by Clay Hyght, DC T-Nation
You may not realize it, but before the start of every set, you have a crucial decision to make.
It’s not the amount of weight to put on the bar or the number of reps to accomplish. It’s something more abstract, yet just as important.
You need to decide whether your goal for that set – and every rep within it – is to move the weight or to feel the muscle.
In other words, is your primary goal an objective performance measure like getting the maximum number of reps with that particular weight, or is it your goal to really feel the target muscle working?
These are very different goals indeed, and likewise, a set done with either of these goals in mind will also look much different – one will be heavier and more explosive, while the other will be lighter and more controlled.
So which way is better? As polar opposite as these two approaches seem, neither one is inherently better than the other; they’re just different. So let’s take a closer look at feeling the muscle versus moving the weight, and see which one is best used when.
Movements Versus Muscles
A wise rule is that athletes involved in movement-based sports (i.e., MMA, football) should focus on training movements, while physique athletes should focus on training muscles. Although the rationale for this training strategy may be obvious to some, allow me to explain.
Athletes who participate in movement-based sports (let’s just call them athletes) need to be able to move better to improve their performance.
For example, an MMA guy need not worry about the size and fullness of his pecs. Instead, he needs to be concerned with the ability of his pecs to generate maximum force rapidly and repeatedly, as that will enable him to land more damaging strikes to his opponent.
Similarly, a BMX racer isn’t concerned about whether his legs look good in his underwear. No, all he cares about is that those legs can apply maximum power to get him out of the gate and around the track as quickly as possible.
On the other end of the spectrum, physique athletes whose performance depends upon the appearance of their physique (let’s call them bodybuilders) aren’t concerned about their power output or endurance capacity. Instead, they’re simply concerned with how the muscles end up looking as a result of the training in which they engage.
For example, a bodybuilder doesn’t care what his vertical jump is or even how much he can squat – he’s simply concerned about having full, evenly developed quads that have good separation between the three visible quad heads.
And a figure competitor isn’t concerned about her ability to perform the maximum number of pull-ups in the shortest amount of time. Instead, she wants maximum lat development, thus making her waist and hips appear narrower.
Even though it’s pretty unanimous that athletes and bodybuilders ultimately have different training goals, this fact tends to be lost by the time we hit the gym floor. So let’s look at a few practical ways that athletes and bodybuilders can finely tune their training to maximize the desired outcome.
Movement-Based Training Applied
There are quite a few subtle yet significant ways in which an athlete should tailor his or her training to maximize the performance adaptation.
(For the record, we’re looking at tangible and practical ways to apply the age-old S.A.I.D. training principle – the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.)
Rep Speed: A great, no-nonsense rule is that if you want to be able to move fast, you need to train fast. Simply put, you get better at what you do.
To maximize strength, speed, and power (which is essentially just a combination of speed and strength), one needs to be able to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers and get the nerves that innervate those fibers to fire as strong a nerve impulse as possible.
In other words, an athlete is interested in improving his ability to maximize motor unit recruitment and neural coding, respectively.
As alluded to, one way to accomplish this is by using a fast repetition speed. Although safety should always come first, performing a repetition explosively will maximize both motor unit recruitment and neural coding.
So let’s say an athlete is doing a set of barbell squats. It would make sense to perform the concentric portion (coming from the bottom of the squat back up to the starting position) as quickly as possible.
By doing so consistently throughout training, the athlete will develop a better ability to apply maximum force at any given moment.
Although caution should certainly be used when doing anything other than relatively slow and controlled eccentric movements, going down (the eccentric portion of the squat) quickly will also serve to maximize motor unit recruitment.
This occurs especially as one reaches the point in the rep where the momentum from the rapid eccentric descent must be quickly decelerated, stopped, and then changed in direction rapidly by quickly generating a concentric contraction.
So by training faster, one develops the ability to move faster. Thus, quick, even explosive training can be of major benefit to an athlete.
Weight Selection: An athlete can challenge, and subsequently improve, his ability to perform certain movements or movement patterns by regularly performing them under a heavy resistance.
For example, let’s say an NFL player is performing the barbell bench press to develop better explosive pushing power to help him literally push his opponent around.
It would behoove him to use a relatively heavy weight (high percentage of his 1RM) when doing the bench press as to maximize the improvements in motor unit recruitment and neural coding.
So when an athlete is in the middle of a set of barbell bench presses, he should be focused on the two aforementioned factors – moving that heavy resistance as quickly as (safely) possible – not whether he can feel his pretty pecs working.
And that leads us to the final difference between training for movements versus muscles – mental focus.
Mental Focus: Although certainly more intangible, where one places his mental focus during a set is, I feel, the single-most defining factor in what results that set will produce.
For example, watch a CrossFit person do a set of pull-ups and watch a bodybuilder do a set of pull-ups – they look totally different, almost like they’re not even the same exercise. The reason for this is the mental focus of the trainee.
Someone doing CrossFit is simply concerned about doing the required number of pull-ups in the shortest time possible. And to do that, the reps are done in a way that maximizes performance and gets the reps done efficiently, regardless of which muscle or muscles are doing the work or where the individual “feels” the exercise working.
On the other hand, a bodybuilder doing pull-ups will be focused on precisely the muscle(s) doing the brunt of the work. More on that in a moment.
Point being, when you begin a set of any given exercise, where you place your focus will determine what type of set you perform, and that will subsequently dictate what type of training adaptations occur.
Muscle-Based Training Applied
Let’s take a look at how the same three factors would be different for someone concerned more about the cosmetic appearance of his physique.
Rep Speed: Although it’s not a bad idea to at least occasionally train with a higher rep speed to maximize motor unit recruitment, training for hypertrophy is as much or more about making sure the target muscle is stressed, as in placed under tension, for a long enough period of time.
Put another way, hypertrophy is as much about Time Under Tension (TUT) as it is maximizing the number of muscle fibers stimulated.
So, whereas one of the primary goals of training for strength and performance is producing maximum force with that particular movement, one of the primary goals with hypertrophy-oriented training is metabolic stress to the working muscle(s).
To accomplish this, a bodybuilder must first make sure that the rep speed used is one that enables him to keep the tension squarely on the target muscle.
Typically, that will end up being a significantly slower rep speed than as would be seen when training for athletic performance. In particular, the eccentric component of the rep should generally be done more slowly and under control.
The concentric can, and should, be done a bit more explosively to recruit the maximum number of motor units.
The main thing to remember regarding rep speed for bodybuilding training is this: train just slowly enough that you can make sure the target muscle is doing the brunt of the work. Rep speed is secondary to stimulating the right muscle.
Weight Selection: Choosing the right resistance for bodybuilding training follows a similar protocol to rep speed – first, make sure you’re targeting the right muscle, and then feel free to use relatively heavy weight within the confines of this proper execution.
That’s one thing that’s so unique about bodybuilding training: training like an athlete with heavy resistance and/or high rep speed can certainly be beneficial, especially because of the aforementioned neurological changes that occur. But it can’t be done at the expense of stimulating the wrong muscle.
For example, let’s say you’re a bodybuilder doing the barbell bench press in order to bring up your pecs. If you aim to use as much weight as possible and move that weight explosively, no doubt you’ll “perform” better on that set – but if by doing that you shift a good portion of the work from your chest to your anterior deltoids, then you’ve robbed your chest of the stimulation it needs to grow.
You can’t chase two rabbits at once, my friend.
That leads us to our final, yet most significant way in which bodybuilders should train differently than athletes.
Mental Focus: The mind is a powerful tool. And it’s imperative that when doing bodybuilding training your mind is placed squarely where it needs to be – on the target muscle.
For example, the scapular retractors (upper back musculature) are an area that many people have a hard time stimulating properly, and an even harder time “feeling” the area work.
Ironically, the way to fix that is to clear the cobwebs out of the corresponding neuromuscular pathways by making the muscle work more. However, not just any work will do.
If you simply jump into set after set of heavy overhand barbell rows to blast your upper back, you’re likely to end up with disappointing results. While this strategy is sure to improve your ability to do heavy overhand barbell rows, it will only improve your scapular retractors if – and only if – they’re the muscles doing the brunt of the work. And that takes focus.
If you’re a bodybuilder training to bring up his upper back with barbell rows, you need to put all your mental focus and attention on the scapular retractors – the rhomboids and middle/lower traps. Otherwise, your body will revert to what it’s good at, namely letting your scapular retractors “sleep” while calling upon already overworked muscles like the upper traps, lats, and maybe even the rear delts.
Doing an exercise without making sure the muscle you’re trying to bring up is the one doing the work will not only delay progress, it can also set you back by exacerbating muscle imbalances.
When you have a muscle you don’t readily feel working, it’s natural for your body to try to work around this inefficient, sleepy muscle by changing the motor program to recruit more efficient, ready-to-work muscles. But you simply must not let this happen.
The only way to make sure you get out of the exercise what you need is to use that powerful muscle between your ears. Make sure that you feel the target muscle working as much as possible from the onset of the first rep to the completion of the last.
If you find the stress shifting away from that muscle, tweak your form a tad, alter your rep speed a bit (usually by going slower), or consider employing a technique like isometric holds (especially in the contracted position) to make sure that you keep feeling the stress of the exercise right where you should.
It’s On You
Probably the best way to summarize this concept of feeling the muscle versus moving the weight is this: if your goal is to get good at moving potentially heavy things quickly, focus on doing just that; if your goal is to stimulate certain muscles so they end up looking a certain way, then make sure that’s the focus of your attention.
Make no mistake, bodybuilders can benefit from training like an athlete and vice versa. But just like you’d focus your attention on practicing Spanish if Spanish is the language you want to learn, you must decide before each set whether your primary goal is to move the weight or feel the muscle. By doing so, the appropriate results will follow.