We’ve all heard the so-called rules of lifting: go heavy, use the big, barbell-centric exercises, and go to absolute failure on each and every set. Do that consistently enough and you’ll achieve the physique of your dreams, right?
As this type of advice, and much more like it, seems to make complete sense why aren’t more lifters happier with their results? Because we all don’t share the same DNA our bodies also don’t react and conform to the same training programs in the same way.
The old saying that rules were meant to be broken is never more evident. The fact is that rules are great and all, but think of them as general guidelines to get started. However, if you’ve hit your fair share of roadblocks lately then it may be time to dissect each of these rules below and reconstruct your program to finally kick start your progress once again.
Rule #1: Go to Muscular Failure on Every Set
There are many processes that explain muscle hypertrophy and increases in strength, but a prevailing belief is muscular failure needs to be achieved in order to induce such change. It is stated that momentary muscular failure will send the message to the brain that muscle tissue needs to grow larger and stronger in order to handle the next bout of exercise. It will change in order to meet the next challenge.
The Reality: Going all out will eventually lead to burnout and stop progress in its tracks. Take a two-pronged approach. First, try a two steps forward one step back cadence to your monthly programming. Go to failure on most sets for a period of four to six weeks. Afterwards, take a few days completely off from training, or have a week or two of lower intensity training, where you cut your volume in half and stop every set a few reps before failure.
The other route is to ramp up your intensity and eventually reach muscular failure through a series of sets. In other words, for your first few sets of a particular exercise stop the set a rep or two before failure. End with one all out set. This way you’ll stave off burning out your central nervous system and be able to properly recover from each workout.
Rule #2: Consistently Lift Heavy with Low Rep Ranges
The “lift heavy or go home” mantra has been around for a while now. It’s spawned countless gym memes and social media posts, not to mention a deluge of fitness articles straight out of the hardcore culture. Lifting maximum amounts of weight for low reps, sometimes dipping into the single and double rep territory, is praised and revered as lifting sage advice. If you want to be big you need to lift big.
The Reality: Many lifters face stagnant gains when adhering religiously to this advice. All they have to show for it is sore joints and overstrained muscles and tendons. And forget any level of muscular endurance when heavy lifting dominates. Additionally, a more moderate weight and rep scheme are more optimal for muscle hypertrophy. Now, this isn’t a one size fits all notion, however, if the low rep, high weight mentality isn’t working then it may be time for a shift.
It’s easy to fall into the more weight trap so try going back to the six to 12 rep standard for muscle hypertrophy. Furthermore, you can even up the ante with a rep range of 10 to 15. As long as you’re achieving muscular failure for some sets and are challenging your specific muscle groups properly the higher rep ranges will not only be a welcomed shift in training, they will also relieve joint pain and enable your tendons to recover.
Rule #3: Never Use Isolation Moves
This one goes nicely with lifting heavy. Being able to load a barbell with plate upon plate in the squat, bench press, or deadlift not only looks impressive, it also works the maximum amount of muscle groups at once. Instead of isolating each and every muscle groups, which would take you hours per day to complete, you knock out several birds with one stone performing multi-joint moves.
The Reality: While this does make complete sense and is a great rule of thumb to follow (there we go with rules again), it doesn’t mean that it is a hard and fast rule never to be broken. Isolation exercises have their place. Barbell curls, triceps extensions, and hamstring curls, just to name a few, can be of great advantage to the average lifter. Not only will they shore up weak areas of your physique, they will also help strengthen potential weak links in your strength chain. Stronger arms mean stronger bench press and row performance. Isolating weak hamstrings will mean a stronger and more stable base for squatting and deadlifting.
Rule #4: Use Barbells Exclusively
There are a few hardcore barbell zealots out there who preach the use of barbell with absolution. They are not a fan of varying training equipment and believe that the barbell fits all aspects of training needs.
The Reality: If your goal is to build a functional, strong, shapely physique then you’ll need more than just a barbell to do it. Yes, you can get a lot done with the single bar, but functionally speaking you’ll also need to develop balance and stability as well. Using dumbbells, kettlebells, and other single-arm pieces of equipment will serve you well when wanting to develop your core, shore-up weak sides, and create an overall balance or strength throughout your body.
Make sure you’ve recovered completely before moving on. Complete recovery between sets is imperative when it comes to lifting for strength. Powerlifters, weightlifters, and other athletes vying for increases in strength will normally rest several minutes between sets to fully recover due to the fact that they are training for performance. Muscle hypertrophy and fat loss aren’t high on the priority list.
Starting your very next set prior to full recovery will recruit more muscle fiber to be stimulated and, subsequently, more hypertrophy as a result. Compound sets, supersets, and giant sets would serve you well as vital and effective tools for more muscle mass as opposed to only gains in strength.
Don’t Break All the Rules
There are a few universal rules that everyone should follow no matter what your goal. These are timeless principles such as practicing consistency, guiding your program toward progression as a goal, and listening closely to your body’s signals regarding injury prevention and the effectiveness of your program. Those are rules we all can benefit from.