January 12, 2021 10 min read

Feeder Workouts are hotly debated. On the surface, they seem like intuition fueled wishful thinking, but dig a little deeper, and they seem to take advantage of several well-known aspects of bodybuilding.

Feeder workouts don’t claim to be the end-all solution to building bigger muscles, and they were pioneered by a man with a checkered history. If you’re thinking about adding some of these supplemental workouts to your routine, let’s take a minute to break down how they work, what the aim is, and if you should even bother.

What Am I Feeding My Workout To?

Feeder workouts follow the same mechanical layout of a river. In this case, the river is your workout routine. Say you’re training for a strongman competition. That competition is the ocean. Every day that you wake up and hit the gym, you’re building a deeper and more robust source for that river. Your motivation is what keeps that river flowing.

Eventually, you’re winding through the countryside and cutting through mountains on your way to your goal. On your way to the ocean, you want to become bigger, and harder to stop, so you’re going to cross paths with as many tributaries as possible. Your diet, schedule, and planning are all tributaries. Feeder workouts are another injection on your way to your fitness goals. 

Feeder workouts isolate specific muscles with light weights, high rep supersets. If you feel like your triceps are holding you back during your upper body days, then you’ll add feeder workouts on the following day. If you’re having trouble with your calves on your lower body day, then you’ll tack on some calf feeders the next day. 

These aren’t going to be anything super heavy, we’re talking calisthenics or five to fifteen-pound weights. And you’re not going to be doing several sets of these. You may be doing something like two sets of twenty-five for something like your triceps, or three sets of twenty for a larger muscle group like your quads.

Man working out

You’re also supposed to take time in the mirror to flex the body part you performed your feeder workouts on, taking the time to visualize the way they move and interact with your other muscle groups, and then take yourself straight to bed. Supposedly this mirror time is strengthening your mind-muscle connection and encouraging your brain to send additional nutrients to those lagging muscles.

Feeder workouts go against conventional weightlifting wisdom in a lot of ways. Instead of giving a muscle group a couple of unbothered rest days, you’re essentially keeping them awake all week long. The idea is to keep your problem areas at the forefront of your mind. 

Say you’re doing a 4-day split routine, and you feel like your grip strength, and calves are struggling to keep up with your routine. Maybe they’re just not seeing the kind of muscle growth you were looking for. Adding in feeder workouts to this routine would look something like this:

Day 1: Upper body push

Day 2: Upper body pull + forearm feeder exercises

Day 3: quads, hamstrings, and calves

Day 4: shoulders, traps, and forearms + calf feeder exercises

Where Did This Come From?

Rich Piana pioneered the feeder workouts as we know them today. 

Rich Piana was a fiend. He loved bodybuilding with everything he had. He won his first National Physique Committee title as a teen, before taking two more later on as an adult. He became Mr. California in 1989, and ran his own nutrition line called Rich Piana: 5% Nutrition. He even had a couple of television appearances when they needed somebody that lookedparticularlyripped.

He worked hard for his results, and his track record reflected that. However, time in the gym and his famous feeder workouts weren’t the only things pumping his muscles up. Twice over the course of his prolific YouTube career, he admitted to using anabolic steroids starting as young as 18. He never suggested that his audience use them, and routinely cited their negative side effects, which he seemed to suffer from towards the end of his life.

Steroid use aside, he was, far and away, exceptional in the realm of bodybuilding. His tenacity and drive were the things that pushed him over the top, and it’s clear that something about his routine was different from what other people did, and his results were unquestionably something great. 

Piana died in 2017 after a heart attack. His brain was starved of oxygen for almost half an hour, and he spent two weeks in a medically induced coma, in hopes that the swelling in his brain would go down. He eventually passed away, and an autopsy showed that his heart and liver were engorged to well over twice their usual size, something his girlfriend said he was aware of. He never had a toxicology analysis, so there’s no saying whether the steroid use was the cause of his death, but regardless of their hand in his passing, that will forever cast a long shadow over his achievements.

Lifting weights

How is it Supposed to Work?

Feeder workouts are pretty simple, the idea is to increase blood flow, supplement your lagging body parts, and focus on learning how to engage all of the muscles involved in a compound exercise, and all of that is great, in theory.

Building muscle happens in a process called hypertrophy. Basically, you’re working your muscles to the point of creating miniature breaks. Your body is compelled to repair those tears in your muscle fibers, and it builds them back up larger and more efficient than they were before. This process requires lots of protein, time, and patience. That’s why your diet, routine, and rest days are so important.

Feeder workouts, if you’re overzealous, will interfere with this process. If you’re never giving your body the opportunity to rebuild your tired muscles, then you’re not going to see the kind of progress you came to the gym to achieve. Here is where we run into one of the first and easiest stumbling blocks. Don’t overwork yourself. 

Adding feeder workouts is fine as long as you’re not overworking your body. This only really works if you’re tracking your progress honestly and you’re meticulous about your form.

Take deadlifts, for example. Say you’re starting to strain with your deadlifts, and a partner notes that you’re lifting the weight with your back too much. All of the feeder workouts in the world aren’t going to fix your deadlifts until you fix your form first. Once your form is down, and you’re still struggling with your lower back, then you would want to focus on isolating that part of your body with feeder exercises until you can integrate the natural movement of the muscle group into your deadlifts effectively. 

Does the Mind-Muscle Connection Actually Do Anything?

Let’s start by talking about what that even is. The mind-muscle connection sounds like something you’d hear about during a yoga session, and you’re not wrong there. It’s really just another word for the kind of mindfulness you find while you’re trying to strike a particularly difficult pose.

This is something that feeder workouts excel in. You’re supposed to be doing higher reps of these low-intensity exercises and then taking a luxurious moment in the mirror flexing a muscle group that you’ve spent several uninterrupted minutes making the same exact motion with.

You’re learning exactly how to work your muscles, how you can most effectively move that muscle, what part of your body that muscle moves, how it feels when you’re moving that muscle, and what it feels like when that muscle is experiencing a period of increased blood flow. You’re directing so much attention to one particular part of your body that it will soon become impossible to forget what it feels like to focus on that muscle.

Your body and mind are incredible things. When you as a lifter put your mind to a task and execute it as effectively as possible, you’ll find yourself overcoming obstacles that seemed insurmountable before. This is a well-documented effect, and feeder workouts are designed to take advantage of that. You can think of them as meditation sessions or masterclasses in the mechanical inner workings of your body. 

This is the second most hotly debated aspect of feeder workouts. The flexing and strict adherence to an immediate bedtime sound a little bit fanciful, and honestly, you can cut that part out if it feels silly. The most important things here are effective isolation and appreciation for the minute aspects of your body. 

After applying feeder workouts to your routine, you should be able to come back to your regular workout with newfound knowledge of how exactly your lagging muscle groups were holding you back, and how to engage them effectively to get a better lift out of your workout. 

Man Eating

Feeding Your Feeders

Feeder workouts are all about building muscle, and that means you’re going to have to feed yourself as well. We’ve already discussed the process of building muscle, but if you neglect to fill your tank with materials to build muscle mass with, then you’re not going to get very far in this process. 

This is another problem people may run into while adding feeder workouts to their routine. You’re trying to build muscle mass in tricky areas with the intention of getting better lifts out of your regular routine. If you take this time out of your day to pack in a hundred extra hammer curls, but you don’t load up on protein, then you’re just wasting your time. 

Your results come from your diet just as much as they come from the gym. You need to come into your workout with carbohydrates to burn as well. Coming in without the energy to pull off your routine isn’t an exercise in willpower, it’s an exercise in futility. Your body is just like anything else in the world, and it needs energy to run. You’re just going to be hobbling your ability to lift if you don’t come to the gym prepared.

Sometimes it’s hard to think about what you want to eat next. Your brain is just like your body, and if you’ve run out of energy by burning it all up in the gym, then you’re going to have a harder time with your impulse control and critical thinking.

The two things you need most to make informed diet decisions. Take some time to either map out a menu for the week or prep your meals ahead of time so you can keep yourself on track. It would be a shame to have added something as helpful as feeder exercises just to throw it all away because you skipped over something as easy as eating the right amount of protein.

Rest is Still Important 

Adding feeder workouts to your routine doesn’t mean you’re never resting. Rest days are just as important as staying active. Without each other, you’re going to run into a plateau very quickly.

Rest days don’t have to be days where you’re sitting around for 24 hours. If you really want to keep yourself active throughout the week you can do some light cardio. Cardio is great for rest days, because that increased blood flow and focus on breathing effectively will only help your ability to lift more during your regular workout. You need oxygen to power your muscles, and if you can get more of it then you can only be helping yourself in the end. 

Cardio isn’t the only thing you can do to help yourself out on a rest day. Stretching while you’re in the process of building muscle is great for your body in the long run. Keeping your body limber while you add more and more rigid muscle is something you can benefit from in every aspect of life. If you can’t find time to work in stretches during your warm-up, then stretching on your rest days is the next best thing. This, like cardio, will help you out with your general blood flow, and we already know what that means for building muscle and improving performance

Man lifting weight with arm

So What Do I Do?

Common feeder exercises are exercises you’re probably already familiar with. They’re isolation exercises that target your problem areas, so get out your lighter dumbbells and try your hand at these:

Shoulders

Shoulders are some of the trickiest muscles to bulk up. If you want to get a good looking all around physique like your favorite bodybuilders, then you’re going to want to shuffle in some shoulder feeder exercises, for sure. Try targeting yourdelts with lateral raises, shoulder shrugs, and wide grip bench presses. 

Remember to keep the weights light if you’re going to be taking on the wide grip bench presses. You want to get in a serious number of reps, and feeder workouts aren’t about blasting through a new personal record. Don’t let your pride get in the way of results.

Triceps

Triceps are simple to isolate. If you’re looking to get bigger arms, and you find that they’ve become a choke point in your progress then you can get target these with some simple exercises like skullcrushers or diamond pushups.

Pull-ups are also a good exercise for tricep isolation, but it’s going to be hard to get in some high rep exercise in, especially if you’re not great at pull-ups.

Chest 

Getting a bigger chest is something most gym-goers are probably aiming for. The big solid barrel chest is the mark of a fit man, and if you want to use feeder exercises to supplement that then go right ahead. 

The easiest way to do this is by dropping your bench press weight way down and getting in a lot of reps the day after you do your normal chest workout. Remember not to overload yourself if you’re going to implement feeder exercises. It’s tempting to use this as an additional opportunity to get your heaviest lifts in, but that’s going to become a fast lane to failure. 

Feeder Verdict 

Feeder workouts are… complicated. 

They’re just like any other workout routine. There will never ever be a magic bullet. You can’t just build more muscle by willing it into existence.  An effective workout is well-rounded, methodical, and backed by results. You need to consider your own body any time you dive into a new routine.

This means that feeder workouts can be perfect for anybody, or the thing that ruins an otherwise perfect routine. They’re only going to help if you’re selecting the right problem areas and isolating them effectively.

If you think your bench press could be smoother, but you’re focusing on your forearms when the real issue is a lack of stability from your triceps, then you’re going to be wasting your efforts. You also can’t expect feeder workouts to give you a magic boost when you’re already working an easy to access muscle group to death. 

Feeder workouts will help you boost your overall strength, allowing you to continue your strength training, and keep your progression up. The results you get from these supplemental exercises lie in their cumulative effect.

They teach you about the mechanics of your body in a way that other workouts don’t tend to allow for, and you’ll learn how to lift more effectively if you take the kind of deep dive into your anatomy that feeder workouts are secretly asking you to. So, feel free to take on this challenge if you’re going to face it honestly.


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