Mastering the Art of Training Hard Enough

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Mary Kay
Mary Kay
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One of the principles I live by is knowing what “done” looks like. In fact, it’s such a foundational step in decision making, I reinforce it with everyone I work with. Why? It’s the one thing during planning that provides a space for modification…and to deal with the unexpected. It also helps focus activities so you get exactly what you want. When it comes to strength training, however, many adults have no idea what done looks like. Some think it’s working out hard until they collapse into a pool of sweat on the floor. Others think it’s completing exercises written on the board, but that’s just putting check marks against a “to do” list. We all know if it doesn’t challenge the muscle, it doesn’t change the muscle, but how do you know if you've trained hard enough to trigger growth? Some experts say you need to monitor the rate that muscle fatigue is progressing, and just when you think you're done, go for 1 more rep.  If you can't do it, you're probably done.  But if you can, you may be cutting yourself short and need a little extra work.  Sound complicated?  It's actually very easy.  Here's how. 

Mechanical Tension – Did I Lift Heavy Enough?

In layman’s terms, mechanical tension means “lifting heavy,” and for me, lifting heavy comes in two forms: maximum effort (aka 100-110% of your 1 rep max) and fairly heavy (90%ish of your max). The first is the kind of tension that powerlifters strive for. It’s extremely intense, and to be honest not something most mature adults can do on a regular basis. But there’s research that suggests that working at 90% of your max effort for more reps (so that you’re working more time under maximum tension) is equally effective at improving muscle strength. Hence, on my strength days, I’ll work up to a challenging weight and then stay there for 5-6 sets…something like this:

Warm-Up Set 1: 50-60% of 1 RM for 6 reps
Warm-Up Set 2:  60-70% of 1RM for 5 reps
Working Sets 3-4:  75-85% of 1RM for 4 reps
Working Sets 5-10:  90% of 1RM for 2-3 reps
Rest:  2-3 minutes between sets
If Losing ROM Before Fatigue Accumulates: Add strategic pauses or another targeted exercise

Now, one of the very common scenarios with the big lifts and mature adults is the smaller, adjacent muscles usually tire out way before the larger muscles. Hence, if by set 6, I don’t feel my larger muscles fatiguing at the same rate as the surrounding muscles, I’ll add 2-3 second pauses at the bottom of a squat, bench press, overhead press or at the end-range of a hip thrust to maximize time under tension. Or, I’ll add another method right after my heavy work to finish the job. For example, I’ll add Hip Belt Squats or Leg Presses (3 x 8-10) to tire out the quads, Pec Dec or Fly Machine (3 x 8-10) for the chest, Cable Row or Rear Delt Fly Machine (3 x 8-10) for the back and elevated push-ups (on a very high box) or active handstand against the wall (hold for as long as possible) for the shoulders.

Metabolic Stress – Did I Challenge Myself Enough to Feel the “Pump” or Burn?

Bodybuilders often say, “Go for the burn.” It’s the result of keeping the muscle under constant tension (no rest between reps) and reversing direction just short of lock-out or before bottoming out. This action forces blood into the muscles, while the steady contractions constrict the veins preventing them from letting blood escape. The result is a high level of metabolic stress or cellular swelling and the so-called “burn”. Hence, whenever I do hypertrophy work, I often use a variety of rep schemes with the goal of hitting momentary muscle failure…something like this.

Methods: Focused by Muscle Group
Sets:  4-6
Rep Scheme:  8-15 (or to momentary muscle failure)
Tempo:  Use mostly 5 second eccentric (lowering of the weight) and 2 second pause at peak contraction.  Remember, it's the opposite for exercises that start with the concentric portion like the pull-up or bicep curl.  With those, it's quick up, 2 second pause at top and then 5 seconds down.
Rest:  30-60 seconds between sets
If Fatigue Hasn't Progressed: Rest 20 seconds and then do another set of max reps or add another exercise with drop sets (2-4 x 12-15 reps) or burn out sets (1-2 x 40-60 reps).

Another issue with mature adults is it takes us longer to get moving…not just mechanically but all of our internal functions as well. Inflammation, fibrosis (aka thickening or scarring of tissues) and too many toxins impact the body’s ability to generate heat, transfer ATP to muscles for fuel and to respond to stimuli. These things all inhibit the amount of tension we can create and hold in the muscles…and keep muscle fatigue from progressing. Now, I don’t like to overthink or rework my workouts when I’m training. It disrupts my flow. But if fatigue hasn’t progressed for the muscle group I’m working, I’ll try one of two things. I’ll rest 20 seconds and crank out as many reps as I can with the same weight. Or I’ll repeat the last method and add in more volume with drop or burn out sets. (Note: drop sets require you to add weight, rep it out, reduce the weight and then rep it out again for the prescribed # of sets. Burn out sets are a little different. They involve a lighter weight for a high number of reps...30, 60 or 100 without rest.) The reason I like these methods is they push a semi-fatigued muscle to its limit, depleting the remaining glycogen and giving it a reason to grow. In short, if you do these methods right, you'll definitely feel the burn.

Know What “Done” Looks Like Before You Workout

There have been studies that show if you ask a person to change one habit, he/she has a 70% chance of success, but ask him/her to change 2 things at the same time, their chances drop to 50%. I’m all about finding small hinges that swing open big doors. And in my opinion, the one thing that will change the way you train is knowing when you’ve worked hard enough…when you’re “done”. Enough is the operative word.

  • If you can't feel enough of the muscle contracting, stop and find a different method.
  • If you can’t create enough maximum tension in the big muscle groups because smaller, adjacent muscles are tiring way before larger muscles, add strategic pauses to your big lifts or assistance work to build overall strength.
  • If you can't feel fatigue progressing enough to feel the pump or burn, add more volume to the muscle group you're working.

Strength programs are great. Working out hard and sweating is great, but none of that matters if you’re leaving growth on the table. Identify what “done” looks like. I’m telling you big gains are just around the corner.