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Mastering the Art of Training Hard Enough

Mary Kay

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 generally speaking, 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 strength days, consider working up to a challenging weight and then stay there for 5-6 sets…something like this:

Warm-Up Sets 1-2:  75-85% of 1RM for 4-5 reps
Working Sets 3-4:  85-90% of 1RM for 2-3 reps
Working Sets 5-8:  90%+ of 1RM for 1-2 reps
Rest:  2-3 minutes between sets.

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, when doing hypertrophy work, coaches often use extended rep schemes (aka rep pauses, drop sets, cluster sets, etc.) with the goal of hitting muscle failure…something like this.

Extended Set Methods:
Drop Sets - Complete set, drop weight and complete another set with lighter weights.  Repeat 3-4x with no rest between sets.
Burn Out Sets - Complete set with a lighter weight and higher number of reps...30, 60, etc. without rest
Cluster Sets - Complete set, rest for 10 seconds then do AMRAP
Sets With Partials   - Do set and on last rep, pump out a set of 10-20 partials until hit muscle failure
Rest:  30-60 seconds between sets

For me personally, I prefer pause reps with partials.  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 enough of the pump or burn, find ways to keep the muscle under tension longer (e.g., think 30-40 seconds).  This where using extended set methods are helpful.

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.

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