The goal of any training program should be to work your tail off in the gym. A great workout does indeed require incredible intensity, heightened focus, and reinforced determination. However, what separates the great physiques and strongest pound-for-pound athletes alike from the “boys” is the intelligence behind lifting weights. In other words, it’s not how much you do, but it’s how smart you do it.
This is not to suggest in any way that you should not train hard. Proper training requires a tremendous amount of “difficult work”. However, the goal should be to stimulate the muscle. Steps should not be taken to annihilate it. Hence the phrase, “stimulate not annihilate”. Live by it every time you step foot in the gym or fitness center.
Stimulation requires work to be performed on a particular muscle group. The work that is required is one that necessitates a strain on the fibers so they can be repaired for further development. Consequently, growth really does not occur in the gym. Damage is occurring inside the gym, where you actually weaken your muscles. The growth, however, takes place outside of the gym. That is why proper rest and nutrition is so important. During this restoration stage, provided enough nutrition, nutrients and blood infiltrate into the damaged tissue, building the fibers stronger than they were previously so it can adapt to the trauma it was presented with. Ensure adequate downtime and rest between workouts that concentrate on the same muscle group and you’ve got bigger, stronger, and longer muscle bellies.
Stimulation occurs when you’ve gone to failure. However, that does not suggest to you that you should go to failure each and every set. Studies show that stimulation occurs with just one set to failure and that anything more than that provides no further stimulation. The muscle fibers are completely torn with that one failure set. Going to failure set after set is going to damage them to the point where overtraining occurs.
There is such a thing as overtraining and overstimulation to the point where repair cannot adequately take place. Once a muscle has been thoroughly stimulated, anything applied further beyond that can actually hurt you, hindering growth, rather than supporting it. Think about it. If you damage the fibers properly then they are forced to repair. However, if you stress it further than that, you are damaging the already torn fibers to the point where it takes that much longer to repair them just to reach the level that they were at prior to exercise. Now logic may tell you that the more they are damaged, the more they are going to rebuild past their normal level. However, this is not the case. Once the muscle fibers are torn, that’s all the muscle requires to stimulate growth of the muscle to develop stronger and bigger. Damaging of these torn muscles is just going to hinder your growth.
So what is the key to success? What constitutes stimulation and how should you know when not to cross that fine line between proper stimulation and overtraining? The answer is in properly going to failure on only one set per exercise per muscle group. “Easy enough” you may say to yourself. However, the problem that lies is in that your definition of failure and my definition of failure are two totally different worlds.
Failure does not occur when you put 225 on the bench press, lift it for 6 times and because you can’t get it up for the 7th rep, you stop. Many people refer to that as failure. However, do not get confused because of the misuse and misunderstanding of this commonly used term. Too often do I see people refer to their cowardly sets as reaching failure. It is just that they are either a) uneducated on how to properly perform an adequate failure set; or b) their mental constraints were too tight to allow their bodies to experience failure. They may be uncomfortable at that present moment in time but definitely not realizing what their muscle is actually capable of once they unlock their minds to allow their bodies to experience such pain. They have not reached complete exhaustion to the point where there is a total cessation of performing potential additional work.
So let’s refer back to the previous example of the 225 pound bench press. Stopping after 6 may mean you have failed to perform 225 anymore, but think logically here. Isn’t it possible that you could perform 220 for 1? And then 210 for another? And then 200 for 2 additional reps? And so on down the line? The answer is yes! To all of the above. That means your muscle technically has not reached absolute failure when failing to complete rep 6. Your muscle still has juice left in it to continue to work. Therefore, theoretically, failure would have to mean that you’ve worked your muscle so hard that you couldn’t lift 1 more pound off of your chest. Obviously that is unrealistic, but do you get my point? You’ve got to apply more effort than what you are currently doing. That one set to failure needs to be the definition of living hell if you want to see the best possible results.
In order to arrive at failure, you need to incorporate one intensity set per exercise for each body part. Choose one of the following:
Drop Set– When you cannot complete another rep on your own with the weight you currently are performing, drop the weight down and bang out some more reps without any rest in between. In a 2-set drop set, decrease the weight so that you can perform at least 8 reps on your second set.
Strip Set– This is a drop set but performed multiple times. Perform a three, four, five, or six set drop set where you continually lower the weight upon each successive set. In a strip set, the range of reps is up to you but make sure you mentally push through to get as many done as you can with strict form.
Forced Reps-When you cannot complete another rep on your own, have a training partner assist you by applying only the required help necessary for you to keep the weight moving for extra reps. Shoot for 5-6 more reps with the assistance.
Negatives– Using heavier weight than you are used to, lower the weight very slowly on the negative portion of the rep (it should take 4-5 seconds to complete that half rep) and have a partner help you as much as necessary on the positive portion of the rep. For instance, aim for 6-8 total reps on a weight that you possibly could only do for 2 reps with your partner’s assistance.
Rest-Pause Theory– Take brief rest periods during a set to squeeze out more reps. For instance, if you use a weight you can lift for 6 reps, only do 2-3 reps. Take a brief rest of up to 20 seconds at most and try for another 2-3 reps. Rest again and repeat the process. You will essentially lift the same weight for more reps in this one set.
5, 5, 5– This set consists of 5 fast reps (explosion of only 1 second for both the negative and positive portion of the rep), followed by 5 very slow reps (5 seconds on each the negative and positive portion of the rep), then followed by 5 normal reps (2 seconds on each the negative and positive portion of the rep). This works all twitches of the muscle fibers. Keep the same weight for all 15 reps, but make sure a proper weight is chosen, in which you are really struggling to get those last 5 in. Have a spotter help you. Also, you can vary it so you start out with a heavy weight for the first 5, then immediately after, with no rest, use a low weight (around 40% of your 1 rep max) for the 5 very slow reps and then raise the weight for your 5 normal reps (around 60% of your 1RM) for the 5 normal reps.
Giant Set– Using multiple exercises that focus on the same body part, one set consists of performing at least 3 exercises in a row without rest. For instance, during back you could do a pull-up straight to a bent over barbell row straight to a wide grip lat pulldown. Ensure that there is no rest in between the set.
Slow and Controlled Reps– Take 4-5 seconds on each portion of the rep. Have a spotter help you just enough when you’ve failed.
Pause Contraction Reps– Pause at different phases of the movement to realize an incredible contraction. For instance, during a squat throw on 50% of your one rep max and pause halfway for 3-5 seconds, then pause at the bottom position at parallel for 3-5 seconds, and then back up halfway with a hold, and then at the top with a hold (that is one rep). Complete it as many times as you can. Once you can’t hold it anymore, bang out as many normal reps as possible with the help of a spotter. You can switch up the times you are paused. For real intensity, hold it at the bottom, midway, and top positions for 20 seconds at a time.
Peak Contraction Reps– Hold the peak contraction for up to five seconds on each rep. Squeeze the muscle as hard as you can before starting the next rep.
Rep Overload– Instead of performing your normal rep range, which most people keep within the 6-15 rep range, you are going to shoot for 30, sometimes, 50, and even up to 100 reps. Choose a moderately heavy weight but one where you can perform a good amount of reps. Keep focused and keep pushing them out for an incredible amount of reps. It’s really all mental. For instance, put 135 on your back for a squat. Bang out 10 at a time, hold at the top position for 5 seconds and breathe, then bang out another 10 reps, and another 10 reps and so forth until you’ve reached failure.
Make sure that throughout this intensity set, you really give it your all. It is going to require a great deal of mental toughness and will necessitate you to break through the comfort zone. The body is so much more capable than what you think. It’s up to the mind to allow it to reach new heights. Hopefully there will now be a convergence of your definition of failure and my definition of failure.
Proper stimulation, without annihilation, requires reaching this type of failure, but only through one set. The reason for this is because once you reach failure you have properly stimulated the muscle. Any more stress can actually overtrain the muscle and can lead to a much higher chance for injury. Several warm-up sets need to be performed before leading up to the intensity set and then there needs to be several cool downs after to provide stimulation. Just make sure not to incorporate too many intensity sets because then cortisol, a stress induced hormone that hinders muscle growth and promotes fat growth, builds up, and testosterone, a hormone that promotes muscle growth and fat loss, decreases. Additionally, levels of myostatin increase, which is a hormone that sets in to prevent muscle growth. Annihilating the muscle with dozens of failure sets in one workout will only hurt.
Here is an example of a chest routine to follow in the gym using these aforementioned concepts for a guy whose max bench press is 315 lbs. As you can see, the warm up sets include a weight and according rep that do not constitute failure. The one intensity set is the failure set. Adjust accordingly with weights and reps:
Push-Ups (Warm-Up Sets w/ 20-30 second rest in between)– 25 normal, 25 wide grip, 25 close grip, 25 normal. Then repeat process but with feet on the bench
Bench Press (30 second rest in between warm-up sets and 2 minutes rest before the 1 intensity set)– 95 lbs. x 15, 115 x 15, 135 x 12, 170 x 8, 205 x 6, 225 x4, Strip set starting with 235 x 10 and going down weight 3 times, 135 x 20
Dumbbell Incline Press (45 seconds rest in between warm-up sets and 2 minutes rest before the 1 intensity set)– 40 lbs. x 12, 65 x 10, 90 x 6, Rest pause theory with 100 x 3 for four sets, 90 x 6, 55 x 15
Weighted Push-Ups (30 second rest in between warm-up sets and 1 minute rest before the 1 intensity set)- Unweighted x 30, 45 lbs. x 20, Strip set starting with 135 x 10 and taking a 45 lb. plate off the back each until there is no weight performing as many reps as possible with each successive weight, Unweighted x 30 reps
Dumbbell Incline Flyes (30 second rest in between warm-up sets and 1 minute rest before the 1 intensity set)– 25 lbs. x 10, 30 x 15, 35 x 12, Slow and Controlled Reps of 30 lbs., 25 lbs. x 15
Cable Crossovers superset w/ Pec Deck superset w/ Push-Ups (No rest in between sets)– 1 giant set of cable crossovers= 70 lbs. x 25, Pec Deck=110 x 20 reps, Push-Ups= Failure
In terms of exercises, the best way to properly stimulate a muscle is to focus on basic, explosive training with compound movements. The main focus of your workout should be primarily on compound exercises, such as the deadlifts, bench press, military press, bent over one arm dumbbell row, squats, hang cleans, etc. These types of compound exercises have proven to be most effective to build lean muscle mass because they require the most work from your muscles. Furthermore, they have to work in conjunction to lift the weight and you are much stronger in these areas, moving more total poundage (which is going to stimulate the muscle most and burn the most calories, which will in turn, build muscle and burn fat). After you’ve performed compound exercises then it is time to stimulate the muscle with isolation exercises that focus on the contraction. Your goal in the compound movements should be for explosive power, whereas your primary goal for the isolation exercises should be to infiltrate the blood into that muscle. However, that does not mean that you should sacrifice form for weight in any movement. Hoisting weight up for the sake of itself does nothing to stimulate growth. Proper form is required and actually working the muscle you are supposed to be doing (barbell curls for biceps and not your back) is the only way to adequately stimulate the muscle.
The best way to make tremendous strides in the gym with both muscle growth and strength is to document and log your progress each time. Always strive to beat what you did the week before. For example, if you did 225 pounds for a set of 6 reps then next week increase the weight by 5 pounds or do the same weight for one extra rep. Now go for 230 pounds for a set of 6 reps or keep it at 225 pounds and go for 7 reps. Each week keep working for it. Using a progressive overload technique like this will ensure that you will gain proper size and strength but make sure the measures taken are gradual to dramatically reduce the likelihood of injury.
8x Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, known by many to be one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, always preached to “train to stimulate, not annihilate”. He also believed that “it doesn’t take a ton of weight to stimulate a muscle to grow, just the correct stimulus.” He swore by this training routine and it obviously worked. He had one of the greatest physiques of all time and won more bodybuilding titles than anyone, which was later tied by recent great, Ronnie Coleman. Scientific research and experiences have proved that this type of training and knowledge is one of the best ways to build lean muscle mass. “Stimulate, not annihilate”.