Sunday, October 31, 2021

Priorities of Strength - By RJ Hicks: MS, CSCS

One of the major strength training topics Bob and I talk about is intensity. Intensity is defined as the amount of work done per unit of time. I have been mentored by Bob for many years and have had his personal definition of increasing Intensity ingrained into me. Bob believes there four ways to increase intensity. Poundage progression or adding weight to the bar. Training with sets to muscular failure, forcing the muscles to do more work in one set. Reducing the amount of rest you take between sets, allowing you to do more work in less time. Lastly, using good form during your training. This forces the muscles to perform more of the work, rather than using momentum and gravity to assist with moving the resistance. All of these methods will increase intensity, but it is essential that you train with progressive resistance in good form as it is the backbone of all successful strength training programs.

Sets to Failure There are many professionals in the field who believe training intensely only means lifting a weight until momentary muscular failure. They forget all about poundage progression and believe as long as they train with a high level of effort to failure, they will maximize their muscular size and strength. There are training facilities across the U.S. that utilize training to failure as their main goal for their clients’ workouts. They book appointments in 30-minute blocks and use high end strength training machines so the clients can safely train to failure in all of their exercises. This is both a great business plan for business owner and for the client. The business owner can train twice as many clients in a day and double their profit. While, the client can receive an extremely hard work-out and only sacrifice 30 minutes of their day.

There is zero doubt that intensity is one variable to maximizing muscular size and strength, however it is the way some trainer’s priorities the different methods of raising intensity that detract from the goal of maximizing strength. Training to failure can be a very beneficial way to train, especially for athletes whose sport doesn’t involve a barbell. It is a productive way to train, because it requires fewer work sets to be done. Usually, training to failure only requires one hard all-out work set with a moderate rep range as opposed to performing three to four work sets of a specific exercise. It is time efficient because less work sets are required to produce the amount of muscular overload needed to increase muscular size and strength. Bob and I both agree training to failure can be a great way to train, IF it is done progressively.

You can go to failure with light weights all you want, but if you never increase the weight, you’ll progress little. Going to failure with light weights has the same pitfall that training with only calisthenics present. It deemphasizes strength (the amount of muscular force you can produce) and emphasizes muscular endurance (the amount of repeated submaximal force your muscles can reproduce over an extended period of time). If they weight is too light your muscles will not improve the amount of muscular force they can produce. You will only get better at lifting light weights to failure. If this wasn’t the case there would be no need for weights and everyone would just use calisthenics. You can make training to failure a productive element of your training, but without poundage progression your ability to maximize strength will be limited.

For most of Bob’s years competing in powerlifting he never focused on training to failure and only focused on trying to get the goal for each work set. Failure happened by accident, but was never thought of as the goal. It was a natural byproduct of training hard and heavy. It wasn’t until later in his training years after reading “Heavy Duty” that he started to alter his training. The main exercises (bench, squat, deadlift, incline press and behind the neck presses) were still trained in a pyramid style fashion, but the supplementary exercises were done in a high intensity training manor. He knew it doesn’t really matter if you go to failure, it just makes you do less sets.

Many of the Oldtimers never trained to failure either and made tremendous gains in muscular size and strength. Most of the training courses advertised in the early “Strength and Health” and “Muscular Development” magazines used a double progressive system, meaning the reps were increased first and then at a certain point the weight was increased. Take the arm curl as an example on a routine that trains three days per week. The athlete would choose a weight which they could complete the arm curl at least ten times, and for four exercise days it is repeated for the same number. Then it would be tried for 11 times for four exercise days. Then 12 times for four exercise days until the athlete is able to repeat the arm curl twenty times for four exercise days. At this point five pounds would be added and the process is repeated until another five pounds is added, and so on. The old-timers built up to handling large weights on the basic exercises through consistently prioritizing POUNDAGE PROGRESSION. They didn’t worry about training to muscular failure, burn-out sets or creating large amounts of fatigue in their muscles.

Rest Between Sets Reducing the amount of rest between work sets is another great way to increase intensity. The less sitting around you do the more challenging each exercise will feel. Your heart rate will stay at a higher pace as you continue to lift weights not fully recovered. I think reducing rest between sets is great way to increase the intensity of your workout, but if you get too carried away with limited rest it can negatively affect your muscular strength development.

There are still trainers that like to utilize a method of reducing rest called “the rush factor”. I know people who swear by this method and whose workouts only last 15 to 20 minutes. It is a non-stop workout where you move from one exercise to the next with no rest in between. Some motivated enthusiast even run between exercises to further reduce their resting time. Using the rush factor brings cardiovascular benefit to the workout and certainly raises the intensity level, but it is not a priority in maximizing strength. There are no physiological strength benefits from putting your body into metabolic shock. Vomiting and rolling around the floor at the end of your workout looks hardcore, but does nothing to build greater strength. When you severely decrease the amount of rest you take between sets you actually hurt your ability to maximize your strength. Without rest your muscles are unable to produce enough force to optimally provide overload to the muscles. You get a watered-down version of strength training most times, because your cardiovascular system ends up holding you back. That is why powerlifters take plenty of rest between their heavy work sets.

The truth is reducing the amount of rest you take between sets plays no part to increasing your muscular strength. You can rest as long as you want between exercises and make fantastic strength gains, as long as you are focusing on poundage progression. Paul Anderson used to rest for several hours between exercises, while he trained. He would do some heavy squats, then go inside to eat and relax, then he would come back outside an hour or two later and do some heavy military presses. As long as you get all of your training done within the day, it really doesn’t matter how much rest you are taking if you are looking to just increase your strength.

For a business this is not an optimal way to train clients, because you are charging them by the hour. Nobody wants their money wasted by sitting around for three to four minutes between every work set. Too much rest also takes away from the overall workout intensity and can play mental games on clients. One way Bob taught me to strategical build in rest between work sets is to add in tinkering exercises between the basic compound exercises. An example of this would be to go from the bench press to the seated row to an abdominal exercise. You may be only resting 30 seconds between each exercise, but there is a three to four minutes rest before you return to do another set of the bench press or seated row. This way you are increasing the number of exercises done in the hour, while prioritizing lifting the heaviest weight that you can.

Good Form Good form is the third variable to increase the intensity of a workout. Good form is a given and always expected to be used during training. Good form forces your muscles to work more to contract against a certain load, raising its intensity. Good form means using a safe full range of motion and not allowing momentum or gravity to assist in moving the weight. Good form is always needed and doesn’t even need mentioning, however, there are some who take good form to an extreme and train with a very slow speed of motion.

Slow training was a method of performing repetitions that was popularized in the 90s and is still imbedded in many trainers’ philosophies today. The idea behind it is to move the weight so slowly that the momentum is nearly all eliminated from the movement and that every repetition can mirror the next to accurately measure progress. The most popular repetition cadences seen from gym that follow this philosophy are 10/10 rep speed (10 second raising the weight and 10 seconds lowering the weight). 10/5, 8/8 and 6/6 are other popular cadences, but a 10/10 rep speed is the most common.

There are advantages to using a slow speed in some instances and it is without a doubt a workout intensifier technique. A slower rep speed compared to a fast rep speed can be safer since less force is imposed on the surrounding muscles, ligaments and tendons. A slower rep speed forces the muscles to stay under load and contract longer than a fast rep speed does. The problem arises when trainers overemphasize the form of exercise, but decrease the speed of movement

The disadvantage of the normal way slow training is administered when it comes to maximizing strength is that it prioritizes rep speed over poundage progression. Slow training dissuades the use of heavy weight, due to the strict rep rules. You can get strong in the beginning using slow training, but once the weight gets heavy you can’t finish the rep. It is against the rules to pick up speed to finish the rep, you are constricted to lifting at a specific cadence. This makes it very difficult to move heavy weight. The weight ends up holding you back from getting stronger, because you cannot push through the mid-range of the rep. The only gains you’ll make over a few months is a couple of 2.5-pound plates.

Drew Israel, a frequent guest on Bob Whelan’s “Natural Strength Night” had a very similar experience with slow training. Drew used slow training for two years and found his strength was diminishing from what his previous training built. He noticed a loss in overall size and strength when he experimented going back and forth between using normal speed training and slow training. He did note that slow training can still be beneficial to beginners or if you have injuries that are bothering you, since it could allow you to train on exercises that your body couldn’t tolerate at normal speeds.

If you like slow training than do it. There is nothing wrong with slow training and it is a great way to get a challenging workout in. Some trainers will have you performing repetitions between two and three minutes, which is a killer cardiovascular wise. There are ways to add it into your training as a specific theme for the day as a form of variety or on a specific movement that causes irritation. One of my clients suffered from a shoulder impingement for years and was unable to do any consistent overhead pressing. I had him train the overhead press for several months using a 10/10 speed which allowed him to get stronger and remain pain free. I prioritized poundage progression by setting the goal at three reps and not being overly critical on the timing/form. his way he was still training in the anaerobic energy system since no set lasted longer than 60 seconds. If he had to pick up speed naturally on the last rep to finish, so be it. The speed was still slow enough not to cause any pain.

Poundage Progression Poundage progression is the fourth variable, yet equally important as good form when it comes to increasing intensity. Without poundage progression none of the other three methods will maximize your muscular size and strength. The principle of poundage progression goes all the way back to the late 1800 in the United States when physical culture really started to take off. Everyone in the know knew poundage progression was the main focus for developing strength. That’s why tools like the adjustable barbell are so valuable to the Iron Game, because it was the first tool of its kind to easily allow users to incrementally add more weight. Every barbell and dumbbell course published during early to mid-1900s was built around the premise of continuously adding weight to the bar overtime. Every authority in the field agreed that training with tools that allowed you to progressively add resistance were far superior compared to calisthenics. It was even the main method of muscular rehabilitation during World War II. Poundage progression is the key-ingredient that makes different training routines work. It doesn’t matter if you use machines or free-weights, high reps or low reps, one set or multiple sets, or prefer to do Olympic lifts over bodybuilding movements. The key is that no matter what you are doing if you systematically implement a method of adding weight overtime then you will get stronger.

To force a muscle to grow larger and stronger you must provide muscular overload. This occurs when a muscle is driven to work beyond what is comfortable. Training progressively does this by increasing the weight against which the muscles develop tension. The heavier weight the muscles are able develop tension under and create movement the stronger the muscles become. This is the best intensity variable to use to increase the total work output during a training session.

There is no one best progression scheme for anyone or for any one specific lift. There are many ways to set up a progression scheme best off of your preferences and instincts. The main rule is to have a set/rep goal and to add a little weight when you are no longer straining to reach it. The exact load to increase by varies amongst individual and is base on the current ability of the muscle’s groups being trained. The key is once you have a systematic progressive scheme in place is to stick with it for several weeks before switching to another.

All of these ways of increasing intensity can be thought of as a It balancing act. The more emphasis you put on any of the four ways of increasing intensity, the more you must take away from the other variables. How you prioritize each variable is ultimately up to your preference and goal. If you prioritize poundage progression you must decrease the emphasizes on reducing rest. If you prioritize limited rest between exercises, you must decrease the amount of weight you are handling. Each variable of increasing intensity comes with its own benefits and can be made to work as long as some form of increasing resistance is systematically applied. As Bob has stated numerous times “poundage progression is the unifying factor in all successful training programs”.
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