When it comes to maintaining the positive adaptations of our bodies, we need to continuously challenge ourselves beyond our limits, above and beyond the last time. Have you ever noticed how beginner trainees seem to experience a sudden spike of increased performance almost right out of the gate, and more advanced trainees need to train like complete animals just to gain a single ounce of muscle mass? Well, this is how it works…
Due to the lack of experience, or better yet, the lack of optimal, efficient motor patterns, what the beginners are actually experiencing is called neuromuscular efficiency. This means that the beginner’s nervous system is increasing it’s efficiency for that particular skill or movement. Whether it’s a push up or a squat, the beginning stages of increased performance take place purely on a neuromuscular level. This is exactly why we favor the use of higher repetitions for a select few movements for the novice lifter. We need to solidify a strong movement practice that we can than add different complexities to later on. Here are some examples; learning how to perform a body weight squat properly before attempting a barbell back squat. Learning how to execute a basic hip hinge pattern before learning the deadlift, snatch or clean & jerk. Being able to demonstrate proper shoulder mechanics before attempting a bench press. Ah, it all makes sense now, doesn’t it?
After we’ve solidified this neuromuscular foundation, the magic really starts to happen. We can then add varying complexities to these basic movements and incorporate the “It’s go time” mentality. We now have the basic skill set and movement practice in place to safely and effectively up the ante with added load, speed, tempo and more to trigger different adaptation responses. Sometimes, these complexities are implemented to soon, before the body is truly prepared, and can result in injury as well as improper or inefficient movement patterns. Don’t make that mistake.
This now brings us to the heart of this post. How hard should you be pushing yourself? How hard is too hard, and how little is too little? Many people are left in despair when they suddenly hit a plateau and progress comes to a screeching halt. Nutrition and sleep are paramount, but the third most obvious element is often forgotten. That’s intensity.
The human is a very efficient animal. If there’s an abundance of fuel consumed, we store it for the next famine. If there is a lack of fuel consumed, our bodies break down stored energy for use as fuel. The same principle applies when it comes to training and adaptation. When we undergo intense exercise, the body knows no difference between lifting weights, fighting off predators or hunting for our next meal. All it takes into consideration is how to prepare itself for the next attack or bout of physical demand and has no choice but to adapt, get stronger and grow bigger. There is, however, the point of diminishing returns. What this means is as we become stronger and grow bigger, we are slowly reaching our genetic “cap”, for lack of a better term. As our fitness improves and we grow closer to this cap, it takes more and more work to yield the same results. This is where intensity becomes key, as it is the most effective way to maintain steady positive adaptations, even for the most elite level athletes.
This is the classic case of the mind quitting before the body. Those last few reps seem impossible. Your muscles are burning intensely and it feels as though you’re lifting the entire universe. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, you hear that voice. That voice that tells you it’s too uncomfortable to keep going. Take a minute to ask yourself, what exactly do you do during this time? Do you cut the set short, or do you grind though it and finish the set? If you’re guilty of listening to that inner voice, and trust me, everyone is from time to time, that may be the reason why your progress has stalled. As soon as you feel like it’s becoming unbearable, just go a little bit further. It’s beyond this threshold where the exciting things really start to happen. It’s the difference between discomfort and exhaustion, the weak and the strong.
In conclusion, don’t take this as an excuse to throw the weight around carelessly just to squeeze out those last few repetitions. Each and every rep should be completed with the best form possible. You should never push yourself to the point of compromising the form of an exercise. This is how injuries happen. So, the bigger picture is this; incorporate as much intensity as possible without compromising optimal mechanics. Train smart and train hard.