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MUSCLE BUILDING WITH LOWER WEIGHTS CAN BE A MORE SAFE AND EFFECTIVE APPROACH TO TRAINING.

There was a time when the measure of strength and size from muscle training boiled down to one question: “Dude, how much do you bench?”

Thankfully, gym culture is evolving. We’re using our heads – shaved bald or mop-topped or something in between – to build better bodies. Owing to unfolding discoveries in exercise science, and a smarter set of people taking up strength training as a road to better appearance and health, we now know more.

Effective exercise has matured way beyond bench presses, indeed past the entire set of weight-lifting equipment that defined health clubs in the 1980s and 1990s. Strength and muscle gains can come from elastic bands and pulley-cable systems, large stability balls and (smaller) medicine balls, kettle bells and simple floor mats, all of which help the 600-odd muscles in the human body to grow stronger in their infinite planes of motion.

And yet applying muscles to basic weights is still an essential part of muscular development. What’s so interesting, however, is that how you lift and lower weights is so much more important than how much.

The techniques of muscle building with lower weights

We’ll get to the science of how this works in a moment. But to understand how technique can make a difference, try this simple exercise: position yourself on the floor to perform a push-up. Assuming you’ve done push-ups in the past – you could choose a different exercise that you’re more familiar with as well – lower yourself at one-quarter the speed you typically follow in this exercise. If you’re not sure what that is, count by breathing in and out four times while lowering, and again four times while pressing up. Keep doing that until you cannot do one more repetition.

Surprised at how few repetitions you could do? Welcome to the method of “super-slow” training, a technique well documented by Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., who is the fitness research director for the YMCA. It’s one of several techniques that achieve greater strength-training results than do traditional methods. Repeat the exercise two or three more times, with minimal rest between sets, and you’ll begin to see how effective this method can be.

You can apply this super-slow method to almost every exercise. One of the benefits is even a lighter weight can suddenly become challenging. This is a great discovery if your home or a hotel gym has a limited range of equipment.

How technique intensity training works

Dr. Westcott’s book High-Intensity Strength Training (with Tracy D’Arpino, B.S., LPTA; Healthy Learning Press, 2003) details how technique can have a significant effect on muscle strength and size gains.

Westcott explains that muscles come in two types: fast- and slow-twitch fibers. Typically, fast-twitch fibers are the ones we summon for fast movement, as in a 100-meter dash. Slow-twitch muscles take us through the long slogs, a marathon, for example, or a good heavy weight-lifting exercise with 10 or more repetitions. But a high-intensity exercise such as the super-slow method exhausts the slow-twitch muscle fibers early on; if you push past the first sign of fatigue of the slow-twitch muscle fibers, you force the fast-twitchers to do what they don’t typically do, lift heavy weights at a slow pace. The result for men is increased size and strength; women experience increased strength also but not size (women’s muscles don’t bulk the way men’s do).

Westcott’s book provides several other methods for applying technique to weights to achieve greater strength and size gains:

  • Breakdown training: Work a level of weight that fatigues you by six, eight or ten reps. With no rest, drop the weights by 10 to 20 percent; then perform as many sets of the same exercise as possible. Repeat two or three times, progressing to greater weight levels as you go.
  • Assisted eccentric training: Use a qualified partner or professional to help you lift more than your capacity; then perform the eccentric (gravity-assisted lowering) half of the exercise by yourself. For example, if you can bench-press only 100 pounds yourself, have your partner help you press 120-140 pounds up; then slowly lower it yourself, your partner maintaining his grip on the bar to assist with the next lift. For obvious reasons, you need to observe all safety considerations in this and other exercises.
  • Pre-exhaustion training: Perform two exercises in quick succession using the same muscle group. For example, work a leg press to exhaustion that taxes the quadriceps, followed by a machine leg-extension, which requires the same muscles to work in a different movement (in this case, straight line followed by curvilinear motion). In both cases, work the exercise to complete muscle fatigue.

Engage in any and all of these techniques for five or six consecutive training sessions and you will clearly see, and feel, the results. As for handling the “How much do you bench?” question, the simple answer is this: It’s not how much, it’s how you do it.