Have you been working out with your trainer for some time
now? Maybe at first you made progress following the standard guidelines that
recommend one or two sets of 10 different exercises twice a week, but now
you have reached a strength plateau. What do you and your trainer do?
At first, logic would suggest you need to perform more exercise sets. Longer
workouts and more training sessions seem to offer the best solution.
Unfortunately, such training programs increase both the time requirements
and the risk of overuse injuries. Just as few people can run two hours a
day without experiencing physical problems, few people can lift weights two
hours a day without experiencing tissue damage.
To date, the most promising approach to time-efficient advanced exercise
is high-intensity strength training. Chances are your trainer is already
using some of these techniques in your program.
How Does It Work?
The basic premise of high-intensity strength training is to increase the
exercise intensity, rather than the exercise duration and frequency. We can
exercise hard or we can exercise long, but it’s difficult to do both! With
high-intensity training, we make a muscle work harder rather than longer
to make strength gains. Due to the greater muscle demands and longer
tissue-recovery period, this type of training should be used prudently–probably
no more than once a week.
One means of enhancing the training stimulus is a slower exercise speed that
reduces movement momentum and thus increases muscle tension. This is typically
referred to as slow training. With slow positive-emphasis training, the lifting
movement is performed more slowly than the lowering movement. For instance,
in a biceps curl, you might take 10 seconds to lift the weight and four seconds
to lower it. As you might guess, slow negative-emphasis training is just
the opposite: You take four seconds to lift and 10 seconds to lower.
Another way to enhance the muscle effort is to complete a few postfatigue
repetitions with slightly less resistance. You may perform 12 barbell curls
with 75 pounds and reach fatigue. At that point, you find you can’t do any
more curls with proper form. Instead of having you stop, however, your trainer
removes two five-pound plates from the barbell, and you find you can perform
a few more reps.
“Breaking down” the resistance to better match your fatigued strength level
increases the training intensity in two ways: First, you experience temporary
muscle failure twice during the extended exercise set. Second, you fatigue
more muscle fibers by immediately performing more reps with the reduced
Although similar to breakdown training in theory, assisted training may be
more productive. This is because breakdown training reduces the resistance
for both lifting and lowering movements. With assisted training, on the other
hand, you perform enough reps to reach fatigue, and then your trainer helps
you perform a few more reps only during the lifting movement. Since you can
lower more weight than you can lift, you really don’t need help in the lowering
movements. Because properly performed assisted training produces greater
stress positively and negatively, it provides an excellent muscle-building
Superset training is a versatile method of high-intensity training with a
number of applications. The most productive application is to perform two
or more sets for the same muscle group with little rest in between. Generally,
a rotary exercise for a given muscle group is followed immediately by a linear
exercise for the same muscle group. For example, you may perform a set of
lateral raises immediately followed by a set of shoulder presses. You fatigue
your deltoids with the lateral raises, and then further fatigue them–along
with your triceps–with the shoulder presses.
Harder, Not Longer
The basic intent of high-intensity strength training is to provide a different
or deeper stimulus to the muscle fibers. With breakdown and assisted training,
your trainer reduces the resistance at the point of failure so you can perform
a few more reps and fatigue a few more muscle fibers.
With superset training, you perform different but sequential exercise movements
that apparently activate different muscle fibers to fatigue. With slow training,
you increase muscle tension through reduced momentum.
While traditional strength training methods are certainly effective,
high-intensity techniques provide efficient and productive alternatives that
allow you to break through strength plateaus without increasing the length
or number of your training sessions.