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Questions to ask yourself before the lift

This is an excerpt from Your Workout PERFECTED by Nick Tumminello.

Evaluating your lifting program gives you the chance to see if you could be doing things more effectively. The following details a variety of questions to ask yourself before you lift along with what you need to know in order to avoid the common mistakes and get the most out of your workouts.

Are You Lifting Too Much?

At any given time at any big-box gym, you’ll see at least one guy doing biceps curls or shoulder raises, and he has to throw his lower back into it each time he brings the weight up. If you don’t see that dude at your gym, it may be because it’s you.

It’s easy to make this mistake. After all, you’re in the gym to lift weights, and the previous section did mention that lifting heavy loads is an effective stimulus for muscle growth, right? Well, sort of. Training to maximize muscle is not about becoming a "weightlifter." It’s about using weights as a tool to increase your muscle size. Simply throwing as much weight around as you can move to boost your ego and impress the people around you is the wrong approach.

When you use weights that are too heavy, here’s what happens:

  • You reduce the time under (mechanical) tension because you’re forced to use momentum to cheat.
  • You’re unable to lower the weight slowly and with control, further reducing your time under (mechanical) tension.
  • You utilize more muscles, which reduces the accumulated pump (i.e., metabolic stress) in muscles you intend to target.

Training to maximize muscle isn’t just about moving the weight - that’s weightlifting - but about controlling the weight through the entire range of motion involved in the exercise you’re doing. The point of emphasis on each repetition is to avoid swinging the weight up or "cheating" by using other areas of your bodyweight to move the load.

Do Cheat Reps Work?

There is research showing that using moderate momentum (cheating) increases the torque of the target muscles even without an increase in the load. That moderate increase in load and using momentum allows the torque to be increased even further. While an excessive use of momentum results in lower demands on the target muscles, an excessive increase of the load reduces the total hypertrophy stimulus by virtue of the decreased number of repetitions that can be performed successfully. The time under tension is shortened dramatically.

It can appear as if the results of this study validate cheating by incorporating momentum into the sets, but it doesn’t. The results of this study shouldn’t surprise you, because mechanical tension on the muscles is still present during cheat reps. However, this doesn’t mean that cheating with momentum is just as effective as not cheating by avoiding momentum. Cheating is basically only applying mechanical tension in part of the range of motion and using momentum to get through the rest of the range. Although cheating may still have you moving through the full range of motion involved in the exercise, from a mechanical tension perspective, it’s essentially a partial rep performed by target muscles. We have good evidence demonstrating that a partial range of motion rep creates less muscle growth than a full range of motion rep.

How Are You Lowering the Lift?

Controlling the weight while minimizing momentum in exercises to maximize muscle gains also applies to the eccentric portion of each rep. People who cheat the weight up (on the concentric portion of the rep) normally also let the weight come crashing back down (on the eccentric portion of the rep) instead of maintaining deliberate control by slowing the weight down when they lower it. Not controlling the weight on the way down could be less effective. We have evidence demonstrating that a slower (4 second) eccentric lowering action during biceps curls produced superior increases in arm growth than did a one-second eccentric action. This makes perfect sense. A slower eccentric action causes more time under tension, which creates more mechanical tension on the working muscles than a shorter eccentric portion does.

Additionally, from a training safety perspective, since cheating creates an overload of mechanical tension in a small piece of the range of motion involved in an exercise, it is more likely that you’ll use a weight that’s too heavy for you, making the muscles deal with forces that exceed the structural integrity of your tendons and ligaments and increasing your risk of injury.

If you want to maximize your gains in muscle size, maximize your time under (mechanical) tension on every rep by using strict form as well as controlled eccentric (lowering) movements of around three to five seconds.

Are You Avoiding Machines?

The whole idea of pitting free weights against machines is like pitting fruits against vegetables. Both training modalities offer a unique benefit the other misses, so it makes sense to do them both to make your muscle-building workouts more comprehensive, just like eating both fruits and vegetables will make your diet more nourishing.

Free weights excel by requiring you stabilize and control not just the load being moved but also the path of the movement. However, free weights fall short when it comes to keeping consistent mechanical tension on the working muscles throughout the range of motion involved in most exercises. That’s where machines excel and therefore offer distinct benefits for building muscle.

All free-weight exercises have one disadvantage that a machine doesn’t - gravity! Free weights use a single load vector, gravity, to create resistance. If you use a pulley cable machine, you’re also working against a single load vector, which is the line of the cable itself. When you work against a single load vector, you’re going to have points within the range of motion involved in the exercise where the lever arm is long, creating high levels of mechanical tension on the involved muscles, and ranges where the lever arm is short, resulting in little to no mechanical tension on those same muscles.

Example: During any style of biceps curl, the point at which your biceps is being maximally loaded (stimulated) is range of motion when your forearm is at a 90-degree angle with the load vector. If you’re using free weights, gravity is your load vector. The point of maximal mechanical tension on the biceps would be when your elbow reaches 90 degrees of flexion or when your forearm is parallel to the floor. If you’re doing biceps curls using a cable machine, however, the cable itself is the load vector. The point of maximal mechanical tension to your biceps is when your forearm makes a 90-degree angle with the cable.

Here’s the kicker: The farther away you move from a 90-degree angle in either direction of the load vector, the shorter the lever arm and the less work your biceps have to do; therefore, your biceps experience less mechanical tension. That’s why, in a free-weight biceps curl, the closer you move toward the bottom or top of the range of motion, the less work your biceps do because the lever arm is shortening. People tend to rest between reps at the top and bottom positions when doing barbell or dumbbell curls.

This applies to any free-weight exercise in that they’re all being loaded by a single load vector (gravity or a pulley cable). On the other hand, selectorized machines have a cam system, which isn’t dependent on a single load vector like free weights or cables. Instead, the cam is set up to offer you a much more consistent resistance throughout a larger portion of the range of motion. This gives you much more time under tension because your working muscles don’t get the same chance to rest at the bottom or top position of the range like they do when you are using free weights.

While you can absolutely build plenty of muscle size exclusively using free weights, there’s no reason to avoid machines if you have access to them. Both types of exercises have advantages, so don’t let popular misconceptions blind you to machines’ unique muscle-building benefits. For muscle gains (and strength gains, which are discussed in the Function and Performance chapter), machines can be very beneficial when used with free weights.

Should Men and Women Train Differently?

It’s common to see men stampede toward the free weights, while women pack into the Pilates and yoga studios and line up on cardio and weight machines. Should men and women train as differently as they do? There’s a lot of confusion, and here’s the truth.

I’ve written workout programs that were featured in major men’s exercise magazines, only to see those exact programs later printed in the same publisher’s women’s exercise magazines. The only thing that changed was the terminology. In the men’s version, it said something like, "Use this workout program to build a stronger and more ripped body,"whereas in the women’s version, it said something like, "Use this workout program to shape the tight and toned body of a goddess."

Despite what it might seem, this common practice is not dishonest or misleading. After all, even the best workout won’t do anyone any good if it’s not put into practice.

The publishers of these exercise magazines are merely trying to reach their readers using the goals they commonly hear them expressing. Put another way: If exercise is medicine, then we’re much more likely to take our daily dose when it tastes good to us. If you do a quick Internet search for body-part specific exercises for the glutes, arms, chest, and shoulders, you’ll see many of those terms are commonly followed with "for women" or "for men." This isn’t by accident. People are including those words in their Internet searches.

The truth is, there are no exercises for men or exercises for women. There are just exercises. We’re different sexes, but our bones, connective tissues, nerves, and muscles fibers are all made of the same raw material and function in the same way. There’s nothing inherently male about a barbell exercise or nothing inherently female about machine exercises. They’re both effective resistance training methods, and each can be used safely and effectively depending on your ability and goals - not your sex.

Don’t be afraid of a machine or resistance exercise. The entire gym is open to you, so learn how to use it to your advantage. This book is designed to help you do that.