by Dana McDaniel, Strength & Conditioning Coach at Performance Sport-Care
If I was to ask people who lift weights what key factor is required to make the most progress toward building a strong, well developed body, most people might reply by saying things like “dedication,” “hard training,” “high protein intake,” “balanced nutrition,” and so forth. But my personal experience as well as my experience training injured people and athletes at Performance Sport-Care has convinced me that the biggest factor preventing most people from making maximum gains from their training program is training with weights or resistance that is too heavy.
To be sure, every successful strength athlete or bodybuilder on this planet attained championship level by constantly attempting to use increasing poundage/resistance in their workouts. This is concept is called “Progressive Resistance Training.” The training principle is a simple one: as we became stronger, our muscles also become firmer or larger as a result of our muscles adaptation to the greater resistance or exercise challenge placed a upon them.
Unfortunately, problems arise when trainees insist on using weights they can’t handle in proper form, or by performing weight training exercises in rep ranges that do little to stimulate growth. This also raises the probability of injury in the former case and slower training progress in either case.
Walk into any busy gym. Look around. Let’s see what we find. Oh, here’s a guy on the bench press. He says his goal is to develop larger pectoral muscles like a competitive bodybuilder. But every time he comes in to the gym he is always attempting to increase his one-rep max on the bench press exercise. Why? Is it to put himself on a fast track to a shoulder or chest injury? Ego gratification for this guy is all I can think of. If he was a powerlifter, performing such maximum lifts might be better understood. Powerlifters need to be able to bench press a lot of weight for one rep. Bodybuilders, or even the ordinary person starting an exercise program usually seeks a larger, more aesthetically shaped chest. Training like a powerlifter will not make you look like a bodybuilder! Yet you see guys attempting to use so much weight that their spotter has to risk back injury in order to assist them from the very first rep. More often than not, this constitutes a waste of time and effort.
Many studies have been done to determine the optimal rep ranges for building strength vs. muscle mass. Training for pure strength requires that you handle very heavy loads, usually in the 1-5 rep range. To stimulate muscle growth, however, the reps need to be higher: 8-12 in general. In the bodybuilding world, many have found success with even higher reps for legs, as in 12-20. The key thing to remember is that optimal growth stimulation from exercise requires that you keep the muscles under the right amount of tension/load for the right amount of time.Going too low on the reps means you are stimulating the nervous system more than the muscles, not to mention greater stress on joints and structural components. Going too high on the reps means you are building muscular endurance. That’s fantastic for sports like triathlons, not optimal for those seeking bigger or more shapely muscles.
But even after selecting the optimal repetition range for their exercises we still find some misguided people that insist on using so much weight that they have to heave, swing, and use momentum to perform their exercises, thus recruiting a variety of muscle groups unrelated to the target muscle group they are supposedly trying to develop. Again, you can see it in the busy gyms, especially the CrossFit gyms: the people using such a heavy barbell or pair of dumbbells for curls that what they are doing more closely resembles a clean and jerk. Others using so much weight that they need to cut the range of motion short. Every gym has at least one guy who loads up the bar with 405 or more for squats, then proceeds to “bust out” 3-inch reps, going down nowhere near parallel, grunting and screaming all the while. And usually what you find is that most of them have very little leg development to show for the big weights and theatrics on display.
There is one very important concept from the bodybuilding world that anyone can benefit from…..and it is the critical difference between bodybuilders and the other 95% of people who train with weights. When performing weight training exercises most people simply move a weight from point A to point B, whereas a bodybuilder strives to feel the target muscle forcefully contract and stretch with each rep. The very best exercise results come from an understanding that we are ‘training the muscles,’ not just lifting weights!
Getting stronger is certainly important. And increased strength will inevitably come from faithfully following a properly performed exercise routine. So, remember this above all else: only increase your exercise weights IF you are using good form, getting enough reps, AND you are feeling the target muscle do the work. The muscle(s) that you are exercising should get pumped after just a few good sets. But, if you’ve just done a marathon workout of 12 sets of 3 different types of curls and your biceps aren’t pumped, tight, and burning with lactic acid, then something is wrong….(and probably not with your body) and is likely related to over/improper training!
Every gym has dozens of guys who train very heavy, yet aren’t particularly impressive to look at. Far more rare is the man or woman with an impressive physique that immediately identifies them as something beyond ordinary. Watch them train, and you’ll usually find some things that are very different. They train with more precision, better focus, and typically with somewhat higher reps than the average person. You can see their target muscle working when they are performing an exercise because they know how to isolate that muscle and make it do the work, regardless of the weight used or the particular exercise being performed. They are in tune with their bodies and what their muscles are doing when they exercise. Strangely enough, in the big commercial gyms sometimes populated by “haters,” these correct exercisers will sometimes be criticized for being ‘weak’ by the smaller gym members who don’t understand how and why muscles grow. They operate under the myth that heavier weights at all costs mean bigger muscles, without understanding all the other factors involved that we have been discussed above.
In conclusion, never hesitate to go a little lighter if that’s what it takes to improve your exercise form and allow you to feel your muscles working. If your goal is to build a body that sets you apart not only from the general public but also from the herds of “knucklehead” weight lifters in commercial gyms everywhere, ignore your ego, select weights that you can handle properly, and work like heck on those movements/exercises. You will be well rewarded.
Big commercial gyms and health clubs are not always the best places to obtain information or instruction on proper exercise program design or performance.
One final thought. Big commercial gyms and health clubs are not always the best places to obtain information or instruction on proper exercise program design or performance. Very often, people receive misinformation or acquire bad exercise techniques in such environments. We provide expert exercise instruction and design for beginners as well as competitive athletes. We provide close, individual attention in a safe, private, distraction-free, positive environment. Health histories and personal goals are carefully reviewed by a licensed health care professional in order to provide a customized exercise program designed to achieve your physical performance goals. Feel free to contact me directly, if you would like an improved and more effective exercise experience at Dana@performancesportcare.com.