Remember when you first started training? Every time you came into the gym if felt like you were getting stronger, moving more weight, breathing easier, and the Personal Records were falling like rain with every set. That progress helped fuel your desire to learn the strength training basics and, combined with your new enthusiasm, you’d be on your way!
At the rate you were going you’d be on the cover of a fitness magazine and/or playing for the Giants by the next year… until it all slowed down.
Making progress in strength training isn’t linear, unfortunately. The body is constantly seeking to improve and adapt to its situation, which is why lifting weights works in the first place: You stress the body, it heals, adapts, and grows stronger. Rinse and repeat all the way to being fit, jacked, strong, or whatever your goal, right?
That’d be awesome, but it doesn’t work that way.
Just getting in the gym does work for a while, but then you reach a dreaded plateau, where the body has pretty much figured out what you’re throwing at it and doesn’t need to change anymore.
This happens to everyone eventually. In my years in gyms I’ve seen one of three reactions from people when hit with this stall:
Option 1: Keep flailing away at the weights like a little kid swinging at an adult with their head being held at arm’s reach. Not effective.
Option 2: Get frustrated, say that you have shitty genetics or that everyone who is successful in the weight room is on drugs, and quit. Sort of missing the boat.
Option 3: Take a step back to the drawing board, change a variable or two, and retest. Oh, now maybe we’re on to something.
Obviously we’ll be looking at Option 3 to keep pushing you forward to success.
One of the reasons I’ve seen over and over again for most people’s first real stall or plateau of progress is because they really only use one method of training, we’ll get into what I mean by that, and when they exhaust that method… progress stalls.
Wait, what? Different methods of strength training?
Ok, I’m going to break it down for you with a minimum of science talk, but there are three primary methods of strength training: The Maximum Effort Method, the Dynamic Effort Method, and the Repetition Method. The vast majority of my education on the subject has come from studying the work of Louie Simmons, owner of Westside Barbell. He has pulled a great deal of his information from some of the great exercise scientists of the world, such as Mel Siff and Yuri Verkhoshansky.
I’ll start by talking about the Repetition Method (RE) of training as that’s what most people are going to be familiar with and envision when they think about “lifting weights”. This is basically lifting weights with a moderate to light weight for moderate to high numbers of reps per set. This is your three sets of ten, five sets of eight, four sets of fifteen, whatever, that we are so used to. Most people joined a gym or starting hitting the weights because they wanted to build some more muscle and burn some fat. The Repetition Method is the simplest and most effective way to do that so that’s where most people start.
Unfortunately, like everything else, you will reach a point where you just can’t keep cranking away at the same weights for the same number of reps and keep making progress.
That’s when the other two methods can come in to play.
First of all, there’s the Maximum Effort (ME) Method. This is basically going to be lifting very heavy, usually on a squat, bench press, overhead press, or deadlift (some big, compound movement) at 90% or above of your one-rep max. *****Sure, you CAN do a 95% 1RM wrist curl or triceps kickback, but you won’t get much out of it and be likely to hurt yourself. Stick to the big movements on this stuff.
Lifting at this high rate of intensity (as measured relative to your max strength) teaches your nervous system to recruit more and more muscle fibers at one time and thus you’re able to exert more strength into a lift. You’ll get stronger and can lift more weight.
Now, the ME Method isn’t going to put a ton of muscle on your body because you’ll only be lifting a few reps (1-3 in a set, usually) and thus won’t have a lot of time under tension or create a lot of muscle damage, both of which are hugely important for muscle growth. What it will do, though, is help you lift bigger weights in your RE training which, in turn, will create the above-mentioned time under tension and allow for greater muscle damage. So by becoming stronger you’re setting yourself up for greater progress in your other training.
It’s the same thing with the Dynamic Effort (DE) method. As opposed to lifting a very heavy weight, the DE method focuses on lifting a lighter weight (usually 40-60% of your 1RM) as explosively as possible (while still maintaining good technique), which teaches your body to increase your rate of force development (ie how explosive you are) and that can translate to bigger lifts.
DE training, while using a lighter weight, isn’t done to the point of fatigue or a hard muscle “burn”. That’s what the RE stuff is for. For DE work you want to be able to keep every rep explosive, so if they start to slow down then the set needs to be stopped. That’s going to be only 2-3 reps per set for most exercises. 8-12 sets of three reps is a common scheme for bench pressing or squatting.
DE training is also useful because it allows you to get some lighter practice with the lifts and to train a lift more frequently since it’s not as fatiguing as ME training or heavy RE training. So you can get more work in, which will translate to more strength and more muscle.
Ok, so that’s all cool theory, but how are we actually going to make it work?
Start with just adding a little bit of the different work in per week, followed with the RE method stuff that you normally do. Down the road, or if you want to become more of a strength athlete, you can really go down the rabbit hole, but there’s no sense in starting that way.
For example, if my upper body strength and size had pretty well tapped out with traditional lifting then I might add the following in:
Once per week (on a Monday, because Monday is International Bench Press Day) I would work up to a heavy 1-3 reps on the bench press, incline bench press, or overhead press. Then I’d follow it up with the more traditional stuff like higher rep dumbbell presses, rows, cable movements, etc.
A few days later (Thursday, for example) I would do 8 sets of 3 reps on the bench with 50-60% of my one-rep max, focusing on clean, explosive reps. Then I would follow it up with similar stuff to Monday like dumbbell presses, rows, curls, etc.
A few weeks of that and the weights will start to feel lighter in your hands and you’ll have more power to blast through reps, setting the stage for more progress!
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