Making Light Barbells and Dumbbells Heavy
Purposefully disadvantaging lifts to our physiological advantage
There is a lot to recommend about a strategy of progressive resistance training that uses tricks of the trade to make light weights heavy. This is a careful, safe and extremely effective approach. The goal of progressive resistance training is to trigger the adaptive response resulting in muscle hypertrophy and strengthening of the targeted muscle. By using highly specific insider techniques, “intensity enhancers” less free weight poundage is needed to inflict the deepest possible muscular inroad. By using precision and concentrated effort maximal results are obtained from the smallest possible payloads: by making an exercise harder, we increase the derived physiological benefit.
Narrow the menu: as part of our overarching strategy we do fewer things better. Most trainees perform far too many exercises haphazardly; we perform far fewer expertly. What is the least number of exercises you do, and still train the body to the fullest extent, without compromise? My mentors passed along to me a system of strength wherein the three powerlifts, the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift were each trained once weekly. Everything past that was superfluous. I worked directly with Hugh “Huge” Cassidy, our guru, who routinely turned locals into world champions: Mark Dimiduk, Mark Challiet, Don Mills, Kirk Karwoski and myself were all IPF world champions and all used Hugh’s system and all lived within 20-miles of one another.
Signature techniques: Cassidy established technical archetypes, technical ideals based on the pursuit of world powerlifting records. Our techniques were formed by results; results guided us. We followed were the results led. Cassidy established technical templates for each barbell lift. Our school had identifying techniques that were iconic and easily recognizable. In the barbell back squat, the wide stance, vertical shins and upright torso; our bench press technique “pulled” the bar downward with internal elbow rotation, a high bar touch point and a bar path that arced up and back to lockout. Our barbell deadlift uses a narrow stance, upright posture and the legs are used to break the barbell from the floor. The hip-hinge is held in reserve until the barbell approaches the knees. This thumbnail sketch is a simple overview, there are numerous subtleties and variations contained within each lift.
Intensity Enhancers: an intensity amplifier is a tactic used in conjunction with a progressive resistance exercise to increases the difficulty of that lift. Increasing the difficulty deepens the inroad. However, care must be taken to retain the essential flavor of the core lift; do not dilute the result by overdoing. There is a tipping point between disadvantage and poundage: disadvantage a lift too severely and degrade poundage-handling ability to a point that the exercise is rendered ineffectual. Weightlifting intensity enhancers are designed to make the lifts harder. The assumption being that the trainee already has perfected the barbell squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press technique as perfect technique is their default mode. These strategies are used solely and in combination to periodically shock the body out of its complacency and spark progress where none currently exists.
- Range-of-motion: a conscious decision should be made before every exercise – what is my specific ROM? Every exercise has a finite rep stroke length; where is the turnaround. The longer the rep stroke, the more difficult; the shorter the rep stroke, the easier the effort. to make a barbell or dumbbell exercise maximally difficult, use a maximum ROM stroke length.
- Rep speed: a conscious decision should be made before every exercise – what rep speed should be used? There are three rep speeds to select from: purposefully slowed, “normal” or explosive. The maximally difficult speed is a purposefully slowed rep; however too slow a rep speed compromises poundage-handling ability to an unacceptable degree.
- Deadlift off weight plate or platform: standing on a weight plate, boards or a box “disadvantages” the deadlift and builds starting power by making the start of the pull harder. The higher the box, the harder the pull. There is a point of diminishing returns where too much height degrades poundage-handling ability to an unacceptable degree.
- Paused reps: every exercise has two turnaround points, at either end of the rep-stroke, where eccentric becomes concentric and again where concentric becomes eccentric. Purposefully pausing at a turnaround makes the concentric harder. If there is no pause at the turnaround the stretch-reflex generates momentum heading into the concentric.
- Changing hand width or foot stance: make a squat stance wider or narrower then “normal” increases the degree of difficulty.Altering the grip width on the bench press or overhead press dramatically alters the targeted muscles and inflicts differing degrees of difficulty. Purposefully going wider or narrower on the bar is a classic intensity enhancer.
- Drop sets: work up to a top set in an exercise and go to positive failure, immediately strip 5-10% off the payload and continue repping, again to failure. Once again, strip 5-10% more and rep until the burn and lactic acid build-up force you to stop. A drop-set is used on the concluding set of an exercise.
- Forced reps: another classic bodybuilding tactic that has been in widespread usage from the mid-1960s up to today. Take a muscle “past” positive failure by having an attuned training partner step in and assist the weightlifter in completing 1-3 additional reps. The optimal forced rep provides just enough assistance to keep the payload moving to lockout.
- Dumbbells: dumbbells make any lift harder than the barbell equivalent. Dumbbells force each arm to carry an equal payload and further, dumbbells introduce instability. The lifter must stabilize two independent payloads. For all types of decline benches, flat and incline benching, for overhead pressing and arm work, dumbbells are super intensity enhancers.
The Goal: get the most (results) using the least (poundage.) The idea is to disadvantage a lift and in doing so purposefully increase the degree of difficulty. Progressive resistance training is a thinking man’s game so mix and match strategies, techniques and intensity enhancers in order to goose progress. The savvy trainer has a strategy before ever set: what ROM and rep speed am I going to use? Am I going to pause reps? Use of forced reps or drop sets are all conscious choices arrived at ahead of time. The overarching goal of progressive resistance training is to add muscle, add strength and power and improve performance. The grab-bag of intensity enhancers we offer can be used solely or in combination with one another.
Mix and match: the intensity enhancing possibilities are endless: you could perform full range-of-motion, paused, dumbbell bench presses; how about narrow-stance deadlifts standing atop a 100-pound barbell plate laid flat-side up? A training partner can step in and helps you lock out that final rep that you could not do on your own. After working up to a pair of 60 lb. dumbbells for six reps in the strict dumbbell curl, you immediately pick up a pair of 45s and rep them for 5 more tough reps before conking out, you keep the set going by hitting a final rep-out set of 11-reps with a pair of 30s that leaves your arms maximally swollen. You could use maximum depth, ass-on-heels, wide-stance barbell back squats, done using grind rep speed and paused “in the hole.” On and on we could go. Start your intensity enhancing journey with full and complete range-of-motion reps. Full ROM reps are incredibly difficult and demanding and dig the deepest muscular inroad. Full ROM also serves as the foundation for many of the other intensity enhancer. Make haste slowly and carefully.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.