There is an interesting paradox in strength training. You never know how high “up” really is. You don’t know the maximum you can bench press today, you don’t know the maximum you can expect to deadlift in three months, and you don’t know how much muscle you can gain before you hit an absolute limit.
So how many plates do you put on the bar today? How often can you train in the next three months? And is the muscle you’ve gained so far the best you could hope for or is it pathetic compared to what you could have gained? What makes all of this worse is the way most people train – utterly devoid of any measurement or precision. They not only do not know how high ‘up’ is, they don’t really know where they are today compared to where they were three workouts ago.
This is why it’s so damaging to listen to advice about how you can “feel” what your body is capable of, or that you can train by “instinct.” You can feel exhausted by a set of exercise and, because of underlying stress or recovery issues, the exercise was sub-maximal and did nothing to stimulate new muscle growth. There is no reason to go by “feel” and “instinct” when simple, meaningful measurements are very easy to make. (BTW, it’s obvious that if you “feel” like crap you should not do a workout, but it’s ridiculous to expect to “feel” the difference in the effect of 2 sets of 20 with 185 lbs versus 3 sets of 14 with 195 lbs.)
What To Do
You can’t begin to wrap your arms around all this mystery until you takes some real measurements.
1. At a minimum, write down the weight you used and the reps you performed on each exercise.
2. If you absolutely hate making any calculations, at least total up the weight you lifted on each exercise. (Eg. If you benched 150 lbs for 10 reps, call it 1,500 lbs of total weight.)
3. Knowing the above, look for improvement on every exercise every time you do it. The whole point of strength building exercises is to make your muscles bigger and stronger so when you return to the gym you should always be able to lift more than the last time. Always. Without exception. If you can’t do that it means something is not working and you need to search for causes.
Want to Do More Than The Minimum?
4. Measure the intensity of your exercises by knowing the elapsed time the lifting takes. That is a foolproof way to know whether or not your “high intensity” exercise was really high intensity – particularly compared to what you did on your previous workout.
5. Stop lifting in your weakest range of motion. Most people never learn how strong they really are and really could be because they limit weights to what they can lift in their weakest range. Use a power rack or Smith machine to limit exercises to only your strongest range – you’ll be blown away at how much you can hoist and what it does to your intensity numbers.
6. Wake up to the FACT that you cannot train productively on a fixed schedule from beginner to advanced level. Once you make measurements you’ll see in black and white that you can not follow a maximum lift on Monday with a better lift on Wednesday and an even better lift on Friday and a still better lift the next Monday. Instead, make every workout count and stop doing regressive training.
7. Use a defined training method. Don’t use happenstance that depends on what equipment is not being used at the moment you want to work your biceps. (Of course I want you to try Static Contraction or Power Factor, (See which is better for you) but whatever you use, follow the above points. But good luck finding a training method that uses exact measurement, most trainers don’t want you knowing in black and white how much of your time they are wasting.)
You have a lot to gain. If you’re like most people you’ll be shocked at what you have to gain. All you have to do is train with your brain.