Many people in the bodybuilding and training world disagree on the importance of lifting heavy weight in order to build muscle. Regardless of what the “everything-in-moderation” preachers try to tell you, believe me when I tell you that big weight will lead to big muscles.
I firmly believe heavy, overload training is the cornerstone to effectively building high-quality, dense muscle mass in the shortest period of time. I like to refer to the human body as a “sensitive adapting machine.” When you lift heavy weights, you call upon your body’s adaptive abilities to make the necessary adjustments. Your body simply must adapt in order to handle the burden of heavy weight. In other words, you literally force your muscles to grow! If your body wants to survive the trauma you’ve created through resistance training, it has no other choice. This explanation describes what is known as muscle hypertrophy. The muscles of the human body grow larger and stronger in an effort to properly adjust to the demanding conditions of its environment.
Now I realize that not everyone shares my view on training with heavy weights. And I’ll admit there are other ways to stimulate muscle growth without lifting heavy weights (Like the example I often use of building awesome arms doing curls with a 5-pound dumbbell, aiming for 1,000 reps, and taking 15 minutes to train each set to true, complete absolute failure). Heavy training, however, is the most efficient way to build muscle. Do you know how I define the word “efficient” when it comes to building muscle? Efficient muscle-building is getting the maximum results in the shortest period of time while putting forth the least amount of effort.
Why is heavy training so efficient? Physically, you reach absolute failure much sooner during each set. Absolute failure, or working every set until you are so fatigued you can’t do any more, should be your goal for every set of every exercise. Additionally, heavy is more mentally efficient because if you reach absolute failure sooner rather than later, you are required to concentrate and focus for a shorter period of time. The shorter the period of time you need to concentrate and focus, the better your chances of exerting 100 percent of your abilities in that particular set and throughout your entire workout.
If you expect only four to six reps to stimulate new growth as I recommend, then you’ll need to lift heavier weight. Again, if you can do more than six reps during a particular set, then you have picked a weight that is too light. Conversely, if you are unable to properly perform four repetitions, the weight you’ve chosen is too heavy. Either way, you will need to make the proper adjustments, not only for the next set, but for every single set of every single workout in the future as well.
You’re going to have to trust me when I say, if a person is experiencing good muscle gains while lifting light or moderate weights, then he or she would achieve greater gains if they were challenged with heavy weight. Again, big weight leads to big muscles. In my humble opinion, there’s no doubt about it.
Choosing Weight That Is Too Light
If you’ve mistakenly chosen a weight that isn’t heavy enough to keep you within the 4 to 6 repetition range, the best you can do at that point is to continue working the set until absolute failure. Whatever, you do, do not make a habit of doing more than six repetitions. If you’ve miscalculated your strength so poorly that you are able to pump out a lot more than six repetitions, you should just put the weight down after six reps. You’ll be better off in the long run not to allow this error to occur. You must learn from your mistake and save your energy for your next and, hopefully, more efficient set. You should always strive to stay within the 4 to 6 repetition range to effectively overload the muscles for growth. Overloading the muscle with heavy weight is what stimulates significant growth. When you start performing more than six repetitions, you start fatiguing your muscles—not overloading them.
So, what’s the difference between overloading the muscles and fatiguing them? What different results will the two different approaches ultimately have on muscle growth? Well, when you overload the muscles with heavy weight, you force them to adapt (grow) as the body tries to withstand the newly created and more strenuous conditions. On the other hand, after performing six reps during a set, you start fatiguing the muscles. The muscles will begin producing lactic acid. The build up of lactic acid causes free radicals to form in the body and initiates other harmful physiological effects as well. The difference between overloading the muscles and fatiguing them would be analogous to doing squats to build muscle versus doing some distance running. Which form of exercise do you think will build more muscle? Now, I’m intentionally being just a little overly dramatic with this analogy in an effort to illustrate my point. Overloading your quadriceps muscles by pounding out six heavy squats will put your body in the ideal conditions for growth. Fatiguing your quadriceps muscles by running 15 miles will put your body in less-than-ideal conditions for growth, to say the least. Do you get my point? Choosing weight that is heavy enough to keep you within the four to six repetition range will help you effectively overload the muscle and initiate the muscle mass building process.
You should strive for a “good value” and proper execution when you perform each repetition. What exactly do I mean by a good value and proper execution? Basically, good value and proper execution are the optimal balance between out-of-control, sloppy form and overly strict form. Obviously, you never want to use extremely sloppy form when training. However, you shouldn’t be overly concerned with extremely strict form either. You should aim for somewhere in between the two extremes.
Many bodybuilders have deemed the quality of form to be the most important aspect of training. Some people training in the gym use the rationale that lifting heavy weight causes you to train less effectively. “I always use really strict form!” they state proudly. “Lifting heavy weight is not beneficial at all if you don’t use really strict form.” I’m certainly not saying you should train with careless, out-of-control form. Even worse, I’m not suggesting that you risk hurting yourself in order to lift heavy weight. Using form that is too sloppy won’t work the intended muscle sufficiently. If you get hurt while trying to lift too much weight you’ll set yourself back both in time and momentum. Doing that is unquestionably worse than lifting lighter weights. There is a happy medium, however. That happy medium is performing each set at what I describe as a good value and proper execution. Lifting heavy enough weight to build significant muscle mass—while still using form that’s good enough to directly stimulate the intended muscle group.
Overloading the intended muscle group with heavy weight is one of the most important keys to effectively stimulating maximum muscle growth. Despite what many people believe, you don’t necessarily need to use strict form in order to stimulate the muscle. But, if you want to build the most muscle in the shortest period of time, you do need to use the heaviest amount of weight that you can lift at the same time that you are stimulating the muscle group. Some people refer to this training strategy as “controlled cheating.” Controlled cheating is just a way to help you lift more weight. The more weight you can properly handle the better chance you have to put on muscle in a shorter period of time. I want to emphasize how important it is for you to handle the heavy weight properly. If you are using so much of your body’s momentum to move the weight through the repetition and you are not directly stimulating the targeted muscle, then you are not using this training strategy correctly. Simply put, controlled cheating is like giving yourself a spot. It will help you get the heavy weight through the “sticking point” and still allow you to blast the muscle group you are training at the same time.
Have you ever noticed when you are doing a set of barbell bench presses that there is a certain part of the movement that’s especially difficult to press the weight through? There’s about a two-inch “sticking point” as you press the weight upward that presents the most difficult challenge. A good, attentive training partner can give you a slight spot, or just enough help, to get the bar all the way up—using most of your own power. Ideally, lifting the weight without the aid of a spotter would be better, but you are still effectively stimulating the pectoral muscles even with that slight nudge. The extra poundage you are able to lift creates a tremendous value—and becomes far more beneficial to your muscle-building efforts than using overly strict form and the lighter weight that you’ll need to settle for in order to conform to that strict movement.
Just as you would never want your training partner to lighten the weight too much when he spots you while bench pressing, you don’t want to “cheat” too much when training either. You don’t want to lighten the weight more than is necessary. Controlled cheating, when done correctly, should work out to be no more than a slight nudge during the sticking point. The only difference between a good spot and the proper use of controlled cheating is that you are doing the controlled cheating without the aid of a training partner. Save the controlled cheating for the truly heavy, overloading poundage. Controlled cheating should only be used by those people who understand the effectiveness of overloading the muscles. Be sure that you always use weight that’s heavy enough to warrant controlled cheating. Otherwise, there’s no need for this training strategy.
One respected training expert I know believes that using form that is too strict can even hurt you. “Using strict, rigid form defies your body’s natural biomechanical movements. This creates very high and abnormal stress to joints, connective tissue, and muscle attachments. These abnormal forces can increase your chance of injury while training,” he preaches. He goes on to say, “Strict form also severely limits the amount of weight you can train with due to its isolation effect and the defiance of optimum biomechanics. Because you use less weight, have a greater chance of injury, and produce less of an overload (resulting in less muscle growth), strict form does not make sense when compared to controlled cheating.” “Controlled cheating allows you to train heavier with less joint stress and greater muscle overload. This type of exercise execution creates a rhythm with the natural movement of your body’s biomechanical structure-pivot points, muscle attachments, and range of motion. In short, it maximizes your ability to overload the muscle safely.”
Concentric And Eccentric Phases Of The Movement
Not too long ago, I made a conscious decision to do a better job of controlling the weight throughout the entire range of motion during every repetition. Even though I’ve packed-on a lot of size over the years, I was certain I could build even more if I felt the weight stimulate the muscle group better throughout the entire movement.
Seeing myself train on my latest videotapes was much different than watching myself in the mirrors at the gym. Watching my videos gave me a much different perspective on my technique. I realized I had a lot of room for improvement in the way I handled the weight and that has become one of my major training goals over the last couple of years.
Speed Of Repetitions
I believe the key to building mass is lifting the heaviest amount of weight—while still feeling the intended muscle group being worked. Can you feel the intended muscle group better with a slower or a faster, more explosive movement?
One of the key distinctions I’ve learned in regard to the speed of each repetition is to control the weight on the negative (eccentric) part of the movement so it goes twice as slowly as I forcefully move through the positive part (concentric). Keeping this in mind helps me stimulate the intended muscle group more effectively on a more consistent basis.
Be sure that you don’t waste a lot of time, strength, or repetitions during warm up sets. Always try to remember that warm up sets are only designed to prepare your body and mind to lift a heavy, overloading amount of weight during your intense, working sets. When warming up, all you want to do is loosen up your muscles sufficiently enough to prevent injury. Your goal should always be to save the vast majority of your strength for your heavy, working sets. It’s the heavy, working sets—not the warm up sets—that are going to stimulate the muscle-building process. The least amount of weight you use and the fewer number of reps you perform while warming up, the more efficient your workout will be.
Be sure that you concentrate when you warm up. When warming up, it’s just as important for you to prepare your mind for the intense training you are about to do as it is to prepare your body. Your execution of each exercise and mind-to-muscle connection should be identical to your heavy sets. You want to make sure that you use the same setup patterns, speed of repetitions, and form during warm up sets as you would use in any heavy, working set. Never let your mind wander during warm up sets. You don’t want to waste this time being non-productive. You also don’t want to take the chance of suffering an injury because you were not paying enough attention to what you were doing. Oftentimes, injuries occur when a person is using lighter weight because they take that weight for granted. When you are training with weights less than one hour at a time as I recommend, what’s another few minutes bearing down and focusing during your warm up sets? Trust me. It’s a great investment of your time.
Don’t get overly concerned with the “exact” amount of weight to use when warming up. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent, or 78.57 percent of your maximum weight as long as those warm up sets are getting the job done. One other important point: Do not use warm up weight after the first exercise of a particular body part. In other words, if you are training your chest and plan to do three exercises (for example: bench press, incline dumbbell presses, and weighted dips in that order), you should only do warm up sets before your heavy, working sets of bench press. After your first exercise, your chest muscles should already be loosened and your mind should already be prepared to train heavily. For the following two exercises, incline dumbbell presses and weighted dips, you should go immediately to the heaviest amount of weight possible and work each set until absolute failure.
In some cases, you may need to perform an acclimation set or two before your second and even third exercise of a particular body part. In AST Sports Science’s Max-OT Training terminology, an acclimation set can be described as a set that “prepares you for the heavy, overload sets—but it is not a warm-up set.” Although during these sets you’ll use enough weight and perform as few repetitions as possible to get “acclimated” to the exercise, it really isn’t designed to be a warm up set, per set.
Some exercises, although they may train the same body part, require much different physical and mental coordination and skill. Sometimes, jumping from one to the other with intensity and lifting heavily isn’t an easy process. An acclimation set before a more intense and/or complicated exercise can get you ready both physically and mentally for the challenge. For example, one particular Max-OT Training program workout for shoulders and traps includes military presses, dumbbell presses, lateral raises, deadlifts, and barbell shrugs. Before my two overload sets of deadlifts, I’ll do an acclimation set of only four repetitions with just 225 pounds. This is about half the weight I’d use during my heavy sets. The time and energy I invest in that single, non-taxing acclimation set will make my two overload sets of deadlifts much more effective.