It was back day. I had just chugged my favorite pre-workout beverage (a Grande Starbucks), which I used to wash down a couple of those ephedra "thermo" capsules. My heart was pounding, the adrenaline was flowing and I was ready to pump some HEAVY iron! I was pacing back and forth across the gym floor, psyching myself up for a big set of close grip lat pulldowns.
I took a few deep breaths and strapped into the bar. The pin was set at 250 lbs. - the full rack. With a mighty grunt, I pulled the bar down to my chest, leaning back slightly with just "a little" swinging and momentum. I repeated eleven more times and then released it, exhausted but exhilarated. Twelve reps with the whole stack! I was pretty happy with myself.
I started psyching up for my second set. This time I had the full stack plus a 25-lb. plate pinned on for a total of 275 lbs. I started the second set feeling even stronger; one rep, two reps, three reps... Then, even through the Metallica blasting into my headphones, I heard a voice from behind me say, "What the hell are you doing?" Trying to maintain my near-hypnotic state of concentration, I continued for the fourth rep, ignoring the blatant interruption. Then I heard the voice again: "Venuto, what the hell do you call that?"
That blew it - my focus was ruined. I stopped mid set after just four and a half reps. I turned around and saw that the offending intruder was Richie Smyth, my trainer. Defensively, I answered his question: "I'm going heavy today - I need more mass on my lats and you have to go heavy for that." Richie replied, "You know what I've been telling you for all these years; if you want a big back, it's not how much weight you lift; your form is more important than weight." I insisted that my form was good, but Richie just disapprovingly shook his head.
Deep down, I knew he was right. Usually when I work out on my own, I go a lot heavier than when I train with Richie. Even though I grow like a weed when he trains me, it just seems like the weights are too light. So when I train on my own ( when he's not looking) I sometimes slap on the plates for "ego food." This time, he caught me in the act.
Richie had a cancellation that day, so he kindly "volunteered" to take me through the rest of my back session. He then gave me a humbling dissertation on proper form. Basically, he taught me the exercise from scratch. First he dropped the weight down - a lot. "How much is that?" I asked, looking down towards the weight stack. "Don't worry about the weight," he scolded. I noticed that the pin was somewhere near the middle of the weight stack - I was feeling wimpier by the minute.
Richie continued with his instructional diatribe: "First of all, keep your body completely vertical. Don't lean back at all. Pull only with your lats. F-e-e-l the lats as you pull down. Hold it and squeeze. Now release slowly, fight the negative, let it back slowly, lean forward and stretch…now pause, hold the stretch, hold it, keep holding it. Ok, now pull, no momentum, don't lean, just pull with your lats. Pull straight down, squeeze, hold the squeeze, now slowly let it back, lean forward and stretch. Concentrate. Focus on the muscle not the weight."
I heard everything he said, but I guess I still wasn't doing it to his satisfaction because he stood right behind me and stuck his hand between my shoulder blades (so I couldn't lean backwards). When I got into the extended position, he pushed me forward and said, "drop your head, lean forward, and S-T-R-E-T-C-H! I felt a tearing sensation in my lats under my armpits like the muscle was going to rip right off the bone - I had never experienced anything like it.
I grimaced in pain while Richie smiled sadistically. Rep after rep we went on like this. On the last rep, he made me just hold the weight in the stretched position while he stood there counting the seconds on his watch. Finally, I couldn't even hang on anymore and I had to let go of the bar like it was red-hot molten steel. I rubbed my aching lats as a burning sensation shot through muscle fibers I never knew existed. Then I looked at the weight stack - it was set at a humbling 170 lbs. That meant that the other 80 -105 lbs. I was originally lifting was from pure momentum - or pure cheating I should say.
And that was just the beginning of a 40-minute "torture session." Richie continued the pain with close grip chin ups (his way), dumbbell pullovers (his way), T-bar rows (his way) and some kind of heinous backward incline bench pulldown exercise I had never even seen before (not even in Bill Pearl's massive encyclopedia of exercise variations). There were slow reps, supersets, tri-sets, descending sets, ascending sets, isometric holds, loaded stretches and a variety of other tortuous intensification techniques.
Every exercise was done with moderate or even light weights with the same fanatical attention to slow speed, perfect form, stretching and squeezing. The very same night, my lats got so sore I could barely put my shirt on. And with God as my witness, I swear by the next day, they grew out an inch from that one single workout.
The moral of this story is simple: heavy weights are not always necessary to build muscle. What's most important is that the weight you are using "feels" heavy to the muscles being worked. I know this statement may sound blasphemous to bodybuilders who are sold on the "heavier is better" mentality, so please allow me to elaborate.
If your goal is simply to lift a weight from point A to point B, then you would want to use every trick in the book to accomplish that.
Powerlifters are a perfect example: In a bench press competition, powerlifters speed up their reps, wear bench shirts, arch their backs, tuck in their elbows, push with their delts and tris, drop the bar low on their chests and do anything else they can think of to get the weight up without seeing a red light. By the time they've used all these tricks, some barrel-chested, short-armed powerlifters only have to move the bar about 6 inches! Their concern is not exhausting the pectorals - it is lifting the weight. But that's not bodybuilding!
Form is the difference between bodybuilding and simply lifting weights. Poor form with too much weight takes the stress off the target muscle; momentum moves the weight, not the muscles. Bodybuilding is accomplished best with strict form, controlled tempo, optimal tension, and total concentration. If muscle size is your number one priority, you must do everything in your power to make the exercise harder, not easier. You must select the path of maximum stimulation - which also happens to be the path of most resistance, effort and pain.
My trainer Richie put it this way; "When you are child, your parents tell you to keep your hands off the stove - they tell you not to put your hand into the flame - because if you do, you'll get burned. If you're serious about bodybuilding, you have to un-learn what you were taught as a child. When I train people, basically I'm telling them to put their hand right into the fire and keep it there. I have them train into and beyond the pain zone. That's what makes you grow."
Most people are on a constant search for the path of least resistance. A drug, a supplement, a "breakthrough technique" a new machine, a shortcut in exercise form - anything and everything they think will help them reach their goals with less effort and in less time. This is typical human nature. Unfortunately, this is also faulty thinking and you will NEVER become a champion with this type of attitude.
What follows are six ways you can use better form to develop more muscle mass. All of these techniques have one thing in common: they all involve ways to use better form to make the exercise harder, not easier. Use these techniques faithfully and you'll be amazed at how much muscle mass you can develop without ever needing super-heavy weights.
1. Eliminate extraneous body movement and momentum
Extraneous body movement - or "cheating" as it is so often called, is responsible for more injuries than perhaps any other cause. At the same time, it provides little stimulus for new muscle growth. Take the popular barbell curl for example: The way some people do a barbell curl looks more like a lower back exercise than a bicep movement. Watching some people do cheat curls, I often wonder if their biceps are working at all.
To get a jarring realization of just how much your cheating contributes to the weight moving and just how little biceps force is actually being generated, then take the "post curl" test. Stand against a post with your heels, butt, and upper back all touching the post. Now see how much you can curl without losing contact with the post. Don't be surprised if those 45 lb plates get reduced to 25's or even 10's!
Controlled cheating, done occasionally, is a legitimate way to shock complacent muscles into growth by allowing you to use more weight than you normally would. However, cheating should be the exception, not the rule. It's all too easy for "a little cheating" to turn into totally sloppy, injury producing form. The general rule for bodybuilding should be to avoid most extraneous body movement. Let the muscle move the weight, not momentum, swinging or bouncing.
2. Think "Squeeze" & 'Contract"
With every rep you perform in every exercise, you should mentally incant to yourself, "stretch and squeeze." Many bodybuilders habitually shorten their range of motion and completely miss two of the most important parts of the exercise: the contraction (the "squeeze") and the extension (the "stretch"). Using the technique of constant tension without locking out can be very effective on certain exercises (as you will learn shortly). The majority of the time, however, the bodybuilding rule of thumb is to take every exercise through the full range of motion from full stretch to full contraction.
The "squeeze" is especially effective on "peak contraction" exercises such as standing calf raises, concentration curls, tricep rope pushdowns, cable crossovers, and Leg extensions. On these types of exercises where the maximum resistance is placed on the muscle in the contracted position, pausing to "squeeze" the muscle will give you a much stronger contraction.
The stretch is most important on exercises where there is still a full load "pulling" on the muscle in the stretched position. Lat exercises like pulldowns or cable rows are an example. If you skip the stretch on these, you are not getting the full effect of the exercise (as Richie painfully demonstrated for me on close grip pulldowns).
3. Leave your ego at the door
If it's true that the most muscle growth occurs by using a weight that allows perfectly strict form, then why don't people cut back the weight and use perfect form more often? The answer is a simple three-letter word: EGO!
In his book Get Buffed, Australian Strength Coach Ian King wrote, "I would say that most load selection in strength training is based upon what impact it will have on those watching, not what impact it will have on the body.
If you were more serious about your body than your short term ego, you would take off 75% of the load and perform the movement in a manner that had some lasting impact on your body!" Fellow strength coach Charles Poliquin echoed King's sentiments when he said, "Trainees who use proper form usually have high levels of self esteem.
They show it by their interest in progression not theatrics, and by lifting for themselves, not for others. They are not concerned about what the other guy thinks of him lifting somewhat lighter loads. Successful bodybuilders feel the muscle not the weight." Yes, it's nice to have an audience see how strong you are by watching you hoist up ponderous poundages, but remember - you're in the gym to grow, not to show off! Keep your ego in check.
4. Always think "More Tension"
Always look for ways to maintain or increase tension on the muscles you are training. In other words, DON'T LET THE MUSCLE RELAX OR REST during the set! The easiest and most common way to maintain tension is to simply avoid locking out. Here's an example:
In the barbell squat, the top position provides close to zero resistance on the quadricep group. The weight on your shoulders is being supported by your entire body with bone on bone while the quadriceps remain relatively relaxed until knee flexion takes place. If you want maximum growth of the quads (as compared to pure power or strength) you need to keep the tension on the quads continuously for the duration of the set
Another way to maintain tension is to stay in continuous motion by eliminating the pause at the top and at the bottom. Pausing at the bottom of a barbell curl or dumbbell lateral raise, for example, has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. You are simply resting between reps. The next time you do biceps or shoulders, try a few sets of barbell curls and dumbbell lateral raises with no pause whatsoever. Do not stop moving until the set is finished. You will be forced to reduce your weight substantially, but remember, form is more important than weight. The combination of continuous motion with not locking out will give you a killer workout you won't forget!
5. Use a slower negative (eccentric movement)
Just slow down! Yes, it's that simple. A slow repetition, by its very nature, is a strict repetition and a strict repetition is a more effective repetition. This one little change in technique will go a long way towards improving your form and increasing your muscular development. An entire system of training called "super slow" was developed based on this concept. While it wouldn't be wise to do super slow to the exclusion of all other repetition speeds, I do recommend that you incorporate more slow movements in your training on a regular basis as a means of improving your form.
A conventional repetition is usually performed with a cadence of one or two seconds on the concentric (lifting) movement and three or four seconds on the eccentric (lowering) movement. So how slow is a "slow" rep? The sky's the limit: You can experiment with extending your eccentric movement for five seconds to as long as thirty seconds or even more! Ellington Darden and Arthur Jones of High Intensity Training (HIT) and Nautilus fame, used to recommend the one-minute chin up as method of increasing biceps mass quickly. (That's right - thirty seconds up and thirty seconds down!)
6. Use a slower positive (concentric) movement
You're probably very familiar with the advice of slowing down the negative portion of your reps, but have you ever considered slowing down the concentric movement? If you think slow eccentrics are hard, wait until you try slow concentrics. Slowing down your concentric can be equally if not more effective than negatives - they literally force you to maintain perfect form. When slowing down your concentric movement, you will notice the biggest difference in exercises where you usually use momentum to get the weight started. By removing the momentum you are forcing your muscle to generate more force - and thus more tension - just to get the weight started.
Barbell Curls, for example, are often started with a big heave that comes from the hips and lower back. "swinging" the weight up launches the weight off your thighs but robs you of much of the benefit. By performing a slow concentric curl, you get the maximum benefit possible from every inch of the range of motion, including the bottom portion which is usually "wasted."
Using perfect form with less weight can be a humbling experience at first, but if you're interested in pure muscle growth - if you're a bodybuilder, not a weight lifter - then concentrate on strict form first and weight second. Bodybuilding and weight lifting are not the same thing. Bodybuilding is visual, not quantitative. A magazine article with the photo of some 270 pound monster curling 110 pound dumbbells and a headline that says, "Go Heavy or Go Home" makes for very entertaining reading, but it has very little to do with reality for the average person.
Yes, heavy weights are great - the heavier the better - but only if you can keep the muscle under tension by handling the weight with a strict, controlled movement and good form. Then and only then should you add weight to the bar. If you're willing to swallow your ego, slow your movements down, stretch, squeeze, control the weight, and concentrate, you'll be able to take your physique to new heights and do it injury free.