It’s no secret that weight training is a great way to get and stay in shape, promote overall health, and feel great too. But there’s more to it than proper technique and execution. If you’re repeating the same moves for three sets of 10 reps week after week, consider it time to introduce some more advanced weight training techniques. Implement them into your routine and your efforts in the gym will pay off that much more.
1. Don’t pre-exhaust, post-exhaust!
A while back, bodybuilders figured out that if you train a muscle in isolation first, it becomes the limiting factor in a compound exercise performed later, therefore allowing you to target a muscle more precisely. For example, performing leg presses before squats would allow the quads to be the limiting factor in squats, and get them “feeling the burn” faster (without other leg muscles getting fatigued too soon).
A better approach may be to get your heavy, compound sets done first, and attend to the isolation exercise after, says Dr. Chris MacDonald.
However, there are some theoretical problems with this approach. The advantage of pre-exhausting a muscle is that it will accumulate more metabolites (read: lactic acid, which contributes to the “burn” during high rep sets) once you push its limits with the compound exercise. But metabolite accumulation is only a small contributor to muscle growth, while total work (sets x reps x weight) with the highest weights possible has been shown to be the overwhelming cause of muscle growth. By pre-exhausting, you tire out the isolation muscle so much that total work and muscle activation can decrease, which may lead to diminished results.
A better approach may be to get your heavy, compound sets done first, and attend to the isolation exercise after, says Dr. Chris MacDonald, an exercise and sport scientist at Coastal Carolina University. In the isolation move, you can use slightly lighter weights, shorter breaks, and go closer to failure, which can result in excellent metabolite accumulation without sacrificing force production and total work during the compound exercise phase.
2. Increase your weights and sets every week.
Most lifters are aware of the Overload Principle, which states that exercise must become more taxing over the course of training in order to continue to yield results. Often, this is implemented by increasing the weight on the bar, such as going from bench pressing 225 pounds for three sets one week to bench pressing 235 pounds for three sets the next week, and so on. While that is an effective method, it can be magnified further by altering sets as well as reps.
One of the biggest determinants to muscle growth is the volume (sets x reps x weight) of the training program, so long as the weights are greater than about 60 percent of your one rep max (1RM), on average. (Beyond 60 percent of your 1RM, small changes in weight used — 225 to 235 pounds, for example — do enhance the stimulus, but not by much.) A big way to enhance the stimulus is to add sets as well as weight. For example, a three-week progression could be to perform two sets at 225 pounds in the first week, three sets at 235 pounds in the second week, and four sets of 245 pounds in the third week. With such a progression, the Overload Principle makes full use of both intensity (weight) and volume increases, and provides the maximal stimulus for muscle growth.
3. Deload every 5th or 6th week.
Accumulating fatigue is fine within reason, but if not tended to, can lead to poor performance in the gym and increased injury risk.
As you train hard and heavy, especially with high volumes (which are critical for the best gains), small micro-tears start to accumulate in the muscles and tendons. Glycogen stores (your muscle’s storage form of carbs) start to dwindle, and your neural and hormonal systems can’t keep up with the taxing workouts. This inevitable process is known as Fatigue Accumulation.
Accumulating fatigue is fine within reason, but if not tended to, can lead to poor performance in the gym and increased injury risk. Possibly worst of all, though, is the risk of muting the adaptive response in muscle, which can lead to workouts that don’t produce much muscle growth at all. So how do we reduce fatigue back down to low levels so that we can keep training hard? Since taking time off completely from the gym risks losing hard-earned muscle gains, we can make use of the concept of deloading instead.
A deload is a week in which the training weights are lighter than normal — 60 percent of your 1RM is a good base to try — and the reps are cut by half. So if you were doing four sets of 10 at 100 pounds, a deload week would be four sets of five at 60 pounds. The reduction in weight and total volume can allow time for microtears in the body to heal, and glycogen to be replenished. Getting even more technical, this can also allow for the re-establishment of neural and hormonal processes, while saving hard-earned gains all the while. By deloading every fifth or sixth training week, you can maximize your long-term results in a noticeable way.
James Hoffmann, head strength and conditioning coach at East Tennessee State University, warns you might feel pretty “undertrained” at the end of your reload week, making it tempting to cut it short and hit the gym early. However, sticking out the full week pays off in the long-term, Hoffmann says, which particularly important for advanced weightlifters.
4. Train with high volumes when gaining or losing weight.
The most powerful stimulus of muscle growth (and muscle retention during weight loss) is high-volume training. Multiple sets of eight to 12 reps (on average) have been repeatedly shown to help grow and/or maintain the most muscle.
When gaining muscle (and thus eating enough to gain weight), a maximal stimulus of muscle growth should be provided through training. Training for several sets of three reps is just not going to cut it; higher reps are simply more effective.
In a similar vein, if your stimulus in the gym is not high enough during weight loss, muscle loss is more likely to occur. In order to prevent this loss as much as possible, high volume training is the best tool. That means training each major muscle group an average of twice per week, with between 10 and 15 working sets each session.
5. Perform a low-volume phase every 3 to 4 months.
While high-volume training is best for mass gaining and cutting, months of consistent high volumes bring down the body’s ability to build muscle, in a similar fashion (and by some of the same mechanisms) as accumulative fatigue. That said, every three to four months, many experts recommend mixing in lower-volume training. The ideal approach: resistance training using several sets of three to five reps per exercise. This way, after a month or so of strength training, going back to high-volume training will result in enhanced gains, and keep you on track to reach your goals!
If you’re an experienced weightlifter with some years of training and the results to show for it, these advanced tips will keep you moving forward. Just remember, the basics are always important, so always use proper technique on the movements to stay safe, follow proper nutritional strategies, and make sure your goals are realistic. Attempting to outpace your body’s ability to recover and adapt should never be the strategy of choice.
Originally published on December 19, 2013.