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The Principle of Overload
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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Muscles adapt and grow when they are forced (with proper form) to overcome a resistance they have not experienced before. In weight training, that's called the "principle of overload". In every workout, for every exercise, pick at least one of your sets to make your "personal best. " Go beyond what you have ever done; either by raising the weight or adding 1-2 extra reps to one of your sets. Then gradually add weight to the other sets in that exercise until you can raise the resistance on the entire sequence. As fitness writer Dave Tuttle notes, "weightlifting is not an endurance sport. It is a peak-intensity sport based on the overload principle. Your muscles grow from the one set when you lift more than you ever did before, and not from the ten sets you did at a weight you have lifted for years."

When you lift weights, you should always warm up with low weight for 12-15 repetitions. After that, you raise the amount of weight and do 2-3 "work sets." There is a wide variety of set/rep patterns available. A "pyramid" sequence raises the weight in each set while lowering the number of repetitions, then reverses, raising the number of repetitions while lowering the amount of weight. A "half-pyramid" does just the first portion of that sequence. A "half pyramid with a pump set" immediately adds a final set of 8-12 repetitions. Advanced lifters sometimes warm up and then do a single set to "total failure" - meaning they can no longer lift nor lower the weight and still stay in good form. This requires a "spotter" to help stabilize the weight at the point of failure, and is extremely dangerous without one. But you can get roughly the same effect if you finish your last set by what I call "lingering in the eccentric" - holding the weight in mid-lowering until you completely exhaust the muscle (don't do this for any exercise where you could not safely drop the weight if you had to). 

In any event, work sets should be near "failure" for the concentric or lifting portion of the movement. The last couple of reps should be a challenge, and the last 2 reps of your final set should be a slightly out-of-body experience. Arnold Schwarzenegger describes it as "substituting the feeling of pain with the feeling of pleasure." If you can "rep-out" that last set with more than 12, it's time to add some extra weight. In general, the weight you use for these sets should range from about 70% (for higher rep sets) to about 85% (for lower rep sets) of your single-rep maximum. Always, but particularly on those last reps, be sure that you aren't "recruiting" other muscles to do the work of the one you're trying to focus on. If your hips or back are lifting off the bench, your elbows are flaring out, or you are arching your body one way or another, cut it out! It's a good way to get hurt, and you're taking the stress off the target muscle. Keep your abs tight, shoulder blades pulled slightly toward each other, and your neck and pelvis in a "neutral" position - stable, with the slight curvatures intact.

Your resistance-training routines should include at least one multi-joint "foundation" exercise. For chest and arms, the barbell bench press is excellent, because it requires balance and recruitment of numerous muscle groups. A closer grip focuses on the arms. A wider grip focuses on the chest. Cable pulldowns are a good choice for the upper back. For lower body, squats or leg presses are excellent, but be very careful about proper form. Early on, a leather weight belt is a great investment to protect your lower back on vertical exercises like squats. But gradually reduce your use, in order to encourage back and abdominal strength. You don't have to be a hero either. I can't emphasize enough that resistance training gets results when you achieve powerful muscle contraction. That depends more on form and focus than on poundage. Pushing a lot of weight in poor form just gets you injured. Muscle soreness is a great sign. So is a good "burn" during your last few reps. But joint pain or severe shooting pain is an urgent warning that your form is poor or your poundage is excessive.

Some tips from Arnold Schwarzenegger

"From the very start you should look on soreness as a positive, as a sign of building, of growth.

"Use the time on your way to the gym to outline some immediate goals for yourself, to decide what you want to accomplish in this particular workout session. Don't just go to the gym and say, 'Oh no, another workout.' Your attitude should be: 'Okay, this is another training session, and today instead of a 100-pound bench press I'll do 105 pounds. I feel stronger today; I can do it.'

"You should set goals for yourself that make you eager to go in and do bench presses, or squats, or barbell curls. Have a definite reason for wanting to do bench presses. Not just because you want to look better next year. That is a long-range goal, which is very important - but you should also be setting little short-range goals all the time. For example, tell yourself that tomorrow you want to get a good pump in the pectoral muscles. Or, yesterday you saw a picture of a bodybuilder whose waist was 29 inches, and you would like to have really good abdominals, so today you'll do more repetitions: by next Monday you ought to be a half inch smaller in the waist. These little goals are fantastic. They've helped me a lot."

“Cahm vees me eef you ouant to leev.”

“I leeund to sobsteetoot dih feelink ahf pain, vees dih feelink ahf plesha.”

Sorry. Practicing my accent.

One more great Arnold quote: "I created a mental picture of who I wanted to be, and then I lived into that picture."


At the beginning of every workout, ask yourself "What is my goal here?" That one question will help you to focus on the results you expect from the workout, and it'll get you more involved and committed.

In the cardio and interval training, here's a useful technique. Focus on recruiting the use of as many muscles as you can (without looking like a dork). Many people at the gym literally drape themselves over the handles of a bike or a treadmill, rather than taking control. Ask yourself, "Am I using my hamstrings?", "Could I work my quadriceps more deeply?" Or if you're doing an exercise that involves the arms as well, make an effort to notice whether you've involved your triceps, biceps, and back muscles. And now do it all at once, as smoothly as you can - flow. You'll be surprised, and possibly even slightly scared, by how much power you can pump out. Work on this gradually if you're starting from a low level of fitness.

Proper form is essential

Free weights are generally very safe. Check with your physician first, of course, to be sure what level of intensity is appropriate for you. If you're over 40 or have a family history of heart disease or stroke, please don't skip that advice. The most significant danger in weight lifting is improperly executed leg exercises. Deadlifts have the greatest shearing force on the lower back. I prefer leg curls for that reason. Leg extensions can also stress the knee if poundage is too high, so you should do them after your legs are "pre-exhausted". For foundation work, I like squats in proper form, or super-slow leg presses. Push from the heels, focus on straightening the knees, and come just short of locking the knees at the top. That allows you to achieve the same stress with lower poundage. On the eccentric (downward) movement, don't let those knees travel over the toes. Look forward, not down, and do not relax at the bottom of a squat, which can cause excessive stress to the connective tissue of the knees. When you pick something heavy up, you should usually bend at the knees, keep your lower spine relatively straight, and lift with your leg muscles, rather than bending at the hips and straining your lower back. Never lift and twist at the same time. When doing bench work, don't let your elbows move much below the bench, which can strain the shoulders. Exhale. 

There is a whole list of metabolic benefits from the combination of aerobics, wind-sprints, cross training and resistance training. These including improved aerobic capacity, higher lactate tolerance, greater capillary density, increased fat-burning enzymes and transfer agents, expansion of muscle glycogen stores, and increase in mitochondria (the parts of the cell that produce energy). But the bottom line is that you'll feel great. Muscle building is challenging, so you should plan extra sleep, especially in the first few weeks of your program. You may also feel a very strong need for a nap in the afternoon or early evening, which you should take (up to 20 minutes), in order to lower your susceptibility to colds and improve your recovery. A 10-20 minute period of relaxed, slow, deep breathing is also a good time to visualize your goals.

Lifting Tricks

Every four weeks or so, it's helpful to change your exercises slightly in order to keep your body "surprised." Even a small change in the angle of the exercise (for instance, incline presses instead of flat presses) will recruit a slightly different set of muscles and keep you progressing. Adding a new aerobic exercise to your week can also be helpful.

Try to break to a new "personal best" in each workout, which may be simply one or two extra reps, or an extra few pounds in one of your sets. Some days will be more successful than others, but keep reaching a little higher.

Forced Negatives

It can often be difficult moving the weight up a notch in some exercises, such as barbell curls. If you're stuck at a given weight (and of course, not experiencing joint pain, in which case the weight is already excessive), try "forced negatives." As a rule, your muscles can generally tolerate more weight in the eccentric (lowering) portion than in the concentric (lifting) portion. In a forced negative, you get an experienced spotter to help you lift the weight, and then you lower it slowly on your own. Be very conscious about good form, which generally means tight abs and a relatively straight back, keeping slight curvatures intact instead of being totally rigid. After a few sessions of forced negatives at a given weight, you'll often be able to complete the whole movement without a spotter. 

EAS Champion Abb Ansley used this technique to finish his chest exercises, using just 1 repetition (please, please, use an experienced spotter on any exercise where you could not safely drop the weight if you had to). You can also use forced negatives in sets including several repetitions. Often, you'll be able to do the whole movement on your own within a very short time.

As it happens, a new study by Canadian researchers comes to the same conclusion. "Accentuated eccentric loading", as they call it, triggers a significant improvement in the one-repetition maximum (1RM) amount of weight that can be lifted in the concentric (or "lifting") phase. So again, if you've hit a plateau in the amount of weight you can lift, it may be time to call in an experienced spotter for a set or two.

Static Hold

In the resistance training, during eccentric (lowering) portion of your last one or two reps, it's useful to hold the weight in mid-lowering, at the point where you feel significant tension on the muscle. Don't strain a muscle, don't lose form, particularly in your back, and don't do this in any exercise in which you couldn't safely drop the weight if you had to. That said, try to hold the weight in mid-lowering until you can no longer keep it up in good form. 

You're going to feel a burn. Not really pain, but a spreading burn in your muscle as it stretches under tension. Linger in that burn. It's exactly what you're working for. This is exactly the point at which the muscles are enduring the little micro-tears that promote growth. If you feel joint pain, your form is bad or your poundage is way too high. The goal is not pain, but "static stretch." Don't hold your breath. I usually breathe faster and shallow when the burn sets in.

The American Journal of Cell Physiology recently published a study that lends support to this technique. The concentric portion of a muscle contraction produces about a 2-fold increase in "stress-activated protein kinases" (chemicals involved in muscle growth). But static stretch during the eccentric portion increases the release of these chemicals by about 20-fold. Now, the concentric portion of a move is important for other reasons, particularly strength gains. But adding that extra bit of static stretch during the eccentric move can be very effective. The study concludes "the stretch component of a muscle contraction may be a major contributor to the increases in JNK activity and p38 phosphorylation observed after exercise." Translation: faster progress. 

A Final Technique

Focus on your cheek muscles, just above the jaw. Now contract them so that they pull back and upward toward the ears. Contract hard enough so that your lips part slightly and your teeth show. 

Outstanding. Keep that up.



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