If you’ve been training a while, even a new programme can start to feel like groundhog day. Hooray – broadly the same exercises with some different rep and set ranges, how terribly exciting!
It gets to the point where you’ve kinda done most things.
So, how can you keep the spark alive without inventing ‘one-legged-squats-with-curls-on-a-Bosu-ball’ type moves?
Here’s two ideas that are grounded in science and results, and a little practical advice to go with them:
Time Under Tension (TUT)
Almost any exercise can be made harder, safely, by slowing it down. But why could that ever be a good thing? Surely it’s all about more weight, bro?
Much of the muscle damage (and that’s a GOOD thing; long story short, muscle microtears are what trigger growth) caused by proper lifting occurs on the “down” part of the lift, the bit where you return the weight to it’s starting position (called the “eccentric portion”).
But what do most people do in the gym? Try and do everything as fast as possible. Try making some of your exercises a fast contraction, little squeeze at the top, then a 5 second slow eccentric, or return phase. It’s hard. It hurts a bit. It takes concentration. You’ll also have to lower the weight you normally use.
What it WILL do, is almost certainly trigger new muscle growth and teach you a thing or two about proper form. Don’t fly into this with the big moves – learn your craft on some curls or shoulder presses before you start playing with your bench. Doing this with squats will require some superstellar technique, so not for newbies – and as for deadlifts, probably never a good idea if you value your back. No one’s form is THAT good!
There’s loads of ways to play with TUT. But, like with anything, don’t go overboard. More is not always more. 20 seconds up, 20 seconds down will do nothing but bore you to tears and reduce you to using 3kg dumbells. You need to strike a balance between the weight and the technique.
Most programmes have you doing, say, 3 sets of 8 reps. And that’s fine – if you are fairly experienced and know how to push yourself so that the last couple of reps of each set are kinda tough.
Trouble is, even the best of us can get a bit lazy and finish at 8 reps even if we secretly know we could have got more.
So what’s to stop you? Get to your 8 reps, put the weight down, take a 10 second rest, then pick them up and get some more reps. You’ll find that you can usually get at least a couple more.
Doesn’t sound like much, right? But imagine doing that every session, every week, for a year. You’ll have done 100s more reps than you’d otherwise have done. What difference do you think that will have made to your body, vs the guy/girl who doesn’t do it?
It’s not all about going to complete, abject failure. It’s just about having a breather, then carrying on the same set. 10 seconds is the sweet spot. Don’t take much longer or you may as well just do another set. The idea is for those “rest pause” reps to push you out of your comfort zone, not pound you into the floor.
Why does it work? Well, think of your muscles as filling up with waste product while you lift – when you rest, blood flushes through them and clears the exhaust fumes away. After about ten seconds, some of the waste product has gone AND your short-term energy systems are replenished. You’re getting maybe 20-30% more reps for the sake of a 10 second rest break. That’s major bang for buck.
Again, be sensible. Pick your exercises carefully. If you’re doing it on bench press, make sure you have a spotter (or spotter bars in). Don’t do it on something daft like a deadlift unless your technique is perfect. It works a TREAT on single joint moves like curls, tricep extensions, calf work, dumbbell work etc.
Want to be super mean to yourself? Enjoy really pushing it? Try two rest pause sets. So that’s working set, 10 second pause, few more reps, another 10 second pause, a few more reps. Now THAT is pushing yourself.
Have a play. Remember training should occasionally be about experimenting and, you know, having fun. If you play with the two techniques above, you can get results AND a rekindled enjoyment of training.