How to maximize the pain (but only the good pain)

... Continued ...

... as in "no pain, no gain."

Special sets are a way of working your muscles that produce more spectacular results. It is a good idea to not do this until you've gotten pretty good at doing the exercises properly and your body is used to this sort of work.

There are three kinds of special sets that I know of, and they can be combined. Giant, super, and breakdown. I often confuse Giant and Super, so this definition may be reversed, but it hardly matters.

In a Giant Set, you do an exercise, wait one minute (or some other time, depending, but usually a minute) then you do it again. Then you do that again. Usually, a giant set is three goes at the exercise. Each time you try to reach exhaustion (I explain exhaustion below). You use the same weight, and you will often be able to do the same number of reps.

In a Super Set, you follow the pattern of a Giant Set but you use a different exercise on that muscle each time. So for a Super Set on your chest, you might do a bench press followed by dumbell press (same as a bench press but with dumbells instead of a bar) followed by a butterfly machine (one of those machines that you move with your upper arms, so you hit your pectorals without using your triceps). Different exercises work the muscles at different angles and thus work different muscle fibers, so a super set can be quite effective.

In a Breakdown Set, you do two or three (or more if you are crazy) instances of the same exercise in a row (like in a Giant Set) but you don't wait between efforts. Instead of waiting, you (quickly) drop the weight by some percentage so it is possible to do the exercise again without rest. And I do mean quick. You can't do this with a free weight bench press unless you leave the safety clips off and have a person helping you, to remove the outer weights as fast as possible. With a machine where you can quickly move the weight picker rod thingie, this can work quite well. With dumbells, you just have two sets of dumbells, one heavier and one lighter, ready to grab.

The thinking here is that some of your muscle fibers did not engage in the first set, so they are recruited in the second set if you do it right away. Then the third set, if you do one, gets the remaining loafers. If you go to exhaustion for two or three breakdowns in a row, the immediate effect is that the muscle you just worked is temporarily immobilized. You'll feel like the muscle died. The longer term effect is that this muscle is dramatically strengthened.

Reaching Exhaustion. This is key. You can do all sorts of exercise at the gym, with all sorts of objectives having to do with flexibility, endurance, etc. etc. But if you want to build muscles you must work your muscles, one at a time, to the point of exhaustion.

This should be your mantra: The only rep that counts is the last one, and it only counts if you can't do another one because you have killed the muscle (temporarily). Not very poetic but it is the key principle in weight training.

If you get half way through the last rep and have to stop, you lose. If you do the last rep but have enough in that muscle to have done another one or part of one, you lose. The whole trick is to use the right weight and he right number of reps that the last rep is perfect. There can be no more reps, and you completed the rep all the way through the required motion.

If you have a plan to exercise five muscle groups in one session and manage to get to perfect exhaustion at the end of each set for all of the muscles, then you've reached Gym Nirvana. Most likely you won't reach perfect exhaustion with every attempt. But, over time, you'll get good at reaching that point most of the time. It may help to keep a written record of what you've done. You may add a symbol (I use an explanation point) to indicate that a certain weight and number of reps reached perfect exhaustion. You can then use that combo the next time, or up the weight or reps by a small increment, to hit the same point again.

One way to increase the chance of reaching exhaustion is to use assistance. Often, this involves another person, and that person needs to do it correctly. Here's how this works: You set things up so that you are able to do N-plus reps, but not a full N+1. Then, the person giving the assist helps you, ever so gently, with just a tiny little bit of pushing or pulling along with you on the weight or machine, to get through that last (N+1) rep and reach exhaustion. Most people who try to help with this but don't know what they are doing try to hard. They help out to much, and you are not killing the muscle. The way to learn how much to help a person is to help yourself with some exercises first, and indeed, this is how you can do an assisted rep without another person, which is good, say, if you have no friends.

Take, for instance, the bicep curl. You sit on a bench, you have a dumbell in one hand and you are dangling it down near the ground, and you curl your arm up to lift the dumbell to your shoulder. Your elbow is resting on your leg just behind your knee when you do this.

Do that a few times and when you get to the last rep, since this is a very long rep (arm all the way out to arm all the way bent is a long distance) you may not be able to finish that last rep. But you've got this other hand that is not doing anything ... you can use that hand to ever so gently assist, in the smallest way possible, your working arm to finish the rep, but pushing up on your working hand or on the dumbell itself as you lift it through the last half, or third, or whatever, of that motion.

When you do that notice how often you need very very little extra help to assist the almost killed, exhausted bicep to finish the rep. If you help someone else, remember that.. they are doing all the work. You're just helping with that five, ten, fifteen percent of force that they cant' muster. Assisted Rep Nirvana is when the person helping someone bench pressing over two hundred pounds gives the assist with one finger on each hand helping to lift the bar.

And, putting it all together, if you want, eventually, you can do a Super Set of Giant Sets in which you use Breakdown with Assistance on the same muscle. But you will die. But just before you die you will be really buff.

Symmetry is healthy

Symmetry is important because without it your spine will curl up or you'll walk in circles or who knows what else may happen.

When you use the average weight machine or a bar on a bench press your muscles may fail to act symmetrically. One muscle, perhaps your dominant side (i.e., your left arm if you are left handed) may do more of the work. Or, after you've done that for a while and moved to another machine but sticking with the same muscle group, the other side may do more work because it is less tired. It is very difficult to force your muscles to act symmetrically.

There are two tricks to obtain and maintain symmetry. First, you use dumbells (or the equivalent, a machine that truly treats the limbs independently). With one dumbell in each hand, your contra-lataral muscles can't help each other. Second, you do self administered forced assisted reps on the weak side. Say you know your left bicep is weaker than your right. Do as many reps as you can (with the last one assisted) with your RIGHT (stronger) arm. Then, do the same thing with your left arm. You will be forced to assist the left arm through the last two or three reps, often not just the last one. But this forced assisted rep will make that left arm get more out of the exercise than your right arm did. Do that every other day for a couple of weeks and your two biceps will be the same.

You can do this on machines that normally use both limbs. Just set the weight low and use one limb. This works nicely with some machines and allows for a comfortable assist. Avoid getting your fingers caught in the machine while playing around with this method.

... Continued ...

More like this

"But if you want to build muscles you must work your muscles, one at a time, to the point of exhaustion."

As I understand things - this "to failure" philosophy is out-dated; and unnecessary.

By starskeptic (not verified) on 09 Apr 2011 #permalink

starskeptic, I understand that it works and for real results is necessary. But there is some discussion about it. Do you have anything to add other than telling us it does not work any more?

In any event, those who suggest that there is controversy do not claim that it does not work, at least as far as I know. The controversy is how often one should do it and how useful working to non-failure results are. If you hit failure every time you work out and do that every day or two on a muscle, you will be overtraining. See my extensive comments above about waiting between working out a given muscle and adding rest days.

That is true. There are exceptions, and I found out about that recently. Physical therapy and "working out" overlap (depending). You may be taking pain killers and have to exercise, etc, but then you have to be extra careful. And, generally speaking, IMHO, if you find yourself needing pain killers for your post-workout pain, something ain't right.

You might want to check out some of the history behind Jack Lalane.

You have to remember, that pain is a signal, and at some point you may be doing actual damage. Damage that reduces long term function. You should stop before that happens.

Pain killers for range of motion, maybe. Pain killers for ischemic pain, or tendon pain, no.

I didn't say that working to failure didn't work - I said that it's not necessary - it also increases the risk of injury without increasing the payoff; I see a great many recent workout gurus and physiologists who are embracing a philosophy of safety first; and a recognition that in order to make significant gains - yes lift heavy, but the body will adapt without having to "break" anything.

By starskeptic (not verified) on 09 Apr 2011 #permalink

You said the "failure philosophy" was outdated, implying it is no longer recommended, and unnecessary. But it really isn't either. Perhaps some people are speaking more thoughtfully about this, and discussing various nuances and strategies for maintenance, and the need for rest, etc (as I discuss) and perhaps there are, as there always are, faddish approaches that tell people that they don't really have to work hard to get the results that people have always worked hard to get. But I'm pretty sure there is not major paradigm shift going on here.

No one I know or have read suggests that you don't have to work hard to get results (and please stop suggesting that I've said otherwise); but "no pain - no gain" is antediluvian; and you've missed a major shift in weight-lifting philosophy in the last 5 years if you think you need to detect significant amounts of myoglobin in your urine before any appreciable work has been done - personally, I think that's an indication of testosterone poisoning...

By starskeptic (not verified) on 09 Apr 2011 #permalink

It's a matter of risk and reward. What Greg is saying is that to achieve *maximal* gains faster, you have to push yourself to the point of failure. You also increase the risk of overuse injuries and acute injuries. If you increase the pain level [even the "good" pain] you may risk some sort of negative psychological reaction and give up. Starskeptic seems to be saying that going all the way to the point of failure may not be necessary, but you have to go hard enough to get close. That last rep might be attempted with some kind of form break that could result in an injury in stabilizing or accessory muscles [the muscles that hold the limb or your core steady and the smaller muscles that also move the limb, respectively]. Going all the way to the point of failure is not a good for beginners. Learn the methods properly under control first.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 10 Apr 2011 #permalink

SS, why are you responding to nuances and details in an argument that we can see only because you simultaneously reveal it to us? That's OK but please don't put words in my mouth, and it would be helpful if you produced something other than your impression of things you've heard if you really want to discuss and/or disagree.

Greg's point about working the muscle to âfailureâ is correct, and actually is necessary to achieve maximal performance, current ideas about training not withstanding. The idea that you can achieve maximal performance without doing this is not correct. You can achieve very good performance without this, but you cannot achieve maximal performance. The difference may be small, and is certainly idiosyncratic.

When Greg is using the term âfailureâ, what he means is that the muscle is voluntarily worked, within its force-producing range, until it can't maintain the force that he is voluntarily directing it to exert.

He does not mean that there is muscle damage, muscle necrosis, muscle tearing, or any of the physical failure modes that muscle can exhibit. He means the âfailureâ of the muscle not being able to exert force because it has exhausted its stores of ATP. This exhaustion of ATP through voluntary exertion then activates compensatory pathways within each muscle cell and with in the larger organism to change the threshold at which such exhaustion occurs in the future. This âtuningâ of physiology to match ongoing needs is the mechanism by which exercise causes increases in strength and endurance. Many of the changes are not within the muscle. The vasculature needs to remodel, the nervous system needs to remodel, the liver needs to remodel. For these non-muscle tissue compartments to remodel, they need the appropriate signaling.

The reason this is necessary to achieve maximal performance is because the physiological state of each muscle cell is regulated locally and internally to that cell. Muscles are not completely uniform. Some muscle cells take more of the load than other cells do. One reason for this is so that the muscle has a broader injury profile, that there is warning before the muscle fails catastrophically through injury, as for example by snapping a tendon. If you want the muscle cells to all work together uniformly, you have to tune them to do so.

There is essentially no âriskâ of damage in working out the way that Greg is suggesting. However, a muscle that is trained this way has a sharper force-damage curve. That is the differential force needed to go from an undamaged muscle to a damaged muscle is less. The force at which that happens is higher than in the muscle that is not so trained. In the limit, such a muscle can be worked and then fail catastrophically where a muscle not so worked would fail non-catastrophically but at a lower force. This won't happen during the workout, but might happen elsewhere, but probably not under voluntary direction. I wonder if the destruction of Greg's knee occurred in part because the tendon was struck very hard by the fall, and then the spinal reflexes activated the muscle strongly enough to snap the various connections.

"current ideas about training not withstanding." I love that - it sounds so dogmatic...

If you're continually progressing and challenging yourself with greater loads - you can achieve even hypertrophy goals without going to failure.

"There is essentially no âriskâ of damage in working out the way that Greg is suggesting." - this is incorrect, or did I miss-read the 'vomiting' part?

And Greg, putting words in your mouth? Sir, I've done no such thing - and at the same time you're doing it to me...enough!

I don't see the point of adding more detail when I'm keep bumping up against dogma - it's way too much like trying to talk to a creationist.

I guess we'll just have to go with "impression(s) of things you've heard"

I'm done - thnx

By starskeptic (not verified) on 10 Apr 2011 #permalink

You did not misread the vomiting part. I am fairly sure my intensity of working out was was way above what most people do, but at no time was it unsafe. Nothing wrong with throwing up now and then, I always say.

Starskeptic, I'm not feeding you dogma. And you are not talking to a creationist. Seriously . Look at your comments. Vague, off the cuff, dismissive, unsubstantiated, misleading. And mostly wrong, though I think you are trying to make a point that may be valid. Well, you were trying to make a point but you seem to have shifted to trying to defend your vagueness in your first point. I'm not writing about impressions of things I've heard. Nor is this an academic treatment. My training and reading as a bioanthropologist in human physiology has helped in my reading of the exercise physiology literature, and it has helped me sort through the popular literature which is presented with a wide range of validity.

If you want to make an off the cuff statement invalidating everything I said in a blog post, expect my unending gratitude if you happen to be right. If you happen to be wrong expect me asking for you to explain what you are talking about, or even, just disagreeing with you.

Here, by the way, are the words you seem to have not noticed putting in my mouth:

"if you think you need to detect significant amounts of myoglobin in your urine before any appreciable work has been done"

I've appreciated the contributions you've generally made to this blog but I'm afraid this isnt one of them.

ss, yes you can achieve even hypertrophic goals, but you cannot acheve maximal performance. If you are content with hypertrophic goals, then you can achieve those goals without going to failure. If you want maximal performance, you can't. It isn't dogma, it is physiology.