It's easy to get caught up in status as a lifter. And I'm not just talking about "how much ya bench" conversations, either. It's often a question of how long we've been lifting.
Do these sound familiar?
"You're a beginner? Just get your reps in."
"I'd be careful doing that. It's only for advanced lifters."
There are a couple of problems with these ideas. First, beginners are often ruled by terrible movement patterning, and simply "getting their reps in" might only reinforce that dysfunction. Also, as I explained in my article "Why Getting Brutally Strong May Get You Hurt," many of the experienced lifters giving that advice are also the same ones who are injured all the time (maybe because all they did was "get their reps in" for years on end).
In some cases, of course, caution is well warranted when considering a supposedly "advanced" technique. But not always. Here are three techniques that you shouldn't wait to try. They can help you improve as a lifter right now, no matter what experience level you are!
Technique 1: Paused Reps
Paused reps on big lifts are a staple for competitive powerlifters seeking to combat their weak points. Taking the time to kill momentum, find the bottom end of range of motion, or exaggerate a loaded contraction are all fantastic tools in the pursuit of strength and hypertrophy at all levels.
Here's the real benefit for beginners, though: By forcing you to pick a load you can control through the rep, pauses actually raise the safety up a notch. On top of this, it makes each lift a feat of true, absolute strength.
So which exercises benefit from pauses? Most of them can, but three of my favorites are squat variations, pull-ups, and pull-downs.
Looking for one more place to pause? Consider the deadlift. The conventional deadlift basically contains paused reps by default, given you're coming to a dead stop on the floor and not using a tap-and-go method. But to get even more strength gains out of every rep, and to zero in on particular points of weakness or sticking points, try pausing at the mid-shin or knee level for a full second count. The added time under tension will only bolster your muscle growth, while also building muscle memory for good form in such positions.
You'll discover this soon enough, but remember that using pauses in your training, and cutting out momentum, will likely mean that the amount of weight you can lift for a set of the same rep number using good form will decrease. Start by using 80 percent of the weight you perform conventional reps with, and gun for the same rep range.
Technique 2: Forced Eccentrics or Eccentric Reps
I group these together because, while they often get used differently, they are building strength in the same style. Exaggerating the eccentric component (or lowering phase) of a lift provides a twofold benefit. First, it exposes muscles to more time under tension, meaning greater work capacity and volume for each rep and set. Second, it taps into the strongest muscle fibers that you possess.
A little science lesson: The fast-twitch muscle fibers are responsible for the most strength and power output the body can deliver. Lifting heavy things calls these fibers into play, but they're often only exploited in the concentric (lifting) phase of each lift, since that's the side of the rep that most lifters focus on. But focusing all of your attention there is skipping some crucial areas for strength gains.
For instance, say you can do 225 for 10 reps on the bench press as your personal best. With your spotter close at hand, you squeeze out 10 reps and decide to go for an 11th to set a new PR. It doesn't happen, and you're pinned at the bottom with the bar on your chest, unable to push it off. Most people would refer to this as "reaching failure." But in truth, that's just concentric failure. If, after you got pinned, your spotter decided to help you get the bar back to the top and make you lower it slowly for an additional rep or two, you can bet your bottom dollar you'd be able to do it, despite your fatigued state. If you're looking to step up in weight, those might be some of the most important reps of your day—as long as you perform them safely.
Being able to own and control heavy weights, even just on the descent, will deliver more strength and hypertrophy benefits than doing haphazard sets of 3, 5, or 8 reps with no regard for the negative.
So how do you put it into action? You could skip the concentric component entirely and focus only on 3-4-second (or longer) eccentric reps in, say, the pull-ups. I think this is as good a way to build pull-up strength as there is.
You could also perform reps where you still do the concentric portion, but simply place more of your focus on the eccentric than the concentric on moves like back squats.
Technique 3: Pre-Exhaust Methods
Before the bodybuilding crowd fills my inbox with hate, hear me out. Sometimes stronger muscles activate instead of the ones you are trying to work (like your quads instead of your glutes). A targeted attack on those muscles first will help keep them from blocking the muscles you're actually trying to access.
This mimics a common approach of stretching a certain muscle's antagonist muscle—say, stretching triceps before working biceps—so that it doesn't limit activation through a process called "reciprocal inhibition." Well, you can do the same for synergistic or "helper" muscles so they don't take over a big lift. A few examples of this could include:
- Doing hamstring curls before squats, hip thrusts, kettlebell swings, or bridges, so they won't inhibit your ability to involve the glutes.
- Exhausting the triceps in isolation before doing pull-overs or stiff-arm pulldowns.
Most Importantly: Just Lift!
Any of these techniques are easy to plug into your program to create variety, or to prepare you for a phase where you're going to build up to a heavy double or triple—not necessarily a one-rep max, as I explain in my article "Stop Maxing Out! Lift This Way Instead."
But while we can endlessly dissect your program and look for areas of improvement like these, at the end of the day, what matters the most is that you're lifting frequently and you're doing so consistently. The greats in any field of training—bodybuilding, strongman, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or various sports—usually have one thing in common: Most of their methods are fairly straightforward, and their excellence is built on a foundation of consistency. Start there, and keep crawling forward.