There are 4 factors that I’m going to take you through that could potentially have much more benefit to you and you’re training than heavy weights.
This article is all about learning to leave your ego at the door of the gym and understand that massively stacked up barbells are not always the be all and end all when it comes to your resistance training.
First of all let’s make one thing clear – lifting heavy is still important! You need to constantly be challenging your body and placing it under stress in order for it to grow and repair stronger. You need to be using weights that start to become difficult towards the last couple of reps.
Here are a few other factors that you should consider before you rack up your weights:
Probably one of the most important factors when it comes to ANY type of exercise. Good form prevents injury and muscular imbalances. Best case scenario when you constantly have bad form is that you might pull a muscle. Worst case scenario, you could end up with your muscles misaligned if you practice poor form over a long period of time.
But good form is also essential when it comes to helping your muscles function correctly and develop and grow. Take a simple bicep curl for example. This exercise is designed to isolate the bicep and place stress on that particular muscle. But how often do you see gym ‘bros’ loading the bar up with stacks of plates and swinging it up with everything they’ve got? This not only takes the emphasis away from the bicep and puts more strain onto the back and shoulders, making it less effective for the muscle you’re trying to target, it also increases the likelihood of injury.
Some of my favorite examples of bad form:
Bicep curls – ‘swinging’ the bar up and/or ‘bouncing’ it off the thighs.
Deadlifts – rounding the back to pull the bar up. MAJOR potential for injury.
Standing shoulder press – leaning back and arching from the back.
Kettlebell swings – using the arm. Swings should be an explosive hip movement not a high pull movement.
Lat pull down – throwing your body backwards to get momentum and move the weights.
Fix It – When it comes to form the best way to make sure you are doing it correctly is to speak to someone who knows what they are doing. Personal Trainers are knowledgeable and skilled at what they do and part of their job is not just about designing programs, it’s also about making sure you execute the exercises correctly. At the very least, YouTube has hundreds of exercise video tutorials, just make sure whoever made the video is a reputable fitness professional.
Similar to form, tempo refers to the amount of time we take to lower the weights. Let’s take a bench press for example. The part of the movement where we press the bar away from our chest is called the concentric part of the contraction. When we lower the weights back down to the chest, we call this the eccentric contraction. Both parts of the movement are important but people fail to realize that the eccentric portion of the exercise can make a HUGE difference to your training, especially when it comes to muscle growth. All to often you’ll see guys in the gym pressing out on bench press then just dropping the weights back down to the start position and throwing out another few reps. Letting the bar drop like this on the eccentric (lowering) part of the exercise, not only means you’ll miss out on gains, it also has the potential to cause injury.
Fix It – One of the factors I always preach about to my clients is something called time under tension or TUT. Sticking with barbell bench press as an example – your chest, triceps etc. are under tension the second you lift the bar from the rack. The longer you keep the muscles under tension the more stress you place on them. The more stress you place on them the greater the potential for muscle growth. This is where the eccentric or lowering part of the exercise really comes into play. As a standard rule you should NEVER just let the bar/weights ‘drop’ on any exercise. I’d usually suggest a minimum two second CONTROLLED lowering for most exercises. BUT if you really want to supercharge your training, try increasing your time under tension. Lowering the bar for a count of 4 seconds for example suddenly makes your barbell press hell of a lot tougher. You may find you need to lower your weights to train in this way but don’t let that put you off – time under tension is one of the best ways to increase the intensity of your sessions.
Range Of Motion
Range of motion basically refers to moving the working joint and muscles through the full range of movement. Take a squat for example, how many times have you seen someone in the gym load a bar with pretty much every weight on the gym floor before sinking about 3 inches into a ‘squat’. Bench press is another example, lowering the bar but stopping a few inches above the chest. Training like this does not allow your muscles to work within their full range and develop to their full potential. When training, you should aim to take a joint through its full range to train effectively and to allow maximum muscle gains. Working your muscles through its full range can lead to up to 10% increase in growth.
Some examples of not working in a full range:
Bench press – stopping a few inches above your chest. I aim to ‘tap’ my chest with the bar.
Bicep curl – not lowering the weight all the way down. You should aim to engage the triceps at the end of the curl by extending all the way down.
Pull ups – not pulling the chin to the bar and not extending all the way down during the eccentric (lowering) part of the movement.
Fix It – Again working with a trainer is the best way to make sure your form and range is correct. Otherwise do your research and watch some videos or speak to people in your gym. As a basic rule for beginners, any exercise should stop JUST short of its joints limits. This not only keeps the tension in the muscle instead of the joints, but also helps avoid injury.
Reps, Sets and Rest
Getting the right amount of reps across the correct number of sets is massively important when it comes to achieving your goals. There is no one size fits all approach to sets and reps. You need to get the correct amount of reps and sets, with adequate rest in between if you want to reach your goals.
Fix It – Different fitness professionals may slightly vary their opinion on what the best rep and set range is, especially when it comes to strength and muscle growth goals. For myself and most of my clients I’ve found this approach to work best:
Strength – 5 sets of 6-8 reps
Muscle Gains – 4 sets of 8-12 reps
But this isn’t set in stone. For example even when my primary goal is to gain muscle, I like to keep some of my bigger movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press etc.) in the 5 sets of 6-8 range.
See what works best for you but above all stay consistent!