Years ago, a friend and I were working together to prepare his physique for an upcoming acting role. As he was training, he said to me, “Jimmy, no matter what your dream is, keep digging. Most people stop digging 3 feet from gold. But if they’d only kept going … clank!”
His words stuck with me. And its message is relevant even in the gym. You’ve worked hard to get to where you are. You haven’t missed workouts and you’re dedicated to eating clean. But alas, you seem to have reached a plateau of sorts. And as you stand to catch your breath, you wonder whether or not your body can reach the next level. Well, this issue we’re offering you five tools that are sure to help you finally pierce through. So, let’s go. For all you know you could be 3 feet from gold. We’ll give you the tools; it’s up to you to keep digging.
Plateau Buster #1: Negatives
Most guys hear “negatives” and think about merely lowering a weight slowly. Not so fast. The negative tactic is much more than lowering the weight a little slower than usual. In fact, negatives have a dual purpose: They can be tailored to promote strength or size, with clear distinctions between them. Here we’re focusing on how best to use the negative movement to elicit quick and lasting changes in size.
Anatomy of a Negative
During a negative contraction, the muscle lengthens while it contracts as the load exceeds the force supplied by the muscle. This contraction occurs during the downward phase of your exercise, like when you’re lowering the bar on a curl, descending toward the floor during a squat, or resisting the bar as it approaches your chest on the bench press.
Turn a Minus into a Plus
The main reason you’d want to focus on negatives for building muscle is the mere fact that you can damage so many more muscle fibers during negatives than you can during the positive (concentric) phase. The better you can stimulate muscle fibers, the quicker you pierce through your plateaus. But most lifters ignore the negative portion because they typically end their sets when they can no longer lift the weight on the positive rep. Here’s the key: At that point, your muscles still have the ability to resist the weight on the negative rep.
Get to the Point
Consider this scenario: You’re doing a set of bench presses and have chosen a weight that causes failure around eight reps. You’re struggling with six, then seven and finally —aaaargh! — eight. As you attempt another with a mighty effort, you simply can’t lift the bar past the first quarter of the rep, so you stop. This is the point of initial failure. That’s when negative-rep training begins for muscle building. Focus on resisting your working weight on the negative at the point at which you reach positive-rep failure.
Whatever exercise you choose, you’ll need an attentive training partner. He should be in a position that allows him full control of the bar. Because you’ve reached positive failure, you still have gas in the tank for a few negative reps but will need help lifting the bar on those concentric reps. Make sure he helps as much as possible — this isn’t forced reps — so that you can concentrate fully on the negative portion.
Barbell exercises are great for negatives because you can work with so much more weight than with dumbbells and your partner can engage himself best when balance is less of a concern. Machines are also effective.
You don’t need full sets of negatives, but you can do 2–3 reps (resisting the weight for a full three seconds) following positive failure. This shouldn’t be done on every set, just the last 1–2 sets of each exercise suggested.
Negatives: To Sum Up
- Negatives for size are best performed only after positive failure.
- You can incur more muscle-fiber damage (and thus gains) with negatives than positives.
- Do only a few negative reps and only on your last couple of sets.
- Negatives are best done with barbell exercises.
- To perform them properly, you’ll need a qualified, attentive partner.
Plateau Buster #2: Max-Out Method
This max-out technique takes advantage of a phenomenon that occurs when you try to use a weight that’s heavier than you intended. Using a baseball analogy: The on-deck batter is practicing his swings with a weighted donut around the bat, making the bat feel heavier. By the time the batter steps to the plate donut-free, the bat now feels much lighter.
Anatomy of the Max-Out Method
The technical name for the max-out method is post-activation potentiation method, or PAP, which is (definitely) not to be confused with Pap, the women’s cervical screening test. It’s predicated on the idea of enhancing your performance of one exercise by preceding it with a heavier one. The mechanism works by tricking the central nervous system (CNS) as well as the target musculature into becoming stronger for a given weight.
What’s Really Going On?
You can feel the benefits of the PAP technique in just one workout. By front-loading a set by a heavier set of the same exercise, you’ll recruit a maximal number of muscle fibers to accomplish lifting the heavier weight. When you back off the resistance on the next set, you’re able to move the bar with greater power, much like the baseball hitter who now has a more powerful swing.
Start by choosing an exercise using something close to your maximum weight — about 90% of what you can lift for one rep with good form on a particular exercise. After performing just 1–2 reps at that weight, rest 2–3 minutes, then reduce the weight. Choose a poundage you can do for eight reps, plus add 10% weight back on. The goal now is to do eight reps with a weight that’s 10% heavier than what you could previously do for eight reps. The other option is to use your eight-rep max and try for 10 reps. Either way, you’ll see immediate gains.
The most effective way to incorporate the max-out method is to limit its use to multijoint exercises like bench presses, squats and bent-over rows, though you may feel safer doing the machine variations of those moves since you’re going to do a very heavy set. Because the technique is so demanding, you want to use major lifts that incorporate heavy weight. It’s simply more effective when working several muscle groups at once, even if you’re focusing on a particular bodypart. If you feel uncomfortable using a near-max load for an exercise like squats, use the technique with leg presses instead, where you’ll have more support.
Use the max-out PAP-technique sets early in your routine when your muscles are fresh.
After a sufficient warm-up with 2-3 sets of light weight on the leg press, hit your potentiation set (“the weighted bat”) for 1–2 reps, then take ample rest 2–3 minutes before doing a lighter working set of leg presses. Do up to three working sets, preceding each working set with a PAP set. Then add in other moves (without using the PAP technique) to balance out your routine.
Max-Out Method: To Sum Up
- Think “on-deck hitter with weight bat” phenomenon.
- You’ll feel the benefits immediately in the influence on your next set.
- Use a load that’s about 90% of your 1RM for just a rep or two.
- Drop the weight back down to your 8RM, rest a few minutes then shoot for eight reps with 10% more weight than usual.
- Choose multijoint moves and do up to three sets early in your training session.
That’s the end of part I. Stay tooned for part II