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Blocking out the time to really delve into a stretching session can seem hard to justify if your busy schedule already makes squeezing workouts in difficult.But if you’ve found yourself hitting a wall when it comes to results, or you’re constantly plagued by niggling injuries, it might just be what the doctor ordered. US-based Lastics has taken inspo from the long, lean and limber bodies of dancers to come up with classes and online videos to help regular gym-goers get the most out of their workouts. ‘Dancers epitomise the balance between strength and flexibility to the extreme,’ says Lastics founder Donna Flagg. ‘Their bodies are graceful, sculpted and powerful.’Rather than overhauling your entire workout routine to emulate that of a ballerina, Lastics instead allows you to simply take a leaf out of their book, providing stretching-focused classes to help you develop an improved range of motion.
“Once you’ve been training long enough, your body grows wiser and you realize that you can’t simply force it to do anything anymore.”
Bodybuilders and strength athletes stop making progress for one reason: They stop coercing their body to adapt. Note how I intentionally use the word coerce, not a connotatively weaker action verb like force. The reason is that once you’ve been in the training game long enough, your body grows wiser and you realize that you can’t simply force it to do anything anymore.
When you continue to push and grunt with no concrete strategy other than “hard work,” you get injured or beat-up. Few things devour reasonable progress faster than what we’ll call “middle ground” training. That is, always training with the same set or rep scheme and with the same intensity. If you default to training in the 8, 10, or 12 rep range, I hate to break it to you, but your growth is simply wallowing in no-gain’s land.
Fortunately, there are tools in the training toolbox that will sharpen up your training. Let’s start with a brief overview and then move on to how these can be applied to your own programming to maximize growth and development.
The Neural-Metabolic Continuum
The first order of business is to focus on a key element of training: The neural-metabolic continuum. It’s a fancy term that allows you to understand whether you actually work your muscles or central nervous system (CNS), based on key variables. For the sake of brevity, here’s a visual breakdown of what it looks like.
Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain. If you’re chasing more metabolic (i.e. hypertrophic) gains, your, say, squatting program might look something like this:
4 sets of 10 repetitions
Tempo: 3 seconds down, no pause in the bottom, 1 second up
60-90 seconds rest between sets
On the other end of the spectrum, where you might be chasing more neural (i.e. strength) gains, your program might more resemble this:
5 sets of 3 repetitions
Tempo: As fast as possible
3-5 minutes rest between sets
Are we clear on the layout of the neural-metabolic continuum? Good, now let’s look at why you need to spend time in both ends (and not the straight middle) to maximize your growth and development.
The Case for High Reps
By now, it’s probably ingrained in you that you need to perform high reps per set (I’m looking at you, bodybuilders). Let me clarify that I define high reps to dawdle in the 8-12 rep range but could be as low as 6 reps per set.
There shouldn’t be anything really earth-shattering here. If you train with high reps, your goal is to build a bigger muscle.
Some folks call this “structural hypertrophy” since the higher rep sets allow you to focus primarily on the muscles themselves. They also lend themselves to fewer total sets per exercise. By virtue of slowing down the movement, coupled with the sheer amount of reps you do per set, you’re going to increase time under tension, which is a necessary stimulus for hypertrophy. No doubt, gains in strength will come along for the ride, but increases in muscular growth will outpace the increases in strength.
But what happens if you spend all your time here? Quite simply, your body will adapt to your training in this rep range if you continue it for extended periods of time. Furthermore, training in that zone will ultimately limit the amount of intensity you can use as well.
Do high-rep sets (15, 20, or more reps per set) have a place in programming? Sure, but they’re probably the exception rather than the rule.
The solution here is clear: Focus on getting stronger! This brings me to my next point…
The solution here is clear: Focus on getting stronger!
The Case for Low Reps
High reps deliver big gains, right? Well, low reps have a place, too!
The low-rep zone can be defined as anything between 1 rep with near-maximal effort and 5 reps in a set. They’re often viewed as being geared more for powerlifting or Olympic lifting, but if you really want to make high-threshold motor units work, you will need to push some serious weight!
This focuses on making your nervous system more efficient. If you switch from sets of 10 to sets of 3, you coerce your body to unfamiliar, shocking stressors, especially since low rep ranges encourage the use of much heavier weights. Every movement requires more “tightness” and a more intense focus. Further, more motor units and muscle fibers are recruited, and your body gets better at turning off antagonists (or opposing muscle groups) as well.
The result is that you’ll get jacked, but in a slightly different way. Since the goal is more on strength, your body composition will greatly differ from someone who performs exclusively high-rep sets. Powerlifters are strong as hell and can move jaw-dropping weight, but probably lack a bit of the size and definition of a well-trained bodybuilder.
The Perfect Combination
So if high reps promote hypertrophy and low reps facilitate strength increases, then in theory, the marriage of both rep schemes will bring forth muscular and strength development worthy of the Greek gods.
You need to spend dedicated periods of time in both the high-rep and low-rep ranges to maximize your development. High reps build muscle and connective tissue strength, and give your body respite from the grind of low-rep sets, too. Similarly, low-rep sets build neuromuscular and CNS efficiency. When you become more efficient and then go back to your big lifts, you can use even more weight than before, because you’re just that much more efficient and effective.
As an example of what I often do with physique-focused clients, I break down their set-rep schemes into one of two categories:
- High rep – 8-12 repetitions per set
- Low rep – 4-8 repetitions per set
These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. There may be times when even higher reps (15-20) could be used. On the flipside, there are other times when you may want to push the weight and work in the 1-5 rep range.
The biggest benefit from switching between these two ranges is that you’ll constantly coerce (there’s that word again) your body to adapt, to grow, and to improve.
Can’t I Just Train Everything at Once?
I know some people really like undulating periodization, in which you hit different set-rep schemes on different days of the week.
“You have to dial up the focus and be the orchestrator to your symphony of muscles.”
If this is you, perhaps your training looks something like this:
- Monday – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Wednesday – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Friday – 10 sets of 3 reps
With this weekly program, you hit everything in one training week, thinking it’s smart, efficient training. This is true if you’re newer to lifting or have never tried a protocol like this before. However, as you get more and more advanced, this type of scenario won’t work nearly as well since you’re sending multiple mixed messages to your body.
Monday’s workout would tell your body it’s time to get big, but then Wednesday’s workout will kick your body into a bit of strength mode. Finally, Friday’s workout will run counter to Monday’s and place the emphasis on raw strength. What is a confused body to do?! As you become more proficient, you have to dial up the focus and be the orchestrator to your symphony of muscles (and thus, training).
It’s kind of why an elite level sprinter can’t simply wake up one day, decide to run a marathon, and hope to be awesome at both distances.
While I’m saying that you need to spend time on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum, you need to have some patience and zero-in your efforts on one at a time. The general rule is to spend at least 4-6 weeks focusing on one end before you even think about heading to the other.
The Final Step
Hopefully, you’re now alternating between periods of high-rep and low-rep training—awesome! The next step is to alternate the level of intensity over the course of the training cycle. Think of the following quote: “A peak is surrounded by two valleys.” You can’t expect to go at 110 percent intensity every time you train. You’ll only burn yourself out. Layer-in days of high intensity combined with days of low intensity.
The astute reader (you!) might inquire about whether simply wavering between high and low rep ranges might already serve this purpose. It does in a rather unrefined way. Here’s an example of how I’ll set my intensity within a training month:
- Week 1 – 4 sets of 5 reps @70%
- Week 2 – 5 sets of 5 reps @80%
- Week 3 – 4 sets of 3 reps @75%
- Week 4 – 3 sets of 5 reps @85%
As you can see, I’m not trying to move the same weights or loads on a week-to-week basis.
In week 1, I build a base and get a good weight to build my base from. In week 2, I push the limits of my volume. In week 3, I deload. Basically, that means I lower the intensity and volume to make it an “easier” work week, allowing my body to recover and supercompensate. Finally, in week 4, I go for broke with regard to my intensity. Try using this for your squat sometime—it works great!
“You can’t expect to go at 110 percent intensity every time you train. You’ll only burn yourself out.”
You could also do something far simpler, which yields amazing results when you just get started:
- Week 1 – 3 sets of 10 reps @70%
- Week 2 – 3 sets of 8-10 reps @75%
- Week 3 – 3 sets of 8 reps @80%
- Week 4 – 2 sets of 8 reps @70-75%
In this example, I use a stair-step approach to prepare you for week 3. After that, you deload and get ready to run the cycle again on week 5.
With these examples, the point I’m driving home is that you can’t go hard every single week. Instead, “wave” your intensity and build up to a series of big workouts, then back off to allow your body time to recover.
It’s All About Smarter Training
If you want to get the most out of your training, you not only need to work hard, but you need to work smart. By training on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum and incorporating undulating waves of intensity into your training cycle, you’ll not only see better results but you’ll incur fewer bumps and bruises along the way.
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Occupation(s): Team Bodybuilding.com; Cellucor athlete; ACSM Personal trainer
When I first picked up weights a few years ago, maximal lifting wasn’t even on my radar. I ran around in circles with my 10-pound dumbbells, completely unaware that I was missing out on an entire world of fitness.
In the world of 1RM strength, you set specific goals and work for weeks or months to inch closer to them. You push your body to its limits to achieve a triumph that only lasts a couple of seconds. But you also get rewarded with a rush unlike anything else. It’s a great world to be a part of, and it’s changed the entire way I view health and fitness.
I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on heavy lifting—yet. But I’ve still learned some important lessons along the way, and I’m confident you’ll find them just as helpful as I did. If you’re looking to find your numbers or move them up into uncharted territory, here are five rules you need to take to heart.
1 Train Systematically
Why Bother With Maximal Lifts?
- Heavy weight is instructive. You can cheat your way through a 10RM, but not a 1RM!
- Going for an occasional PR helps you to separate your training into phases.
- Stronger muscles are more efficient muscles. Having more strength in reserve will boost your endurance and athleticism in surprising ways.
- Big numbers take time to achieve, but they feel great when you achieve them.
- In life, and in the gym, there’s no substitute for brutal strength when you really need it.
- For fun!
If you’re currently training in the 10-20 rep range and have limited experience with anything less—think 3-8 difficult reps—then you aren’t ready for a 1RM test. Attempting a max test when you’re mentally and physically unprepared is a bad idea. You’re just setting yourself up for failure.
I highly suggest using a program that trains specifically for the kind of intensity you’ll find in a 1RM test. I used Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 system successfully for several months before getting a more personalized powerlifting training program from the Strength Guys. Trust me, proper programming makes all the difference both in terms of performance and safety. Squatting 3 reps at 85 percent 1RM is an entirely different ballgame than doing 15 reps on the leg press. Programs like 5/3/1, the Westside System, or Stronglifts 5×5 will prepare you for the intensity that lies ahead.
If you’re unsure of your max or haven’t yet had the chance to test it, I suggest using a 1RM calculator initially. Just enter your best lift, and it does the work for you. The heavier the weight and the lower the number of reps, the more accurate the calculator is. For example, 200 pounds for 5 reps is more accurate than 150 pounds for 9 reps. Nothing is as accurate as actually getting under the bar and testing your 1RM—preferably with some supervision from somebody who’s done it many times—but, these calculators can give you a sufficient idea of what your max should be. You’ll need that number in order for the percentage-based training of strength programs to be effective.
2 Learn How To Get in the Right Headspace
Testing your 1RM requires a serious amount of intensity and concentration. You won’t be frolicking in the land of unicorns, bunnies, and rainbows here. To be honest, testing your 1RM sucks. It usually hurts physically, and it always challenges your body’s idea of what is “possible.” Putting that kind of stress on your body is more than just a physical trial, though. It’s a mental one, too. Before you step up to a barbell to try for your max lift, you need to be a master of these three skills:
If you find your mind in 35 different places and none of them are at the gym with the bar, it’s not the day to test your max. There may be no such thing as the perfect day, but there are optimal conditions that give you a shot at hitting your best numbers. You want to be present and composed with mental clarity. Your focus should be on one thing and one thing only: moving that heavy weight.
Visualize yourself easily pulling your deadlift max. Then see yourself adding some more weight and pulling again with ease. Picture your bench max going up without a hitch. Visualizing not only gives your confidence a much needed boost before you tackle your lift, but it can also actually improve motor performance, making your 1RM attempt a major success.
Not everybody needs music in order to get into a PR headspace, but for many of us, it’s crucial. Listening to music during a training session has been proven to improve performance; it can also be a great boost of motivation when you’re aiming to venture into uncharted waters. Some people like screamo heavy metal to get their blood pumping, and others prefer electronic music, jazz, or film soundtracks to help calm their mind and set the scene for an epic triumph. Whatever works for you, do it!
3 Embrace The Routine
Everyone has their own way of getting ready for a max. Some people do a specific number of warm-up sets, and some people listen to a particular playlist or eat a particular meal. Find a routine that works for you and stick with it. For people who haven’t yet had the chance to take a 1RM, this is what I suggest the first time around:
An extensive warm-up process is essential to get an accurate 1RM and prevent injury. I start with some basic mobility work, taking my joints through a full range of motion, and then I move to my warm-up sets.
Get heavy slowly
Opinions vary about which rep scheme to use as you work up to a heavy weight. Your program or coach might have a specific way of doing this; if so, follow it. Here’s the routine that I like to follow when testing my max or going for a PR.
- Bar x 10
- 50% x 5
- 60% x 3
- 70% x 2
- 80% x 1
- 90% x 1
- 95% x 1
- 1RM attempt
High reps don’t have a place on max day. I want to know that I can push or pull heavy weight, which is why I perform several sets of a single rep as I get closer to my max. Each of these reps boosts my confidence and prepares me mentally and physically for the pinnacle lift.
No matter how you choose to arrange your warm-up sets, they should fully prepare your muscles, joints, and central nervous system for the lift ahead. I always leave at least 2-3 minutes of rest between my warm-sets, and then I give myself an extra minute or two as I get closer to my max attempt.
“High reps don’t have a place on max day. I want to know that I can push or pull heavy weight.”
4 Find a spotter
I like to train alone. If you see me in the gym, my headphones are usually in, my hat is down low, and I have a leave-me-alone-until-I’m-done look on my face. On max day, it’s a different story. It’s crucial that you have someone spotting your bench max, unless getting pinned under a barbell sounds like your idea of a good time.
Utilizing a spotter on squat max testing isn’t always necessary, particularly if you squat in a rack with safety bars. If I’m testing my squat, I generally use the safety bars for warm-up sets and then grab the most experienced lifter I can find to spot me for my max attempt. Pulling a random spotter off the gym floor isn’t something that I mind doing, but if this is something you’re uncomfortable doing, bring a friend you trust to put your nerves at ease. And maybe have them read up on the rules of spotting first.
There’s no way to spot a deadlift physically, since you either pull the bar off the ground or you don’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invite a mental or emotional spotter along for the ride. If you feel like having someone yell “light weight!” in a Ronnie Coleman voice would help you move a heavy weight, then by all means make sure they’re there!
5 Make Your PR A Lift Like Any Other
The time has come. You’ve been training for this moment for months. You’ve done your warm-up sets, you’re focused and ready, and now it’s go time. All of your prior training has led you to this moment. Scary, right?
“I’m nervous, I’m pumped, I’m motivated, and I want to do something I’ve never done before.”
I’m always a mixed bag of emotions right before my lift, but I think that’s what carries me through and gives me the best possible lift. I’m nervous, I’m pumped, I’m motivated, and I want to do something I’ve never done before. Somewhere in that mess of emotions, I usually just say “Enough! I’m ready to do this,” and then I go for it.
Aside from this inevitable dialog, though, the mechanics of a max attempt should be the same as all the other lifts you practiced up until this point. This isn’t the time to do a quarter-rep or forget to engage your lats when you deadlift. As you visualize your lift, you should be taking note of form and remembering all your normal cues. A max lift where you injure yourself in the process doesn’t count in my book.
After your initial attempt is complete, step back and assess. How do you feel? How did the lift go? Are you ready for more, or did it take everything out of you? I like to keep going until I either miss a lift or know there’s no logical way I can get that weight back up. But many people will stop after one, and that’s fine.
If you feel like you’re ready to conquer another max attempt, I suggest giving yourself 7-10 minutes of rest before you step up to the bar again. Add no more than 5-10 pounds to the bar; don’t get greedy. Even if you leave that second or third max attempt unrealized, you should feel damn good about what you accomplish!
6 Don’t Overthink It
I’m often guilty of beating myself up after the fact. Did I eat too much? Too little? Could I have done another rep? Should I have done more weight? We all do it. When you’re completely invested in something—like so many of us in the world of health and fitness are—you want to be perfect.
But when you’re waging war against big numbers and percentages, there’s nothing to be gained by harboring regrets. Nagging doubts and questions can take over your brain and prevent you from improving, but just as importantly, they can keep you from enjoying an important victory.
The best possible advice I can give you is to let go. At no time is that more crucial than during and after your 1RM attempt. If you walk up to the bar wondering if you’re going to miss, or questioning your preparation, or revisiting the failed lifts of the past, you’ve already lost. You just have to go for it.
You’re ready. It’s time to believe in yourself. Pick up that weight and show the bar who’s boss.
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