Muscle growth is directly related to intensity of effort, which simply means that if you work hard and continually progress up the ladder of intensity, you'll gain big. Moving up this
ladder isn't a complicated process, but it can be a rather intimidating proposition-intimidating because you must take your muscles past positive failure and into the pain zone as
often as your constitution will allow.
Note the last part of the previous statement: "as often as your constitution will allow." High-intensity training is extremely severe. When using high-intensity techniques, the overtraining monster will always be waiting in the wings ready to pounce. Please use the techniques mentioned later in this column (and those discussed last month) sparingly, or your muscle growth will (heaven forbid!) reverse itself. And believe us, regression is no fun. We speak from experience.
About 30 years ago Mike Mentzer's Heavy Duty system was all the rage, and we, along with many other logically minded bodybuilders, totally embraced its short but awesomely intense workouts as gospel. There was one problem, however: We gobbled up Mentzer's high-intensity preaching, but we ignored his use of the word "infrequent." Every set (other than warmup) was taken to absolute failure; when we reached positive failure, we continued with forced (partner-assisted) reps and then forged ahead with negatives. Needless to say, we felt like walking vats of lactic acid the majority of the time.
Overtraining? Nah, not us. "The shaking and collapsing legs are all just part of high-intensity bodybuilding," we thought. But when we stepped on the scale after two months of this torturous madness, we couldn't believe our eyes-both of us had lost in the neighborhood of 10 pounds, most of it hard-earned muscle.
We took drastic action-maybe a little too drastic. We cut down on the use of intensity techniques-the right thing to do-and we upped our caloric intake significantly-the wrong thing to do. (The latter action caused us to bloat up to 15 fat pounds over our "best" body weights, but that's another painful allegory we'll save for another time.)
The point is, if you use intensity techniques too often, you'll grind yourself into the ground and start regressing. But intensity techniques are essential for keeping you growing, especially in the home-gym environment, where exercise choice is somewhat limited. Just be cautious.
With that said, let's discuss a few more intensity methods that will help up your muscle mass and get you over those ever-so-frequent plateaus.
Pure negatives. Pure-negative exercise was popularized back in the early '70s by Arthur Jones, the creator of Nautilus machines. In fact, Jones put many of his Nautilus trainees on total, pure-negative workouts-they just did the lowering part of each exercise-to test the validity of this method, and he got some eye-opening results. Strength and muscle mass increased in almost all of the test subjects with little in the way of workout energy expenditure.
Basically, what this method consists of is lowering heavy resistance-slowly. For example, in the seated press behind the neck you take a weight approximately 20 percent heavier than you'd use for your normal eight-rep set. Your partner(s) lift it up to your arms-extended position, and you lower it slowly for about six seconds. This makes the muscle work in an unusual manner and because of the heavier weight should force some muscular adaptation (growth) to occur.
The problem is that this method isn't very plausible unless you've got a couple of partners who don't mind lifting weights up so that you can lower them. Another problem is the soreness that results from working out this way.
If you decide to try pure negatives, do only one to two sets per bodypart and never do more than nine total sets of pure negatives per week or you won't be able to get out of bed. Obviously, this method is demanding and a bit impractical, but there is a viable alternative to pure negative training, one that you can use to help intensify regular sets of certain exercises. It's called supplemental negative training.
Supplemental negatives. This technique allows you to really punch up a regular set. Let's use dips as our example exercise.
After you reach positive failure at around 10 reps on a set of dips, push yourself up to the top position with the help of your legs. Use a chair or a bench so you can get to the top easily and quickly. From the top position lower yourself slowly (six seconds), then use your legs to get to the top again and do another slow rep, and so on until you can't keep your negatives to six seconds any longer. This will probably happen after about six to eight negative reps.
If you have a partner, you can make these supplemental negatives even more intense by having him apply pressure to the bar during each supplemental negative. This works well on certain exercises like bench presses, presses behind the neck, upright rows, etc. These maximum supplemental negatives are difficult to perform on dips and chins; however, there are plenty of other movements that this technique will work well in conjunction with.
If you don't have a partner, you can still use regular supplemental negatives (no partner pressure) on certain exercises:
Dips and chins. Use a bench to help you get into the top, contracted position, as discussed previously.
Dumbbell flys. Lower the dumbbells slowly, then pull them in to your torso and press them to arm's length for another negative, and so on.
Lateral raises. Curl the dumbbells up from the bottom position, extend your arms and lower for each slow, negative lateral raise.
Lying triceps extensions. At the bottom of the rep pull the bar from your forehead to your chest and press the bar up to arm's length. Then lower slowly with the triceps to your forehead.
One-legged squats. Use your arms and nonworking leg to get you back to the top, then lower slowly.
With a little creativity and ingenuity, you'll be able to put the blowtorch to your musculature and continue up the ladder of intensity. So pour on the intensity, but pour it on infrequently for best results.