Lifters are getting smarter. They know that it's not just about how big their bench press is; going heavy isn't the only way to make muscles grow. Being able to add weight to the bar is the byproduct of the gains you make from previous workouts—and from implementing other training strategies, like eccentric loading and isometrics.
Muscle hypertrophy is the process in which muscle fibers are broken down and repaired. It's an adaptive response to force generated against increased resistance. The recommended formula for stimulating hypertrophy is to lift submaximal weights for 6-12 repetitions per exercise. Strength development calls for heavier loads—usually around 80-90 percent of maximum—for sets of 2-5 repetitions, and anaerobic endurance requires lighter sets of 15 or more reps.
While it's good to increase your strength, lifting heavy increases the chance of wear and tear as well as injury. The strategies described here promote muscle growth without pushing the loads. Implement them in your workouts, and you can continue to add muscle without adding weight to the bar.
1. Switch Up Your Rep Ranges
Working in rep ranges of 6-12 will stimulate muscle growth, but how do you find the sweet spot? Lower reps call for more sets and an increase in weight to stimulate a muscle fiber response. Higher reps mean less weight but a longer time under tension, which is the amount of time your muscles are working during any given movement. The body appreciates change, so mixing up your rep ranges will keep your body on its toes, encouraging further muscle development by changing the stress to the musculoskeletal system.
2. Increase Your Volume of Work
Simply put, volume is the amount of work done in any given training session, expressed in pounds lifted. It is the total workload—the sum of the weight lifted in all successfully completed reps. You calculate the total volume by multiplying each weight lifted by the number of reps lifted at that weight. Here's a simple example that explains how you can do more work by lifting less.
Let's say you're doing overhead presses with 135 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps. On your third set, you complete only 8. That's 28 reps total, and your total workload is 3,780 pounds:
- 2 sets x 10 reps = 20 reps
- 1 set x 8 reps = 8
- Total reps = 28
- 28 reps x 135 pounds = 3,780 pounds
If you had used an optimal weight for your strength level—say, 130 pounds—and had been able to complete the last full set of 10, your total volume of weight lifted would be greater at 3,900 pounds (30 reps x 130 pounds).
As you can see, training to failure doesn't always bring the optimum results. When you pay attention to total volume, it pays off in strength development and muscle gains in the long run.
3. Increase Your Time Under Tension
The longer a muscle is working to support an exercise, the more opportunity it has to break down and grow back stronger and fuller. One way to do this involves the eccentric phase of the rep, which is the returning phase of every exercise and is often overlooked.
If you're benching and letting the weight crash down on your chest before you push the bar back up, you're missing half of the exercise—arguably the most important portion of the lift. If, instead, you control the weight during the eccentric phase—in this case the downward movement of the bench press—your muscles will have to work their hardest to control the movement, and that's where you reap the size benefits. Depending on the lift, and also taking into consideration the rep range and weight, an eccentric phase of 3-4 seconds is usually suggested to stimulate muscle hypertrophy.
4. Do Isometrics
Isometrics are exercises in which you hold your body in a certain position. It can be as simple as adding a pause when you're benching or holding the barbell just above your chest for a 2-second count before you lift. It's essential to implement isometric holds in your program if you want to maximize growth potential.
First, it trains you to create a stronger mind-muscle connection and isolate muscle groups more efficiently. You can really home in on which muscle is working during each portion of each exercise, which is pretty damn important if you're going to make that muscle grow. Second, it minimizes momentum, allowing for more optimal contractions and breakdown of targeted muscle fibers.
5. Vary Your Exercises
As previously noted, the body craves variety and responds positively when you change things up. Still, if you want to get better at something, like a snatch, you have to snatch. How to do both? You break down the snatch into segments. Power, block, and pause snatches all have the same end goal—to get the weight above your head. By breaking down your main lifts and adding variety to your approach, you force your body and mind to take in information at a greater rate, improve motor patterns, and stimulate muscle hypertrophy.
When I was in my teens, I was exposed to a great variety of exercises. I was putting my body to the test every week by throwing new exercises at it. My muscles never had a chance to get used to the routine and go on autopilot. I got strong as hell—and had to buy a lot of new shirts.
6. Change Your Exercise Order
Another way to create variety in your workout is to expose your muscles to different lifting patterns. By switching up the order of your exercises from time to time, you force your muscles to work in new, challenging ways. This goes hand in hand with exercise variety. Focusing solely on the main lifts—like the squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, snatch, and clean and jerk—with little to no emphasis on strengthening your supportive muscle groups can lead to plateaus or even your body crashing hard.
7. Do Supersets
There is something to be said about pairing exercises together. You won't be maxing out, but working with submaximal weight in supersets will help improve anaerobic endurance, increase muscle fiber activation, and improve recovery time. There are so many ways you can approach supersetting exercises: push/pull, upper/lower, quads/hams, flexion/extension, etc. It's all about incorporating new ways to stress your body, and supersets offer endless opportunities to change things up.
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