The Usual Suspects
You’re in the gym. It’s a familiar scene: the guy who checks himself out in the mirror as he does his 30th set of bicep curls, the guy who does partial reps on every exercise, and, of course, some bros on the bench. These bros travel in pairs. Moreover, they have turned the bench press into an artful science—at least that’s what they think. Their undying motto: “One more, bro!” No set is taken short of failure (save their warm-up set with the empty bar) because that’s the wisdom they gleaned from their friend whose uncle’s buddy is “huge, bro.” In fact, not only should all reps reach failure, but the more reps performed after failure the better (with the assistance of your bro, of course). Armed with such empirically-based knowledge, these serial benchers progress until they don’t. Which doesn’t take long. Not cool, bro.
What the Bros Got Wrong
Though these bros fist-bump after each set, they could benefit from some guidance. While their intensity is admirable, it is, paradoxically, holding them back. Wait, you protest, I that muscles adapt to stress, so more is better, right? Yes, astute reader, your muscles need a challenging stimulus in order to grow and get stronger, yet, like anything, too much stress does not allow for adequate recovery and can cause regression. Training at high levels of intensity is also a drain on the central nervous system, which, like your muscles, needs time to recover. Training past failure consistently will be burden on both the muscles and the CNS. Bad news.
What does this paradox mean in practical terms? Say our bros bench three times a week with their balls-to-the-walls intensity. At first, they will get bigger and stronger. So far, so good. But after awhile the progress stops. They don’t feel as fresh in the gym and maybe their shoulders start to bother them. Puzzled by their plateau, they discover their problem: they weren’t training hard enough. Now they add in more sets, drop sets, partial reps, and every other method under the sun. What happens? Nothing. What do these bros need to do?
An Approach of Scientific Sensibility
Our bros are doing a lot wrong—more than I care to discuss in one article. For our purposes, though, the bros need to dial down the intensity. This counterintuitive approach will allow for better recover (of both the muscles and CNS). As a result, our bros will feel more refreshed each workout and are less likely to burn out or get injured. Yes, there still needs to be some intensity to induce adaptation, but the days of pushing beyond failure are gone. Rather than using failure as a benchmark for intensity, they should use the velocity of their reps. Lemme explain.
Imagine our bros are benching with a weight they could do ten times. In their intense manner they do twelve reps with the spotter’s help on the last few. Let’s dissect the set in terms of rep velocity. The first seven reps are fairly identical—quick and powerful. For simplicity’s sake, the concentric portion (lifting) of each rep takes one second. If the bro stopped here, he wouldn’t get much of an adaptation. The eighth rep is a little harder and slight slower, but he completes the rep crisply. The bro could stop here and induce some hypertrophy (and on days when isn’t feeling so energized maybe he should), but the drop off in velocity wasn’t significant. The ninth rep requires even more effort and our bro strains to finish the rep, which takes two seconds, a noticeable drop-off. If he stops here, he will have gotten a considerable stimulus. He knows he might have one more rep in him, but, being an enlightened bencher, he notes the decrease in velocity and racks the weight. No deterioration in form, so spotter needed. Using this protocol our bro will see consistent gains in size and strength, recover better from workout to workout, and stay injury free. On days when he is feeling especially good, maybe he’ll up the intensity a bit, but certainly not to the levels of the olden days. In other words, he has been cured of “One more, bro!” Syndrome.
Note: this lesson applies to any exercise, be it squatting, rows, etc, but more so to compound lifts, which are more taxing on the CNS. Isolation exercises are less demanding and thus you can train them at a higher intensity and still recover well. This is not to say that you should never train to failure on compound lifts, but you should do so sparingly.