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The Benefits of Low-Load Workouts

Programs based on traditional bodybuilding methodology tend to be “square”, meaning that all the workouts are of fairly equal stress level. Each session has a similar volume, duration and structure. There are, of course, some minor differences depending on the body part being trained, but not significant enough to be considered really “different”.

While training hard and pushing the machine to the limit can be a very effective way to build muscle or strength, it does not mean that low training loads cannot serve a purpose and enhance your gains.

For most coaches two things exist: 1) a hard training session and 2) an off day. Most programs are constructed to reflect that. I like to use a third option: low-stress or low-load workouts. I use these to replace off days or sometimes even to replace an intense workout. In the first case, you can use those low-load workouts to further stimulate gains without negatively affecting recovery (in fact, it can actually enhance recovery) but also to prime the body for future sessions.

For example, I’ve been using “neural charge workouts” for over 10 years (https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/neural-charge-training) to potentiate the nervous system to increase performance 1 to 2 days later. Now, studies are showing that it does indeed work:

 

 

I am a strong believer in low-load sessions to improve gains, because they allow you to train more without really tapping into your recovery capacities. 15-25 minutes extra workouts have been used by Westside Barbell lifters for close to 20 years (https://www.westside-barbell.com/blogs/2003-articles/extra-workouts-2). They work, and often don’t require a lot of equipment.

Of course, depending on your neurotype, a specific form of low-load training will be optimal for you.

OPTIMAL LOW-LOAD WORKOUT FOR EACH NEUROTYPE

I strongly recommend that you review the basic info about the 5 different neurotypes:

Type 1A: https://thibarmy.codemsdev.ca/introduction-neurotyping-type-1a-profile/
Type 1B: https://thibarmy.com/introduction-to-neurotyping-the-type-1b-profile/
Type 2A: https://thibarmy.com/introduction-to-neurotyping-the-type-2a-profile/
Type 2B: https://thibarmy.codemsdev.ca/introduction-neurotyping-type-2b-profile/
Type 3: https://thibarmy.com/introduction-neurotyping-type-3-profile/

TYPE 1A – LOW-LOAD WORKOUTS

Type 1A are best stimulated by a high force production. They recover easily from nervous system excitation and as such, short workouts producing a lot of force will not be hard for them to recover from. The reason why they recover rapidly from short and intense sessions is their high level of serotonin. The nervous system either gets excited or inhibited, you either amp it up or calm it down. When you are lifting you excite your neurons. This is what I called activation in the past: you wake up the nervous system by increasing the firing of your neurons. The more force you produce, the greater this excitation/activation will be. After the workout, this neural excitation remains and the role of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) is to calm it down. The longer it takes you to calm your nervous system down, the harder it is to recover. So, after an intense neurological workout, Types 1A will suffer a lot less from neural fatigue than other types (except Type 1B who are similar).

The best low-load workout approach for a Type 1A is the use of isometrics or short duration loaded carries. Remember that Type 1A cannot tolerate volume. So, the duration of those extra workouts needs to be short (15-20 minutes) and the sets also need to be short (under 10 seconds).

Best exercise options: Overcoming isometrics and loaded carries.

Low-load workout examples:

Option 1 – Upper Body isometrics
Bench press overcoming isometrics 3 sets of 6 seconds around weak point

Military press overcoming isometrics 3 sets of 6 seconds at eyes or forehead level

Barbell curl overcoming isometrics (in rack against safety pins) at 90 degrees angle 3 sets of 6 seconds

Option 2- Lower body isometrics
Squat overcoming isometric 3 sets of 6 seconds around weak point

Deadlift overcoming isometrics below knees 3 sets of 6 seconds

Barbell split squat overcoming isometrics 90 degrees knee angle 2 sets of 6 seconds per leg

Option 3 – Isometric & Loaded carries combo
Bench overcoming isometrics 3 sets of 6 seconds around weak point

Squat overcoming isometrics 3 sets of 6 seconds around weak point

Farmer’s walk 3 sets of 8-10 seconds with heavy weight

And you can come up with many different combinations.

TYPE 1B LOW-LOAD WORKOUTS

Type 1B is similar to 1A in that they recover really quickly from short neurological sessions and respond better to high force production. The main difference is that this high force production should come from explosive work. Type 1B does better on explosive exercises, especially if they can use the stretch reflex. The workouts should also last around 20 minutes. Because Type 1B has more acetylcholine, they can have a slightly faster workout pace than the 1A and they can also multitask, so using circuits or exercise combinations work well.

Best exercise options: power variations of the Olympic lifts (65-70% for sets of 1-3 reps), jumps, throws, loaded jumps, sprints, prowler sprints, battle ropes. Note that all sets should last 12 seconds or less.

Low-load workout examples:

Option 1
A1. Power clean 3 reps at 70%

A2. Vertical jump 5 reps (jump as soon as you land)

A3, Medicine ball throw overhead 5 throws

Take 60-75 sec between exercises and do the complex 4 times

Option 2
A1. Power clean from the hang 3 reps at 70%

A2. Battle ropes two arms at a time as hard as possible for 12 seconds

A3. Box jump 5 reps

Take 60-75 sec between exercises and do the complex 4 times

Option 3
A1. Split jerk 3 reps at 70%

A2. Prowler sprint, light weight/max speed for 30-40m

A3. Plyo push ups from bench 5 reps

Take 60-75 sec between exercises and do the complex 4 times

Note that I’m using an Olympic lift in all examples but you could also use a regular strength movement with 60% and try to be as explosive as possible.

TYPE 2B LOW-LOAD WORKOUT

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Type 2A. But since 2A is essentially a combination of 1A, 1B and 2B, it’s best to see all three before talking about 2As.

Type 2B do not recover as rapidly from neurological work mostly due to their lower level of GABA and/or serotonin. So, when their CNS gets excited, it takes longer to bring it back down, requiring a lot more resources. Furthermore, they are all about sensation, feeling a strong mind-muscle connection. The type of work they should do is pump work or muscle contraction practice. The best tool to use is resistance bands. First, because bands do lead to a greater pump than free weights. I suspect that this is due to the strength curve (more resistance when you are more contracted). It also has the advantage (for the purpose of recovery workouts) of unloading the muscle when it is in the stretched position. This greatly decreases muscle damage. Less muscle damage means that you will recover from that type of work really easily.

I normally give 2Bs a total number of reps (normally 100 reps per exercise) and tell them to complete these reps in as little sets and time as possible without sacrificing muscle tension and the contraction quality.

We normally use 3 exercises in an extra workout. Some good choices include:

Band pull-apart
Band triceps pressdown
Band curl
Band leg curl
Band glutes pull-through
Band hip thrust
Band rowing
Band pulldown
Band push-ups

You can use regular lifting exercises, but I prefer cable or even machine exercises, and if I decide to use such an exercise I will only use one. I won’t shoot for 100 total reps but rather go for something like 3 x 10-12 reps using slower tempo, focusing on the quality of the contraction.

An example of a low-load 2B session could look like this:

Cable seated row 3 sets of 10-12 with a 2-sec hold at peak contraction
Band pull-apart 100 total reps
Band glutes pull through 100 total reps

I often use these workouts to work on one or two weak points.

TYPE 2A LOW-LOAD WORKOUTS

With type 2A everything works, but nothing works for a long time. They also need variety. As such, they can use any of the tools, or combination of tools used by the four other neurotypes. This opens the door to many different options. You could have low-load workouts with one specific goal (e.g. priming the nervous system) or a multi-modal session in which you include all kinds of work to refresh your mind. You could also use these short sessions to prevent boredom; for example, if you are in a training phase that starts to feel boring and repetitive you could use the low-load sessions to do the exact opposite of the rest of your program as a nice change of pace.

For example…

Option 1 – Potentiate the nervous system to improve the next workout
A1. Squat overcoming isometrics 6 sec at the position of highest tension

A2. Jump squat with 20% of max back squat for 3 jumps

A3. Vertical jump 3 jumps

Take 60-75 sec between exercises and 90 sec between sets. Do 4 rounds.

Option 2 – As a change of pace when doing a lot of heavy lifting
Same as for Type 2B

Option 3 – Double stimulation/Technical workout for active recovery during demanding phases
A. Mobility work for hip flexors

B. Back squat, technical work for 15 minute using weights that are 60-70% for no more than 3 reps per set focusing on technique, tension and precision.

C. Band glutes pull-through 50 total reps

D. Band leg curl 50 total reps

Option 4 – “Fun” session for mental relief
A1. Bench press overcoming isometrics 6 seconds at weak point

A2. Medicine ball chest throw 5 violent throws

A3. Band triceps pressdown 30 reps

15-20 seconds between station, 90 seconds between sets. Do 3 sets.

Option 5 – “Fun” sessions 2
A1. Box jump, 5 jumps

A2, Farmer’s walk heavy for 30m

A3. Glutes pull-through 30 reps

A4. Band curls 30 reps

15-20 seconds between station, 90 seconds between sets. Do 3 sets.

With a 2A the options really are endless. Just be careful not to overdo it.

TYPE 3 LOW-LOAD WORKOUTS

Type 3 have a higher level of anxiety, muscle tension, perception of pain and cortisol release. As such the main objective of the low-load sessions is to decrease all of that. So, the type of work that will be more useful is anything that improves mobility and technique. Doing technique work will decrease their anxiety level relative to their workouts.

Type of exercises they can use: self-myofascial release, mobility work, lighter technical work, endurance activities.

Type 3 can do short workouts lasting up to 20-30 minutes. I would invest at least half of that time doing light technique work on a key exercise/movement pattern. Prior to the technical practice, they should do self-myofascial release and mobility work.

 

CONCLUSION

Do not underestimate the value of short low-load workouts. They are often more effective than taking days off and can help you perform better on your main workout, stay motivated and correct weak links. An underutilized tool by most coaches but well worth including in your plan.

-CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…