05 Nov 4 Ways To Maximise Every Rep
A significant reason as to why so many fail in their quest to build a better physique is that it’s assumed that every rep is treated equally.
Following a program that calls for 3 sets of 8 means very little. What matters is the execution. 3 sets of 8 reps done with poor form won’t yield the same results as 3 sets of 8 with picture perfect technique. One person might breeze through it, while the other may be fighting tooth and nail to complete. Guess who’ll be growing? There’s no doubt.
Yet, we still spend so much time arguing the intricacies of different set and rep protocols, and forgetting to focus on what’s really important: the reps that make these sets up.
So much goes into one set, and I believe that one of the big factors that differentiates between beginners, intermediates and advanced trainees is the ability to apply intensity into a set, and extract every last bit possible from a rep.
Every rep you complete is an opportunity to improve. No rep should be wasted. To help you get the most out of each rep, here are four key strategies to consider.
1. Stability Is King
‘You can’t build a house on sand’.
By the same token, you can’t build a physique if you’re not stable in your training. Being stable when lifting is the most important part in extracting the maximum out of each rep.
Let’s use the extreme example of the naïve trainee who’s attempting to shoulder press while standing on a Bosu ball. Now, this person may be doing something which is ‘hard’, but it’s hard for all the wrong reasons.
The key principle for muscle growth (for most people) is always going to be progressive overload while maintaining perfect form. You need to challenge your body to do more each time if you want it to grow. The problem with the aforementioned exercise is that while it’s considered ‘hard’, it’s all for the wrong reasons.
Instead of attempting to lift heavier loads with good form, you’re more worried about not trying to fall over. Your resources are going towards ‘maintaining the house on the sand’, as opposed to have a solid base to build upon.
When you’re stable and set in the right position for all exercises, you’ll be able to produce more force, which in turn will translate to more weight being used, or more reps achieved. Which is what will add up in achieving improvements in your physique.
How do I become more stable?
The scope of this answer deserves an article itself, so I’m going to give more high-level pointers here that you can immediately implement into your training.
If you’re not stable, you’ll experience some of the following:
– Injury in a specific joint
– Limbs or joints moving from side to side when pressing or pulling
– Whole body movements swaying or shifting when lifting
– Your progression on one particular exercise has stalled while others are increasing
– You can’t feel your muscles contract
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if you can resonate with some of these, it’s likely you need to focus on being more stable.
Your form and position will almost always dictate your stability, which is where both internal and external cueing comes into play. Sometimes what looks great on the outside is a disaster on the inside, so it’s vital you’re using both to maximise stability.
Here are some methods you can try:
– Create full body stiffness. This applies all the way from your feet pushing into the floor, right up to the head pushing against the bench.
– Grip the bar tighter. By doing so, you’ll create an irradiation effect throughout your entire body while allowing the muscles to engage in sync together.
– Keep your shoulders blades together back and down. This applies to most upper body lifts.
– Push your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes. This can apply to a wide range of both upper and lower body exercises.
– Practice breathing and bracing correctly. Few things will have as much of an impact on your spinal health, posture and ability to recruit while stable as this will.
– Focus more on the muscle. Create an even stronger internal focus on the muscle in question to improve stability around the nearest joint.
– Remove energy leaks. The ‘tighter’ you can be, the less leaks there’ll be in the body that could potentially bring the house down.
If you’re struggling with applying these tips to your traditional program, it might be a case of regressing the stability demands of your exercise selection.
For example, exercises with pre-built high amounts of stability include machine-based work, floor presses, chest supported rows, etc.
Those with low amounts of stability include unilateral work (both upper and lower) and overhead exercises. And we’re not talking about those Bosu ball shoulder presses. Those are out from the start!
2. Doing More
The body is a highly adaptable machine, and to build muscle tissue over time we need to increase the challenge placed on it. Sure, you can add more weight and/or do more reps, but that’s not the only way to progress. That’s only thinking in terms of quantitative measures, and ignoring qualitative methods of improvement.
What I’ve found with many people’s eagerness to create quantitative gain is that they begin to lose their technique and mind-muscle connection, which in turn can lead to injuries and dreaded plateaus.
Instead, I like to advise people to focus on ‘dominating’ a weight before adding load. During an exercise, there will always be a ‘rate of perceived exertion by the lifter’ that in most instances is higher than the actual exertion levels. So when you’re trying to get the most out of each rep – test yourself!
Take your mind further than you think it can. Look objectively at your rep speed, your form and assess your mind muscle connection. The ability to maintain all three will almost always dictate the intensity of that rep.
If you progressively overload your ‘qualitative’ scorecard, you’re going to get the best of both worlds, create more stress on the muscle, reduce injury risk, and ultimately improve your physique.
3. Stack the Joints
A great tip I learnt first hand from Christian Thibaudeau many years ago at one of his courses was the concept of ‘stacking the joints’.
What this means is that when load is being applied, the ‘forces’ can travel directly through the joints, which in most cases will be exactly the place we want it to be. By lining them up, we give our body a better chance to extract the absolute most out of a rep, and by emphasising the target muscle in question.
For example, when you’re bench pressing for chest development, you want to be in a position so that your wrists are neutral and your forearms are perpendicular to the ground. Any deviation from this will lead to increased triceps or deltoid recruitment, or perhaps even create a dangerous joint angle.
What happens if I don’t stack my joints?
The body is clever. And if your joints are not stacked up in line, the forces being applied will begin to travel in the wrong directions that may cause injury and stress to unwanted ligaments, joints or bones. It’ll also effectively change the exercise you’re doing and make it less effective, or much harder than it needs to be.
You’ll find this issue occur most often in pressing, pulling and/or single joint movements that involve the wrist. A large part of creating more stability and improving qualitative progression starts in the wrist. You’ll find that if you don’t control the wrist (as in the bench press example earlier), you’ll create instability, faulty recruitment patterns, improper ‘force transfer’ and expose yourself to injury.
4. Internalise Your Focus
If you’ve applied tips 1 to 3 into your training, it’s time to squeeze (no pun) a little more out of each rep.
The topic of ‘thinking about squeezing your muscles’ has been a hot topic in the fitness industry. For some, it’s the best thing since sliced bread. For others, it’s a waste of effort. The answer? As always, it’s somewhere in the middle.
You can’t expect to squeeze your way to a better physique by just picking up light weights, exaggerating a slow tempo and thinking deeply about the weights. At the same time, you can’t just heave weights around with no focus on which muscle you want to target.
If your goal is body composition, you focus in general should be keep your mind in the muscle and make it work as hard as possible.
For example, when you’re bench pressing for chest development, what most people do is disregard muscle contraction and just ‘lift’ the weight with whichever muscles are available. This means (in many cases) that their front delts and triceps take over, and their pecs receive very little stimulation, and no growth.
At the same time, using a 6 second negative, a 3 second concentric and a 3 second peak contraction would be overkill. If you place all your emphasis on squeezing, you forget a big tenant of muscle building: progressive overload.
Instead, you need a combination, and to play the movie of every rep of every set from both an internal and external perspective.
If your goal is a bigger chest bench press, you should be taking this approach:
1) External (how the set looks from the outside): you need to be thinking about completing all the reps with the right form while stacking the joints, setting records and being able to move the weight from A to B.
2) Internal (what you think about during the rep): you want to think about your chest lengthening, contracting and tearing apart, so when you do move the weight from A to B and provide overload, it’s the chest that’s being stimulated on every rep.
It’s a combination. It’s why it’s so hard to build muscle mass.
It’s easy to keep adding weight to the bar and forget about your technique.
It’s easy to keep squeezing with baby weights, and never progress loads.
What’s hard is moving a weight A to B with a performance mindset and perfect ‘outside’ form’, while at the same time keeping all the load, intention and focus on the muscle targeted.
I’ve left this tip as number four because its application comes on a continuum. If you’re more of a beginner, your focus should be on maximising external form. In your early years you won’t have the ability to contract different muscles on cue, or by any means hard. So it can take away from your training intensity and subsequent gains.
As you get a little more experienced, and you’ve learnt the basic technique, that’s when you find the middle ground and develop a stronger internal focus into your reps. When you’re advanced, you can marry the two without taking anything away from each other, and this is what helps you continue to make progress past the beginner gains.
There is one caveat to this. If you’re struggling to feel a muscle working during an exercise, or you’re struggling to engage the muscles when trying to be stable, then it may be appropriate to ‘think and squeeze’ before applying the first three tips.
The Perfect Rep
Our time in the gym is precious, so it’s critical every rep is made to count. The perfect rep is something we should all strive for.
It’s when you’ve locked your body into a stable position to lift safely from.
It’s when you’re focused on making qualitative improvements from last time.
It’s when all the joints are lined up to produce maximum force.
It’s when you feel the target muscle through every inch of the rep.
It’s when you can do this for as many reps of a set throughout a workout that you’ll start to repeat the benefits of your training program to the maximum.
Remember, 3 sets of 8 doesn’t mean anything on paper. It’s all in the execution.
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