Get Out Of Your Weight Training Rut! By Charles Staley
Despite what many people think, the road to the top isn't usually linear. It's not simply a matter of adding more weight every workout until one day, you wake up looking like a comic book super hero.
Instead, the path which leads to the fulfillment of your ultimate potential looks much more like a maze. People who don't understand this fact never reach their true potential— in bodybuilding, or in life.
Here's an example of what I mean: About once a year I visit a gym on the east coast where I used to train. Each time I go back, I always encounter a handful of people, who, despite their consistency and longevity, make a mistake common to most people who are not making progress: they NEVER change anything about their training. Each year, they get smaller, fatter, and weaker.
In other words, these people are like lab rats in a maze, who, upon reaching a dead end, continue to bump into the wall over and over in a fruitless attempt to reach their goal. Smart lab rats (and athletes) realize that, when faced with a barrier on the path they're on, the answer is to turn back, even if it means going in the opposite direction for a while, and find a new route to the target.
So if the path you're on isn't yielding the results you're looking for, consider the following ten suggestions— all of which have helped scores of my clients reach new levels of progress, even in cases when all hope had been abandoned.
1) For the next six weeks, use only exercises which you have not used for at least one year.
You do keep a training log, right? OK. Compile an inventory of all the exercises you've used for the past year. If you're like most lifters, this number will be less than 30. Next, pick up a copy of Bill Pearl's Keys to the Inner Universe (available by calling 503-535-3363). Bill knows more exercises for the tibialis anterior than most people know for the entire body.
Finally, construct a six week training program using only movements you haven't done in at least a year. Better yet, use only exercises you've never done. Prepare for some soreness for the first few weeks. When you're no longer getting sore, change the exercises again.
I'm not sure why people so commonly rely on such a small variety of movements, given the immense number of available options. I suppose there's a certain comfort in things familiar. However, to the same degree that muscles yawn at familiar movements, they rise to full alert status at unfamiliar ones.
2) Use a clock & metronome.
I hope that by now, you understand the importance of monitoring tempo and rest periods. Here's a fun way to do it: Go to a music store and buy an electronic metronome— the kind that emits an audible "click" every second so you don't have to watch it.
Now, select two antagonistic exercises. Let's assume you'll perform bench presses and hammer curls, for sets of 5 with a 6 second tempo. Let's also assume you'll start your work sets at exactly 4pm.
Time your warm-up to end at about 3:55. Turn on the metronome, and at 4pm, do your first set of five reps on the bench press— if you follow the tempo described above, the set will last exactly 30 seconds. Next, perform the set of hammer curls. Do them any time you want, but at exactly 4:05, you'll do your next set of bench presses.
Training this way, you'll be able to perform 10 sets of each exercise in just over 45 minutes— the bench presses will occur every 5 minutes, with the hammer curls done in between these sets. The value of this approach is that it puts a fire under you. How many times have you started a workout, and after a few sets, you start thinking of ways to justify bailing out on the workout?
By using the clock, you'll look up, and see the second hand on it's way to 12, and you have to decide what you're going to do. Chances are, you'll jump on the bench for the next set. Other effective exercise parings include pull-ups and lying tricep extensions, front squats and stiff-leg deadlifts, bent rows and dips, and ball crunches and standing calf raises.
3) Put your ego aside and hire an expert coach or trainer.
Successful people have a tendency to seek out those who know more than they do, in an effort to learn more. But this requires the ability to put your ego aside for the better good. If you're really interested in improving your abilities, forget what you know— it's already been applied. Find out what you don't know. Let's say you know more than 90% of all fitness trainers and strength coaches. This means that there are still a lot of people who can show you a few tricks. Ask around and find out who's got the best reputation for producing results with their clients. Then pay that person for 12 weeks, even if they don't require you to. Commit yourself. If you learn one thing, it will be worth far more than you paid for it.
If you're not sure of how to find a great strength coach or fitness trainer in your area, call the International Sports Sciences Association at (800) 892-ISSA. They'll be glad to help you find an expert in your town or city.
4) Check your training log for past successes (and repeat!)
Think back to a point in your life when you were in your best shape. Then examine your training log for the 12-16 weeks of training that preceded it, and do this training again. Can you use the same poundages or better for the same sets and reps?
Without a training log, your workout has no objective— OK, you plan to work hard, but how do you know if you're improving upon your last performance? Busy schedules and daily commitments tend to make you forget last weeks workout, so write it down. If you performed 225 pounds for 5 sets of 3 reps using a 5-0-1 tempo and 2 minutes rests between sets, you can improve upon this in several ways:
Increasing time under tension. Each workout, increase the tempo by one second per rep, until you reach 10 seconds per rep.
Increase the weight lifted. Keeping all other variables constant, add between 2.5 and 5 pounds to the bar each session, for up to six sessions. After this, use a different exercise for the following 6 sessions.
Increase the number of reps per set. This method is useful with exercises where you initially have a low level of strength, such as pull-ups or dips. Using the same load each workout, add one rep per set each workout. Once you reach 12 reps per set, you should then employ more weight and/or slower tempos.
Increase the number of sets per workout, up to a maximum of (in this case) 12 sets. For a more thorough treatment of the relationship between sets and reps, I highly recommend Charles Poliquin's book "The Poliquin Principles."
Increase the range of motion. Using the same load each workout, start with a reduced ROM, say the top 3" of a bench press, working off the pins in a power rack. Each workout, drop the pins one inch, until you reach full ROM.
Reduce the rest intervals between sets. This has particularly good results when attempting to improve relative strength. Using the same load, number of reps, and tempo each workout, simply reduce the rest intervals by 10 seconds each workout. Once you get down to 30 seconds rests between sets, increase the weight load and the rest intervals, and start again.
Use "stutter" or interrupted sets. Rather than performing a continuous set, you can select a heavier weight, and rest briefly (5-10 seconds) between each rep.
Sometimes, two or more methods of progression are used simultaneously. For example, from workout to workout, you may choose to add both weight and reduce rest between sets. This is usually employed in situations where a trained athlete is coming back after an extended layoff, and is able to make rapid improvements from workout to workout due to his extensive training experience.
My point is that there is always a way to continue improvement— don't limit yourself to the obvious (and limited) method of simply adding weight to the bar.
5) Do the opposite.
On my favorite episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza makes a remarkable discovery: he finds that in any given situation, doing the exact opposite of what he usually does leads to unprecedented success. In one instance, he meets a gorgeous young woman, and after he tells her that he's unemployed, lives with his parents, and got fired from his last job for sleeping with the office cleaning girl, the young woman becomes infatuated with him.
While this approach is unlikely to yield much success in your dating life, it does work with training. The vast majority of us tend to cling to an extremely narrow pattern of training habits for long periods of time. So, logically, if whatever you're doing is taking you nowhere, what's the risk in doing adopting a VERY different approach?
There are endless applications of this concept. Here are a few to get you started:
If you're a free weight advocate, use machines. Really. Not forever. Maybe for 4-6 weeks. Just don't tell Paul Chek or Jerry Telle about it.
If you're from an Olympic-lifting background, give more standard bodybuilding methods (i.e., higher reps, slow tempos, short rests) a try for a while.
If you're always used multiple sets, give one-set-to failure an honest run for a month or so. You'll be surprised how much hard work you can do in such a short period of time, leaving time an energy for the rest of your life.
Almost all exercises start with the eccentric phase. So for 3 weeks, do all your exercises with the concentric phase first. For example, with squats, set the bar on low pins in a rack, duck under the bar, and lift the weight. Return to the pins, pause long enough to eliminate any eccentric muscle tension, and repeat. You'll be shocked at how weak you'll be compared to the "normal" way of lifting.
6) Accept the fact that nutrition and supplementation DO make a difference
The relative value of training versus nutrition has been debated ever since the day Milo of Crotona lifted his first calf. Some say nutrition is 90% of the battle. Others say training is 90% (there's a math joke in here somewhere, but it's not coming to me). The truth is, if you don't support your training efforts with optimal nutritional practices, you'll never. EVER, come close to your potential. The most common errors include excessive processed carbs, insufficient protein and fat, and inadequate hydration.
Once you see the light with regards to eating right, the next step is planning and preparation. When 3pm rolls around and it's time for your next meal, do you have something planned, or will you simply "wing it."? Planned meals tend to be healthier than improvised ones. Perhaps the greatest value in protein shakes, nutritional bars, and similar products, is that they make it easier to eat well when time is tight and you're not up to cooking a meal.
"Individuals tend to mis-interpret the definition of a snack." says Phil LeClair, staff nutritionist of Bio-Foods, Inc., based in Carpenteria, California. "A snack should be a smaller, planned nutrient-dense meal— not a bag of potato chips and a soda you grab when you're so hungry you're about to feint. In addition to convenience, select 'meal' replacement powders and bars are excellent snacks because they produce a favorable glycemic response.
Unlike their high-carbohydrate, low-fat counterparts, they are formulated with moderate amounts of carbohydrate and contain more protein and fat (those companies whose powders lack fat often recommend adding some in the form of flax oil). This provides satiety and stabilizes energy levels for an extended period of time— characteristics consistent to those found in a well-balanced whole food meal."
While many "ergogenic" supplements are highly questionable for most people, a few— particularly creatine (preferably in a high-glycemic carrier solution), protein, and antioxidants— are standard fare among serious bodybuilders. Use them.
7) Get Involved in an athletic activity aside from bodybuilding/lifting
Most bodybuilders take the concept of specificity a bit too literally. While too much extracurricular athletic activity can be detrimental, so can too little.
Most people take advantage of less than 1% of the huge array of available movement patterns. When people pursue very limited patterns of training for long periods of time, they end up injured. According to Dr. Sal Arria, Executive Director of the ISSA, "Variation in your training program is a valuable tool to avoid overuse syndrome in sports. ALL activities can cause overuse injuries if repeated often nough, including weight training. Knowing how to strike the ideal balance between specificity and variety allows you to make continued progress over extended periods of time."
Although many bodybuilders avoid outside athletic activities in an effort to conserve energy, a moderate amount of swimming, cycling, skating, martial arts— pick what you like— actually helps to facilitate recovery by loosening up micro-adhesions and increasing blood supply to muscle and connective tissues. And if you're looking to get leaner, spending a few hours a week in one of these activities can make a very significant difference by burning calories and elevating your metabolism.
8) Take some time off
News flash: If you stop lifting for a month, you won't begin to resemble a bulimic triathlete. In fact, a very common phenomenon happens to almost every competitive bodybuilder at one point or another: they look flat and strung out the day of the show, and then, as they rest and begin to eat normally again, they look fantastic the week or two after the show. This is in part due to a phenomenon called Type IIB fiber conversion.
When trained, Type IIb fibers seem to "convert" or take on the characteristics of the slower Type II and Type I fibers. Some theorists suggest that the Type IIb's are "emergency" fibers that only contract under conditions of unusual stress, and that once this happens, they undergo conversion, for unknown reasons. Given several days of rest, however, these fibers re-emerge, making you look (and feel) better than ever.
Just as importantly, occasional planned layoffs help you to psychologically as well. Everyone would agree that if you never need to end a set, the weight isn't heavy enough. I'd take this a step further and say that if you never need a layoff, you aren't training hard enough. From my experiences, most people should take between 4 and 8 weeks off per year, ideally in one week intervals.
9) Use training programs from muscle magazines.
A few years back, I noticed an unusually large number of people performing deadlifts in the gym I trained in at that time. It turned out that Ironman magazine had run a feature article on deadlifting that month.
The next month, I noticed several people doing one-arm seated rows. Sure enough, another magazine had a feature on back training secrets of the current Mr. Whatever. I used to think is was comically naive to follow these programs every month, but now I don't.
Even if it's a goofy program that violates every known principle of training, you'll only be doing it for a month, and if it's different than what you've been doing for the past 15 years' I'll bet you'll make progress on it. A word of caution, however: my sources tell me that Poliquin is planning a piece on plyometric kegel training for next month on T-Nation, so you may want to wait a while before you employ this suggestion.
10) Learn and practice optimal exercise technique
I frequently get calls from people who want to hire me to write training programs for them. These people make the mistake of thinking that as long as they are on a great program, they'll make great progress. However, if your hams are sore after a bench press session, you're not going to derive any benefit from any program. I once saw two individuals, one spotting the other on barbell curls. Their form was so bizarre, I couldn't tell who was supposed to be the lifter and who was supposed to be the spotter.
Of course, leading experts often disagree on what constitutes good form. The point is, investigate, learn, take seminars, buy videos, experiment, find a mentor. Keep an open mind. If you're a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter, the objective is to find the easiest way to lift a weight. But if you want bigger muscles, the objective is to find the hardest way to lift a weight.
In general, any posture or practice which makes the exercise harder to perform tends to be a sign of good form. For example, when performing hammer curls, many trainees allow their thumbs to contact the inner aspect of the dumbbell. This allows you to relax your grip, as opposed to keeping your hand directly at the center of the handle.
The aforementioned suggestions have a common theme— change. Variation permits progression. For example, if you perform a barbell bench press every six days, after a certain number of workouts, you'll be unable to increase your training load for that exercise, and muscular growth will stall.
But if you then switch to say, dumbbell incline presses, you'll be able to increase your training load for another series of workouts, and hypertrophy will continue once again. Because there are an almost infinite number of ways you can manipulate your training schedule (notice I'm not using the word "routine"), there is no logical reason to ever hit a plateau.
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