How you perform each repetition of an exercise is far more important than how many or your time under load. In fact, while it might sound contradictory, the better you are at an exercise the fewer repetitions you should be able to complete or the shorter your TUL with a given resistance.
This is because the real goal of an exercise is not to make the weight go up and down for some number of repetitions or seconds; that’s just a means to an end. Your real goal is to use the weight to place the greatest possible demand on the muscles worked by the exercise. Rather than think of exercise as being about using your muscles to move the weight, think of it as using the weight to inroad and intensely work your muscles.
If you want to get the most out of your workouts you have to adopt what I call the “high intensity mindset”. From the start of the first rep your goal is not to see how much you can lift, how many reps, seconds, or whatever, but to make every second and every inch of movement as difficult as possible for the muscles being worked. You should be trying to inroad the working muscles as deeply and quickly as possible, trying to achieve momentary muscular failure as efficiently as you can. Your goal is to get to failure so you can continue to contract for another five to ten seconds after and send your body the “message” your environment is making a demand on it that exceeds your current capability and it had better adapt so it can handle it better the next time. Ideally, you also want to get there as safely and efficiently as possible; without excessive wear or injury and without using any more energy than necessary to get to that point.
When you focus more on the numbers than the muscles you will tend to do the exercise in a way that makes it easier to do more reps or go longer – the exact opposite of what you want. When you are able to do more repetitions or go longer it should be because you’ve gotten strong enough that despite your best effort to achieve momentary muscular failure earlier you exceed your upper repetition or time guide number, not because you’ve done things to make it easier.
The majority of form errors people make are because they are focusing on the numbers instead of the muscles;
- Moving too quickly
- Throwing or swinging the weight instead of lifting it
- Dropping the weight instead of lowering it
- Setting the weight down and unloading between reps
- Locking out and resting at the end point during pushing movements
- Altering your body position or movement to reduce the resistance or shift some of it to other muscles
- Avoiding or rushing through harder portions of the range of motion
- Pausing or moving too slowly through easier portions of the range of motion (AKA “sandbagging”)
- Quickly alternating backing off or dropping then heaving at the weight in an attempt to elicit a stretch reflex (AKA “off-onning”)
All of these make it easier to do more reps or go longer but less demanding for the muscles and less effective for the real goal of exercise: stimulating increases in muscular strength and size and through them improvements in the other trainable factors of functional ability. By increasing the length of time it takes to get there they also cause you to waste more energy in the process. While a demand on energy systems is necessary to stimulate some of the improvements we want from exercise there is a point of diminishing returns beyond which you begin to interfere with your body’s ability to recover from and adapt to exercise. Many of these also involve increases in acceleration or changes in leverage which may increase the risk of injury or result in increased wear over time.
If you list the opposites of the above form errors you get the start of a pretty good list of things you should do during exercise:
- Move in a slow and controlled manner
- Lift the weight, don’t swing or throw it
- Lower the weight under strict control, don’t drop it
- Do not set the weight down or unload between repetitions
- Do not lock out and rest at the end point during pushing movements
- Do not alter your body position or movement to reduce the resistance or shift some of it to other muscles
- Do not avoid or rush through harder portions of the range of motion, “mine” them
- Do not pause or move too slowly through easier portions of the range of motion, or avoid them altogether
- Maintain continuous, even tension on the working muscles, do not back off then heave at the weight
Somewhat ironically, when you focus on these things instead of the numbers the numbers become more meaningful. When you go up in reps or time despite doing your best to inroad as efficiently as possible you will know it’s because you have gotten stronger. Don’t think of the upper repetition count or time under load numbers as goals; think of them as guides for keeping the resistance high enough to allow you to achieve momentary muscular failure within a reasonable time frame.
To put it as simply as possible, the high intensity mindset involves focusing on your muscles, not the numbers. Don’t think of exercise as using your muscles to do something to the weights – think of it as using the weights to do something to your muscles.