Have you ever been in a gym and compared the way the typical beginner trains vs. the way a very advanced bodybuilder trains?
The beginner's reps are, more often than not, ragged and irregular as he heaves and throws the weights around. Even though the beginner's weights are light, he moves them with great difficulty.
The advanced man's reps - even though his weights are quite heavy relative to the beginner's - are smooth, fluid, and piston-like in their regularity.
Right away you notice that the beginner (and many intermediates) seems to work beyond his means and loses control the the weights he lifts. On the other hand, the advanced bodybuilder always seems to work well within his means and he is able to maintain control of the weights and keep the feel of his working muscles.
Hmm, what's going on here?
Don't advanced men always try to lift as heavy as they can?
Isn't it true that the heavier the weights you lift, the bigger your muscles will get?
No. It's not true at all.
This explains why Arnold Schwarzenegger used only 70-pound dumbbells for his curls when he was capable of handling 100's or more. Using these weights Arnold built the greatest biceps of all time, confounding the imitators who used 100-120 pound dumbbells but had half Arnold's development. This explains why Serge Nubret, who once bench pressed 500 pounds - with little pec development to show for it - reduced his bench press training weight down to 225 (sometimes for 20 sets of 20 reps!) built one of the greatest chests ever. Mr. Universe, Dave Draper, the Blond Bomber, could bench press over 450 for 6 but chose to use around 225 when training his chest. Danny Padilla, the Giant Killer, once benched 400 for 6, but again, when he benches for maximum pec development he keeps his weights down between 225 and 250 pounds. I could go on and on with other examples of top bodybuilders who choose training weights of 50-60% of their max weights but the list would run on for pages.
What's going on here? Why did all these very advanced bodybuilders train with far less than they are capable of, and certainly certainly train well within their means poundage-wise when working for maximum muscle development?
The answer is . . . the advanced men know there is a difference between trying to lift for maximum muscle development and training to lift maximum weights. In other words, they know the value - and the difference - between using a proper working weight (or training weight) and trying to lift a maximum heavy weight.
What's the difference?
A working weight is a weight that can be controlled and lifted in a strict fashion. It's a weight that allows for maximum muscle stimulation and contraction. A working weight allows the user to squeeze and tense his muscles throughout the full range of motion while keeping conscious mental contact with the mind. It's a weight that allows deep concentration and that can be controlled from the mind. You can concentrate on maintaining constant tension on the muscle, on feeling the muscle work as you train, and on consciously firing contraction impulses without letup at the muscles as you do the set. A working weight allows you to pump the muscle to the max while training it to exhaustion.
A maximum weight is a weight so heavy that it cannot be controlled by the mind. A max weight can only be lifted for very low reps, in the 1 to 6 range. When using maximum weights the user loses the feel of the working muscle and it is impossible to concentrate on keeping constant tension on the muscle or firing contraction impulses. On the contrary, when using heavy maximum weights, the sole objective is to "get the weight up" and to overcome the resistance with as little conscious muscle tensing as possible. Max weights often invite poor form and cheating and actually decrease - not increase - muscle stimulation.
Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus machines, often pointed out that for muscle building purposes the weight used is not the primary factor, as long as it is heavy enough to cause muscle fatigue and the set leads to, or close to muscular failure after a reasonable number of reps (at least 6 but up to 50 at times. In other words, your muscles cannot tell the difference between a 35 pound dumbbell and a 50 pound one, and by using your powers of concentration and various training techniques you can make a 35 pound dumbbell feel heavier than a 50 pound one.
The advanced men know and understand this, which is why they understand the concept of working weights vs maximum weights. They know greater muscle stimulation - and muscle growth - is not solely dependent on lifting more and more weight in any style that defeats gravity, but on consciously tensing, squeezing and contracting their muscles as they train, on feeling the muscles work in slow continuous tension throughout the exercise movement, and on trying to continuously force their muscles to contract harder with the power of their mind.
It comes back to the style in which your lift your weights. Do you lift them as a bodybuilder - as hard as you can and to develop your muscles - or as a weightlifter, in an easier way that allows you to lift greater and greater poundages, with scant thought to muscle development, but directed at seeing how much weight you can get up?
It's okay to lift weights as a weightlifter or powerlifter, as long as you understand what you are doing and why. If you only want to see how strong you can get, with muscle development secondary, fine. The trouble is, most beginning and intermediate bodybuilders train like weightlifters and powerlifters, expecting one day to look like a bodybuilder. And maybe it's not even their own fault. They've been told ever since they took up bodybuilding that in order to gain muscle it's necessary to lift heavy weights, and the heavier the weights they lift, the bigger they'll get.
Not understanding that this advice meant lifting heavy weights in strict form for higher reps, they mistook this advice to mean lift heavier and heavier weights in any way and at any expense. The trouble is that many bodybuilders in their endeavors to boost training poundages as fast as possible (because, remember, they've been told that the heavier they lift, the bigger they'll get) make the mistake of cheating every set and relying on inertia and/or strictly poundage-based leverages in their workouts. A powerlifting squat is not a bodybuilding squat. A bench press used to develop the pecs is not a powerlifting bench press. A high pull is not an upright row.
Then, after months - or maybe years - of this type of training they look in the mirror and are surprised, shocked and disappointed to see that, although they are stronger and can handle much more weight, their muscles look nothing like what they wanted . . . and they can't figure out why.
All of this is not to say that heavy maximum weights don't have their place in bodybuilding, because obviously they do. At times they are very important, especially during the early stages when all bodybuilders should concentrate on the basic, compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, shrugs, bench presses, bent rows, overhead presses, close grip benches, and barbell curls. All beginners and intermediates should spend considerable time on the basic exercises and build a physical base, increasing their strength and development, strengthening their bones, tendons and ligaments and getting some basic conditioning before getting into more advanced training.
If you can't even bench press or squat your bodyweight for 10 reps, you definitely need to work on your power, but once you've acquired a certain amount of strength and mass from heavy, basic training, and you want more muscle mass and less strength-lifting skills, it's time to back off on the weights and concentrate on correct form, higher reps, constant tension and maximum muscle stimulation and pumping. It's time to use proper working weights instead of max weights.
This doesn't mean take it easy. Using proper working weights for high reps in constant tension style is a brutally hard way of training if done correctly. It takes guts and grit to grind out sets of reps with constant tension in the 12 to 25 range.
To train to combine both styles of training . . .
pick one or two basic exercises per muscle group and do 3-5 sets of each, keeping the reps in the 3 to 6 range. Every couple of weeks you might want to pyramid down to a single max rep for added intensity. I suggest you do one light warmup set for 10-15 reps and then add enough weight so you have difficulty doing 7 or 8 reps. Rest two to three minutes and add weight to the bar for that third set. Make it heavy enough so that 6 reps is difficult. Again rest two to three minutes and add more weight to the bar. try to get 5 or 6 reps, whichever, but go to failure. Rest at least three minutes and add more weight to the bar. Go for 3 or 4 reps. Rest another three minutes and add still more weight, aiming at getting 3 reps again.That completes the work for the first exercise.
If you were planning on going on to a single max, you would do two more sets, aiming at 1 or 2 reps on the next set, followed by a max single on the last set.
I suggest that for large muscle groups like pecs, back, and thighs, you do two exercises with max weights. For smaller muscles like biceps, triceps, calves, hamstrings, and deltoids, you do only one max exercise. For example, max exercises for chest might be bench presses and incline presses; for thighs squats and leg presses; for back bent rows and deadlifts; for biceps cheat barbell curls, for triceps close grip bench presses; and for delts overhead presses.
After the heavy work do your light, high rep work. This is where working weights come into play. Remember, the emphasis when using a working weight is not power but muscle stimulation, muscle contraction and keeping the muscle under constant tension throughout the full range of motion. How heavy should training weights be, then?
A working rule of thumb would be no more than 70% of your max weight, and most sets would be with approximately 60% of your max. By max I mean your max weight for one rep (which in many cases you might have to make a rough guess) and the working weight is done for sets of 12-15 reps, and sometimes higher.
Actually, you would probably start with a warmup set of 40% of max, move on to a set of 50% of max, then 605, 65%, and finish off with a set of 70%. For example. let's say someone has a max bench press of 200 pounds. Here is how his sets should look:
Set 1 - 40% of 200 (80) x 20 reps
Set 2 - 50% (100) x 15 reps
Set 3 - 60% (120) x 12
Set 4 - 65% (130) x 12
Set 5 - 70% (140) x 10-12
You might be thinking those weights are too light. Too light? Not if you tense and squeeze and use every ounce of mental contraction to make the reps as hard as you can. You have to remember that on these working weight sets you control the intensity more from the mind. If you do the sets in the typical strength-training style the weights will be too light and you'll get no benefit. In this style perfect form, tensing and squeezing through every rep of each set, using full range of motion and applying constant tension and going for maximum muscle pump, burns and muscle contraction are what's called for. The weight has to be a bit light so you can control it and lift it in this manner. If you feel lifting lighter is embarrassing or wimpy, then you have an ego problem. The bottom line is - and always should be - RESULTS.
You have to totally change your way of thinking, your mindset about what you are doing in the gym. You have to forget about sets and reps and about just ramming up heavy weights any way you can. You have to understand that you can work hard on lifting heavy weights, or work hard on building muscles, and the two require different ways of lifting and training.
In fact, forget about even the idea of moving a weight up and down. When I train beginners and intermediates, I tell them to get totally away from the idea of just up and down. Instead I have them say the words stretch and contract, or stretch and squeeze.
So if, for example, they are doing bench presses, as they lower the weight I have them say out loud the word "stretch" so they really focus their minds on getting the maximum amount of feel, of stretch into the movement, instead of just thinking about lowering the weight down so they can push it up. As they start to move the bar upward I have them say the word "squeeze" so they focus their minds on squeezing their chest muscles hard to get a good contraction. This way they forget about how many reps they plan to do and instead focus on working their chest muscles . . . which is . . . after all . . . what they are doing during a chest workout.
I also have them utilize some John Parillo concepts like pulling with the antagonistic muscle to keep more tension on the agonist.
For example, on barbell curls they are instructed to squeeze their muscles hard as they curl the weight up and as they start to lower the weight I tell them to pull the weight down with the triceps and get a good stretch. So again it's "squeeze" and "stretch" - bringing the triceps into play in a barbell curl. Think of ways to implement this idea on other exercises as well. But every exercise, it's always squeeze and stretch.
If you feel you have been working hard in the gym but your muscles aren't growing as fast as you think they should, take a good look at how your are training.
Are you lifting weights . . .
or stimulating your muscles?
Do you think more about getting a weight up and doing a certain number of reps,
or do you concentrate on feeling your muscle work,
trying to keep constant tension on them and
making your muscles work as hard as they can
for maximum stimulation.
Maybe you've been doing more weightlifting than bodybuilding!
Try the concept of working weights and see if you con't get a better burn and pump than ever before, see if you don't grow faster than ever before.