Gain Strength Without Fail By “Mastering the Weight”

April 3, 2008

Have your strength gains ever come to a halt? If you have been lifting weights for any length of time, you most likely have had this frustration. I used to reach sticking points all the time, because of my constant use of a spotter or forcing reps that I couldn’t lift myself. I figured that if I forced up a few more reps with the use of a spotter, I would have to get stronger. Wrong! This is a terrible approach and will give you short term results at best. I am going to outline a much better approach to gaining strength for years to come with very few sticking points.
Santorini Hotel overlooking the sea
[An amazing view of the Aegean Sea from a balcony in Santorini Greece. The whole city is white and looks amazing in contrast to the deep blue Aegean Sea. These are the sort of pictures that inspire me to stay healthy and fit…not some guy doing a “most muscular” pose!]

The Longest Route to Your Goals is the Shortcut

The idea behind doing “forced reps” and “negatives” is that it is allowing your body to get used to handling more weight for more reps. Doing a negative lift, where the spotter lifts the weight and you control it on the way down is a way of inducing a bit of muscle damage. This is a great mass gaining technique and it even increases strength in the short term, the problem is that a strength gain sticking point is inevitable using this type of lifting technique.

Yes, You Can Gain Strength By Pushing Past Failure

Obviously you can gain strength by doing negatives and forced reps. The weight does feel a bit lighter your next workout and strength gains can come quickly. Things look great until the dreaded sticking point hits. Normally this is the time when many people will add sets and do more negatives and forced reps. The problem is that this soon creates extreme muscle soreness and the body will quickly reach a fatigued and overtrained state. The muscles eventually get obliterated by this type of bombardment.

Why Does This Sticking Point Occur?

If you really think about it, the strength gained from doing negatives is more about gaining tendon strength and a bit of strength due to the added mass. This method is more about creating better leverage for a lift…not actually training your nervous system to fire the muscles harder, which is true strength training. The sticking point happens because the strength gain using negatives is a bit like “fool’s gold”…true strength was never increased…heavier weights can be lifted due to the limiting factors of the leverage created.

wine drinking in santorini greece
[I had to throw in a sunset picture from Santorini as well. Can you just feel the warm breeze and smell of the ocean? I must visit this place soon!]

Getting Stronger vs Just Lifting Heavier Weights

Let’s say you normally curl with 40 pound dumbbells for 5 reps. You do these curls at a medium pace, generating tension in the muscle as you lift and lower the weight. If you suddenly grabbed 60 pound dumbbells and heaved them up quickly for 5 reps…did you gain strength or are you just lifting heavier weights? It is easy to lift heavier weights and fool yourself into thinking that you are gaining true strength.

Rushing to the Next Weight Too Quickly…Another Mistake

Take that dumbbell curl example…let’s say you are doing 4 sets of 5 reps with 40 pounds with the goal of gaining strength and increasing muscle definition in your biceps. If you do all 4 sets with 40 pounds and can get 5 reps in each set (even the last set), then you increase weight the next time you work biceps. This does work well, but it also creates an inevitable sticking point…just not as quickly as doing forced reps and negatives. The problem is that you are rushing the weight faster than your body can adapt to that weight.

Mastering the Weight Before Going Heavier…

Let your body fully adapt to a weight, before deciding to go a bit heavier on a certain lift. You can use the same weight for dozens of workouts and train your target muscles to contract harder each workout. Get the most out of a weight, before increasing that weight. For some muscle groups, you may want to stick with a weight for months before moving on…other lifts you may only want to stick with a weight for a couple of weeks.

Patience is Your Best Friend For Longterm Strength Gains

The longer you let your body adapt to a weight, the less likely you will encounter sticking points in the future. I’m not saying that you will gain strength forever or that you will never reach a sticking point…I’m just saying that you will make positive progress for a much longer period of time if you understand the principle of letting your body “master a weight” before moving on.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer April 3, 2008 at 5:10 pm

This is a cool idea because you always see people lifting heavier weights before they have mastered their form. I saw this fairly out of shape person working out at the gym, and they were lifting heavy weight, but they were rocking their body and lifting in a very restricted range of motion. To top it off they were cranking the weights rapidly, which I can’t see working the muscle very well unless they want to do that all day long. I stick to your recommendations of really contracting the muscle hard and lifting a weight in which I can use proper form (and never to failure). I really want to visit Greece sometime…those are definately motivating pics.

john April 3, 2008 at 6:33 pm

so rusty which muscle group should u train at the same weight longer and which shorter. Like arms forearms legs longer while glutes chest back shorter? Also i wanna actually increase my mass a little more for the summer. I know it’s opposite of what this site teaches. should i do more reps lighter weights or less reps heavier weights?

Gators April 3, 2008 at 7:01 pm

Rusty, i got lost in those pictures, i need to get there!…really emphasizes to me why we need to be fit and healthy and see new places, start new businesses etc…what great motivation! lol what was the post about again??

Ricky April 3, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Pics of beach paradises for fitness motivation, you really are a character Rusty. I was wondering, why don’t you write a post for those bodybuilder-types who want to lean down like you did those many years ago? Surely its a small number but they are around. We all know how you shed off over 30 pounds of muscle to get where you are today, but you never really went into the whole process. Your posts focus mostly on muscle tone, cardio and fat loss but none really cater to that miniscule niche which you once to belong to. I would really like to see that. Furthermore you should really make some Youtube videos. I know you are rather modest, but your knowledge really is gold, and it should truly be exposed to a wide audience.

Sandy April 3, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Hey Rusty! Another great topic. WOW, Greece is beautiful!

James April 4, 2008 at 1:01 am

Rusty, excellent advice yet again. the whole mastering the weight thing is perfect, what I do is if a weight feels light I’ll workout 3 more times after the weight felt light and really stress each rep to get the fullest out of it. By the last time the weight should move with ease but still feel it recruits some fiber. Then, I move up 5 pounds and do that for about 12 weeks or so at least.

I was never a fan of forced reps and negatives, these two meatheads in my gym are always doing them and scream at the top of their lungs putting a big show for everyone: “COME ON TONY ONE MORE BROTHA YOU GOT THIS F*** THE PAIN MAN U SISSY COME ON B*TCH” the shouts go as everyone with an ounce of class/dignity in the place just stares at these neanderthals with disgust. Forced reps seem like a good advanced bodybuilding/strength technique but are useless for the lean look

Finally, I agree make some youtube vids man or write a book, you should expand your knowledge (and maybe make some cash) The advice on this site is too good to not go mainstream.

Randi April 4, 2008 at 8:46 am

what a great post – I have been trying to tell the personal trainer i work with on occasion -just to help get out of a slump; nothing like having someone think about your workout for you 🙂 – about rushing to the next weight to fast; he thinks i am being lazy and unmotivated but I just like to increase slowly, like you said get the most out of the weight.

joe April 4, 2008 at 8:51 am

Well said Rusty. I’ve adopted Pavel Tsatsalone’s (sp?) theory of strength training thanks to the info you provided a few months back. This clip is exactly what he suggests. Spot on. Train the nervous system to recruit more muscle contraction for true strength gains. I’m 48 yrs old and been training for that “NFL” look since i was 16 —till I discovered this site. I gained more strength, faster, since you turned me on to Pavel than in all the previous ones. Where were you 30 years ago when I was playing college ball?? My workouts are now shorter and more effective. Although they get intense as you gradually cycle up, they are not the exhusting and monotonous “grind em out” marathons I did before. Afterwords I am refreshed vs sore. For those out there who haven’t tried it yet, take Rusty’s advice, read Pavel’s POWER TO THE PEOPLE for a more in depth discussion about true strength training. Thanks Rusty, you changed my life.

AFDerrick April 4, 2008 at 9:23 am

I will concur with the youTube videos, but I know you are already working on a book, so I won’t say anything there. It’s funny this morning at the gym I saw a guy who was doing back extensions machine (where you sit and lean back while lifting the weight) I guess that’s what you call it. When he came back up his entire body lifted off the seat though and by the time his butt got back on the seat he had about two more inches down to go before he was going back up.

Alright so I have a question/suggestion. What about swimming? I like to do steady-state cardio in the afternoons and many times to give my knees a break from all the HITT in the mornings.

Finally, I hit a milestone of 15 pounds gone today! I’m excited, I just hit sub 250, and am seeing some nice definition in my arms but still have a lot of belly fat, I guess that is the last place to start to lose the fat?

admin April 4, 2008 at 10:17 am

Jennifer,

Yeah…the nice thing about sticking with a weight until you master that weight is that it is better for your joints as well. Also, like you said, you don’t ever have to lift to failure…I think a lot of people believe you have to lift to failure to gain strength and that is simply not true.

John,

If you want to gain mass, lighten the weights so you can do 6-12 reps and do many more sets. As far as which muscle groups to stick longer with the same weight…it really depends upon the individual. You will have some muscle groups that adapt quicker than others and you can increase the weight at a quicker pace.

Gators,

Yes…traveling motivates me to succeed in life more than “things”. I would rather drive a mediocre car, if that meant I could travel more. I guess I don’t have great memories of a certain car or watch that I’ve owned…my best memories are meeting people from different parts of the world in amazing locations.

Ricky,

I’m going to hold off on the Youtube videos for until after I have written 2-3 books. If I had more time, I would do both…but for now I have to prioritize and get those books out there. As far as writing more about purposely losing muscle to slim down…I do need to write a small free report on that. I can see the guys at the bodybuilding forums with a puzzled look on their face as I write this…most of these guys can’t imagine why anyone would purposely drop muscle mass.

Sandy,

If you ever get the chance, rent Summer Lovers…it is a great 80’s movie filmed in Santorini Greece:

[Corny, but good movie. The scenery is outstanding!]

James,

Thanks for the compliments. I am in the process of putting together a few free downloadable reports first, then I’ll work on my big e-book. As far as lifting past failure, it does make people sore which people think is a sign of a good workout.

Randi,

That is a big problem with many personal trainers. They take pride in blitzing your muscles so that you are sore for days. I even hear them brag about this…”by the time I get through with you, you are barely going to be able to walk”. It is easy to make the muscles sore, but it is a terrible strategy for long term success in the gym. I haven’t been sore for over 6 years and I make constant progress. Lifting in the way I described is a win-win situation.

Joe,

Yeah…Pavel’s material is outstanding! Like him, I don’t think it is smart to tear the muscles down all the time like mainstream trainers suggest. Instead it is better to lift with less volume and increase strength month after month and year after year.

Note: Here is the post about Pavel (former soviet special forces trainer)l for those who want to read about this guy:
Muscle Tone Philosophies of Former “Soviet Special Forces” Instructor

AFDerrick,

You are doing great! Swimming is a good supplementary exercise to add into the mix. I would still include sprinting of some sort throughout the week, but swimming is a good form of cardio. Yes…on men that belly fat is the last to go. The cool thing is that when you have 6 pack abs, you can be sure that the rest of your body is defined.

Great comments everyone!

Rusty

Helder April 4, 2008 at 11:38 am

I love the Greek Islands, what a paradise 🙂 About your post it’s so true Rusty, negatives can be good sometimes to gain mass, but like you said, someone who does that is only fooling himself. Small increases in weight and proper form is a slow, but sure way to keep gaining strength in the long term, the forced reps also don’t give that much increase in strength because the lifter is not really doing the strength, i see it happening all the times, the spotter does all the strength while shouting “it’s all you”. Another negative effect is that forced reps and negatives will get you overtrained really fast. I never liked it much, i only lift what i can by myself. Another very good post Rusty.

Brad April 4, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Hey Rusty, I’ve been reading through many of the posts from others and I think it’s a great thing how you’re advice is helping so many people. Keep up the good work!
Just thought I’d give an update on my progress. I’m almost through my 6 week fat loss phase. I started at 194, after 5 weeks I was 184 and tomorrow when I check my weight I should be around 182-183. So my first 6 weeks has been a success, I’m already down to 9-10% bodyfat.
I am however ready to take my week or so off from HIIT and eat maintenance calories during this time. My body is feeling a bit worn down so this will be good for me.
Then I know I will be recharged and ready to attack the last 10 pounds of fat that I know will be the most stubborn. But I’m confident I can get rid of them will all the advice I’ve learned from this site. I really feel like the small break from eating in a calorie deficit will recharge my metabolism.
This is a very motivational site and I’ve really benefited from it!
Its funny too, I always get motivated to be in great shape each and everytime I see somewhere tropical or when I think about vacations. To be honest, I don’t like vacations at all unless I’m in great shape with low bodyfat. I guess thats just me. But I like to feel good about myself or else I can’t enjoy myself nearly as much.
I can’t wait till I get to my goal weight and bodyfat, then I can look forward to my summer and wherever I decide to travel!
Great stuff as usual, you’ve motivated me once again with the cool pics. Take care.

Trevor April 4, 2008 at 1:27 pm

Hey Rusty,

I’ve been putting together my workout plan, and I’m getting some contradicting info from different places. I’m a cyclist, so I need leg power, but I don’t really want to add mass. I do plyos twice a week, and one leg lift day a week. My real question is, when lifting for power and speed, not gaining mass…

Short sets, heavy weight? Long sets, light weight? A lot of sets? Not many sets?

Everyone seems to be telling me something different. What do you say?

dangeruss April 4, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Speaking of strength what do you think of Randy Couture’s circuit workout….

http://video.google.com/videoplay

Eleni April 4, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Hey Rusty!
Thanks for all the great advice! Just a quick question, on days other than HIIT, do u recommend high intensity steady state or slow steady state cardio?
I was in Santorini in 2001 and it literally takes your breath away. I’ve always felt that it couldn’t be as beautiful as the pictures (and I’m Greek) but it is even better. I would love to get back there
Eleni

admin April 4, 2008 at 8:10 pm

Helder,

Heavy negatives obliterate the muscle tissue and can make the muscles being worked extremely sore. I use to take pride in getting really sore and eating incredible amounts of protein. It made me big and slow…not a good look and I felt too worn out to enjoy activities outside of the gym. I’m so glad I don’t do that stuff anymore! Have you been to Greece? I know it isn’t too far of a trek for you.

Brad,

Anything below 10% bodyfat for a guy is great. At 9-10% you normally see good muscle defintion without any excess fat. That is awesome. The way I think of Tropical vactions is like this…how many do people realistically take in a lifetime…5-10? To me getting in extra good shape for a trip is really fun! If I look and feel my best, I will enjoy the vacation more. I would enjoy the vacation either way, but it feels really good to be in outstanding shape. Enjoy your week off from strict dieting and HIIT. I bet you will be itching to do HIIT and diet hard within a week. Making great progress is addicting!

Trevor,

I would do short sets with heavy weight. Too much volume in the 6-12 rep range is going to build mass. Alternatively you could do higher reps in the 20+ range with light, because that is more like cardio at that point. Experiment a bit. The main thing you will want to avoid for sure is lifting to failure. Again…avoid any of the typical 6-12 rep bodybuilding style sets and you should do fine. If it was me I would do 5 sets of 3-5 reps on two leg exercises for a total of 10 sets.

Rusty

Helder April 5, 2008 at 10:46 am

I’m going to Greece this year, it’s one of the places i want to visit most, last summer some friends went there, and they tell me wonders of it. I always loved Greece, they’re nice people, they also have good red wine, beautiful beaches, the cities, all the history. Like you said i’m not too far from Greece, i’m not going to delay this trip anymore.

Ed April 6, 2008 at 10:28 am

As always proper form over constantly increasing the weight; you will be very surprised with what you can accomplish.

admin April 6, 2008 at 2:55 pm

dangeruss,

Randy Couture is in great shape. I like his circuit training routine a lot. What is funny is that most the UFC guys are built very close to the type of physique that I recommend on this site…functional strength, low body fat, wtihout excess mass. Randy says, that bodybuilder type muscles may look intimidating, but are bad for fighting.

Helder,

You have to tell me about your experience once you get back from the trip. I really plan on going within the next 2-3 years…it looks like one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Ed,

Amen brother!

Have a great one,

Rusty

Sandy April 6, 2008 at 8:11 pm

Okay, i will check it out! Hey, nothing wrong with corny movies! LOL!

Helder April 9, 2008 at 11:32 am

I will, you can count on it, if everything goes the way i plan, i’ll be going in the summer, i’ll let you know then.

Freezinghot July 24, 2009 at 5:25 am

Hi Rusty,

I am looking to get lean as. I am a Mesomoph so mass comes easily. I am looking at doing cardio in the morning using HIIT. And 1 hour lifting at night followed by cardio and HIIT. I know I may be overdoing the cardio but I have quite a goal weight to hit and hitting cardio twice a day with a low cal diet will help smash the fat.

If you ever get a chance, take a look at the pyshiques of a rugby league player or rugby player. I think the type of demands placed on their bodies creates a very lean functional body. The game is very fast, 13 players a side, each side has 6 tackles in sucession, it is almost as if they run/sprint/tackle for 80 minutes non stop. The body is in constant HIIT mode for the entire game. If you get a chance check them out. Google NRL and you will see what I am talking about. I know that they hit the weights and they also do a lot of running/short sprints.

I was in my best shape 10 years ago when I combined the 2 with healthy eating. Very lean.

Cheers
FH

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