Proper weight training is very much a balancing act. You need to push past perceived limits to achieve any sort of physical transformation, but push too hard or too far and you can do more harm than good. Call it overtraining or under-recovery – either way, the end result is usually a banged-up body and a beat-down brain.
Recently I experienced this first-hand. I had spent most of the winter lifting heavy, following a popular barbell program built around high-repetition squats. By the end of the program, my hips hurt, my shoulders hurt, and my interest in training was at an all-time low. I was gassed, but rather than do the sensible thing and take some time off from the gym, I somehow managed to convince myself that another eight weeks of max-effort lifting was exactly what I needed. It was only a handful of half-baked workouts later that COVID-19 came along, forcing the break I should have taken by locking us gym rats out of our playpens.
It’s all too easy for lifters to become enamoured with big numbers. But adding more weight is just one of many methods for making an exercise more challenging, and often it’s the least helpful. Given that most of us are now training at home, without the luxury of a squat rack and a barbell, it’s a good time to explore some other options for turning up the intensity, options that deliver results without crushing your spirit (or spine).
How: The single most helpful method for improving form is to slow things down, specifically during the eccentric, or lowering, phase of the exercise. Rather than dropping into the bottom of your squat/push-up/lunge/pull-up, control the descent with a slow and focused effort. Usually 2-4 seconds will do the trick. Once you’re at the bottom, pause for a moment then reverse the movement, either at full force or with another slow grind.
Why: Aside from the aforementioned technical improvements, slowing the tempo of a lift increases the time your muscles spend under tension. By extending the “time under tension”, more muscle fibres are recruited and this in turn leads to greater hypertrophy.
How: Pair exercises that share similar movement patterns (e.g., squat jump and goblet squat; push-up and floor press; dumbbell curl and chin-up), with one being a little easier than the other. Perform 8-12 reps of exercise one, then, without any rest, max-out on exercise two.
Why: As with tempo training, the pre-exhaust method increases time under tension. What makes this method so effective for working out at home is it helps make lighter weights feel much heavier. When you can’t add more weight to the bar, pre-exhausting a muscle group is the next best tactic.
How: No, this has nothing to do with dancing. So-called “animal movements" such as crawling, hopping and tumbling have long been a staple of gymnastics and martial arts. The bear crawl is a locomotion exercise of particular value for the self-isolated; there are all sorts of variations to keep things fresh; plus, how many of us spend any time on all fours? The challenge is much greater than meets the eye.
Why: Locomotion exercises present both the brain and the body with a unique set of problems to solve. You have no choice but to slow down and focus. Crawling works wonders for the entire body, including areas we often take for granted like the hands, wrists and elbows. Also, because of the horizontal positioning, crawling helps to “deload” the spine, giving our poor overworked backs some much-needed TLC.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.
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