by Bret Contreras November 17, 2014
It’s funny how a big PR can immediately turn an average or lousy day into an amazing day. Showing up to the gym is easy. Going through the motions is easy. But consistently getting stronger month in and month out is very challenging. It requires intelligent training, sound nutrition, and ideal levels of sleep and stress. However, even when we seemingly do everything right, we sometimes spin our wheels. This is why it’s important to pay close attention when training. Here are 5 tips that can expedite your progress.
You don’t always have to train balls-to-the-wall in order to see results. When I was a teenager reading bodybuilding magazines, I recall countless articles urging lifters to take every set to failure. In fact, I distinctly remember reading an article by professional bodybuilder Tom Prince, who claimed to take every set he ever performed to momentary muscular failure. I remember wondering how in the hell these bodybuilders could pull this off, knowing that they performed high volume training and probably busted out at least 20 sets per training session. I felt insecure about my own training and assumed that I wasn’t nearly as manly as these guys since I wasn’t able to do so. Well, let me clarify. I could indeed take every set to failure, but I didn’t feel that it was the optimal way to train.
For example, at the time of the article, I was probably 21 years old and could bench press around 225 lbs. A bench session back then might have consisted of a set of 12 reps with 135 lbs, a set of 10 reps with 155 lbs, a set of 6 reps with 185 lbs, a set of 3 reps with 205 lbs, and a back-off set of 15 reps with 135 lbs. Only the last two sets were taken to failure.
Let’s say I did take every set to failure. The bench session probably would have looked something like this: 135 lbs x 21 reps, 155 lbs x 6 reps, 175 lbs x 1 rep. I would have been fried after the first set and my strength would have been zapped. Would this style of training have led to better results? No, it wouldn’t have. I instinctually understood back then how to train wisely, but it was difficult to trust my instincts at the time because bodybuilders who were much larger than I was were recommending otherwise.
Years later, having gotten a chance to watch many professional bodybuilders train in person, I realized that they don’t take every set to failure. They could almost always bust out a couple more reps if their lives depended on it. It’s just something they liked to claim at the time in order to sound “hardcore.” Or, maybe the magazines were telling them to make these claims. Either way, none of them actually followed their own advice.
Several years later, I recall reading various high intensity training (HIT) articles where the authors claimed that the last rep of the set was the only rep that mattered. Stopping short would just maintain size and strength, but busting out that last, grueling rep would cause the body to make adaptations. Former bodybuilder Mike Mentzer was a proponent of this type of training theory.
But as former Physicist Richard Feynman used to say, “If it doesn’t match experiments, it’s wrong.” In the next decade, several peer-reviewed, published RCT’s would emerge showing that training to failure was not mandatory for results, nor was it better than stopping shy of failure.
Last April, I wrote a blogpost titled, Reduced Load & Effort for Increased Results. This article was written in an effort to promote my 2 x 4 Maximum Strength program, which utilizes submaximal loading and effort in order to allow for increased training frequency and promote greater gains in strength. This was the first time I’d purposely gone lighter in my training in order to work on technique and train more often without overdoing it and hampering my recovery. The results were impressive, and I finally reached my goal to deadlift 600 lbs.
To powerlifters, this is nothing new. Popular programs such as Sheiko take advantage of lighter loads and reduced effort in order to allow for high training volumes and frequencies. Now, Sheiko is still very challenging, since it has you performing a large number of sets of challenging exercises. But it’s a different kind of challenge, unlike the challenge of maxing out with one top set or taking one set to complete and utter failure. Some powerlifters might be thinking of Westside Methodology right now, where lifters max out week in and week out on a particular variation of squats, deadlifts, good mornings, and/or bench press. While this is true, they also take advantage of submaximal training in the form of assistance lifts and special workouts. In other words, not every single set is taken to failure. No serious lifter really trains like that in real life – many of their sets are stopped far short of failure.
A couple of times per week, I train at Revolution Training in Tempe, Arizona. Not only do I enjoy the atmosphere and the equipment, I also like observing and conversing with powerlifters and strongmen. Many of them have recently been experimenting with the RPE method (rating of perceived exertion). Here is the system that top powerlifter Mike Tuschscherer uses with regards to RPE:
10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank
9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank
8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left
7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”
6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force
5: Most warm-up weights
4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle
An RPE below four isn’t important.
This scale can be utilized to manage fatigue and provide for more efficient training. I love RPE, but the drawback of using RPE is that some lifters aren’t very good at perceiving. They lie to themselves and pretend that a lift was easier than it really was. So it requires a degree of honesty with one’s self in order for it to be effective. I mentioned that several of my incredibly strong lifting pals recently began incorporating RPE into their training programs. Each of them has experienced increased results since doing so. You don’t see nearly as many grinding repetitions or incidents of form breakdown, nor do you see as many post-set nosebleeds or fainting. What you do see, however, is more quality, more volume, and more strength gained.
Last week, my clients crushed it in the gym. The girls set numerous PRs, so this week I prescribed pause sets, unique variations to address their individual weaknesses, and higher rep sets. In this manner, they still receive an excellent training effect but they avoid grinding out their reps or allowing form degradation in order to further advance their PRs. Sometimes strength gains need to be purposely slowed down in order to allow for gradual and sustained strength gains over the long haul. Deloading has become more popular in the past several years, and there are many different ways to do so. One way is to ramp up in effort in 4-week waves: light, medium, hard, and very hard. Another way is to just train instinctually and back off when your body tells you to do so. But similar to RPE, the problem with instinctual training is that many lifters don’t pay attention to biofeedback and listen to their bodies.
Can sets be taken to failure? Absolutely. But there’s a huge difference between a maximal set of 10RM rest-pause deadlifts versus a set of rear delt raises, hammer curls, or face pulls taken to failure. It takes most lifters many years to truly understand how to regulate their effort and manage their fatigue. Once lifters reach this level of mastery, training tends to “click,” and steady gains are usually seen thereafter.
Bottom line – you don’t have to take you train balls-to-the-wall every session, you don’t need to go all out every single week, and you’ll likely experience better results by performing a considerable amount of training in the 70-85% of 1RM range while keeping some reps in the tank.
This should go without saying, but if something hurts, you don’t want to train through it. But common sense ain’t so common these days. Many lifters stubbornly push through pain, thinking that somehow the ailment will just go away. Sometimes it does, but many times it doesn’t, and often an acute situation turns into a chronic situation.
If your upper arms are aching from low bar squatting, do safety squat bar squats, front squats, or high bar squats.
If your knees are hurting from squatting, try low bar high box squats with vertical shins, and if that doesn’t work, omit squatting for a while and just hammer the posterior chain.
If your hips are hurting from wide stance squats or sumo deadlifts, move your stance in and perform semi-sumo or narrow/conventional variations.
If your low back is aching, take the day off of deadlifting and opt for some single leg work and posterior chain work (ex: Bulgarian split squats, Nordic ham curls, single leg RDLs, and/or single leg hip thrusts).
If your shoulders hurt when you bench, find a pressing variation you can do that doesn’t hurt. Maybe you can do floor press, or board press, or decline press, or push-ups, or neutral grip dumbbell military press. If that doesn’t work, skip pressing and bust out a bunch of rows and arm isolation exercises.
If chin-ups are causing you pain, just do rows for a while. If dips are causing you pain, just do horizontal pressing for a while. The list goes on and on.
This is precisely why possessing a large toolbox (vast knowledge of exercise variety) is useful; it allows you to train around injuries and/or nagging pain so the issue heals up and is no longer a hindrance. Whatever you do, please don’t just stubbornly grind through an exercise if it doesn’t feel right. This rarely leads to good outcomes. I know of some powerlifters who are so hell-bent on specificity that they spin their wheels due to benching, squatting, and/or deadlifting while in pain. This is unfortunate, since these lifters could perform joint-friendlier variations that would enable them to build their strength all while allowing the nagging pain to subside, which would prolong their lifting careers.
If you’re like me, you love the angles. You like attacking your pecs from horizontal, incline, and decline vectors, you like blasting the delts from every possible direction, and you don’t feel right if you fail to hit the glutes from a variety of joint actions. Trust me, I get it – you want to be thorough in your training.
But the only way to realistically be thorough is to adhere to body part split routines where you train 1-2 body parts per day. On chest day, you can do your inclines, flats, declines, and flies. On back day, you can do your chins and pulldowns along with all of your favorite rows. On leg day, you can compound, target, isolate, and annihilate. The problem with body part splits is that training frequency must be greatly diminished and you only end up training your favorite body part or lift once per week. If you want to maximize your strength, then you’re going to have to compromise.
You cannot perform every exercise under the sun week in and week out. Consider the biceps. You have barbell curls, dumbell curls, preacher curls, easy bar curls, Scott curls, drag curls, incline curls, spider curls, pulley curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, reverse curls, cable curls, Zottman curls, and chain curls, amongst others.
Clearly you can see that you won’t be able to fit in every single curling variation throughout the week (or even throughout the month). Every muscle has myriad ways to train it. It is good to hit the muscles from multiple angles, as long as it doesn’t interfere with strength gains. Some lifters seem more interested in hitting all the angles than setting PRs and gaining strength. If you’re the same strength one year from now as you are today, you probably won’t look much different. You must strive to get stronger over time if you want your body to transform and add shape and muscle.
My recommendation is to perform a heavy strength movement first in the training session, such as a squat, deadlift, hip thrust, bench press, chin, military press, row, or dip. Go heavy and try to set some sort of PR. After that, feel free to perform some additional compound movements or some isolation movements and go for a burn or a pump. Tension first, metabolic stress second. Hit the angles, but don’t hit them so hard that you’re not recovered for your next training session. You want to stimulate, not annihilate.
Strength training isn’t rocket science, but it’s not straight-forward either. Due to the multi-faceted nature of human physiology, even when we control the variables, we can’t completely predict the response. Therefore, you need to rise up and educate yourself. You must pay attention to biofeedback and experiment to figure out what works best for your body. You must adhere to a proper routine to give yourself the best chance of succeeding. And you must make wise decisions during the additional 23 hours when you’re not in the gym.
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