So I’ve already covered a lot of information in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on muscular tension and believe it or not I’ll wrap up here. Let me try to rapidly summarize the previous 2 parts (rapidly meaning like 6 paragraphs).
High mechanical tension for some number of “effective” contractions is the primary initiating factor in muscle growth; this occurs via the FAK/PA/mTOR pathway. Activating this pathway requires that muscle fibers are first recruited and then exposed to enough high tension contractions (the amount needed per set, per workout or per week are currently unknown).
You can get to a number of high tension “effective” contractions in numerous ways: heavy weights (80-85% or heavier) for lower repetitions or moderate/lighter weights for moderate/high repetitions so long as the sets are near or to failure.
We can’t measure mechanical tension easily in the gym (yet) and need some objective marker we can use. Weight on the bar is, to a first approximation, a proxy for mechanical tension and heavier weights should lead to higher muscular tensions.
But only with the understanding that you can’t compared dissimilar situations. You can’t compare two different individuals, you can’t compare different repetitions ranges and you can’t compare different exercises (i.e. compound vs. isolation) in terms of the absolute load on the bar and conclude anything meaningful. You can only compare like situations to like situations.
For the compound versus isolation issue, differences in the lever arm and number of contributing muscles can make it such that an equivalently loaded isolation movement may generate similar, the same or more tension despite a lower external load.
At the very least, the differences in tension are nowhere close to the magnitude implied by the weight differential. That you use double or triple the weight in a compound movement doesn’t mean the tension on the target muscle is double or triple.
As importantly, due to the potential for non-target muscles to limit poundage and fatigue early in the compound movement, the isolation exercise may generate more effective reps even at a slightly lower tension stimulus. 8 effective reps at 90 arbitrary units of tension will be better than 2 effective reps at 100 arbitrary units in terms of stimulating growth.
Over time, with a sufficient acute stimulus, growth occurs and the previously sufficient stimulus is now insufficient. Progressive tension overload must occur over time. Given this, the starting point in absolute terms is less important than the progression over time. 30X30 reps may be less than 85X5 in absolute terms acutely but this is irrelevant so long as both are a stimulus. If a trainee goes to 45X30 or 100X5 from the starting point, they have applied progressive tension overload.
Just as weight on the bar is a proxy for tension per se, adding weight to the bar is, to a first approximation, a proxy for progressive tension overload. Except when it isn’t.
And while the above really leads into the main part of Part 3, I need to address two other issues first.
A Clarification on Progressive Overload
Something I thought I had made somewhat clear in Part 2 seems to have been missed. Or I just didn’t repeat it 6 times or something so it didn’t take. This had to do with the frequency with which progressive overload (of any kind) has to be applied. A mistake some make is in thinking that progression must occur every workout or every week. That you have to overload the body more and more in this linear fashion to get adaptation. And that just isn’t the case.
Other sports certainly don’t do this or event attempt to. An endurance athlete might be waiting 4-6 weeks or more to get any adaptation that allows or necessitates a change in training volume or intensity. The same is true for other athletes. As adaptation rates slow down, the same training load remains a sufficient training load for longer and longer durations.
Even when you see those 3 week ramp/1 week deloads in old school periodization, just remember that it was as much to match with drug and school schedules as anything else. They’d start submaximally, ramp, ramp, overload and take a deload week while they dropped the drugs or the kids went back home to their families. Rinse and repeat.
Beginners and Progressive Overload
Certainly beginners can usually add weight at almost every workout but this is due mostly to learning to lift, neural adaptations, etc. rather than changes in muscle mass which take much longer. Of course can and should are different things and once the weight is sufficient to let them “feel” what they are doing in the exercise, slowing down the weight progression may allow technique to get more stable and/or not degrade when you they add weight too rapidly. This phase will usually continue for at least the 6 month mark and sometimes longer although the frequency with which weight can be added will slow over time.
Intermediates and Progressive Overload
Even into the early intermediate level of training (years 1-2/3 of proper training), it’s usually possible to add weight pretty consistently, at least week to week, over relatively short periods or training if someone is eating sufficiently.
My own Generic Bulking Routine (GBR) for example. It starts with two submaximal weeks at perhaps 80-85% and then 90-95% of previous best to get a little momentum (and give a deload from the last cycle) before at least attempting to add weight to the bar consistently over the 6 weeks of the cycle. Maybe you don’t do it every workout but you should do it as often as possible and most can do it at least weekly for that time frame.
Doggcrapp training cycles are very similar although Dante’s system is much more about muscular failure than mine. That’s a difference in volumes for the approaches, his are lower per workout than in my GBR. You cruise for 2 weeks and then blast for 6 trying to beat the record book as often as possible while eating enough. Remember that there is a 3 exercise rotation in many cases so you’re only trying to beat the same exercise number every 3 workouts. As you get stronger in a moderate repetition range over time and eat, growth ensues.
My specialization cycles are drawn up similarly but there you’re focusing on two muscle groups and hitting it HARD for 4-6 weeks tops. When you’ve only got two muscles to target so all of your “adaptational energy” (whatever that means) goes into them and you can push it pretty hard. Even there you might only go up every other workout in practice. The goal is still to add weight as best as you can but that’s still within the limits of adaptation rates, practical weight increments and what I’ll discuss later in this part of the series.
Advanced Specialization Cycles and Progressive Overload
At the advanced intermediate level of training (years 2/3-4 years of training), you’re simply not adding weight to the bar that frequently. Nor do you need to. Ok, fine powerlifters often do this but it’s always from a submaximal starting point.
Coan’s old routines followed this nice linear progression for the most part but he was starting well below his goal weight at the meet. So he’d start at 75% of his max and build up over 12-16 weeks to hit a new PR. But assuming loading is relatively near to limits to begin with (no further than 2-3 reps from failure), adding weight more than every 4-6 weeks tends to be unrealistic at this level.
Note: Some powerlifting systems do attempt this but it’s usually a 3 week cycle where they have (re)introduced a new movement and attempt to set records in it over those 3 weeks. But this is generally maximum singles to begin with and those adaptations can still be neural in the short term. It’s also on a base of the previous weeks and months of training that have hopefully brought up muscles involved in that movement so there is more maximum strength potential. But 3 weeks is not 3 months. An advanced lifter will not add weight to the bar in any consistent fashion over a 3 month training cycle.
Note 2: Tricksters will use approaches like this to deceive clients. They recommend changing exercises every 3 weeks so you can “progress every week”. What they leave out is that it’s mostly neural (re)adaptations when you switch movement. It takes you a week to remember the movement and then you make fast perceived progress. You improve by 5% every 3 weeks but it’s the same 5% over and over again rather than actual long-term progress.
This is simply a function of how rapidly someone is gaining muscle or strength at this stage which is not very rapidly at all. You’re not adapting so quickly that your current sufficient training load becomes insufficient in any short period of time not unless you’re still getting some rapid neural adaptation.
Those 10-20 sets/week or whatever at a sufficient intensity will be a stimulating load for a pretty long time and you won’t have to change anything. You don’t have to add weight to the bar and you don’t have to add volume very week unless you started with an insufficient training intensity or volume to begin with. So don’t do that.
Progressive Overload is Long-Term
This was even one of Mike Isratael’s “arguments” in the Debate that Settled Nothing. He argued that adding volume every week was safer/better than adding weight every week. Perhaps. But who said that an advanced lifter should add weight to the bar every week in the first place? I certainly never have so it was an argument against nothing to begin with. Even if it’s safer to add volume weekly, it’s still totally unnecessary. At that level you don’t have to ADD anything week to week in the first place to get a stimulus so long as it’s sufficient to begin with. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.
At this point just set up the right combination of volume and intensity parameters and wait it out for the adaptation to occur and then make a progression. In this situation, I usually recommend that every fourth week or so the lifter do a test on your last set of an exercise and go to failure on it (this assumes it can be done safely and they know where failure actually lives).
If you’ve been working for heavy sets of 8 and get 12 on that final set, go up in weight at the next workout. If not, stay the course until you can. If you’re trained and can accurately use them, you can use RPE, Reps in Reserve or Reps to Failure as a gauge. If your goal is to work at a 1-3 RIR/RTF, and you’re working at a 4+, add a little weight because your training has become too light to be worth a damn.
Do We Adjust Individual Sets or the Entire Workout?
Note: This brings up a separate issue, whether or not we should adjust loads on a given set or for a series. So say you’re doing 4 sets of 8. The first set is a 3RIR and this falls over the series of sets to 2,1 and finally zero. Some argue that the first set isn’t optimal and you should adjust it upwards from the get go. Then you can decrease the weight (called by some reverse pyramid training or RPT) as needed to maintain the rep count.
Basically that you should treat the sets individually. When the first set is too easy, adjust it regardless of the latter sets and so on. If at the next workout the first set is at the appropriate place and the second set is too easy, adjust the second set at the next workout too. Basically when a given set in a series is not heavy enough, you adjust that outside of any adjustments to the other sets. This tends to keep lifters a lot closer to failure but certainly can work if volume is relatively low to begin with.
With higher volumes I think it will tend to lead to burnout. Trying to do 8 sets to true limits in a workout by microadjusting each one of them is just too grueling. To address this in full is probably another long-winded article series but that’s why I’m writing this tension thing, as background for those subsequent series.
Back to Advanced Lifters and Progressive Overload
So rather than worrying about day to day or week to week progression or any of that at this level of training, just set up a proper workout in terms of volume, frequency and intensity and wait for the adaptation to occur. You don’t have to add or change anything at this point over fairly extended periods. A proper overloading workout will stay a proper overloading workout until it’s not and that takes a while. It might be a few weeks it might be longer. Change when you need to change and it’s all good.
And at the very advanced level (4-5 years+ of proper training)? Well, I already addressed this. When you’re gaining 2-3 lbs of muscle per year (if that), you’re pissing into the wind with your training no matter what you do in the gym. The rate of muscle gain won’t make your current training poundages stop being a training load for freaking ever.
When elite PL’ers and Ol’ers take 12-16 weeks to make a 2.5 kg/5 lb improvement on their max there’s simply no rush on progression. Adding weight or volume weekly or bi-weekly or monthly won’t do anything to hasten the process unless it’s your volume of anabolics because you can’t force growth. At this point it’s more about maintenance as age starts dragging you back into the mire of suck. Time for HRT/TRT/higher doses because that’s all that works here.
And with that out of the way, back to the point which is about the exceptions to the idea that load on the bar per se automatically indicates tension or that adding weight to the bar automatically means an increase in tension.
A Brief Digression on Exercise Selection
Before getting to that I want to reiterate and expand on a point I made in Part 2 regarding comparing different exercises because it subtly changes/qualifies, one of the points/statements I made in Part 2
I gave as a hypothetical a situation where someone with long arms and weak triceps might have a situation where the triceps reach full recruitment and fail much earlier than the delts in an overhead press. So for a heavy set of 8, the triceps might see 8 effective reps and the delts only 2 or 3 or whatever.
In contrast, the equivalently loaded set 8 in the lateral is, by definition, exposing the delts (essentially working alone) to the high tension stimulus. So 8 effective reps occur in the medial delts providing a superior growth stimulus. And this isn’t really a hypothetical except for my specific numbers being made up to make an example.
Clearly in any compound movement, failure will almost always occur in an accessory muscle before the target muscle. How much earlier depends on a lot of factors. But by definition the heavy set of 8 or 12 is limited by what the accessory muscle can do for 8 or 12 reps. And this will impact how many effective reps the target muscle experiences. Which changes the original statement about effective reps per set to the following.
Fundamentally we are not really concerned with the number of effective reps per set for a given exercise per set. We are concerned with the number of effective reps per set for the target muscle.
Let me reiterate that I am talking only about hypertrophy here. Not function or increasing a given exercise. To improve the OHP you have to OHP. To improve the squat you must squat. But if the goal is increasing medial delt size or leg size, what matters most is the effective tension reps for the deltoids or quads or hamstrings and nothing else. If your low back limits your squat, it may get a fine growth stimulus. But your legs may not due to that limiting factor.
This gets into exercise selection which will probably be a follow-up article series. For now I’ll simply say that exercise selection for hypertrophy must only meet the criteria of allowing a given individual to safely perform and progress an exercise that puts sufficient tension overload on the target muscle. And there will be no absolutes in this regard. There are no best exercises for hypertrophy. There are only best exercises for a given individual.
Back to Progressive Tension Overload
So back to the topic, the idea that adding weight to the bar is an objective proxy for progressive tension overload. Except when it isn’t. Because even given all of the above qualifications, there are still places where the assumptions that 1) the weight on the bar indicates the tension on the muscle 2) an increase in weight on the bar means an increase in tension are incorrect.
That is, in certain situations, even for the same person performing the same exercise in the same repetition range, lowering the weight may increase tension on the target muscle and raising the weight may decrease it.
To be honest, both examples are just two sides of the same coin but I’m wordy enough to make them separate topics and I find that if I don’t beat the dead horse with examples, people miss my point and then misrepresent what I actually said like they did with the progressive overload thing.
When Lower Weight Means More Tension
First let me look at the situation where lowering the external weight on the bar may or will result in increased muscular tension in the target muscle, an idea that seems to contradict everything I’ve written so far. If the weight on the bar is a proxy for muscular tension, how can lowering the weight on the bar increase muscular tension?
The issue here has to do with technique and the fact that it is entirely possible to do a heavy set of seemingly effective reps per exercise (i.e. a heavy set of 8 or 15 or 30 to failure) with either a minimal or nearly no involvement of the target muscle. You can probably already see where this is going. And you can sure as hell see this in every gym every day.
So we have our typical macho male trainee who is doing biceps curls. They are going too heavy because of course they are, throwing (not accelerating) the weight out of the bottom, leaning back and cheating the weight up through whatever means necessary. They probably talk about the great low back pump (or cramp) they get from their arm day a lot but rarely about biceps fatigue. “Bro, I’m just not feeling my arms for some reason.” “Bro, you just need more sets.”
Hell I’d half argue that the excessive volumes that seem to be “needed” by many is just a consequence of their exercise choice or form not targeting the muscle effectively (on top of their intensity being piss-ass). If the way you do an exercise technically only gets 2 effective reps per set when you could have gotten 8, you seem to “need” 4X the volume to get the stimulus. Except that what you “need” is to learn to lift correctly and with intensity.
Now you have them strip the weight down by half or whatever and lift properly with strict technique. Nice upright torso, elbows locked by the body, squeeze or accelerate out of the bottom with continuous contraction to the top, nice squeeze at the top (peak contraction, baby), a controlled lowering, maybe even a brief pause at the bottom to dissipate the stretch shorten reflex before the next repetition. Repeat. Sometimes locking someone into a machine can make it better since it tends to limit technique shenanigans. This isn’t a guarantee, people still do goofy shit on machines when they go too heavy which is basically always for male trainees.
Suddenly they report that their biceps feel something, they get a pump during the workout (for what little that means) or get sore the next day (for the even less that that means outside of indicating that they actually trained their biceps for the first time in forever).
Despite cutting the external load, often significantly, the tension in the target muscle is now much higher. Those 8 crap reps that hardly exposed the biceps to any tension at all are turned into 8 quality reps that do. And 8 effective reps for the target muscle always beats out a smaller number of less effective reps even if the load on the bar is lower.
Back training is an unbelievably common example of this. Go into any gym any day of the week and watch people train back, rows or pulldowns and it’s just a nightmare to watch. They go way too heavy, heaving their upper body back and forth to get the weight to move, their shoulders never moving from a protracted position and basically arm pulling the entire time. They finish leaned back with shoulders forward and chest dropped and the handle maybe half way to their torso. They never feel it in their back but talk about how pumped their arms get. I suppose that makes up for their lack of a training stimulus on arm day.
Now you cut the weight and have them actually use proper form. You get them to use an upright torso with minimal forwards and backwards lean. Squeeze/accelerate out of the bottom, keep the chest high and emphasize this in the peak contracted position, get a good squeeze between the shoulder blades (as their training partner or coach/trainer, put your finger tips on the inner border of the scapula and cue the squeeze by bringing your fingers together in back before they perform a controlled lowering to extension. Oh yeah:
Always ask first before you touch anybody in the gym.
Cue them to think about using their hands as hooks and think about driving the elbows back instead of pulling with the arms. Boom, suddenly they feel it in their back. Despite the lighter external load, the target muscle is now being exposed to far more tension.
Now, in this situation, it’s likely that the biceps are being exposed to less tension due to the reduction in weight. But presuming that their goal of training back is to train the back, this is kind of irrelevant. And so long as you fix this person’s shitty technique on arm day, that’s taken care of. Now they can train back on back day, arms on arm day, and use an actual low back movement to train their low back rather than poorly done curls and rows. And everything will be right in the world so long as you can now convince them to add weight to the bar over time. That last one seems to be a lot harder these days for some reason.
Even on an exercise like chest, a lot of guys heave around a lot of weight without feeling much in their pecs and there are all manners of goofy things lifters do on flat bench. When you cut the bar weight and teach them to bench with the pecs, they start actually using their pecs in the movement.
Pump, soreness, yadda, yadda. More importantly, growth over time. Perhaps for the first time. The external load may be lower, and the tension in the delts or triceps may be reduced to be sure. But the effective tension on the pecs is increased and they actually get a training stimulus and grow.
When it leads to technique improving or actually being correct for the first time, a reduction in external weight may lead to MORE tension on the target muscle.
Squats are Complicated
The same holds for other movements where excessively heavy weights cause problems and this is often a range of motion as much as technique thing. Think about the guy partial squatting the world. Or partial leg pressing the world. It looks really impressive but they don’t seem to get much out of it for their legs. Yeah, it feels heavy (some call it soul crushing) but their legs never really improve.
Now, cut the weight in half and have them actually do a full range of motion: below parallel for the squat or to whatever depth to avoid back rounding on the leg press. Suddenly their legs get TORCHED despite the load being much lower in absolute terms.
There are a bunch of reasons for this and you’re not only getting different muscular involvement but huge changes in the lever arms and hence effective torques around the joints which means huge changes in actual muscular force requirements and hence tension (there’s also a bunch of detail mongering with length-tension relationships over a fuller range of motion and this is NOT the place for that discussion). And I’m not going to try to describe it verbally or draw pictures of it. I honestly wish I’d stop bringing squats up because it’s so complex to describe or visualize. Just focus on the concepts.
The lever arms at the top of a squat or leg press are very short so there is a huge mechanical advantage in that range. This is why people can partial squat enormous poundages or leg press with every plate in the gym and 2 dudes standing on top and still not work very hard. An old training partner of mine was a beast squatter, doing 405X5 and 315X20 rock bottom high bar.
I saw him do something like 800 in a top end partial squat. The 405X5 was still a much greater effort for him than doing double the weight for a couple of inches. Once we tried isometrics in the power rack, which was bolted down to a piece of wood. In the top range he nearly pulled the rack out of the wood. That’s how strong the mechanical advantage is in the range. It’s great for ego. Less so for training the legs.
It’s why guys who compete in PL feds that allow high squats can lift much more than guys who squat in feds that don’t pass what we used to call bullshit but which is now considered legal. There are a few factors here actually. Suits and briefs and gear are part of it, the shorter lever arms at the top are part of it and avoiding the sticking point as you come up from below parallel is a huge part of it since that tends to be what limits the overall movement: what you can get through the sticking point.
This was the mistake in the Power Factor Training concept: they confused mechanical work (load lifted through distance) and power (load lifted through distance over time) with muscular/metabolic work (complicated as hell) and assumed that the first two automatically led to the third. That is, their assumption was that working in the strong range of motion, where mechanical work and power (sort of) is maximized would lead to metabolic work being maximized.
PFT wasn’t just wrong but it was exactly the opposite of right: a greater range of motion with a lower external load will generally require less mechanical work (depending on if the reduction in weight on bar is or isn’t offset by the increase in distance moved) but far more metabolic/muscular work (which is what matters in terms of growth). But this is what happens when you let a pure engineer try to apply things to human physiology. At least get a bioengineer in there.
This is a little bit more complex in the above example due to how muscular involvement changes throughout certain movements. In the squat, certain muscles are used to relatively more or less degree at different ranges of motion due to the joint actions that are occurring and where the maximal lever arms and changes in length/tension are occurring.
So glutes tend to come in most when you deep squat, quads out of the hole, hamstrings near the top. All that stuff. Technique (i.e. high bar vs. low bar) also plays a role since you’re changing the amount of flexion around the knee and hip along with a bunch of other stuff and this changes torques and lever arms and….. Sit back more and depth is typically higher and you get less knee flexion and more hip flexion and vice versa. God why do I keep trying to describe squats?
A partial squat may very well be putting a lot of tension on certain muscles but not others. Bodybuilders long did high-bar narrow stance half range squats to focus on the quads without involving the glutes. They deliberately limited the range of motion to focus on the part where the quads were providing the force. It also let them overload that range since they weren’t limited by what they could get through the sticking point. They not only took certain muscles (so those muscles got less or no effective reps) out of the movement but weren’t limited by the sticking point of a full squat.
In contrast, a full squat may put a lot of tension on a different set of muscles but not the first set because different muscles are working maximally as you get from below parallel out of the hole with mechanics improving as you get closer to the top. In the full squat, you’re also limited by the weight you can get through the sticking point so the bottom portion may experience the heaviest load/tension and the top portion much less.
It’s why getting out of the hole is the hard bit and locking out usually isn’t (yes, I know people stall near the top for various reasons). And why PL’ers use things like chains and bands to overload the top which is a whole separate thing. I should stop using squats as an example, it’s way too confusing and now I have a headache.
So for the squat example you have to get further up your ass, so to speak, in terms of which muscles you’re focused on (there aren’t squat muscles) during the movement and what style of squat or range of motion you work through. Is your goal to train the squat, focus on the quads, the glutes, all of them or what. Mental note: stop talking about this before my head explodes.
Ignoring squats per se, this is an issue inherent to compound movements, however. With multiple muscles contributing and often contributing maximally at different parts of the movement with changing lever arms and potentially different maximal lever arms for each muscle at different portions of the movement, you have to start worrying about what muscle may be experiencing maximum tension requirements where in the movement. A bottom range bench is different than a top range bench in terms of what is most involved muscularly. People just seem to cut range of motion on squats more than on benches on average (this is discussed more below which is why I’m skirting it for now).
Ok, No More Squat Discussion
A final weird example: calf raises. We’ve all seen the guys with no calves who can move the entire stack on calf raises and if you watch closely, they all do the same thing: they bounce out of the bottom. Now as it turns out the Achilles tendon has an incredible ability to store and release elastic tension. This is an adaptation to make humans more efficient at walking and running. By generating force out of elastic storage in the tendon, less muscular force is required for those movements (or the same force will generate faster speeds).
Kangaroos are amazing at this, they generate something like 92-95% of their total force output during hopping from their Achilles tendon so the muscles do little which is why they can hop all day. Well calf bouncy bouncy boy is doing the same thing, moving enormous weights for lots of reps without doing very much actual muscular work (or certainly less than if he weren’t bouncing). It’s mostly elastic recoil out of the Achilles tendon.
Note: I suspect that this is at least part of where the idea of doing calves for very high reps came from to begin with. It was a way to increase the amount of actual muscular work in the calves since the Achilles was helping so much. So if the Achilles is doing 30% of the work as you bounce your life away, you need to do 30% more reps to get the same training effect. If it’s doing 50% of the work, you need 50% more reps, etc. Or whatever the exact numbers work out to. Hence you got sets of 50 or 100 for the calves to get any amount of effective reps out of the set.
So now you take calf bouncy bouncy boy and take half of the weight off the stack. From the bottom have him squeeze or explode up and squeeze the calves HARD at the top for a second. Lower slowly and then pause for at least 2 seconds at the bottom to eliminate elastic recoil before going up and squeezing hard at the top and repeating the process on every repetition.
One hard set of 8 reps later and his calves are screaming since they are finally doing all of the work. Have him do 4 heavy sets of 8 (or 5X5 truly heavy) like that with some seated calf work for 2-3 sets of 12-15 in the same fashion and he can’t walk for 3 days. He’ll tell you it’s the best calf workout he’s ever had and then go right back to bouncing his reps because it hurts less.
He’ll also continue to gripe about no calf growth as well. But in this case, by removing the elastic recoil, you are forcing the target muscles to actually generate the force. A lower absolute load with the removal of the elastic component results in higher muscular tension in the target muscle.
Note: Someone will ask if this applies to other muscles and the answer is yes-ish. The Achilles tendon is especially good at generating elastic recoil. Again, it’s a walking/running adaptation. The same can hold to some degree in other movements and there are even gender differences here. On average, women are more elastic than men in the lower bodies at least at submaximal intensities but men are more elastic in their upper body (well during benching). Yadda yadda, evolutionarily sexually dimorphic pressures for hunting versus gathering or fighting/throwing stuff versus walking or something, &c. Not the place for this.
Regardless, consider a paused bench versus touch and go (or bounced off the chest) bench for example. The pause may take 5% off of how much can be actually lifted. This is a reality many gym benchers find out too late if they try a powerlifting meet and don’t adjust their openers based on their bounced “all you” spotted gym lifts. But the pecs work harder when you do it this way. Even a touch and go bench (lower under control, lightly touch the chest and reverse) is better than a bounced bench in terms of training the pecs because you’re not getting the stretch shorten cycle or the mechanical bounce off of your chest. You impress your buddies more with the chest bounce bench though and hey, who really needs a sternum?
Or do pause squats where you lower under control and stay in the hole for 2 seconds and then come up. You’ll use less weight but feel it more in your legs since you’re getting less elastic recoil. Apparently Chinese Ol’ers will sometimes pause at the bottom of squats in training to both save their knees and force the legs to work harder while using lighter weights. The joints are spared while the training effect is greater.
In competition of course, they try to catch a bounce as this lets them stand up after the clean with less muscular effort so they have more for the jerk. For any fixed weight, if the bounce gives you 5%, that’s 5% less work the muscles do. Or you can look at it as the bounce allowing you to lift 5% more than you could otherwise.
So yes it can still be an effective technique for other movements. The effect is just a lot less pronounced than in the case of the calves (and I only bring up that example all the time to show off my trivial knowledge of kangaroo physiology).
And I would like to hope that readers don’t see the above as being a real contradiction to what I wrote before: that load on the bar is a proxy for muscular tension. It simply has to be qualified a bit because the actual goal is effective reps/tension in the target muscle, not just during the exercise per se. If someone is using poor technique with too heavy of a weight, they are certainly exposing something to some number of effective repetitions (maybe just their ego). It’s just not the target muscle which is what actually matters.
In some movements, even with poor technique, the choice of technique (i.e. high bar vs. low bar squat, partial vs. full squat) alters what muscles are dominant where in the movement due to changes in length/tension, lever arms and joint torques (Lyle, stop bringing up squats).
The choice of technique may alter what muscle gets the most effective tension stimulus overall even if one technique uses a lower load than another. Olympic lifters may not “Squat even the Sunday paper” but full high-bar squats at a lighter load can a lot harder on the legs than a partial squat out of a Monolift. Or may be harder on specific muscles.
And to beat this dead horse, this is all still predicated on the idea that, regardless of the starting point, the key to growth is progressive tension overload. Even if you cut bicep boys row poundages in half from 200 to 100 so his back is actually working for once, the goal is then to work up to 105, 110, 120, etc. over time.
The acute stimulus for growth is critical and here lowering the weight acutely may give
a superior stimulus to the target muscle. Progressive tension overload
over time from that new starting point is still the key.
But even the idea that the starting point is less relevant than adding weight to the bar brings up an issue, the next one I want to discuss. Really this is just the reverse of the above but it’s common and needs to be addressed.
When More Weight Means Less Tension
One assumption that goes into the idea that a gradual increase in weight on the bar results in increased muscular tension and hence growth is that technique does not change as the weight goes up. And this is not always a safe assumption.
When this does not occur, it is possible for a situation to arise where raising the weight on the bar generates no greater muscular tension than before (or less than expected) or even potentially less. And this is basically just the reverse of the above section.
So now we have someone who is doing proper strict biceps curls, providing sufficient tension and effective reps for the target muscle which are the biceps. Maybe it was the guy from above who’s poundages you adjusted down to get them doing it right for once.
They’ve hit their target weight for sets of 8 reps or whatever for a few weeks and have a solid 3 reps in reserve on the last set (or can get 12 reps to true failure on their set). They’ve adapted and it’s time to apply that sweet progressive tension overload and add weight to the bar.
And with the weight addition, their form degrades or goes to total shit. Maybe they start cutting the range of motion at the bottom, or they start leaning back a bit. Or curling their wrists to bring the weight in a little bit closer. Or heaving the bar out of the bottom. It doesn’t matter here what change occurs, just that one did.
On triceps they start leaning into the movement to let their pecs help a bit, flex at the wrist to shorten the lever arm, or cut range of motion. Increased bar weight may not end up increasing muscular tension or overload depending on what the weight increase was and how badly technique changes for the worse.
Depending on the exercise, a mere 5 lb(2.5 kgish) increase can take this beautiful strictly done movement right down the crapper. Lateral raises are notorious for this and really any small muscle group exercise, especially if it’s an isolation movement, tends to suffer from this.
Older machines were horrific, the weight jumps on the plates were staggeringly large like 12-20 lbs and in the early stages of training a one plate increase was doubling the weight being lifted. It was offset a little by the rapid neural adaptations that occurred but very quickly the weight jumps became oppressively large as you tried to add 25-33% to the stack at a time.
Good machines had half plates to put on top of the stack but sometimes even that was too much. They always got stolen from the gym or disappeared anyhow. Newer machines often let you go up by 5 lbs with a spinner knob. Each plate is 20 lbs but the machine has 5 lbs jumps between them. Sometimes you just have to get creative as hell to go up in smaller increments by putting plates on top of the stack or using magnets or whatever.
Incrementing Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
I brought this up when I talked about the practical issues of progressing a heavier OHP versus a lighter lateral raise and the fact that the same fixed weight jumps (usually 5 lbs in the US) can represent drastically different percentages. If you add 5 lbs to a 185 lb bench that’s only a 2.7% increase. Add 5 lbs to a 40 lateral raise or DB biceps curl and that’s a 12.5% increase and technique is destroyed.
If you added the same 12.5% to the bench, technique would go down the crapper too. This is a practical problem that ties into a physiological one and it’s a very real one. When you have access to microplates or magnets, or wrist weights, and can make smaller weight jumps, this becomes less of an issue. Add 1 lb to a 40 lb lateral and that’s only 2.5% and you won’t feel it and form is unlikely to go to crap like adding 5 lbs which is 12.5% would.
Changes in Compound Exercise Technique
Form can go bad on compound movements rapidly. The properly done row or pulldown becomes a heave ho movement without proper scapular retraction occurring anymore. As bench weights get heavier, the lifter starts bridging the hips, bouncing the bar off their chest, doing all kinds of goofy stuff. Suddenly the pecs aren’t getting any more tension overload.
Watch the barbell OHP get ugly like this as guys lean back and turn it into a standing or seated incline bench. Hell, they eliminated the press from Olympic Lifting because guys leaned back so much it was a standing bench press. You move a lot of weight that way. But you’re not doing much with the delts.
The assumption of increased weight on the bar automatically meaning more muscular tension is dependent on technique staying the same (on top of being correct to begin with) when weight is added to the bar.
Range of motion can change too. The biceps curl isn’t lowered to full extension, the handle doesn’t go as high in a triceps extension, the DB doesn’t come as high on the lateral raise, the elbows don’t come as low in the DB bench press, the lifter doesn’t reach full flexion on the leg curl or extension on the leg extension.
Mind you, depending on the movement this may not immensely change the muscular tension, it all depends on where the lever arm is maximum, whether or not you’re avoiding it and what movement you’re doing. But that’s another article for another day. The point is less how form changed than that it changed with the load increase.
On compound movements, changes in ROM tend to be a little bit different or have a different effect. Bench is less sensitive to this as people have the chest as a “marker” for achieving full range and it’s clear when they don’t get there. But even here, on top of the other goofy stuff guys do when bench form goes to pot, they may start cutting range a bit. Not quite reaching the chest or cutting ROM more and more. You can see the top range lockout bench with too heavy of a weight in every gym today. “Bro, my triceps are really tired.”
That alone may shift maximal tension from one muscle to another. That top range bench may be doing lots for triceps but not much for pecs. See also: the top range overhead press which is just a triceps lockout without much delt involvement. Both will let you move an absolute ton of weight but the lever arm is miniscule for the delts so the resultant torque and tension on the target muscle is reduced enormously.
Squats are one of the worst for this. You can see what I call the “Weider Add Weight Cut Depth” principle within single workouts. Guy does 135, perfect full squat. 185 and it’s just below parallel, 225 and it’s parallel, 275 and it’s above parallel, 315 and it’s a quarter squat. Maybe a slight knee bend at 365. All the while swearing and being told by workout buddies that it’s parallel (this too leads to some real surprises at the powerlifting meet).
Then slap on 405, scream a bit to get everyone’s attention and then walk away from the bar (leaving it loaded of course) to chat someone up and hope nobody noticed you didn’t do the lift. With every increase in weight, the change in depth is making is so that the expected increase in muscular tension isn’t occurring.
This happens on leg press too and this is even assuming the person starts with a full range of motion. With every plate per side, the range of motion gets less and less. What started as lowering the platform to well below a 90 degree knee angle becomes nothing but a top range lockout motion. Now you need 3 dudes to stand on top of it because you’re moving all the weight with very little muscular work because the lever arm and resultant torque is tiny. But it sure impresses your gym buddies, and who needs knees anyway?
And while this can occur in any given workout as guys add weight too quickly, it can happen over a training cycle as weight is added to the bar. As the weight on the bar goes up, folks start cutting depth little by little. By the end of the cycle what was a lovely full squat is not even close to being below parallel. Depending on what muscle you’re looking at, there may be no increase or even a decrease in muscular tension on the target muscle. Or the maximal tension shifts to a muscle you’re not targeting.
On rows of various sorts or pulldowns, the bar doesn’t quite reach the stomach or chest. Weight is going up but range of motion is going down along with other potential technical changes. Or people start to heave the weight, or lean back on row and pulldown more. Or drop their chest and hunch over and start to arm pull more with little to no scapular retraction. Irrespective of how the technique is changed, suddenly the increase in weight may mean less tension on the target muscles because technique has changed for the worse.
Mind you, it might mean more tension on non-target muscles. The guy who was arm pulling and got a great biceps pump on rows before you cut his weight and taught him to use his back is now right back to getting a great arm workout on back day. But since he’s probably not training biceps on arm day anymore either, I guess he’s covered in the big picture… Regardless, increased weight leading to worsened technique can result in a lowered tension requirement for the actual target muscle which is the back.
You can get further up your ass with this in terms of what changes might occur during the exercise that causes an increased weight on the bar to not lead to more target muscular tension. Consider things like movement speed that might be changing. The strict control start biceps curl at one weight becomes a little bit of a heave-ho throw the bar and suddenly you’re using a heavier weigh with less muscular tension/work. This is a bit more complex and gets into the concept of peak versus average forces, impulse and force/time curves that I’m not bothering to get into here.
I think you get the idea.
For an increase in bar weight to equate to an increase in muscular tension is predicated on technique not changing as the weight on the bar goes up. If technique changes and that can range from a total loss of technique to differences in bar speed or range of motion, that increase in weight on bar may result in no increase or even a decrease in muscular tension.
For a weight increase to necessarily mean an increase in muscular tension
requires that technique does not change significantly
or at all (on top of being correct in the first place)
Basically the above equates to a situation where a heavier weight on the bar leads to less muscular tension due to a worsening of technique which means that the expected increase in tension does not occur, or doesn’t occur to the expected degree. At the extreme, it might even go down.
Back to Repetition Ranges
There is an an issue related to the above that, while semi-tangential, might as well be addressed. Recall from Part 1 that it’s clear that high tension overload can occur under different conditions: heavy weights above 80-85% for fewer reps, moderate weights for moderate repetitions or lighter weights near or to failure.
Even loads as low as 30% for 25-35 reps (to failure without BFR, not to failure with BFR) can be effective in this situation although I still consider it a horribly inefficient way to get there. Yes, it has its uses such as when you’re hurt, have maxed out a weight stack, need to reduce joint loading or just need to look edgy on Social Media). For now let’s think about comparing heavy sets of 5-8 at 80-85% vs. sets of 12 at 75%. Is one inherently superior to another from a tension/effective rep/growth standpoint?
Well in a purely physiological sense probably not as both can clearly get to sufficient effective reps for the target muscle. The sets of 5-8 might get a few more per set but this can be made up with the lighter sets easily enough.
But humans aren’t just a physiological system and there are practical considerations. For example, for many people, heavier weights for lower repetitions often changes or worsens their technique. This depends on the movement, mind you and the person.
Isolation movements, by and large, often don’t lend themselves to low repetitions. Show me someone doing heavy 5’s in a lateral raise and you are likely to show me someone doing some very ugly things technically. That said, on a well built lateral raise machine, this is fairly trivial to do if the person has any focus whatsoever.
Show me someone doing heavy 5’s on a DB flye or cable crossover and the same thing holds. I’d expect a horror show. On a well made pec deck machine, with good focus, it can be done. Even barbell curls for 5’s can become a real tragedy quickly. Triceps pushdowns for 5’s? Good luck. Can they be done with immense focus and attention? Sure. But most of the time it’s a losing proposition and technique will be awful.
There is also the issue that, just as an isolation movement is really isolated to more or less a single muscle, it’s isolated to movement at a single joint which then takes the entire stress. And this can really beat people up over time. Doing a lot of heavy 5’s on the leg extension can really tear up some people’s knees. For those reasons, isolation movements tend to work better with higherish repetition ranges: 8-15 or even higher sometimes.
The same may or may not hold for heavy compounds. Some people aren’t built well in terms of having robust enough joints to squat or bench heavily for low reps and they tend to break when they do them that way, especially over long periods of time. Successful PL’ers, OL’ers, and strongmen competitors are often the ones with the joint structure to survive the training that is necessary to succeed. If heavy triples in the squat destroy your joints, you’re not going to be successful on the platform by and large.
There is also a psychological issue although I usually see this as more of a female vs. male issue. I’ve never met a male trainee unless they were like 65 years old who didn’t want to lift the world to impress their buddies. They always want to go (too) too heavy.
But many women are not psychologically wired (or anatomically built) to push heavy low reps. This isn’t meant to be a criticism by any stretch. It simply is (I’ve also seen many women get kind of addicted to strength gains when they start getting progressive with their training). Clearly there are multiple paths to high tension and success. If you’re built for heavy/low rep training and want to do them, great. If you’re not and/or don’t, also great. So long as you’re training with sufficient intensity and progression, it all more or less works in the big picture over the long-term. It’s less about how you get there than that you get there.
And in that sense, for many people, higher repetitions may be superior in a physiological sense in that they allow proper form to be maintained (or not break their bodies) which means more tension on the target muscle. If doing curls for 12 reps helps you to keep your ego in check and use better form, it may be superior to a heavy set of 5-8 where you start heaving the weight because it’s too heavy. It won’t impress your buddies as much of course.
The burn or pump you get from higher reps may even satisfy some psychological need that lower reps do not. Psychological needs have never dictated physiological reality but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore them in a real-world sense. What a lifter wants to do/enjoys doesn’t dictate what they should do, necessarily.
In other cases, higher reps with lighter weights often let technique change outside of just bring proper to begin with. My mentor used to mention this to me in terms of squats, especially for guys with poor levers which means long femurs most of the time. For those guys, heavy low reps tends to tip them over due to the sheer load they are shouldering.
Their back gets a hell of a stimulus but their legs do not. With lighter weights and here I’m talking about sets of 10-15 rather than 5’s, not sets of 50, they tend to stay more upright and get better tension in the legs per se. Probably part of why 20 rep squats worked so well for “Hardgainers”. I’d personally just tell those guys not to squat at all but that’s a separate issue. I
If lighter weights and higher repetitions allow better technique for a given individual’s mechanics, it may be a better path to high tension overload for them.
By the same token, compound exercises do NOT lend themselves to low-load or BFR training. I’ve done 50 rep sets of half-squats with weight on my back but I’m built to squat well and was an endurance athlete at the time to begin with. It can become a real disaster real fast as people fatigue and accessory muscles give out.
There’s a reason the low-load and BFR studies tend to use things like arm curls and leg extensions or leg presses and that’s because form will become horrible as fatigue builds up with anything that requires more complex coordination.
You can watch ANY Crossfit high rep Ol’ing workout for a good example of this. Hell, try a 20 rep set of deadlifts and see what happens technically. High reps and complex exercises are usually a poor combination even if some have gotten away with it from time to time.
There is also the issue of progression over time and here things may be reversed. Since heavier weights are used for lower repetitions, it can be somewhat easier to add weight to them. This is just a function of the generally fixed weight increment most gyms have and the fact that that weight increment is a smaller percentage of what’s on the bar for heavier weights. Adding 5 lbs to a 225X5 squat is less of an increase by percentage than to 155X15 or whatever. Again, with microloading options this is less of an issue. But it is a consideration in the big picture.
Mind you, the above is still really a practical issue and I’m honestly just padding the series out at this point to make the parts of similar length. But it is part of the overall picture.
Progressive Tension Overload Redux
Ok, so with all of that out of the way, let’s go back to the beginning and the idea that weight on the bar is a proxy for muscular tension and, far more importantly, that adding weight to the bar will result/act as a proxy for an increase in muscular tension. Clearly there are a large number of situations where this isn’t true. Or rather, where the idea must be specifically qualified.
The first qualification is that technique is correct to begin with and actually exposing the target muscle to tension in the first place. If a guy using shitty rowing or pulldown form has to cut the weight by 50% to do it properly, that lower absolute LOAD will probably expose his midback to a higher TENSION.
Not only will he not shrink by lowering the weight, his back will likely grow since it’s now being exposed to MORE tension than before. So we cut his old row from 200 to 100 and he’s now doing it properly and actually using his back for the first time in his life. A lower load means more tension.
The second qualification is that as he adds weight over time (and again this won’t necessarily be happening workout to workout or even week to week or month to month as the same weight on the bar might be a perfectly appropriate growth stimulus for weeks), his technique does not change or worsen. So that beautiful technique at 100 is maintained as he goes to 105, 110, etc.
His midback is being exposed to progressively higher mechanical tensions. If adding weight causes his form to degrade, that increase could result in a smaller than expected increase in tension, no increase in tension or even a decrease in tension. Proper technique, once established, must be maintained over time as the load on the bar is increased.
Mind you, this is true for any form of progressive overload. If adding sets, or cutting rest intervals (increased training density) causes form to degrade due to fatigue, it may not be increasing the overload on the target muscle to begin with. This isn’t magically a consideration for load increases alone, it applies to any form of progression. Technique must be maintained or the desired effect is likely to be lost.
The third qualification is that progressive tension is defined only relative to the starting load. You can’t compare absolute values across different repetition ranges. The fact that BFR with 30X30 is a lower absolute load as 85X5 reps isn’t relevant as both may results in high tension and a similar number of effective reps.
But over time that 30 lbs must increase to 35, 40,45 while the 85 lbs goes to 90, 95, 100. The starting point doesn’t matter except inasmuch as it does or does not provide a sufficient acute stimulus to the target muscle during a workout or series of workouts. Only the progression over time from that starting point is relevant.
You also can’t know for sure whether dropping from 100X5 to 45X30 with BFR will provide, more, less or the same tension stimulus to the fibers. It might, it might not. If both sets are limit sets, the difference will probably be very small.
Now, assuming you’re using good technique, etc. if you drop from 85X5 to 65X5 that’s a reduction in tension. If you drop from 45X30 to 30X30 that’s a reduction in tension. And you’ll lose muscle doing it no matter how much you attempt to make up for it with volume or frequency. Unless, as I qualified above, that drop in bar weight allows better technique to be used.
In a practical sense, choice of repetition range may matter inasmuch as it either affects your ability to use proper form or progress. If heavier sets of lower repetitions cause your form to degrade compared to lower loads for high repetitions to near failure, the latter may be superior for generating effective repetitions for the target muscle. If higher repetitions with lighter weights cause form to degrade more due to fatigue, the reverse may be true.
Choice of repetition range may also impact on your ability to add weight over time. It is often easier to add weight to a heavier/lower rep set than the converse, especially if you only have access to a fixed weight increase which is altogether too often the case. 5 lbs is a higher percentage of 30 lbs than 85lbs and adding that 5 lbs to 85X5 may be easier than to 30X30. If you have the ability to increase in smaller increments, this is less of an issue.
You can’t compare exercises any more than you can compare repetition ranges. The idea that a compound movement provides inherently more tension on the target muscle than an isolation movement due to the absolute load on the bar being a larger number is based on flawed logic and a non-understanding of physics and mechanics. It’s based on the idea that bigger numbers are better than smaller numbers and macho Internet horseshit.
The compound movement almost always has a shorter lever arm which reduces total torque requirements along with having those resultant torque requirements being met by multiple muscles. Assuming they are equivalently loaded in terms of difficulty (i.e. a limit set of 8 or what have you), the lower absolute load on the isolation movement may provide the same, slightly more or slightly less tension.
Regardless of the exact numbers, the differences will be nowhere close to what is implied by the absolute numbers. That someone is benching 225X8 versus doing flyes with 55X8 (110 lbs total) doesn’t mean the bench is providing double the muscular tension. By back of the envelope math, depending on mechanics, it might be more like 5-10% difference in either direction.
More importantly, depending on the lifter’s mechanics and relatively muscular strengths, in some cases, the isolation movement may provide more effective reps for the target muscle than the compound. Even if the tension is slightly lower, the acute stimulus may be much greater. Ultimately we care about tension and effective reps in the target muscle for hypertrophy, not the general movement. There is no curl muscle or squat muscle to train.
More importantly is the progression over time. If he were to increase from 100X5 to 120X5 on the OHP, that would be progressive tension overload. If he goes from 40X8 to 50X8 on the lateral, that’s progressive tension overload (assuming the above qualifications on technique, etc. hold). You can NOT compare the poundage on two different exercises and overload is defined ONLY to the specific exercise.
All of the Qualifications at Once
So there ya’ have it, if you add weight to the bar over time without changing technique and only consider that weight increase relative to the specific exercise and the starting point, that will lead to growth at least if you’re working in a moderate repetition range. But since that is too long to type all the time, I just condense it into the following “Progressive tension overload, as marked by adding weight to the bar, is the key to growth.” The other stuff is implied.
And that brings me to the end of this series, the last big cockup mis-understanding people make when I try to explain to them what apparently every physiology researcher knows but Internet geniuses can’t wrap their heads around: that adding weight to the bar over time is part and parcel of the training stimulus. And it has to do with the idea of being strong versus getting stronger.
Being Strong vs. Getting Stronger: Part 1
This actually has two different components to it but sort of covers both mistakes people make. The first is to try to look at someone’s absolute poundages in an attempt to say how big they should or shouldn’t be. So if a guy benches 300 or 200 that should automatically indicate how big he should be. That’s a mistake. I just want to expand on it here.
In a podcast on Jugglife, Ed Coan, arguably the greatest powerlifter of all time, commented
The first time I deadlifted I pulled 430 at a bodyweight of 135.
Which on top of being utterly depressing would seem to go against the idea that the weight on the bar is even related to muscular size. Most guys who are much heavier can’t pull that but let me reiterate that this isn’t about comparing two individuals to one another.
Again I’d point out that there is a disconnect between muscle cross sectional area/force output in the lab and actual weight lifted due to mechanics and the fact is that Coan was one of the best built humans ever for the sport in terms of his mechanics. Even with a lower total muscle and body mass, his body mechanics let him move a tremendous amount of weight. He was relatively short and had near perfect levers (bench slightly less so but it gave him a monster deadlift which let him out-total the world).
But more importantly, the statements about adding weight to the bar and increases in muscle size isn’t meant to say anything about how strong someone is to begin with (or how strong they are relative to anybody else). It’s a statement about PROGRESSION for a given individual from that starting point (it’s the same concept as comparing low-load/BFR and high-load training in terms of the progression over time).
Because by the time Coan was pulling 900+, he was up over 242 lbs. Where he started didn’t really matter. It was where he ended up. I’d note in this regard that, throughout his career he also had as a goal pushing up all of his “assistance” work each training cycle. I put that in quotes since he did about the most generic combination of movements you’ve ever seen (this works when you’re built perfectly for the lifts).
In another podcast I can’t find, he said that in addition to pushing up his main lifts, his goal was to add 5 lbs to each secondary lift. And he did this over years and years. Not only did it keep him healthier by keeping everything more balanced, it gave him more strength potential in the big lifts by increasing the involved muscle’s strength and size. And it made him bigger over the length of his career that he did that. The Chinese Ol’ers do a lot of bodybuilding work for this reason: a larger muscle is a potentially stronger one.
It wasn’t what poundage he started out but the fact that he increased that over his career. Because simply, if he had not ever pulled more than that initial 430 or not pushed his accessory lift poundages any higher, he wouldn’t have gotten much bigger than he started. That a beginner starts only pulling 135X5 is not relevant. By the time he’s pulling 365X5 he’ll be a lot bigger. How can he not be?
The starting point strength wise is less important than the progression over time.
The same holds for any given individual although most don’t show nearly that extreme of starting and ending poundages. As I said in Part 2, if you look at most good NATURAL bodybuilders, they are pretty strong. Again, they aren’t usually powerlifting strong unless they come from a powerlifting background per se (and many do which should be the other big clue). But they are pretty damn strong.
Far far more importantly they got strongER over the course of their career. I bet if you talk to them, they started out lifting the same mediocre weights in high school that we all did. Struggling with 95 in the bench, 135 on the squat if that. And now years later, they are benching in the high 200’s and squatting in the 300’s or whatever. Maybe more, maybe less. But a lot higher than they started. It wasn’t where they started, it was where they ended after many years of training. The progression over time is what mattered.
With, once again, their ultimate poundages in any given lift being more dictated by their biomechanics than much else. If they had good levers, they ended up moving a lot more weight. If they had poorer levers, they ended up moving less. But they had relative good or poor levers when they started so that’s a constant.
By adding 250-300 lbs to the bar in big movements and doubling or tripling the poundages in their smaller movements over the course of many years, they got stronger and bigger. Just like the strongmen/bodybuilders of the early 20th century everybody likes to invoke for one topic but who they ignore when it comes to how they trained. They trained to get strongER (with proper technique in a moderate repetition range) over time and, in doing so, got a lot bigger. QED.
In fact, if you look at ANY system of training that is successful for NATURAL bodybuilders, progressive tension overload is part and parcel of it. Fine, some people get into other bullshit that are really secondary parameters, at least in the short-term. But they all have progressive tension overload, adding weight to the bar over some frame, as a primary goal. ALL OF THEM. Why is this still being argued about in 2019?
Which brings me to the final stupid “argument” I see people make against this concept.
Being Strong vs. Getting Stronger: Part 2
I’ve usually seen this particular argument against the idea of progressive tension/weight overload stated as
“If getting stronger is the key to getting bigger, why isn’t the strongest guy the biggest?”
Or something roughly to that effect. Now I addressed this in brief in Part 1. The basic mistake that you can’t compare two different individuals meaningfully for the most part. Even with that qualification, there is actually a tremendously strong relationship between muscle size and maximal strength and usually the biggest guys are the strongest (or vice versa). Which isn’t the same as saying that the strongest guy is the biggest. But there’s a clear relationship between the two components.
Illustrating this is the chart below, pulled from a paper that I cannot source at the moment. It shows the relationship between lean body mass (measured by DEXA) and 1RM bench strength. Remember how I said that the relationship between muscle size and strength is nearly linear. Well here’s that mostly straight line. No it’s not perfect and there are outliers along with variability. But it’s damn close.
I believe the solid circles are women and the open circles men but you can see that there is an enormously strong relationship between the amount of lean mass and strength. As folks get bigger, their strength goes up. The stronger the individual is, the bigger they generally are or vice versa. Now, it’s not a perfect relationship, even among two individuals at roughly the same lean mass, there are variations in 1RM.
And that variation comes down to other factors that I also talked about. Individual biomechanics, neural factors, etc. For an identical amount of lean mass, two people may move different amounts of weight in a given lift but that says nothing about the actual muscular force output per se. Real world factors play a role.
Hell, look at the sport of powerlifting and how mechanics will alter poundages in the different lifts based on biomechanics even within the same weight classes. Take two athletes with identical weights and body compositions, hence identical amounts of lean mass.
Differences in height and individual limb lengths will alter the relationship between muscle size and strength. The guy with short arms who is built to bench will outbench the guy with longer arms but the guy with longer arms will outpull the guy with shorter arms. Same lean mass (and yes it may be distributed differently among body parts) can result in a different 1RM on each lift.
So no, there is not a linear relationship between absolute strength and size and I never said there was. The strongest guy won’t necessarily be the biggest even if there is an enormously good relationship between strength and size. But there has to be due to the enormously good relationship between muscular cross sectional area and force output. It’s just modified by external factors such as limb lengths, technique and other factors.
But even this is a tiny bit tangential to the idea that progressive tension overload (in a moderate repetition range mind you) is the stimulus for growth. Because the statement being made was never that “The strongest person will be the biggest person.” even if this tends to generally be true. A guy who can bench 315X5 will generally be bigger than a guy who can bench 225X5 and I don’t think anybody would debate that.
But that doesn’t mean that in certain situations a guy who benches 315X1 might be smaller than a guy who can bench 275X1. It’s worse if you look at powerlifting where technique, biomechanics and gear can completely throw off the relationship. Where female might bench an enormous amount by using an insane arch and a grip width that lower the range of motion to about an inch and the amount of weight she moves is more or less unrelated to her actual muscle mass.
But as a generality it is true: a stronger athlete will tend to be a bigger athlete (or a bigger athlete a stronger athlete depending on how you want to look at it).
Even ignoring that, the problem is that the statement being made above is a non-sequitur/total misunderstanding of what I’m actually saying. They are asking “If progressive tension overload is the key to size gains why isn’t the strongest person the biggest?”
But what was being said is this:
The individual who gets stronger over time [with qualifications]
will be bigger than they were before.
And despite containing many of the same words as the mis-interpretated version, the actual statement says something very very different. It doesn’t say anything about absolute strength levels per se. It doesn’t say anything about differences between two individuals or who is strongest in absolute terms. It only says something about progression over time for a given individual compared to themselves.
That if a given individual takes a given movement in a given repetition range with proper technique that doesn’t degrade as weight is added from X lbs x Y reps to X +Z lbs x Y reps where X is the starting point, Z is some value significant enough to matter and Y is the rep count, the target muscle will be bigger. That’s it. Again, it’s not saying anything about comparing two individuals or what level is eventually reached.
Coan’s first deadlift was over 400 lbs and he took it to 900+ lbs over his career. The average person might take 135 to 365 or more over a career. That the numbers are different is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that the ending point was much higher than the starting point over some time frame. That is:
All that is being said is that progressive tension overload
for any single individual over time will lead to growth.
What doesn’t seem like a terribly difficult sentence to understand to me even if folks seem to be having issues with the concept. Perhaps now that I’ve written 33,000 words about the topic, they’ll get it. But probably not.
Summing Up Muscular Tension Part 3
And well, I surprised myself by getting this done in 3 rather than 4 parts even if this ended up a touch longer than I wanted. I’m not sure it’s useful to really recap everything I wrote but hopefully what I’ve been babbling about tension for years in terms of weight on the bar being a proxy for tension and adding weight to the bar being a proxy for progressive tension overload is clearer.
Both things are the absolutely case (something researchers know but lifters seem to deny) but only with certain qualifications having been made. You can’t compare two individuals. You cant’ compare two different exercises. You can’t compare two different repetitions. Assumed is that technique is correct to begin with and doesn’t change with a load increase. Nothing is being said about absolute numbers and any perceived relationship to muscle size.
It’s only a statement about the fact that over time, adding weight to the bar for any given individual will result in them becoming larger than they were previously.
And by corollary:
If someone doesn’t add weight to the bar over time, no matter what else they do, they will not be any larger than they were before. Not unless they progressively add drugs.
And I think that’s all there is to say about that.
Oh, and the lifting technology I deliberately left out of the list in Part 2 to give critics something to bitch about and claim I’m old and out of the loop on this stuff? It was the new inertial flywheel stuff. Which doesn’t use gravity or tubing or anything else to generate resistance but rather the muscular force it takes to reverse a flywheel that has been loaded with rotational inertia.
Next up, probably exercise selection. Maybe something else. I almost feel like my aggro mana bar is refilled. You just never know with me.
- How Many Reps Per Set for Muscle Growth?
- Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs
- Examining Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 5
- Muscular Tension and Muscle Growth: Part 2