Flex Your Way To A Harder Body - The Science of Posing to Build Muscle

I once worked with a competitive bodybuilder who had massive arms. He was built for it. His short limbs (relative to his torso) made his biceps dominant in all pulling movements, and his triceps took over in most pressing exercises.

The problem? His right arm was significantly bigger than his left. It took us a long time to figure out why. After all, his training was smart and balanced.

It turns out, ever since he was a kid, he had a habit of flexing in front of the mirror... and he would always flex his RIGHT arm.

How did posing cause a left-to-right imbalance? Because posing can help you BUILD muscle. It does so in various ways and without much time investment, or effort. Posing is a tool you can do daily for just a few minutes to increase your training results.

The Origin of Posing to Build Muscle
Max Sick was a "strongman" from the early 1900s who took the stage name of Maxick. He developed a training system to build muscle and strength through "muscle control" exercises, not resistance training.

His system was called "Maxalding," and it revolved around holding various positions to focus on the contraction of specific muscles. First, you learned to contract all of your muscles, and then you worked on lengthening the duration or increasing the intensity of the contraction.

And it certainly worked for Maxick, who displayed a very muscular physique, especially considering that he lived close to 60 years before the first steroid was invented. He had good genetics, but he still got results from mostly "posing" and bodyweight exercises.

As a strength coach and a bodybuilding expert, I will never say that flexing or posing is as effective as weight training. But it is a tool that can be used to magnify your gains from lifting. It's also a tool to maintain your muscle mass when you don't have access to weights.

Let's look at the main benefits of posing and then discuss how we can use it to achieve various goals.

1. Improving Mind-Muscle Connection
If you can't flex a muscle, it'll be really hard to stimulate it when lifting properly. If you can't contract a muscle in a low-skill activity, how can you properly contract it when you add the skill requirement of moving a heavy object?

This may sound like a contradiction simply because the load forces the muscle to produce some tension, but a muscle you're not good at contracting will never be optimally involved in a movement. This means that isolation exercises for the muscle won't be effective until you can improve your mind-muscle connection.

Dave Tate once wrote:
"If you can't flex it, then don't isolate it. You need to have control of your body if you're going to do isolation movements. If I asked you to flex your pecs, it'd probably be easy. You can make those boobies bounce with pride. Now, what if I asked you to do the same with your triceps, delts, hamstrings, or lats? If you can't, why in the hell are you doing isolation bodybuilding cable work?"

Dr. Brad Schoenfeld even did a study showing that focusing on the mind-muscle connection with the muscle you're training leads to better hypertrophy gains (1). So the better you are at contracting a muscle, the easier it'll be to make it grow.

Flexing is the simplest way to work on the mind-muscle connection. It doesn't require much energy or time, and zero equipment is needed. You can do it anywhere.

(By the way, I prefer the term "flexing" over "posing." I don't care about hitting a pose; it's about contracting your muscles.)

This is a strategy I've had figure competitors use for their glutes and abs – doing stomach vacuums and butt squeezes throughout the day, as well as focusing on keeping their abs tight when walking (imagining they're about to get punched in the stomach).

Bottom line: Contracting your muscles daily by flexing will improve mind-muscle connection and quickly make your regular training more effective.

2. Increasing the Effect of a Previous Workout
When I worked with competitive bodybuilders, I noticed how they all looked better the day after a competition. They would look massive and hard as nails.

I tried to figure out what was going on. Of course, the post-contest food intake plays a role, and so does the drop in stress (cortisol makes you retain water and lowers muscle glycogen, making you look softer and smaller). But there had to be more than that.

To me, the big factor was that they posed and flexed a lot throughout the day. And they usually preceded the posing with some carbs.

During the carb-up process, they'd often flex to see how they looked. Before pumping up to get on stage, they'd eat carbs backstage, then pump and flex. They flexed some more on stage at the pre-judging. Then they'd eat between pre-judging and the actual show. And the process would start again with the pumping, flexing, and going on stage.

So I started using "planned posing" during the carb-up process. We'd break down the carb intake over several small meals (easier absorption, less chance of bloating). We'd eat the higher-carb meal and, 20 minutes after, pose for a few minutes. This was repeated six times during the afternoon and evening before the show. It helped them to be fuller and harder on stage.

You're probably not a competitive bodybuilder, but what you can learn from this is that flexing can pull nutrients into the muscle you're contracting. If you pull nutrients into the muscle without causing muscle damage (which you won't with flexing), you can facilitate recovery from a workout that was done earlier in the day or the day prior.

If you have carbs and amino acids in your bloodstream, then you practice flexing, you can drive more glucose and amino acids into that muscle. This will speed up muscle growth and glycogen replenishment in a trained muscle.

I'm not saying that flexing will trigger growth, but it will speed up muscle repair and help you build more muscle in response to your training.

How? Protein synthesis remains elevated for up to 30-36 hours in a trained muscle. That's the time you have to repair the damage you caused and add tissue. Once that period is over, you won't build muscle.

The faster you can repair muscle (because nutrients are more readily available), the less time it takes you to repair the damage and the more growth you can get before the time limit is over.

3. Improving Muscle Tone
The main benefit of posing seems to be an improvement in muscle tone. I don't know the exact mechanisms behind it, but it's absolutely real. I suspect it's because the better you become at contracting a muscle, the more sensitive the neuromuscular junctions (when the signal to contract gets to the muscle) become.

And if it's more sensitive, the muscle will be activated from a much lower signal. Since muscle tone is simply a low-level muscle contraction, if your muscle is more responsive to being contracted, it's much easier to maintain a low-level contraction that will increase muscle tone.

While this is a short-term solution, daily flexing practices will also lead to gradually harder muscles. Athletes with the best mind-muscle connection and muscle control – and who are the most neurologically efficient – have the hardest-looking physiques, even at rest. Think of gymnasts.

4. Losing Fat
Flexing regularly can also affect fat loss. It does so via three mechanisms.

First, you're increasing caloric expenditure while practicing it. Any activity requiring muscle contraction requires energy. If you spend 15 minutes of your day flexing your muscles, you'll burn some energy to do it. Might not be a huge amount, but it can make a small difference in the long run.

The second mechanism is through an improvement in muscle insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake. Flexing will have three effects:

A. It'll use up local muscle glycogen to fuel the muscle contractions.
This increases insulin sensitivity in that muscle by creating more "room" for new glucose. The more room for glucose storage you have, the easier it is to bring it in, the less insulin you need to do the job.

B. It'll increase glucose uptake by the muscle.
Muscle contractions lead to GLUT4 translocation and expression. This is basically what leads to increased transport of glucose in the bloodstream without needing insulin. Contracting your muscles brings glucose into that muscle.

These affect fat loss first by reducing the amount of glucose that can be potentially stored as fat – if you bring it into the muscle, it's not going to be stored as fat – and by reducing the need for insulin.

While the role of insulin in fat accumulation is overstated, as long as insulin is significantly elevated it'll be harder to mobilize stored fatty acids. If you can reduce insulin levels, it'll be easier to mobilize body fat and use it for fuel. Boom, easier to get leaner.

C. Frequent posing can increase resting muscle tone.
Muscle tone is a state of partial activation of your muscles, making them look harder at rest. Even though it's a low-level contraction, it's a contraction nonetheless, and it requires energy to be maintained.

Let's say you have two identical twins who spend their day the same way. One has a higher muscle tone than the other. The one with the greater tonus will have a higher energy expenditure. He will thus lose fat more easily and have a harder time gaining it.

5. Stimulating Muscle Growth
You absolutely can build muscle with static contraction. Think pushing or pulling against an immovable object or flexing a muscle hard. Of course, it isn't as effective as resistance training, but it can absolutely work if you do it right.

Flexing won't cause muscle damage or mTOR activation to a significant extent, but there are other mechanisms that can lead to muscle growth. The main one is the accumulation of local growth factors: hormones released directly in the contracting muscle that have a strong anabolic effect.

These hormones are released when a muscle is contracting and there's an accumulation of lactate as well as a hypoxic state (lack of oxygen in the working muscle).

Lactate is a by-product of using glucose for fuel inside the muscle. It normally starts accumulating when a muscle is contracting at a high enough intensity for around 30 seconds. Provided muscle contraction intensity is sufficient, lactate is maximized in sets lasting 40-70 seconds.

That's for regular lifting exercises. With flexing, it can build up a bit faster (30-40 seconds) because of the constant tension. See, with regular lifting, there are moments in each rep where muscle contraction diminishes, allowing blood to come in and out of the muscle. This will take some lactate out, making it take longer to accumulate.

When you flex and never release the muscle contraction, blood can't come in or out, and lactate accumulates faster. The harder the muscle contracts, the faster lactate builds up.

That same constant muscle contraction that prevents blood from coming inside the muscle to take the lactate out also prevents oxygen delivery to the muscle. This leads to local oxygen debt, the second factor involved in releasing growth factors.

Provided the flexing has enough duration and contraction intensity, you can use it to build muscle.

How To Use Flexing/Posing
There are two main ways to use flexing. The best one for you will depend on why you're using it.

Method 1 – Pump Reps
For this approach, use shorter contractions (5-6 seconds) followed by a brief relaxation phase (2-3 seconds). Do 8-12 such contractions in a "set." The contraction's intensity can range from roughly 75% of your maximum up to an all-out effort, depending on what you want to focus on.

Method 2 – Constant Effort
Do only one effort per "set," but maintain the contraction for a longer period of time (30-40 seconds). Now, it's impossible to maintain a maximal effort for that long (you can keep maximum contraction for around 12 seconds), so with this method, we shoot for a 75-80% level of contraction for most of your set, and on that last 10-15 seconds you flex as hard as you can.

The pump reps method is the most effective approach to improve the mind-muscle connection and to increase nutrient uptake by the muscles. It also improves recovery and growth from previous workouts.

For maximum mind-muscle connection, use pump reps at a high intensity level (90-100% tension) for 8 reps. To maximize nutrient uptake and recovery, stick to 75-80% for 12 reps.

If you want to use flexing to simulate muscle growth, longer duration contractions are better (to get more growth factor release) with a 75-80% effort for 30 seconds followed by a final 10 seconds done all-out.

To use flexing in a fat loss program, try a longer duration at a moderate intensity – 50-60 seconds at 70-75%.

Which Method Should I Use?
First, understand that both approaches will have positive effects for all four goals: mind-muscle connection, muscle growth, fat loss, recovery/nutrient uptake. But you can emphasize one or two a bit more depending on the approach you choose.

If you're mainly interested in building a more muscular physique, you might be tempted to always go for the muscle-growth method. But that's probably not the best use of flexing.

Even though flexing is a much lower-stress activity than regular training, it still adds to overall training stress. Use it to get the most bang for your buck.

The only time I'd recommend using flexing as a direct muscle-growth method is if you don't have access to a gym. Flexing and bodyweight exercises will allow you to at least maintain the muscle you have... and likely add some.

Most of the time, I prefer to use the pump-reps style to improve recovery and growth from a previous workout. This is best done a few times a day, on an off day, for the muscles you trained in the previous workout.

To get the maximal effect, do these micro sessions when you have the right nutrients in you, either by doing them 90 minutes after a meal or by using a small portion of Plazma™ (half a dose) 20 minutes prior. Do 2-3 sets for each of the muscles you trained the day before.

You can even use this strategy for muscles you trained earlier in the day. For example, if you did a pushing workout (chest, triceps, delts) in the morning, you can flex these muscles in the afternoon and evening to speed up recovery and increase the growth stimulus. To me, that's the best way to use flexing.

Do I Have To Pose Like A Bodybuilder?
The mandatory bodybuilding poses are designed to allow judges to evaluate the physiques of the competitors as thoroughly as possible. You don't have to do them when you flex. While the double biceps, side triceps, and most muscular poses will be pretty good, the lat spreads and abs/thighs poses might not be optimal.

You're simply looking for ways to contract and feel your muscles. Biceps, triceps, quads, pecs, traps, and mid-back are relatively easy to contract. You might have more issues with hamstrings, lats, and delts.

You can do a back double biceps for the lats, contracting the back (imagine squeezing the shoulder blades together), then contracting as if you were going to do a lat pulldown. This will get the whole back firing.

Oddly enough, the delts will also fire well if you do a back double biceps. But instead of thinking of pulling back and down, pull back and slightly upward.

For delts, you can also bring your arms straight overhead, pointing toward the ceiling, and try to push them back as far as you can.

Figuring out the best way to flex a muscle is part of the experience. It'll help you figure out how to tweak regular exercises to get a better contraction.

Flex to Pass Time
You don't have to set aside time for "flexing sessions" either. I've had fitness competitors flex their glutes or tense their abs while stopped at red lights or during commercials while watching TV. You could flex your pecs at a red light, too, by trying to squeeze in your steering wheel.

I'll often flex my biceps and triceps while reading or writing an article. Every little bit helps, especially to improve the mind-muscle connection. Frequency is the key for that.

Flexing is low stress and requires almost no time. It can be done daily, even multiple times a day, either for all of your muscles, for lagging muscles, or for the muscle you trained earlier.

It's an underrated way to get more out of the rest of your training. It's both an investment in future gains and a way to potentiate a previous workout. There's no reason not to do it.

Schoenfeld, Brad & Vigotsky, Andrew & Contreras, Bret & Golden, Sheona & Alto, Andrew & Larson, Rachel & Winkelman, Nick & Paoli, Antonio. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science. 18. 1-8. 10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020.