Personal progress provides its own motivation. Few things in the gym provide more positive feedback and personal motivation than setting a personal record on a favorite exercise. That's why you see so many guys with T-shirts proudly proclaiming "Bench Press 300 lbs" usually accompanied by a caricature of a huge guy hoisting a seriously bent barbell. While most of us prefer to be more introverted about our achievements, we all feel the glow of satisfaction in being able to improve ourselves with such a measured degree of certainty.
Paradoxically, the first step in setting a new personal record is very easy, and yet many people find it the most difficult to actually do: REST!
If you've been training for more than a couple of weeks, chances are you've already stimulated some new muscle growth that never has a chance to manifest because your body is never fully recovered. This is why so many people train three days per week but never see any real improvement in their physique and can't get beyond old personal records in most of their exercises.
Here is a general guide: If you've been training for less than four weeks, take seven full days off of training. You can do light aerobics and stretching but don't lift any weights whatsoever. If you've been training for one to three months, take ten days off of weightlifting. If you've been training more than four months you should rest and recover for a full two weeks. No, you won't lose muscle. I work with advanced trainees who rest up to six weeks between workouts and they see improvement in every exercise on every workout.
Recovery is the most forgotten element of a successful, productive training system. It allows your body to replenish itself in ways that exercise and diet can never do. Recovery is absolutely indispensable to progress.
When you return to the gym to start working towards your personal record you need a plan. Let's suppose that your personal record on the bench press is 275 pounds and you want to break that record by shooting for a 300 pound bench press.
I've helped thousands of athletes lift weights they thought were impossible by showing them the benefits of lifting in their strongest range of motion. Strong range lifts have the advantages of being safer because the weight is prevented from entering the weak range of motion where nearly all injuries occur. Also, by limiting the range of motion you are able to work with much heavier weights and that stimulates new growth not only in the target muscles but also in the ligaments and tendons that support those muscles. If you've never used this technique, you're in for a very big surprise!
Virtually any common exercise can be performed exclusively in the strong range of motion with the use of a power rack, Smith machine or good spotting partner. Continuing with the bench press as an example, after performing your normal warm-up, place the supports of a power rack so the bar rests in the top quarter-range of your reach. When you lie on the bench and reach up to grasp the bar your arms should be within about four inches of full extension.
Strong Range Of Motion Bench Press
Load the bar with the same weight that is your current personal record. When you lift this weight in your strongest range you'll be amazed at how easy it is! Next add 10% more weight and perform five reps. Keep adding 10% and performing five reps until you can only do 2 reps with a weight that will likely be 30%-100% more than you've ever lifted before. Make a note of that weight.
Now take three days off from all weightlifting.
When you return to the gym set up the bench press the same way and perform your normal warm-up. Load the above noted weight on the bar and try to perform two reps. If you can perform the two reps you know you rested long enough to return to your previous level of strength. Here's the hard part: if you can't do the two reps, leave the gym! Your body needs more recovery time. The proof is the fact that you are not as strong as you were three days earlier. Remember, recovery builds muscle!! Go home and build muscle on the sofa.
Performing a strong-range bench press using a power rack. Notice how the safety bars prevent the weight from entering the weak range of motion.
If you're fully recovered you'll most likely hoist the weight with ease. If so, add 5% more weight and perform five reps. Keep working the weight up until you can only perform two reps. Make a note of that weight.
Once again, take three days off all weightlifting.
When you return to the gym you will now be able to set a new personal record in the bench press. Perform your normal warm-up then do your attempt. Don't be surprised if you can lift 20 to 50 pounds more. On leg exercises, increases of 50 to 150 pounds have been reported.
The techniques I describe here can be used to set a personal record on virtually any exercise. Athletes who train with my system have discovered the advantages of never lifting in their weak range of motion. They get fewer injuries, less frequent training means less wear and tear on their body and they reach levels of strength impossible with weak range training.
Try the above just once and soon you'll be setting personal records on all your exercises...and that is the ultimate motivation!
Q. You advocate not using the whole range in lifting, but does this cause a decrease in flexibility?
A. We've never specifically studied whether partial range of motion strength training decreases overall flexibility. The reason is that we don't advocate any form of strength training as a means to improve flexibility.
I can tell you that we did a study on golfers where we used Static Contraction Training to improve their strength and measure how it affected the distance of their drives. (Increased up to 30 yards!) The participants reported that their overall game was also improved as well as their stamina on the course. But we did not measure and quantify those particular improvements.
The more efficient and safe way to improve flexibility is the way martial artists, yoga practitioners and other highly flexible people do it. Stretch. There is a good reason why you never see barbells in a yoga studio. Trying to improve your flexibility while hoisting a heavy weight is an invitation to injury.
My advice is completely separate and highly focused workouts for each of the three pillars of physical fitness: strength, flexibility and endurance. Mixing different types of workouts is a bad compromise.
Have a great workout!