Putting the resistance back into training

Featured Resistance Training Equipment: Smith machine, barbell, free-weights

Progressive resistance training, done right, is the ultimate system for infusing the human body with strength and power. Anytime an athlete successfully and significantly increases strength and power, muscle size automatically and proportionally increases: realize a big increase is strength and reap equally big increases in muscle size. The idea is to overload a muscle or muscle group to such a profound degree that the targeted muscle freaks out, it loses its physiological mind and panics, doing the muscular equivalent of dialing 911.

Just as civilians call 911 for help in crisis situations, the overwhelmed muscle sends out a distress call that triggers the "adaptive response." The severity of the effort ignites the equivalent of a nuclear detonation on the cellular level. The stressed muscle (literally) builds more muscle to cope with the severity of the self-imposed stress. In an incredible display of regeneration in the face of adversity, the human body constructs new muscle tissue to assist in combating the repeated stresses of expert progressive resistance training.

The adaptive response sparks the miracle of muscle hypertrophy. Muscle grows only in response to extreme stress. Mild or moderate muscular stress is insufficient to create a cataclysmic event of sufficient intensity. If moderate exertion was sufficient to trigger hypertrophy, every YMCA and Gold's Gym in the country would be overflowing with Arnold clones. Here is a flat statement of fact: 90% of progressive resistance trainees fail to generate training intensities sufficient to trigger hypertrophy.

When an individual first begins resistance training, even the lightest payloads are sufficient to trigger hypertrophy. This anomaly passes and the trainee draws the wrong conclusion: they conclude that whatever system they initially used was a superb muscle and strength builder. Factually, for the first six weeks of any serious PR training, any lame-O system will deliver these easy initial results. The trainee (mistakenly) "knows for certain" that this first system worked - he knows this for a fact because he got the gains of his life using it. This is a classic case of drawing the wrong conclusions from empirical experience.

There is a proportional relationship between the degree of intensity generated during a progressive resistance exercise and the depth and degree of muscular inroad. To further complicate the issue, there are differing types of all out intensity and these variations result in differing results.

  • The elite bodybuilder: high volume, 5-6 sessions per week using intensity amplifiers, i.e. forced reps, drop sets, negatives…techniques that take a muscle past muscular failure.
  • The elite powerlifter: 102% effort using sophisticated training techniques. i.e. compensatory acceleration and "the barely completed final rep of the top set."
  • The elite Olympic weightlifter: explosive strength personified, generate 102% effort by moving moderate payloads with maximum velocity.

Many roads lead to 100% effort. For those new to resistance training, the hardest lesson to learn is just how hard they must push or pull to crash through the hypertrophy threshold. There is nothing in the rest of their civilian life that prepares them or provides them with a frame of reference for the degree of sheer physical effort required to truly reap all the gains associated with hardcore resistance training.

Imagine my continual consternation with the widespread, concerted and ongoing effort to take the resistance out of resistance training. In a seemingly irresolvable contradiction, those that would make resistance training easier would lead you to believe that all systems are created equal and thus, all results are the same. In real world, results are dramatically and demonstrated unequal.

Those that succeed in making resistance training easier dilute results

The reason a 400-pound squat done on a brand-new Smith Machine seems so much easier than a 400-pound barbell squat is that it is way easier - way easier. The Smith Machine 400-pound squat payload rides up and down on a ball-bearing glide path. a smooth-as-glass frozen motor pathway - meanwhile the lifters coming erect with a 400-pound barbell squat must cut his own precarious motor pathway through time and space.

Free-weights cause muscle stabilizers to freak out - and from a muscle-building/strength-infusing standpoint, that is a good thing. Progressive resistance exercise machines eliminate the need for side-to-side control. Instability is our friend when it comes to triggering hypertrophy and digging the deepest possible muscular inroad. How do we take the resistance out of resistance training?

  • Purposefully shortened rep strokes: the ego lifter can lift more weight using partial reps; the successful resistance trainer uses a maximum range-of-motion on all exercises. A shortened ROM yields partial results.
  • Machine training: 90% of all progressive resistance training machines mimic free-weight isolation exercises. Machines eliminate the 3rd dimension of tension; the need to control side-to-side motion. Free weight instability causes muscle stabilizers to go crazy.
  • Sub-maximal training: why would the human body favorably reconfigure itself in response to ease and sameness? The body needs be subjected to stress that literally shocks the target muscle with such severity that it strengthens and creates new muscle.
  • Absent-minded training: texting between sets or checking e-mails during training is a surefire indicator of a lack of mental intensity. Hardcore training requires a single-minded training ferocity that lifts performance to the next level. Distracted training nets nothing.
  • Too many exercises: the "weight trainer" drifts through a wide variety of exercises, sleep walking through one half-hearted effort after another: high volume machine training is an inch deep and a mile wide; hardcore training is an inch wide and a mile deep.

I could go on and on…our strategy stands in stark contrast: make resistance training harder. To that end we use full and complete range of motion; the lion's share of hardcore training is allotted to primal barbell and dumbbell exercises: squats, bench presses, deadlifting, overhead pressing, rows, chins, dips.

In hardcore power training, maximum poundage is handled for low to moderate (1-8 reps) reps. Sessions are short and infrequent and each subsequent training week the hardcore trainee seeks to improve poundage or rep handling ability - stronger begets new muscle. Pauses, full ROM and slowed negatives are the power trainer's intensity-enhancers.

Let us vow to put the (purposeful) struggle back into progressive resistance training. Let us resolve - not to avoid or eliminate sticking points (thereby making resistance training easier) instead, purposefully seek out sticking points and then fight through them - because we understand that that is where the gains reside. Embrace the suck.

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.