an action figure’s. Sweet!

  2. I agree with Thordur abit. A whole lot of sets going on there.

    Rusty you have any experience with slow reps 4-2-4 tempo, one set on any exercise and no more than 2 exercises. Mike Mentzer used pre exhaust for intermediate and rest pause with one all out rep not set. Appreciate anyones comments.

  3. Dear Admin
    Wow great what a informative article it is.
    thanks for sharing and giving such a wonderful article.I really appreciate your work.
    And I love to read your coming articles.

  4. If not done correctly this training routine can become over training disaster. But if done right and with a great training partner you would see amazing results!

  5. Dear Rusty Moore,

    I am a mother of 2 month old baby,During pregnecy i gained lots of weight.I want to shed my weight to come back in my normal shape.Can you recommend me some light exercises??

    Waiting for your prompt reply


  6. Thanks for sharing such detailed information about specialization training. Most of us specially need to prioritize on certain muscle group.

  7. @Evans: 20-rep squats are an option. Also using the RP method for things like leg extensions and leg curls.

    @Luis: I’d use this alone and return to VI when you’re done with the specialization block.

  8. Spexially im of those that has underdeveloped upper chest nd shoulders.even if im in sarcoplasmic mode i notice those parts don’t respond much.

  9. JC, thank you for mentioning a way to get a decent workout from home. Resistance bands and dumbbell routines can be a simple, yet effective, way to really target the muscles that need more attention. Also, great advice on how Load should be paired with the right amount of intensity and duration. I totally agree.


  10. Thanks for the great tips and examples JC. I should be doing this with my shoulders as they have never been the same since I dislocated one of them many years ago. Never been able to get the size back. I’m sure this will do the trick.

  11. Great tips JC. I’ve found, after developing a solid base of strength in size overall, that hitting targeted muscle groups more frequently while dropping volume for other groups is a great way to go to keep making progress.

    A big benefit is that when one specializes a muscle group, they can keep seeing gains in the mirror even when they are more advanced which is excellent for motivation.

  12. Hey JC i have been following your workout methods and i like them alot but i have question, ever since i have been woking out my legs the response has been so slow how can you advice me concerning a good progress in the best minimal time thanks.

  13. pretty decent and valuable information as always!But the real reason i am posting is because it seems to exist one error in the “Dieting vs Fasting ” post by Brad Pilon and i wanted to ask if it is my fault or for some reason it was deleted.So if by any chance it can be fixed,please give it a try because i wanna really read your review about Brad’s reasearch paper.Thanks!

  14. @Alykhan: No doubt. Hope it helps you on your journey.

    @Michael: yes… sort of. It was for a show I was in. hah.

  15. Hey JC, I really like the Daily Training Approach. I’ve done a very mild variation of it that I call “muscle blasts” which is where I interject an extra workout of the underdeveloped muscle during a split cycle. For example, if I’m doing a 5 day split, and I want to emphasize upper chest, I’ll do 2 chest workouts (both with an upper chest emphasis) during the 5 days.

    I just started these blasts about 10 weeks ago and they work really well. The “blast sessions” are slightly fewer sets than the full workout (9 vs. 12 sets for the muscle).

    Thanks for the included workouts … it’s easiest to learn with the examples.

  16. Fantastic Article!

    JC made a great point at reducing volume on other muscle groups down to maintenance level. This is an important point to allow for extra work on the lagging body-parts. To add additional volume without scaling back on other body parts would invite over training and burnout. This is especially true to those at the advanced level who are capable of using a large percentage of their muscle fibers.

    Here is what I have been doing in terms of specialization:

    My chest, back and legs are very well developed and strong. These muscle groups don’t need anymore hypertrophy. That said, I would like to add some more size to my arms, calves and shoulders.

    I lift 3x per week and follow a 2 day split. On my maintenance muscle groups I simply hit one exercise heavy and hard, RPT style. For shoulders, biceps, and triceps I’ll do two movements. One movement for strength in the 5-8 rep range, RPT sytle and one movement for pure hypertrophy/growth in the 6-12 rep range with minimal rest.

    This strategy has allowed me to maintain my chest, back and leg mass very well. I’ve actually added some strength to these movements. In addition I’ve experienced some amazing growth in my shoulders and arms.

    I don’t like lifting more than 3x per week because in doing so I experience less consistent strength increases. I’ve always had my best overall, long term growth by getting as strong as possible.

  17. Some good methods in here.

    I reckon I am about 20-25 lbs off my genetic limit so someone like me wouldn’t need to use this. Hopefully anyone else who simply needs to build there base up first, heeds my advice.

    Btw JC is that a skirt your wearing in that picture lulz.

  18. Rusty/JC,

    Thanks for providing the in-depth theory and detailed training techniques for specialization. I know many guys, myself included, often reach plateaus or have certain muscle groups that don’t seem to develop as easily (for me, it’s always been upper chest) so it’s great to have a game plan for tackling this!


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