by Brad Schoenfeld T-Nation
You lift weights to get bigger and stronger. And during the initial stages of training, this goal isn’t all that hard to accomplish. Your ceiling for improvement is of Mount Kilimanjaro proportions and virtually any routine you perform will produce favorable results.
But nothing lasts forever, and over time gains that were once so impressive start to disappoint and underwhelm like a George Lucas film retrospective. Despite this, many lifters continue to train the same way for years on end without making substantial progress.
This is a mistake. Don’t settle for mediocrity.
Continued gains in muscle and strength require that you adopt a scientific approach to training. The following five strategies are scientifically based, tried and true ways to reenergize your routine. Incorporate them into your workout and get on the fast track to a better body.
1. Drop it
It’s common knowledge that mechanical tension (i.e. the force exerted on a muscle) provides the primary stimulus for muscle growth. It’s the reason lifting weights increases muscle size while aerobic exercise doesn’t; there simply isn’t enough tension on the muscles during cardio to stimulate a hypertrophic adaptation.
That said, there’s compelling evidence that factors other than tension are also involved in the growth process. Metabolic stress is one such factor.
Simply stated, metabolic stress involves the buildup of metabolites (such as lactate, hydrogen ions, and phosphate ions) and a reduction in pH levels pursuant to intensive anaerobic exercise.
Although the exact mechanisms aren’t clear, increased fiber recruitment, acute elevations in anabolic hormones, alterations in myokines, and cell swelling are all hypothesized to play a role in this process (1).
Theoretically, routines that generate high levels of mechanical tension in combination with significant metabolic stress are optimal for maximizing growth.
Metabolic stress is heightened during training that relies on fast glycolysis (i.e. the anaerobic breakdown of carbohydrate) as the primary source of energy. The fast glycolytic energy system is predominant in activities that last approximately 30-120 seconds.
Regarding resistance training, this equates to sets performed with moderate to higher repetitions. Furthermore, there’s a prolonged compression of blood vessels during such training, which further reduces oxygen delivery to working muscles and thereby heightens metabolic stress.
So how can you take advantage of this info? One proven strategy is to incorporate drop sets into your training. Drop sets are carried out by performing a set of fatiguing repetitions with a relatively heavy weight (generally in the 3-10 rep range) and then immediately lightening the load and performing several more additional reps. This technique has been shown to substantially increase metabolic stress, potentially heightening anabolic drive (2).
What to do: Take a set to momentary muscular failure, immediately lighten the load by approximately 20 to 25%, and perform as many additional reps as possible with this reduced weight. For an even greater metabolic effect, perform double drop sets by reducing the load another 20 to 25% and then repping out to fatigue, or to when you blow a neck vein – your choice.
A word of caution: While drop sets are a highly effective technique, they can also be extremely taxing to your neuromuscular system. Hence, employ them sparingly in the context of a periodized routine. Don’t make every damn exercise a drop-set extravaganza. Try to limit their use to a select few sets in a given microcycle, making sure to stay in tune with your body for any signs of overtraining.
2. Go Negative
It’s all-too-common to see lifters focusing their efforts on the concentric portion of a lift while ignoring the negative (eccentric) component. Realize though, that resistance training is not just about lifting weights; lowering them can be equally, if not more, important.
In fact, research shows that negatives have a greater affect on muscle hypertrophy than concentric training, and there’s evidencethat maximal growth isn’t attained unless eccentric muscle actions are performed (3, 4).
This may be related to eccentrics being primarily responsible for muscle damage. Although muscle damage can be detrimental to short-term performance, the associated inflammation and increased protein turnover have been shown to cause long-term hypertrophic adaptations (5, 6).
The thinking goes that structural changes associated with muscle damage influence gene expression, resulting in a strengthening of the muscle that protects it against further injury (7).
Eccentric training also heightens metabolic stress, with the greatest increases noted when training at higher eccentric intensities. These factors help to explain why negatives promote greater post-exercise anabolic signaling than concentric training, leading to heightened protein synthesis (8).
What to do: Include some heavy negatives in your routine, preferably at the end of your last set of a given exercise.
Here’s how to do it: Load up the bar with an amount equal to approximately 105 to 125% of your concentric maximum and perform as many negative repetitions as you can. Given that a muscle isn’t fully fatigued during concentric training, this supramaximal stimulus helps to elicit greater motor unit fatigue, thus providing a greater hypertrophic stimulus.
Aim for a 2-3 second tempo, making sure to lower the weight under control. A couple of heavy negative sets added to your usual routine are all that’s required to spur growth.
You’ll need a spotter to help lift the weight once you lower it since it’s a supramaximal lift. As with drop sets, however, this strategy is highly taxing to the neuromuscular system so use the technique sparingly to prevent overtraining.
3. Stretch It Out
Research shows that static stretching can decrease strength and power when performed immediately before training. There are a couple of theories that explain this phenomenon.
For one, static stretching increases compliance of the musculotendinous unit, leading to a reduction in force transmission (9).
To provide an analogy, think of attempting to shoot a rubber band across the office to hit Murray, the stuffy guy from accounting who sports a different Rick Santorum sweater vest for every day of the week. If you stretch out the band, it won’t travel as far as it would if it’s taut, resulting in your shot falling short and landing instead in Trixie-from-accounting’s formidable bosom.
Same thing happens in the muscle – reduce its stiffness and force production declines.
Another theorized mechanism involves decreased neural drive and a subsequent reduction in the number of motor units available for contraction (10, 11). In all likelihood, both of these factors play a role in impairing performance.
But what if we turn things around and focus on stretching the opposing muscle (i.e. antagonist) rather than the agonist? By increasing antagonist compliance and reducing neural drive its force production would be inhibited, thereby decreasing interference during agonist contraction. Hypothetically, this allows the agonist to produce greater force, thereby enhancing performance.
Recent research shows this actually works in practice. Specifically, measures of vertical jump height and power were found to be significantly greater when testing was preceded by antagonist stretching, compared to a no-stretching trial in a well-designed study of trained lifters (12).
Now before you get too excited about these results, it’s important to note that the overall magnitude of the effect was relatively small (2%). But hey, if you could add another 5 pounds or so to your lifts by simply performing a brief bout of pre-set stretching, I’d say that’s a pretty good cost/benefit, no?
What to do: Before performing a lift, statically stretch the antagonist muscle for approximately 15 seconds. Perform 3-4 sets of the targeted stretch, taking about 10 seconds between stretching bouts, and then continue immediately to your work set.
Try to minimize time between the final set of stretching and the initiation of your lift. This will ensure that the antagonist remains maximally inhibited throughout the lift, thereby optimizing gains.
4. Take a Load Off
Check out any gym and you’ll invariably see lifters taking a balls-to-the-wall approach to lifting. They’ll go to failure on virtually every set, usually with a few forced reps punctuated by shouts of, “Its all you!” by enthusiastic training partners for good measure.
Volume and intensity remains perpetually high – any less is considered major weak-sauce. Problem is, this type of thinking is a major mistake!
Don’t get me wrong, training hard and heavy is essential to grow bigger and stronger – it’s the basis of the overload principle, which states that you need to challenge your muscles beyond their present capacity for them to adapt.
But if you think repeatedly going all-out all the time with consistently high volume loads is the key to getting jacked, think again. Studies show that such an approach can impair resting IGF-1 and Testosterone production while chronically elevating cortisol levels, rapidly leading to overtraining and psychological burnout (13, 14).
The upshot is that results slow to a crawl or, worse, regress to the point that you actually lose precious muscle and strength. Crank the RPMs in your car up into the red zone for too long and you’ll eventually blow the motor, right? Well, your body is no different. It needs time to regenerate its resources. In this way, you come back strong and refreshed, and progress continues on an upward trend.
What to do: Structure your routine so that it includes regular “unloading” periods of reduced intensity and volume interspersed throughout a given training period.
Try to keep things regimented. A strategy that works well is to gradually increase intensity and/or volume over the course of a training block (generally a month or so) and then follow with an unloading week.
This is referred to as step-loading, where your effort rises and ebbs to produce a wave-like training pattern. Similarly, periodize training to failure so that it’s done occasionally rather than on every set.
Key point: Keep in mind that recuperative abilities are highly individualized. Genetics, nutritional supplementation, the use of anabolics, and other factors all play a role in the process. So make sure you’re in tune with your body and adjust the frequency of unloading cycles based on individual response.
5. Split Your Focus
A central principle of motor learning concerns focus of attention. This simply refers to where a lifter should focus during exercise performance.
There are two basic classifications of attentional focus, internal and external. An internal focus involves focusing your attention on a specific body movement while an external focus involves concentrating on the effects of your actions on the environment.
From a motor learning perspective, there’s a good deal of research showing that an external focus tends to promote superior results during acquisition of a new skill compared to an internal focus (15, 16).
This is consistent with the constrained action hypothesis, which states that an internal focus causes interference with the automatic control processes that regulate the performance whereas an external focus of attention allows the neuromuscular system to naturally self-organize movement.
The thinking goes that your neuromuscular system will inherently find the best motor pattern to carry out a task provided that you focus on the desired outcome. The upshot is improved force production and skill accuracy.
This doesn’t mean you should never use an internal focus. Studies have demonstrated that the use of a mind-muscle connection where you consciously channel your focus on the target muscle increases EMG activity of that muscle (17, 18). This indicates that you can improve motor unit recruitment, and thus enhance muscle development, by employing an internal focus of attention.
Bottom line is that both an external and internal focus can have a place in your routine, and their use should be based on your training goal.
What to do: Adopt an external focus when your goal is maximal strength or power. Envision the endpoint of the lift and concentrate on driving the weight up as explosively as possible to reach that endpoint. Provided you understand proper exercise form, your neuromuscular system will do the rest.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to improve muscular development, focus directly on the target muscle and feel it work throughout the duration of the movement. In this way, you’ll maximize recruitment of the target musculature while minimizing ancillary muscle involvement.
While some lucky SOB’s can pack on muscle with relative ease, most mere mortals have to get a little crafty to keep piling on the plates and the pounds.
Give these 5 tips serious consideration and kiss your muscle building plateau goodbye.
1. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72.
2. Goto K, Sato K, Takamatsu K. A single set of low intensity resistance exercise immediately following high intensity resistance exercise stimulates growth hormone secretion in men. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2003 Jun;43(2):243-9.
3. Hather BM, Tesch PA, Buchanan P, Dudley GA. Influence of eccentric actions on skeletal muscle adaptations to resistance training. Acta Physiol Scand. 1991 10;143(2):177-85.
4. Roig M, O’Brien K, Kirk G, Murray R, McKinnon P, Shadgan B, et al. The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2009 08;43(8):556-68.
5. Evans WJ, Cannon JG. The metabolic effects of exercise-induced muscle damage. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1991;19:99-9125.
6. Wernig A, Irintchev A, Weisshaupt P. Muscle injury, cross-sectional area and fibre type distribution in mouse soleus after intermittent wheel-running. J Physiol. 1990 Sep;428:639-52.
7. Barash IA, Mathew L, Ryan AF, Chen J, Lieber RL. Rapid muscle-specific gene expression changes after a single bout of eccentric contractions in the mouse. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2004 Feb;286(2):C355-64.
8. Moore DR, Phillips SM, Babraj JA, Smith K, Rennie MJ. Myofibrillar and collagen protein synthesis in human skeletal muscle in young men after maximal shortening and lengthening contractions. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2005 06;288(6):1153-9.
9. Nelson AG, Allen JD, Cornwell A, Kokkonen J. Inhibition of maximal voluntary isometric torque production by acute stretching is joint-angle specific. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2001 Mar;72(1):68-70.
10. Behm DG, Button DC, Butt JC. Factors affecting force loss with prolonged stretching. Can J Appl Physiol. 2001 Jun;26(3):261-72.
11. Kokkonen J, Nelson AG, Cornwell A. Acute muscle stretching inhibits maximal strength performance. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1998 Dec;69(4):411-5.
12. Sandberg JB, Wagner DR, Willardson JM, Smith GA. Acute effects of antagonist stretching on jump height, torque, and electromyography of agonist musculature. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May;26(5):1249-56.
13. Fry AC, Kraemer WJ. Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. neuroendocrine responses. Sports Med. 1997 Feb;23(2):106-29.
14. Izquierdo M, Ibanez J, Gonzalez-Badillo JJ, Hakkinen K, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, et al. Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains. J Appl Physiol. 2006 May;100(5):1647-56.
15. Wulf G, Hoss M, Prinz W. Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention. J Mot Behav. 1998 Jun 1;30(2):169-79.
16. Wulf G, Lauterbach B, Toole T. The learning advantages of an external focus of attention in golf. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1999 Jun;70(2):120-6.
17. Snyder BJ, Leech JR. Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Nov;23(8):2204-9.
18. Lewis CL, Sahrmann SA. Muscle activation and movement patterns during prone hip extension exercise in women. J Athl Train. 2009 May-Jun;44(3):238-48.