Have you reached the dreaded weight plateau?
Are your gains not coming in as thick and fast as they used to be?
Obviously the aim is to always try to be upping the weights. But do this when you’re good and ready, otherwise injury can rear its ugly head.
What you need are some easy but effective ways to push yourself that little bit harder, and get your progress back on track.
The key is variety
There’s more to weights than the standard up and down, lift and lower. Beast mode on. Beast mode off.
There are several techniques out there that can help you squeeze that bit extra from your bicep curls, squats, chest press, pretty much any weighted move. Yep, you can even use your bodyweight.
Now, get ready to feel the burrrrrrn.
1. The hold – isometric training
Bruce Lee was the king of isometrics. With his immense strength and steely physique – it’s pretty obvious that isometric training works!
Isometric training is essentially a static hold with no joint movement that causes tension in your muscles, making them work harder for longer. For example, issuing force on an immovable object (i.e. a wall squat) or remaining motionless in a weight-bearing pose.
What you may not know is that there’s two phases in a regular weighted move. The concentric phase when the muscle is contracting, and the eccentric phase when the muscle is lengthening (see images).
Now you can perform an isometric hold in either of these phases, and it’s a good idea to mix it up.
An isometric hold will build strength at the point of contraction AND about 5° either side. By changing the point of the hold, you can ensure that you’re challenging your muscles at a range of angles for maximum overall strength.
“The mean activation levels during maximal eccentric and maximal concentric contractions were 88.3% and 89.7%, respectively, and were significantly lower with respect to maximal isometric contractions (95.2%).”
So in non-science speak, your muscles work hard when you’re lowering the weight (eccentric phase = 88.3%), harder when lifting (concentric phase = 89.7%) but your muscles work hardest when performing a hold (that’s an isometric contraction). A massive 95.2% hard!
Yep, that’s a pretty big increase in muscle activation. And more activation means you’re recruiting more muscle fibres, which will inevitably repair BIGGER, BETTER and STRONGER.
Here’s how you can introduce isometrics to your regular bicep curl:
You can do isometric moves with just about any equipment-based exercise as well as bodyweight moves including planks, lunges, squats and push ups to name a few.
How long you can hold is the real test…
2. The pulse – continuous tension training
The next technique is a dynamic or active move which again, keeps that constant tension on your muscles. Poor things.
You should aim to pepper your weights workout with a few pulsing movements.
To perform a pulse you essentially forget the top and bottom part of the full move. With no joint lockout to divide the reps, it’ll be the hard mid-range portion – known as mid-range ‘partials’ – that’ll be your focus.
Simply stick to the middle in a smooth, continuous rhythm and your pulse will look something like this:
With pulsing, there’s no need to count reps. It’s all about how long you can go for.
Start with 20 seconds and work your way up from there.
Just remember to always break up continuous tension exercises with bouts of the full exercise. You don’t want to overtrain in the mid-range and as a result, lose your ability to optimally perform the full range of motion.
3. The slo-mo – controlled eccentric training
It’s not all about the lift you know. The lowering of the weight is just as important.
A slow, controlled release – the eccentric phase – is not only a good way to prevent injury but also gives you just as much muscle strain as lifting (remember the 88.3% and 89.7% mentioned in the study above? Pretty close figures huh?!).
Other studies have also shown that your body can tolerate up to 1.75 times more weight eccentrically (going downward) than it can concentrically (lifting upward).
“The superiority of eccentric training to increase muscle strength and mass appears to be related to the higher loads developed during eccentric contractions.”
In a nutshell, eccentric trumps concentric training for muscle strength and hypertrophy (that’s the science-y term for growth), no contest.
So as Cherrine demonstrates below, it’s certainly worth giving a bit of time – literally – to the eccentric phase of your weight exercises:
As a starting point, try a four second controlled release. Once you’ve got to grips with the slo-mo approach, work your way up to the big double figures.
You can obviously also do the reverse and use this technique for your lift too. That’s slow lift up and down fast – but no dropping! And definitely no more being lazy and letting gravity do the work.
Final words of (weight lifting) wisdom
You should never rely on any of these techniques as your sole source of weight training.
The full range of motion should always be your bread and butter.
The goal of these techniques is to give a bit of a kick to your regular rep routine, help you overcome your plateau and make sure you reach the next level in your weight climb.
So what are you waiting for?
Tear those muscles apart in your next lifting sesh with THE HOLD, THE PULSE and THE SLO-MO.
I’m pretty certain you’ll hear your muscles screaming. But it’ll so be worth it once you get your gains back on track... I promise.
*Safe weight training is always priority number one. Exercising without proper technique or with too much weight can lead to serious injuries, so if you need some extra advice or a spotter, don’t hesitate to grab a member of UQ Sport staff.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Eric McGregor.