Thursday, December 5, 2013

How to Make a Lighter Weight Feel Heavy

Muscle building is about pushing heavy weight. Better yet, it's about pushing even heavier weight from one workout to the next. Want big muscles? Lift big weights. Repeat again and again.

While that axiom is true most of the time, it would be a mistake to think that it's true all of the time. Sort of like racing your car. While you may get pretty good performance pushing it hard on most days, you wouldn't rev it up on an icy cold morning, nor would you consider racing it when it's starting to show its age and is falling apart.

As hard as it may be to believe, there are times when pounding out reps with bone-crushing weight might not be in your best interest, even when your goal is muscle building. But why would you want to make a light weight feel heavy? Two obvious examples would be when rehabbing an injury, or cycling your training (alternating heavy and lighter-weight workouts).

Of course, light is relative to what you're normally pushing, and one lifter's light day can be another man's heavy workout. Still, you shouldn't necessarily confuse a lighter weight workout with an easy one. We're not talking about breezing through your training sessions, but rather about backing off on the weights to make a lighter weight in fact feel heavier. And we'll give you nine techniques to do just that.

If you're always piling on the plates to push your muscles as hard as you can, you still may not understand why you'd want to lighten up, even occasionally. But there are times and circumstances when it's called for.

Increase Fat Loss

If you're one of those guys who is lean year-round, this may not be a concern, but for the rest of us, getting lean means not only reducing calories but varying the training to increase total calories burned. Dedicated times of the year; following mesocycles - when heavy weights are eschewed and lighter loads are embraced - can induce different physiological adaptations. This is the very nature of periodization.

Lighter weights can change metabolic demands. Using lighter weight can lead to a greater total number of repetitions, and therefore more glycogen and calorie use. With adequate nutrition and recovery, this type of training could be used as general conditioning or as part of a fat-loss phase.

Give Your Joints a Rest

Lifting heavy all the time invites burnout, or worse, injury. Your joints and connective tissue, which don't grow as fast or to the same degree as muscle tissue, can take only so much pounding. Although there are multiple factors that lead to injury in weight training sports, ever higher intensities (percentages of one-rep max) is a big one. B adding periods of lighter weight, you could theoretically reduce your risk of injury and increase your lifting's life span. Of course, younger lifters won't believe any of this at all. God gives old men views of youth to prove His sense of humor. Periodically backing off the weight reduces the strain on connective tissue and bones, reducing the incidence of inflammation and osteoarthritis, which are more common among hard-training lifters.

Building your body takes time. You must ensure your continued health to be afforded the opportunity to train with progressive resistance for many years. What use is training like a crazed lunatic for months if a chronic injury prevents you from going to the gym several more months at a time?

Enhance Muscle Growth

You read that right! Muscles adapt to changes in stimulus; if you're always going heavy, the stimulus pretty much never changes, and your muscle tissue stops adapting. Cycling heavy and light training periods (for 4-6 weeks at a time) allows you to work your body in very different ways to keep it from adapting. The idea is that the next time you're beginning a heavy training cycle, you'll be using a higher poundage than you were before. If you need another reason, consider that the world's best-trained athletes and Olympic lifters cycle their training programs. Not to mention the mountains of scientific research backing it up. Remember, you can't cycle your training if you don't include a lighter phase.

Better for Mature Trainers

Young lifters can throw around heavy weights and even occasionally get away with bad form because their bodies have more pliable bones and connective tissue, and they can push themselves to a greater degree than someone 40+ can. With age, tendons become less elastic, sort of like a rubber band as it ages.

Many years of lifting can lead to conditions such as recurring tendonitis and tendinosis is some lifters. Because of loss of hydration and other tissue changes within the tendons of middle-aged lifters, backing off the weight is a smarter way to train.

Allows for Better Concentration

Without the anxiety and pressure of having to move a sometimes intimidating resistance, it's much easier to focus mental concentration toward pure muscular contraction to move a weight. In this way, some bodybuilders actually experience a spurt of growth when they back off the really heavy workouts after prolonged periods of use.

Lack of Training Partner

Who can't relate to having a joint shut down on your with 100 or so pounds hovering over your face. The experience can be, to say the least, a little unnerving. Having a spotter not only helps you with those extra reps, but can also save you from eating more iron in a split second than you have in the past ten years.

Work on Technique

Let's face it, we all can benefit from occasionally touching up on our form. With the use of heavier and heavier resistance, oftentimes the finer details of good technique are lost. Using light weights affords you a safe and non-pressured opportunity to check your form and practice proper lifting habits.

Increase Total Session Volume in Less Time

A much greater number of reps can be performed in far less time than is possible using massive resistance (which also typically requires longer rest periods). And this increased load volume and the accompanying intensity can contribute to further muscle growth.

Eliminate Psychological Barriers

If you fail with a certain weight, the negative outcome can be a significant deterrent to further training. A period of lighter weight with a different goal (say, a new repetition record with a lighter poundage) may do the trick. The psychological reward of achieving success and the changed physiological demand of doing so can help you conquer that heavier weight goal several weeks down the road.

Lack of Equipment

Not everyone has access to state-of-the-art training facilities or, if you train at home, much equipment at all. Though not necessarily optimal, creativity and know-how go a long way in helping you reach your goals. You can still build an outstanding physique with lighter weights, but it just means you have to train smarter. And we've got nine ways to help you out.

One: Slow Down the Repetition

What it is: 
When you perform reps slower than normal, your muscles have to work for a longer period of time (over the course of each rep), making the completion of a medium-rep set with a (relatively) light weight more demanding.

How it works:
Muscle performance develops specific to the stressor applied. Trainers who would like to focus on maintaining force output over several seconds of effort, for example, might choose to slow down their repetition speed. Lighter weights can be used to facilitate this process. A slower contraction would increase the time under tension of a given repetition. This is the underlying concept of eccentric (negative) work which often employs the 2-second up, 4-second down rule. As well, slowing down rep speed can make seemingly light weight feel a whole lot heavier.

Two: Squeeze and Hold the Peak Contraction

What it is:
At the top of each repetition when the working muscle is fully contracted, pause momentarily and then consciously flex the muscle as hard as possible before lowering the weight. Note that the top position is not a rest stop.

How it works:
By consciously flexing a target muscle to its greatest capacity at the completion of each repetition, you consistently expend a significant force without necessarily needing very heavy weights. In fact, you can isometrically contract and hold just about any major muscle without any weight. Isometric contraction is seen when bodybuilders are holding a pose while flexing a given muscle.

Three: Employ Pre-Exhaust Training

What it is:
An advanced training technique conceived and developed by MuscleMag's own Robert Kennedy.

You begin a bodypart workout with an isolation (single-joint) movement to pre-fatigue the target muscle group before doing compound (multi-joint) exercises, which reverses the common practice of doing the compound moves first. Compound exercises recruit secondary muscle groups (which are frequently smaller), and if they fail before the target muscle group you must end your set even though the primary muscle group isn't totally fatigued. The idea is to more fully work the primary muscle group.

How it works:
On leg day, for example, perform the leg extension movement first in your workout to isolate the stress on your quads. Next, do a compound exercise, such as the squat, which brings the hams and glutes into the action as well. Because the quads have been pre-exhausted, they're more likely to reach muscle failure before either the hams or glutes. That means you're working the quads much harder than you would normally be able to.

Four: Increase Your Repetitions

What if is:
This one's pretty obvious. Simply do more reps with a relatively light to moderate weight. You probably never took such a weight to failure (instead using it as a warmup set for subsequent heavier sets), but increasing the number of reps clearly makes that same weight more challenging. While doing more than 12-15 repetitions on a given set runs into building muscular endurance, you can still build muscle doing higher rep sets, which allow you to work a muscle in a different manner than if you're regularly training with very heavy weights.

How it works:
Choose a weight with which you can do about 12 reps and do as many as you can, progressing by increasing your reps, not the resistance.

Five: Eliminate the Stretch-Reflex Action

What it is:
When you stretch a muscle (lengthening it, as opposing to the fully contracted position), you immediately build up an energy called the stretch reflex, which results in a contraction of greater force than is possible if the resistance is "stalled" for a brief moment before being lifted. 

When you reverse direction at the bottom of the movement, you eliminate the stretch reflex by holding the bottom position momentarily before beginning the concentric (positive) portion of the lift. Thus, the effort to complete a series of repetitions is much greater, making the light weight now feel much heavier.

How it works:
There are a few ways to eliminate the stretch-reflex benefit. The most common is to briefly pause all your reps at the bottom (stretched) position for 1-2 seconds. Another is to perform exercises in a power rack, setting the pins at a point where a loaded bar can be rested at the bottom of a rep with all tension taken off the target muscle(s). For example, on the bench press, place a flat bench inside a rack and determine the point at which the barbell will be at its lowest position just before touching your chest.
Set the safety catchers at this height. On each repetition, rest (without bouncing off) the barbell at the bottom for a brief moment before thrusting the bar back to the arms-extended position.

Six: Decrease Rest Periods

What it is:
Generally speaking, the longer you rest between sets the greater the weight you'll be able to lift (within limits). If you severely decrease that between-sets recuperation time you won't be fully recovered when starting your next set. Hence, a light weight can feel very heavy. Reducing your rest periods is a method to help make the recovery process within the muscle fibers more efficient such that it'll seem even longer when you go back to your regular rest intervals.

How it works:
Instead of resting the normal 90 seconds to three minutes between your working sets (longer for larger muscle groups and compound exercises), cut 30-60 seconds from that time to make each successive set harder, even when using a lighter weight. You can even continue to shave off 10-15 second 'rest pieces' over the course of several weeks before returning back to your regular rest intervals.

Seven: Work the Negative

What it is:
The idea here is to make the negative or eccentric portion of a repetition exceedingly slow, and the positive or concentric part explosive and dynamic. Because you typically fail first in the concentric motion, you haven't worked the negative to its full potential. By taking up to 5 seconds to lower a weight you put more focus on the negative, working the muscle in a very different manner than it is used to. If you like to feel next-day soreness, this is the technique for you.

How it works:
Using the squat as an example, slowly lower to the bottom position (4-5 seconds) and ensure that your back stays flat and solid. When at the bottom position attempt to quickly accelerate back up to the start position, being mindful to maintain good technique and be careful when reaching the top position. 

Eight: Concentrate on Execution

What it is:
Nobody wants to develop poor exercise technique; sloppy form and cheating motions rob the target muscle of work, not to mention the increased risk of injury. Swinging or heaving too heavy a weight is counterproductive to building muscle unless it's intentional, and only then is cheating used at the end of a set to make the muscle work harder, not easier. 

How it works:
To focus on form, forget about the weight you're using. Choose a resistance that's appreciably less than what you might normally do. Maintain the focus on placing the poundage through its full range of motion versus hoisting it from point A to point B.

Nine: Become Unstable

What it is:
A relatively recent trend in fitness is the use of equipment that makes a trainer's lifting position unstable via balance boards or exercise balls. Even vibration surfaces can be used to perform exercise movements to increase the training effects derived from light-to-moderate exercise. These devices all require secondary and assistance muscles to be called into action, especially those of the core, meaning your body has to work much harder to accomplish the same movement.

How it works:
Do a flat bench dumbbell or shoulder press on an exercise ball; you clearly won't be able to do the same number of reps as when you're on a stable surface. To achieve your target reps you'll have to significantly drop the weight. This type of training is good for athletes, but it's not the best way to build mass. For a change of pace, do it once in a while. 



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