Thib’s Favorite Heavy Loading Techniques
Heavy lifting builds muscle. And lots of it!
Except for a few genetic freaks with formidable levers, amped up nervous systems, and power packed fast-twitch muscles, rarely will you ever see someone put up mind-blowing numbers who doesn’t look like a shaved gorilla.
This is especially true if the individual in question actually had to gain a ton of strength to get to where they’re at now. Chances are they’ll have put on an amazing amount of muscle if they’ve made exceptional progress in the big lifts. Whereas the guy who starts out hogging all of the 45’s and only gains a little strength might not have to gain as much muscle.
So, we could say that gaining a lot of strength over time will lead to gaining a lot of muscle. While in the beginning stages of training, simply training the basic lifts hard and in the strength-building zones will be more than enough to significantly enhance your overall strength. There will come a point where more drastic measures will be needed if you’re to continue adding plates to the bar.
I’m going to share with you a few of my favorite strength-building techniques and how they can put more muscle on your frame.
But What About Targeted Training?
Recently, I’ve focused on teaching people how to efficiently recruit certain muscle groups to better improve symmetry and balance. In doing so, I presented a lot of exercises that might be seen as isolation movements. I also emphasized the mind-muscle connection by focusing on squeezing the targeted muscle and contracting it instead of simply “lifting weights.”
This has led to the belief that I think this is the only type of training that should be used to build a muscular physique. Far from it! After all, my background is first and foremost as a strength athlete. And while I’ve studied the art of maximizing bodybuilding gains, I haven’t forgotten about my roots. Nor have I put away the need for heavy lifting when it comes to building a muscular physique.
When it comes to building a raw, animalistic size, heavy weights are necessary. Getting stronger is mandatory on the road towards a head-turning physique, especially in those who don’t already have a solid base of strength.
The downside of heavy lifting is that it’ll tend to build up your strong points more so than your weaknesses.
For example, if you’re performing a bench press with a very heavy weight, the body has no idea that deep down inside you want to build a huge chest. Your body is just concerned that there’s a big ass weight trying to crush you, and if you don’t lift it you’ll die underneath! For all it knows, you’re in the jungle trapped under a gigantic boulder.
In the interest of survival, your body will emphasize your stronger muscle group(s). In this case, if your triceps are dominant compared to your pectorals, they’ll take on the brunt of the work, and as a result, receive more growth stimulation. Your strong point becomes even stronger in relation to its synergists.
And the heavier the weight is, the more significant this “muscle dominance emphasis” becomes. When the weights are light, you can voluntarily contract the target muscle group more effectively. Not so when you’re using maximal weights.
That’s why targeted, moderate weight lifting will be necessary if you want to build the complete package. However, targeted training by itself won’t build as much overall mass and strength as lifting heavy with basic movements. That’s why both approaches are needed to progress optimally.
The Benefits of Heavy Lifting
Getting stronger constitutes progression, and the key to success in building muscle is to progress on a systematic basis. Of course, progression by load isn’t the only way to progress from workout to workout. But, getting slightly stronger and lifting a bit more weight as frequently as possible does represent a significant way of forcing the body to add muscle mass.
Outside of that simple reasoning, there are other reasons why heavy lifting can be beneficial when it comes to packing on some beef.
1 – Heavy lifting increases the overall efficiency of the nervous system to recruit motor units.
Putting up heavy weights is especially efficient at recruiting the all-important high-threshold motor units (HMTU’s). These are the big daddies with the greatest growth potential. Activation of these muscle fibers is in direct relation to the amount of force you have to produce. The more force production that’s needed, the more the nervous system has to recruit these fibers.
The HTMU’s are harder to recruit than the less powerful slow-twitch fibers. This is because the HTMU’s have a higher activation threshold. As a result, the nervous system has to work harder to recruit them. But, the more it is asked to recruit these fibers, the more efficient it becomes.
In that regard, heavy lifting makes the nervous system better at activating the muscle fibers that’ll be responsible for the majority of your strength and size gains. This improvement in neural efficiency will also transfer to other types of lifting. When you switch to a phase of “regular,” moderate weight training, you’ll still be able to better recruit these money fibers simply because your nervous system is now primed and ready.
In other words, heavy lifting improves the efficacy of all other types of training performed subsequently.
2 – Heavy lifting improves myogenic tone.
Myogenic tone is what’s often called “tonus.” While this is a taboo word in hardcore training circles because of the “I just want to tone” crowd, the fact remains that it’s a very real phenomenon. Ironically, to improve myogenic tone to the max, it’s not the gym bunny with the pink dumbbells that’ll see the best results.
You see, myogenic tone refers to a state of partial muscle activation. It means that even at rest the nervous system is keeping some tension in the muscle, probably to stay in a state of readiness if ever a situation requiring an instant force production arises.
Myogenic tone will be determined mostly by two things:
Neural efficiency: The more efficient the nervous system is, the greater your myogenic tone will be. Since heavy lifting improves the neural aspect of force production much more so than lighter lifting, it’s only logical that this form of training will lead to more tonus over time.
Specific muscle fiber development: Some studies have shown that HTMU’s (fast-twitch fibers) are predominantly superficial muscle fibers, while slow-twitch fibers lie deeper in the muscle. Preferential hypertrophy of the HTMU’s, which are close to the skin surface, may make a muscle appear more solid. This is especially true when your body fat levels are low.
In fact, it’s pretty easy to distinguish between a “pumper” and a heavy lifter, even among pro bodybuilders.
The pumper seems to double in volume midway through his workout. When you look at him in an un-pumped state, he won’t appear that impressive. Give him twenty minutes in the gym and you’ll think he’s a completely different person. An hour after his workout, he’ll once again look less than impressive.
On the other hand, find a guy who does a lot of heavy lifting and you’ll see someone who doesn’t change that much regardless of if he’s pumped or not. He’ll look just as solid, massive, and impressive at rest than during an intense workout.
In the bodybuilding world, you can compare the physiques of Flex Wheeler and Francis Benfatto, who were noted “pumpers,” to guys like Dorian Yates, Johnny Jackson, or Branch Warren who are known for lifting in the lower rep ranges. Granted, Flex and Francis have more aesthetic physiques, but I’m only talking about muscle density and that rock-solid look.
It seems that lighter training can give the muscles a rounder look because it stimulates more slow-twitch fibers, which are deeper in the muscle. But, this look is only truly remarkable when the athlete is pumped up.
Heavy lifting seems to lead to a rock-solid appearance that sticks with you 24/7. I remember seeing Marius Pudzianowski at the Olympia expo. He wasn’t the biggest guy there, but he was by far the most impressive. He actually looked like he could walk through a brick wall!
Now, understand that this “look” theory is only from my observation. There is some basis for it, but it hasn’t been proven. But, one thing is certain: Heavy lifting improves myogenic tone better than light or moderate training.
3 – Heavy lifting potentiates the effectiveness of moderate load training.
This is fairly easy to understand: If you drastically jack up your strength via phases of heavy lifting, you’ll be able to use more weight than before when you move to a traditional bodybuilding program.
If you can lift more weight without losing the quality of the muscle contraction during phases of bodybuilding-type training, you’ll stimulate more growth.
So in that regard, by alternating between phases of heavy lifting and bodybuilding training you’ll supercharge your muscle growth.
4 – The variation and shock to your system.
As Charles Poliquin once said, “The best program is the one you’re not doing.”
What this means is that if you’ve never strayed from your bodybuilding training, the simple fact of switching will spark new growth; probably a lot more than you thought possible!
Understand that the body is built for survival, not to look good at the beach. While your goal might be to build as much muscle as possible, your body’s goal is to be perturbed as little as possible. As a result, it’ll strive to adapt to anything you put it through, until it’s so well adapted that “what you put it through” isn’t a bother anymore. When it reaches that point, there’s no need to adapt, which means you’re sitting atop a plateau with no new muscle.
If you always train using the same approach, your body will eventually become so well adapted that it won’t need to grow in response to training. This is why doing the opposite of what you’re used to will lead to drastic new growth.
Remember that everything works, but nothing works forever!
Thib’s Favorite Heavy Lifting Methods
Here are a few of the methods I like to use when strength gains from regular heavy lifting have stalled. These techniques don’t require any special equipment so everybody with access to a regular gym can drive their numbers up.
1 – Clusters
If you’ve been a Testosterone reader for a while, clusters shouldn’t be new to you. After all, most of us are proponents of this great way of boosting strength and size.
Cluster sets refer to performing sets of several reps separated by a short pause. The pause between reps, normally 10 to 12 seconds, allows you to replenish some of the muscle’s workhorse, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and get some neural recovery going on. Both of these phenomena will enable you to perform more reps with a given weight.
Classic clusters are performed for sets of 5 reps, utilizing a load that you’d normally perform 2 to 3 reps with. Between each repetition, you rest for 10 to 12 seconds. During that pause, you re-rack the bar so that the muscles are unloaded and can thus partially recover.
This type of training will put a tremendous growth stimulus on the body and will spark new gains in strength in the plateaued individual.
A classic cluster set for the bench press would thus look like this:
- Perform the first rep
- Re-rack the bar
- Rest for 10 to 12 seconds
- Perform the second rep
- Re-rack the bar
- Rest 10 to 12 seconds
- Perform the third rep
- Re-rack the bar
Note that just like with any other maximum lifting method, it’s best to perform clusters with a spotter. For one thing, he can help you un-rack the bar, saving you some energy for your reps.
When doing clusters, I recommend performing 5 sets for your exercise of choice. Never perform clusters for more than one exercise per muscle group per session.
2 – Functional Isometric/Dynamic Contrast
This second method consists of alternating between two types of contraction for the same movement pattern. First, you perform a set of a functional isometric exercise (I’ll explain these in a few seconds), rest for 2 to 3 minutes, and then perform a set of regular lifting for the same lift. You go back and forth between these two for the prescribed number of sets.
Functional isometrics combine a very short range of motion during the concentric (lifting) portion with a maximum overcoming isometric action. It requires the use of a power rack and two sets of safety pins. The bar is set between the two sets of pins (it sits on the first set of pins in the starting position) and is loaded with a heavy weight. There are 2 to 4 inches between both sets of safety pins.
The exercise consists of lifting the bar off the first set of pins and driving it into the second set. Once the bar hits the second set, you push (or pull depending on the movement) against the pins for 5 to 10 seconds. The differences between this type of training and the regular overcoming isometrics are that:
- There’s some concentric/lifting movement involved, even though the range of motion is fairly short.
- You add weight to the exercise. With regular overcoming isometrics, you simply push/pull an empty bar against the pins, while in the functional variation you use a loaded barbell. You keep adding weight to the bar until you reach a load that you can’t hold for 5 seconds against the second set of pins. This makes the exercise more motivating and progress easier to measure.
In this second method, the functional isometric exercise is used to potentiate the regular lifting exercise. To do so, you perform a maximum functional isometric action lasting 5 to 10 seconds, rest for 2 to 3 minutes, and then perform a set of regular lifting.
You can use the isometric action at your sticking point to potentiate this specific portion of the movement so that it’ll become a less problematic area. Or you have the option of performing the isometric action at your strongest point to have a maximal potentiation effect on the whole movement.
When performing this type of contrast set, the role of the functional isometric movement is to allow you to lift more weight in the regular exercise by potentiating the nervous system. The best effect of this method will be seen if you perform sets of 3 to 6 reps on the regular lifting movement.
When using this method, I recommend the autoregulatory system. You use your performance on the regular lifting exercise to regulate the number of sets you perform.
To do so, start the regular exercise with a load that you can do for 6 challenging reps. You use 10 to 15% more weight on the functional isometric movement.
You keep adding weight on every set until you reach the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 3 reps.
A workout would look like this:
Set 1: Regular exercise – 225 pounds x 6 reps
Set 2: Functional isometric – 255 pounds x 10 seconds
Set 3: Regular exercise – 235 pounds x 6 reps
Set 4: Functional isometric – 265 pounds x 10 seconds
Set 5: Regular exercise – 245 pounds x 5 reps
Set 6: Functional isometric – 275 pounds x 8 seconds
Set 7: Regular exercise – 255 pounds x 4 reps
Set 8: Functional isometric – 285 pounds x 7 seconds
Set 9: Regular exercise – 265 pounds x 3 reps
Set 10: Functional isometric – 295 pounds x 6 seconds
Set 11: Regular exercise – 270 pounds x 2 reps
End of exercise
You shouldn’t perform more than 6 sets of the regular exercise, though. If you do, either your initial load was too low or your progression wasn’t adequate.
3 – Manual Eccentric Overload
I love this technique because as a coach it allows me to be sadistic with my clients. The goal is to increase the stress during the eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise. Firstly because you’re stronger in that portion of the movement, so it’s harder to fully overload the muscles in that phase of the lift.
Also, during the eccentric phase of the movement, the HTMU’s are recruited almost exclusively, making the pain well worth your while. By increasing loading during that phase of the movement, you put a greater growth stimulus on these potent fibers.
The method is fairly simple. Load the bar with around 80% of your maximum for that lift. During the eccentric portion of the movement, your training partner will push down on the bar to add resistance. Just how much resistance should he add? Well, the goal is for you to be able to lower the bar in 3 to 5 seconds. If you can’t control the bar enough to lower it in that time frame, he’s applying too much pressure.
As the eccentric portion comes to an end, the partner releases the bar and you push with all your might. Then the vicious cycle starts again.
Your partner will need to adjust the amount of pressure he puts on the bar with each rep. Fatigue will make you weaker, so he’ll have to gradually decrease the amount of resistance he adds.
Normally sets of 3 to 5 reps are to be performed, although some strong SOB’s can get up to 8 reps.
4 – Antagonist Cluster
Antagonist clusters are similar to the classic cluster in that the goal is to perform more reps than you should be able to do, and you do so by having some rest between reps of an exercise.
The difference with the antagonist cluster is that you’ll alternate reps for two opposing muscle groups.
For example, you would alternate one repetition of the bench press with one repetition of chest-supported T-bar rows. Once again take 10 to 12 seconds between reps, so that a set will look like this:
First rep bench press
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
First rep T-bar row
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Second rep bench press
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Second rep T-bar row
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Third rep bench press
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Third rep T-bar row
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Fourth rep bench press
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Fourth rep T-bar row
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Fifth rep bench press
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
Fifth rep T-bar row
Rest 10 to 12 seconds
End of set
This method will allow you to use even more weight than with the classic cluster. In fact, you should be able to use 90 to 95% of your maximum for 5 reps! Why is that, you ask?
- You have more rest between reps of the same exercise. More rest equates to better ATP replenishment in the muscle and more metabolite clearance.
- A muscle’s ability to produce full motor unit activation is enhanced when the contraction of that muscle is preceded immediately by a contraction of its antagonist (opposite muscle).
- There’s a decrease in the inhibition of the antagonist. This is because of an accumulation of fatigue. You see, when a muscle has to contract, it doesn’t only contract against the weight, it must also contract against its opposite muscle group. If that opposite muscle is slightly fatigued, it’ll add less resistance.
To create some good pairings, think in terms of opposing muscle groups for smaller groups like biceps and triceps, or in opposite movement patterns for more complex lifts.
Torso 1: Flat bench press and chest-supported T-bar rows
Torso 2: Incline bench press and lat pull-down (torso leaning back at 45 degrees with no swinging)
Torso 3: Military press and lat pull-down (straight torso) or pull-ups
Torso 4: Dips and upright rows
Arms 1: Preacher curl and nose breakers
Arms 2: Dumbbell hammer curl and decline dumbbell triceps extension
For the lower body, it gets a bit more complex because generally speaking all of the lower body muscles are involved in the compound movements. So, it’s hard to take advantage of this method. We can use the leg extension and leg curl combo, but that’s about it. Thus, for the lower body, the classic cluster method is a more reasonable approach.
Just like with the classic cluster, 5 sets should be performed and only use the antagonist cluster for one exercise pairing per workout.
5 – Progressive Movement Training
This method was “invented” by Paul Anderson, arguably the strongest squatter of all-time. He was squatting 1,000 pounds before squat suits were even a distant thought.
Anderson would perform partial squats with around 100 pounds more than his normal maximum. Starting with quarter squats, he would increase the range of motion by three inches every couple of weeks, while decreasing the reps until he was down to a full squat with a new max.
The funny thing is that back then they didn’t have power racks, Anderson would dig a hole in the ground, put the bar over it, crawl into the hole, and squat back up with the bar. Every one to two weeks he would fill in the hole a little to increase the range of motion. It also meant that he had to start every set from a dead start from the bottom position, which makes the lift much more difficult.
I only recommend using progressive movement training on the three big lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift). You don’t have to use it for all three, but these are the movements where this is the most applicable.
This technique is slightly different than the other ones in that we’ll use higher reps, at least for a while. You’ll start with 15% above your current one-rep max on the lift.
Begin the first week by performing 1/8 of the range of motion, or basically just the lockout portion of the exercise. Perform as many reps as humanly possible in that range of motion, but still focus on maintaining the same posture and technique as you would in the full movement. Don’t worry if you get 20-plus reps; Anderson used to start his cycle with 20 to 25 reps per set.
Depending on the movement, you increase the range of motion every one to three weeks: every week for squats, every two weeks for deadlifts, and every two or three weeks for the bench press. This is because of the normal range of motion of each of these movements.
The squat has a longer range of movement than the bench press, so you can increase it at a faster pace. When the time comes, increase the range of motion by two to three inches, or one hole in the power rack.
Every week, the goal is to perform as many reps as possible in the range of motion selected, while keeping the same weight from week to week. Obviously, as the range of motion increases the number of reps will decrease, but at the end of a cycle (around 8 weeks) you should be able to lift 10 to 15% more than your previous max.
More advanced lifters might not get 15% and others might improve more than 15%. Regardless of the precise progression number, the fact is that at the end of the cycle, people will start calling you “Ox.”
It’s important to continue to perform full range of motion exercises for the movement pattern to avoid losing the capacity to showcase strength over the entire range. However, don’t select the same exercise as the progressive movement one. If you use the progressive movement technique for the squat, train the full range of motion on the front squat or leg press. If you choose the bench press, perform incline dumbbell bench press or decline dumbbell bench press.
Be Smart, Be Strong
These methods are all super effective plateau-busters. They’ll allow you to gain a lot of strength rapidly, even if you were swearing at the same weight for months. In return, you’ll also find yourself sprouting some new muscle.
These methods are very powerful and as such put a tremendous burden on the body and nervous system. When you decide to use one of these approaches, don’t go overboard.
I know that some of you’ll be tempted to include many of these methods in the same program. Don’t. Because if it works, you’ll never know exactly which technique led to your gains. More importantly, though, you’ll be hit with a one-two punch of burnout and injury.
The best approach is to use just one of these techniques, along with some regular lifting, per block of training. After that, swap it for another one. This way you’ll keep progressing over the long haul and your body parts will remain where they belong.
Now go add some weight to the bar.
Originally posted on www.t-nation.com 02/11/08