Should you just move the most weight possible from A to B or should you flex and squeeze the weight up and down only focusing on the quality of the contraction rather than the load?
You should do both. As ever, the middle ground wins.
The problem with the fitness industry (it’s true in all industries actually, but particularly the fitness world) is that people think in black and white. Everything is binary. This or that, yes or no. Very few have an appreciation for the spectrum of grey between two extremes.
People like to pin their colours to the mast of one method, group, or worse guru. They want to be part of a group. A member on a team and they will then fight to the death (well fight to an ugly name calling conclusion on Facebook at least) in defence of their ‘team’. Clean eating V IIFYM, low carb V low fat, bodybuilders v crossfitters, evidence based V Broscience, Vegan V well, everyone actually. It’s all one great big keyboard warrior cock size comparison.
So, who’s the bigger cock, the progressive overload crew or the mind muscle connection bros?
They’re both as good and bad as each other. You see, if you only do one or other then you’ll miss out on gains.
The problem with progressive overload…
Progressive overload is awesome. It is one of the fundamental principles of training and you should be doing it.
The problem is people have been brainwashed into thinking that progressive overload is synonomus with more weight on the bar. This is false.
As a consequence of this mindset most people that focus on progressive overload just throw more weight on the bar and move it from A to B. This works great for a while. Then it becomes more like A to B minus X. They chop range. Or they bastardise the form. This shortchanges their results.
You see progressive overload works great if applied appropriately. More weight on the bar with the same form means more overall tension. More homeostatic disruption. And more adaptation. All good!
Kidding yourself you’re progressing by adding 2.5kg a week but ending up doing quarter squats does nothing except giving the illusion of progress and massaging your ego.
The problem with flexing and squeezing…
The ability to contract and focus on a specific muscle is key to being able to activate it. Learning to do this is key. The problem is you can squeeze, flex, contract and ‘feel’ a muscle working all you want with the pink dumbbells, but you won’t grow. The tension and disruption created simply isn’t enough to force your body to grow.
So, having the ability to have an inward focus and contract a muscle is a fundamental tool to build muscle, but it is not the be all and all that some believe. Once you have learned to contract a muscle you then need to load it progressively
Combining progressive overload and the mind muscle connection is the way forward. But how do you combine the two?
Indicators, Back-offs and Activators:
I’m a big fan of indicator lifts. An indicator lift is a big compound movement which you track your performance on over a number of months. It is the foundation of your program and provides an indication of progress. If your performance on this lift is steadily improving then it is a great sign that your program, as whole, is working.
Your indicator lifts should be an exercise you are competent with, doesn’t cause you injury, allows you to steadily add weight to the bar and suits your leverages.
I suggest you pick four. A quad dominant one, a hamstring dominant one, an upper body push and a pull. Now, many of you might gravitate towards the powerlfits (squat, bench and deadlift) for the first three. That’s fine, but you don’t have to be tied to these lifts. You could instead choose front squats, incline bench and Romanian deadlifts (or any other variants of these basic movement patterns).
As for an upper body pulling exercise, you could choose a chin up or pull up, bent over row, or a DB row variation. Again no one is inherently better than the other. Pick the one which suits you best and you have scope to progress on. Also consider your current back development. Need more width then maybe pull-ups are a good choice. Need more thickness then a row is more likely a good choice.
On these lifts you are going to aim to drive load and/or reps up each week. You might simply add 2.5kg a week and keep hitting the same rep scheme. Or pick a weight and just try and add a rep every week for a number of weeks before increasing load. The exact approach isn’t the most important factor. The key is that you progress on these lifts consistently.
One way I like to implement this progressive approach to indicator lifts is to simply work up to a top set. In general, I have clients work up to a 5RM and then do some back off sets in that lift (full article on back off sets here). Then the following week you work up to a slightly heavier 5 rep set.
Doing this in the compound lifts creates a lot of tension across a large amount of muscle mass. Mechanical tension is the most important mechanism of muscle building. However, when the load is extremely heavy it takes everything you have just to move it from A to B. This means you cannot focus on contracting the target muscle. Your body is in fight or flight mode and will look for the path of least resistance. Often times this means that muscle other than the target muscle contribute heavily to the lift. Take the bench press for example. When loads get close to the limit your shoulders and triceps are going to kick in to complete the lift. The plus side is that you used a lot of load to create a tonne of tension across a large area of muscle mass. This is an extremely efficient use of training time, but is also very demanding on recovery. Try working up to multiple 5RMs in a session and see how your recovery is if you don’t believe me.
Given volume is a key contributor to muscle size you want to try and do as much hard volume as you can handle. Smashing heavy sets of 5 is not an efficient way to achieve this. It requires you to take long rest periods so sessions take a long time. It also beats you up and increases your risk of injury. Instead of trying to smash ungodly quantities of heavy volume you are better off banking the heavy work and the stimulus it created and then offering a more time efficient and easy to recover from stimulus. This is where attentional focus down sets can come in.
Say you worked up to a bench press of 100kg for 5 reps. You then can back the weight off, increase the reps and focus more of your attention on targeting the chest. Lowering the weight a little slower, pausing at the bottom, and contracting the pecs hard to initiate the lift. 3 sets of 8 done like that will leave your chest pumped and more fully stimulated than if you had just kept flogging away at heavy sets of 5.
Firstly, you are working the muscle in it’s other function (adduction rather than flexion). That will provide a novel stimulus for growth. Secondly, the rep range allows you to create a significant amount of tension and metabolic stress. If you do a set of 12 reps with a controlled lowering phase, a pause, then initiate the lift with the pecs and squeeze at the peak for a 2 count then the time under tension will be north of 60 seconds for the set. This will cause plenty of lactic acid to accumulate. A lovely “burn” in the pecs and mean you have utilised the metabolic stress pathway for growth. On top of all that, you also get an excellent stretch on the muscle in the bottom position. This increases activation of the muscle and contribute towards msucel damage -the third proposed mechanism of hypertrophy. Cable flyes are pretty easy to recover from so you get a different stimulus to your heavy benching with little additional recovery needs.
This same approach can be taken with all muscle groups. Following squats, with leg presses and leg extensions for quads. Leg curls after RDLs for hamstrings. Lat pulldowns and straight arm pulldowns for lats after weighted chins.
Using the mind muscle connection to activate a certain muscle group before the heavy lifts is also a useful strategy. For example, you may choose an isolation exercise to target a muscle you struggle to feel before then going on to perform a compound lift for this muscle group.
Isolate to Integrate:
The point of the activation sets are to activate not exhaust the muscle. Think of them as an extended warm-up. You shouldn’t be going to failure on them. If you do you will reduce your performance in the subsequent big lifts excessively. If, on the other hand, you leave several reps in the tank and simply focus on creating the mind muscle connection then they can actually help to improve performance on the big lifts. Be conservative with the weight and how close to failure you get. You simply want to try and establish the mind muscle connection not fatigue the muscle. If you try this then I’m sure you’ll find that you can create more tension on the target muscle in the big lifts.
So, that was using a different isolation exercise to activate the muscle before moving on to a bigger lift. Another approach is to do warm up sets on the lift in a specific fashion to maximise mind muscle connection. I call this Variable Tempo Training or VTT when working with my clients. Using light warm-up loads they do several activation/warm-up sets really trying to target the muscle we are aiming to stimulate. In general, I do the first set with a very slow eccentric and concentric, e.g.. 5050. Then the next set I usually get the to pause in the fully contracted position for a 2 count, then finally a pause in the bottom of the lift for a 2 count, before going on to perform normal tempo lifts at heavier weights.
An example, on the lying leg curl would be doing a smooth 5050 temp set, then adding a little weight and doing a 3012 set (lower in 3sec, no pause, lift in 1, hold the peak contraction for 2), then adding a fraction more and do a 3210 (lower in 3, pause at the lengthened position for 2, lift in 1, no pause, repeat) set before doing the first work set.
I have found this to be a very effective strategy. It is a thorough warm-up for the main work sets, allows you to target the shortened, lengthened and mid-range of a movement. So each point of the full ROM is targeted specifically over different sets. Doing so means that full fibre recruitment can be achieved. It creates a phenomenal mind muscle connection and allows you to practice technique multiple times before the top sets.
This approach also tends to work well for lagging muscle groups. Very often one of the reasons a muscle is lagging is because you cannot properly recruit it and you tend to use momentum and other muscles to move the weight. When you have to lift a weight in 5 seconds or pause at the top or the bottom for a two count it really minimises the possibility of momentum taking over. This means more tension goes where you want it.
There are a few ways to incorporate heavy lifting and pump style training into your program to maximise your muscle. You should combine both progressive overload and the mind muscle connection to grow the most.
A good rule of thumb is to use indicator lifts to train like a powerlifter at the beginning of your workout and then finish your session like a proper bro bodybuilder who flexes and squeezes the weight up and down without too much concern for the weight in your hand.
Doing this means your indicator lift allows you to measure progress from a load/intensity standpoint. As a result, you can overload via the intensity pathway. Using a mind muscle approach for you accessory work then allows you overload on volume. If you can continue to do that then it is a recipe for growth.
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