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When you first picked up a barbell and began your fitness journey, the basics were enough — perform a few exercises per bodypart, do a few sets of 10 to 15 and feel the burn. Now that you’ve been at it a while, however, the gains that came so easily at first seem so much more difficult to achieve.
Whether your go-to workouts have gotten stale or you’re looking for an extra edge, these techniques — some traditional, some unorthodox — can help propel you toward your goals.
Techniques to Boost Strength
A staple in bodybuilding circles, this technique positions a mini-rest between the last few repetitions of a set, allowing your immediate energy system (ATP-creatine-phosphate) to replenish just enough to eke out a few more reps than you could normally. To do, complete as many reps of a set as you can with great form, stop and hold the weight in the starting position for three to five seconds, then attempt two to three more reps. The idea is to allow your target muscle fibers a second chance to get recruited, which could mean more muscle growth and strength in the future. Rest-pause also reduces the chance of “cheating” your reps when the going gets tough, possibly compromising form and increasing the risk of injury.
Any move is fair game for rest-pause, but for maximum safety, reserve it for cable or machine moves: Equipment offers a lower risk of losing control and dropping the weight on yourself. You can either use rest-pause for every set in a workout or save it for the last set when you’re the most fatigued to push past a plateau.
Moves to try: Cable row, machine chest press, triceps pressdown, leg extension, leg curl
Negatives are probably one of the most taxing training methods both physically and psychologically, but they are undeniably effective at breaking through plateaus and increasing overall strength. Negatives focus on the eccentric phase of the lift — the lowering portion — where you lengthen the target muscle. According to the laws of biomechanics, you produce more force eccentrically than you do concentrically (shortening the muscle). In fact, research puts your eccentric strength about 20 percent higher than your concentric strength.
You can do negatives one of two ways: with supramaximal weight or with slowed tempo training. To do supramaximal negatives, load a weight that is heavier than your max for that lift, then have a spotter assist you with the concentric (lifting) phase. Once in position, have the spotter let go and you control the weight on the way down. Note: For really big lifts, use the Smith machine, if possible, so you can set the safety stops at your bottom range of motion.
For slowed tempo training, you’ll perform the eccentric portion three to four times slower than the concentric portion. This method increases the time under tension, promoting muscle breakdown and causing muscle growth, helping you push through strength plateaus.
Moves to try (supramaximal): Smith-machine bench press, seated overhead shoulder press, barbell back squat
Moves to try (slowed tempo): Pull-up, push-up, deadlift, Bulgarian split squat, zombie sit-up
With forced reps, you’ll use a spotter who will give you just enough assistance when the going gets tough so you can push out a few more reps using good form. This technique can help you break through strength plateaus — even when they’re only in your head: For example, if you’re used to doing 10 reps for each set, a mental block could be stealing the 11th and 12th reps from you. Forcing yourself over that hurdle, even with some help, makes it more likely you’ll hit it next time on your own.
Moves to try: Bench press (incline, decline, flat), squat, seated overhead dumbbell press, leg press
The goal with this modality is to recruit more muscle fibers more times in a workout. This can be accomplished a few different ways. The first is to pre-exhaust a synergist or secondary muscle group to place more stress on the primary muscle. Typically, this is done by performing a single-joint exercise just before a multi-joint lift — such as doing a triceps overhead extension before a bench press — so that more force is required from the pecs. The second is to pre-exhaust the same muscle in an attempt to recruit more of the reserve (Type-IIx) muscle fibers that might otherwise not join in the fun. Here, you could use the pec-deck flye to pre-fatigue the chest, hopefully stimulating those reserve fibers when you go to the bench press.
Moves to try: Triceps pressdown, then bench press; biceps curl, then lat pulldown; leg extension, then front squat
In a recent study from California State University, Fullerton, athletes who supramaximally loaded the eccentric phase of a front squat at 120 percent and then dropped the extra weight at the bottom of that rep were able to significantly increase their concentric speed and power on the way up. This could be because of increased muscle recruitment or even increased activation of the stretch-shortening cycle reflex.
Techniques to Boost Performance
Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP)
Though this is still a bit of a theory, the idea here is that by using a moderate-to-heavy lift targeting the same muscles, you will improve (potentiate) your power on a subsequent plyometric or power-type move. Some theorize that the muscles are neurally “primed” — more muscle fibers are turned on after the lift — making the power move that much more powerful.
For example, doing squats before box jumps: Even though the athlete may be fatigued after the squat, the potentiating effect can stick around for several minutes during recovery. A recent meta-analysis suggests performing the lift at a moderate intensity (60 to 84 percent of your one-rep max) and resting three to 10 minutes between sets until you feel recovered because fatigue can counteract the PAP effect.
Moves to try: Back squat box jump, bench press medicine-ball chest pass
Systematically changing the exercises, sets, reps, resistance and rest periods allows athletes to recover and optimize their training during a competitive season. The traditional style of periodization is linear, progressing from a base level of fitness to a specific skill-set target: As the year progresses, intensity is increased, rep ranges are decreased and exercises become more sport-specific. During the competitive season, intensity is kept high but the number of exercises, sets and reps decrease so as to prevent overtraining and burnout. After the season is over, there are two to three weeks of active rest, then the process begins again.
Another way to periodize is in a nonlinear or an undulating fashion in which both intensity and volume are varied throughout the entire year, sometimes depending on how an individual feels that day. This is useful for anyone, athlete or not, to prevent chronic injuries and overtraining and keep your muscles fresh and growing. Plan your workouts to take you through phases that change up your sets, reps and intensity every four to 12 weeks, and allow yourself a few weeks off from the weights and cardio at least once a year.
A complex means something different depending on whom you ask. They can either be strength-power supersets that use PAP (see above) or a workout made up of several exercises done in a row that uses the same weight and that is done without setting the weight down. This second type of complex is perfect for metabolic conditioning, and both can be great timesavers.
Complexes using lighter weights can be used as specific warm-ups for heavier lifts to come. For example, warming up with five reps of deadlifts, hang cleans, front squats and overhead presses with a naked barbell can elevate body temperature and get your mind-muscle connection firing so you’re ready to rock once you load up the bar for the workout.
Barbell complex to try: Deadlift, hang clean, push press, back squat, push press (repeat)
This is probably the most functional training around, teaching the body to use reactive power to change direction quickly while demanding control over dynamic balance in all planes of motion. Drills can be individualized to mimic different distances (tennis court vs. soccer field), locomotive patterns (lateral shuffle vs. linear acceleration/deceleration) and change of direction patterns (side step vs. cutting). Even if you’re not training for a specific sport, agility drills can help develop speed, balance and control, and they are a fun way to do your cardio in an atypical way.
Even if you don’t have an agility ladder, cones or mini-hurdles (though those are all affordable and portable), you can use chalk to draw boxes for foot-drill patterns or set up water bottles instead of cones to mark off yardage for sprints.
Drill to try: T-Drill. Arrange four cones 5 yards apart in a T shape. Start at the base of the T and sprint to the center cone. Change direction and side shuffle to the left cone, then change direction again and shuffle to the right cone. Shuffle back to the center cone, then put it in reverse to backpedal to the start.
Though visualization can never substitute for actual training, it can help when you’re not in the gym, court or field. Mentally practicing the objectives of an activity is usually better than imagining the outcome of your goal. For example, taking yourself through the sensations (grip, foot placement, muscle activation) of a perfect power clean is going to be more helpful than imagining your excitement at getting a personal record.
When you’re actually training, however, choosing whether to focus on internal sensations (i.e., activating specific muscles) or external objectives (i.e., pushing the floor away or driving the bar up to the ceiling) depends on the type of movement, the load and the experience of the lifter. Lighter loads seem to benefit the most from internal focus, and heavier loads tend to need more external cues to get the job done, especially for less experienced lifters. And that gym bro who strikes a pose before each set? He might actually be onto something: Isometric contractions done right before a lift can help you focus on engaging the right muscles during the set.