Don’t train to train. Train to win.
Define what being a champion means to you and go after it with precision and focus. Whether your goal is winning an Olympic medal, beating a pesky opponent, losing X amount of body fat, reaching a deadlift PR, or packing on 10 pounds of muscle, these seven rules will take you there.
This article will help you understand superior strength training methods for reaching physical goals. It will also identify common problems that inhibit the successful implementation of those methods, with examples for trainees of various levels, from beginner to advanced.
Rule #1: Train the muscles at various speeds, doing fast and slow tempo work.
Pitfalls to #1
Beginner: Not counting tempo or always using the same tempo (1 second down, 1-second up is common).
Intermediate: Not counting tempo correctly (with a watch) or not understanding basic effects on the neuromuscular system of various speeds. Not getting a solid base of maximal strength.
Advanced/Athlete: Not understanding tempo rules: If you want to get strong, you must train at slower speeds and move heavy loads. To get fast, you need to train lighter loads explosively.
Muscles gain strength faster if worked at various speeds than if always trained at the same speed.
Training at slower speeds develops maximal strength and high forces. Slow speed training refers to the use of controlled, non-explosive lifts using heavy loads. It eliminates the use of momentum to lift the weight, and increases the duration and level of tension on the muscle.
A slow tempo would be a front squat or deadlift in which you use a 4010 or 6010 tempo. You might progress to a varied speed front squat with a 80X0 tempo, in which you come up explosively.
On the other end of the spectrum are high speed exercises such as the Olympic lifts and related explosive exercises. Training lighter loads at high speeds does not produce high increases in strength, but it is beneficial for increasing the rate of force development to get faster. The explosive lifts include options such as hang clean pulls, snatch pulls, jump squats, and power cleans, and snatches.
Rule #2: Use a wide selection of exercises and always use full-range training as a base.
Pitfalls to #2
Beginner: Never changing exercises, which is particularly problematic if training on machines or favoring isolation exercises. Not using a full range-of-motion.
Intermediate: Not using a wide enough selection of exercises, or not using the correct lifts to reach your specific goals. Progressing to partial range-of-motion training too quickly.
Advanced: Not understanding how specific single-joint or unilateral exercises are crucial for maximizing hypertrophy or strength. Not using partials effectively.
You’ll achieve optimal strength and muscularity by changing the nature and form of your exercises. The order of recruitment of motor units in the muscle is fixed while performing a given movement even if the load or speed of contraction changes.
Yet, certain motor units within a muscle have a low recruitment threshold for one exercise, but a high recruitment threshold for another exercise. In addition, for full development and growth of a muscle, it’s necessary to train it in all possible movements and planes of motion.
For example, to vary the stimulus to the posterior chain, you’re going to target the muscles of the glutes, lower back, and hamstrings differently with deadlifts off the floor compared to deadlifts off a podium or blocks.
In addition, deadlifts and other commonly used posterior exercises are in the sagittal plane. It’s critical to include lateral movements to train the body in the frontal plane, such as lateral lunges or step-ups.
Full-range of motion training must be part of basic strength development because it allows for greater muscle growth and force ability. Performing partial training too early is particularly detrimental in multi-joint lifts that require stabilization of the spine, such as the squat.
Partial training is an excellent option for advanced trainees so as to be able to overload the points in a lift where you are strongest. An often overlooked method is to train lockouts with supramaximal loads. Lockouts will teach you to manage weights you haven’t used before such that when you perform the full lift, newly maximal loads will not “feel” as daunting.
Rule #3: Let the reps dictate the load. There is nothing wrong with getting STRONG!
Pitfalls to #3
Beginners: Not being aware of what percentages are, or how reps will dictate a load.
Intermediate: Not knowing your 1RM. Allowing percentages to dictate your load.
Advanced: Not retesting your 1RM. Not understanding how reps should dictate the load.
Sticking to strict percentages can be tricky for the following reasons:
- Strength varies 10 to 20 percent over the course of a single day, peaking between 2 and 5 p.m. Therefore, if you tested the 1RM at 6 am, which is not unrealistic in a busy college strength room or when training working folks, the percentage would be inappropriate when training at 5 p.m. or after work.
- Although the relationship between the 1RM, the submaximal loads, and the reps that one should be able to perform was established with a decent amount of precision, individual differences in fiber types and training background can affect it.
For example, a rower (rowing requires endurance as well as high force production) will likely be able to perform double the prescribed repetitions at 70 percent of the 1RM, say 24 reps, whereas the average trainee will hit 11 or 12.
- The percentage relationship differs from one muscle to another. For example, much higher reps will typically be achieved for a quad-centric exercise like the leg press than a hamstring lift such as the leg curl.
- Percentages don’t allow for individual training responses. Some athletes are simply gifted and may be undertrained with fixed percentages, whereas others, particularly those in the general population who have never trained before, will be overstressed.
- Percentages can induce cheating or injury if athletes are driven to complete a set for which they are not physically ready.
To allow the reps to dictate the load, use rep ranges when programing. If you’re working in the 4 to 6 rep range but can perform 7 or more, the weight needs to be increased. Likewise, if you’re in the 4 to 6 range but can’t hit 3, you’re load is too heavy.
Allowing the reps to dictate the load also allows you to “flirt” with training to failure. Although you may not be pushing every lift to failure, nearing failure allows for greater motor unit recruitment. This is a safe way to prevent overtraining because the body is well equipped to protect itself against intensity of work, but not against volume of work.
Rule #4: Alternate volume and intensification phases frequently (every 2-3 weeks) and gradually, with incremental changes in load and volume.
Pitfalls to Rule #4
Beginner: Not changing the training stimulus by increasing loads or volume.
Intermediate: Delaying a change in the training stimulus by using inefficient 4-6 week phases.
Advanced/Athlete: Using a standard linear intensification program that compromises muscle mass and strength potential via the following:
- lack of volume (for example, doing low volume, high-intensity in the last 2-3 months of a program), or
- continuously increasing intensity, which inhibits adaptations due to lack of recovery time for the nervous system.
You should be familiar with the fact that to force the body to get stronger, you must mix up your training with planned variations in volume and intensity of the load.
Yet, it may surprise you to learn that the human body adapts very rapidly to the stress of training loads, which means that a strength training program will become ineffective at eliciting adaptations in as little as 2 weeks.
Classic periodization models that change the training parameters every 4 to 6 weeks have two problems that lead these programs to be inefficient.
First, the intensity continuously increases without any regressions in weight. For example, the average 12-week program tends to climb from loads of 75 percent of the 1RM in the first 4-week phase to 85, 90, and 95 percent every subsequent four weeks, respectively.
The lack of lighter or “easy” workouts allows too little time for neuromuscular regeneration and it takes a toll on the psyche (simply, it’s hard).
Second, hypertrophy adaptations to muscle that are developed during the early weeks of training are hardly maintained as the trainee progresses to strength phases. When loads increase and volume decreases to the point where 5 reps or fewer are performed, muscle mass is compromised.
Reach your strength potential faster by using methods that favor the development of muscle mass first, followed by methods that stimulate the neuromuscular system through heavy loads. Here’s a general example:
Weeks 1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8 9-10 11-12
Reps 10-12 4-6 8-10 3-5 5-7 2-3
Sets 3 5 4 5 4 6
Intensity % 70-75 82-88 75-78 85-90 80-85 90-95
Rule #5: Vary the form of muscular contraction by using concentric-eccentric loading correctly.
Pitfalls to #5
Beginner: Letting the weight fall with gravity by not controlling the eccentric contraction, which is the down motion of a lift such as the biceps curl.
Intermediate: Never doing a longer eccentric contraction, or completely ignoring the fact that there are four phases to a lift: the eccentric and concentric contractions, the lockout, and the bottom position.
Advanced/Athlete: Avoiding eccentrics because they produce severe muscle soreness.
You’ll get stronger faster if you use many types of contractions instead of only one, such as doing only the concentric portion of the lift, which is a common mistake in college gyms because athletes don’t want to get sore.
The different contraction types are as follows:
Concentric contractions occur when the muscle shortens, such as in the “up” motion of a biceps curl, squat, deadlift, or chin-up. Training only the concentric motion rarely leads to muscle soreness, but it’s not as effective for building muscle or strength as doing both the concentric and eccentric phases.
Eccentric contractions occur when the muscle lengthens, such as in the “down” motion of a biceps curl, squat, deadlift, or chin up. You are much stronger on the eccentric motion than the concentric motion. Eccentrics are a superior method for developing both the muscle and the nervous systems for hypertrophy and strength by overloading the body with the heaviest loads possible.
Isometric contractions occur when you apply muscular tension without contraction of the muscle, such as when you hold a weight in one place without moving it or when you hold your body in one position such has in a parallel squat. They provide a superior tool for overcoming plateaus and targeting weak links in strength.
Rule #6: Use eccentric-enhanced loading correctly.
Pitfalls to #6:
Beginner/Intermediate: Never doing longer eccentric contractions.
Advanced: Not using fast eccentrics, such as plyometrics, or never doing supramaximal lifting.
A beginner eccentric workout would simply have you use a long 4 to 6-second down tempo with 1-second up. Progress to 8- to 10-second eccentric tempo, with 1-second up.
Advanced trainees should use supramaximal loads. Start with a weight that is 20 percent greater than your concentric 1RM and build up to 50 percent greater than the 1RM. Use a slower eccentric tempo of 3 to 4 seconds. This will produce greater motor unit fatigue and the preferential recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Heavy eccentrics allow you to target previously inactive motor units, giving you more muscle growth via the following mechanisms:
- They cause the greatest degree of muscle damage, leading to a more rapid stimulation of protein synthesis.
- They activate satellite cells for the greatest growth.
- They produce greater increases in insulin-like growth factor-1, which is thought to enhance muscle growth by acting through the mTOR gene signaling pathway.
Athletes should include fast eccentric work, such as plyometrics, to train for a faster rate of force development, particularly during the pre- and in-season. Slow eccentrics can decrease the rate of force development, suggesting that they be used mainly in the off-season to drive muscle and strength gains.
Rule #7: Use isometric contractions to push your strength limits and target weak links.
Pitfalls to #7:
Beginner: Not knowing what isometric contractions even are.
Intermediate: The only isometric contraction you do is a plank.
Advanced: Not taking advantage of this superior method of hitting weak links because it’s challenging and takes focus.
Isometrics are unique for their ability to produce high levels of muscle tension without a change in the muscle’s length or joint angle. The result is at least a five percent increase in muscle activation compared to dynamic contractions.
By employing this increased neural drive within a dynamic contraction, you will maximize the strength potential of newly developed muscle mass. Here’s how it works:
The most basic way to perform isometrics is to use a two-second pause at the top position of an exercise when the muscle is fully contracted. For a deadlift, squat, and leg curl, pause in the top position and then lower the weight under control to produce a higher level of muscle tension.
A more advanced isometric is one-and-a-quarter squats in which you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom and come up quickly. The one-and-a-quarter method can be used for other lifts such as leg curls.
More advanced trainees should try two to three pauses during the concentric contraction so as to hit all parts of the muscle for growth and strength.