Hungry for gains, you stroll into the gym on Monday afternoon to witness the typical scene. Tom is “spotting” Bill on the bench press which, in this case, means Tom is essentially dead lifting the weight off Bill’s chest every rep since they’ve piled onto the bar what you estimate to be 50 percent more than Bill’s max. Jose is on an incline bench, underneath some dumbbells that are clearly too heavy for him as he bounces them out of the bottom with an arch in his back that looks like it came off a McDonald’s sign. Amanda—clearly unaware that it is international chest day—is performing sloppy half squats with 185 pounds. You know your fellow gym-goers are trying to build muscle, and you scratch your head in disbelief at their chosen methods. It’s no wonder they haven’t made any progress lately.
Luckily, you don’t make any of these mistakes. You own the weight… or do you? In my experience, very few people truly own the weight. Clearly nobody else in your gym owns the weight. Statistically speaking, then, there is a very good chance you don’t own the weight either. Let’s take a step back here: I’m not talking literally about possessing the equipment; you don’t need to invest in a home gym here. Owning the weight means you’re always in control, through all points in the movement. As Vince Del Monte says, “Control is the currency of muscle growth.” Your ability to control your muscle gains hinges on your ability to control the weight. In other words, when you own the weight, you take ownership over your gains.
If you’re completely confident in your ability to make muscle gains at the rate you desire, this article is not for you, though I’m willing to bet there will be at least one useful tip you can apply for even faster gains. On the other hand, if you struggle to build muscle I wrote this article specifically for you. If any of the above examples sounds like you (even a tiny bit), this article will be a game-changer for you. After all, piling weight on the bar and bouncing it around might make you feel good (until you injure yourself of course); however, applying tension and lifting properly (owning the weight!) will make you look good. In the end, most of us are in the gym because we want to enhance the way we look, and I am going to teach you how to look better, faster!
How do I know Bill, Jose, and Amanda’s methods are ineffective? Well, besides the fact that they clearly haven’t achieved any visible results in months, I’ve been in their shoes before (and I’m willing to bet that every single lifter has been at some point). When I started lifting I made all the same mistakes. Guess what? After a few weeks of newbie gains I hit a plateau and stayed there until I learned some key concepts that I collectively refer to as owning the weight. Most of the clients I see in my personal training practice come to me on similar plateaus. After teaching them how to own the weight, they begin seeing results again. Owning the weight is more powerful than any supplement, and is the closest thing to a “magic bullet” that you’ll find in this industry. So, without further ado, let’s put you on the path to enlightenment and introduce the concepts involved.
Owning the weight means:
- Maintaining continuous tension through the entire set, including the ability to create and maintain tension at the extremes of the range of motion
- Using the maximum available range of motion, lengthening and shortening the muscles as completely as possible for the particular exercise (while beyond the scope of this article, keep in mind that it is not possible to work the entire range of motion for a muscle with one exercise)
- Maximizing input based stimuli before output based stimuli
- Optimizing posture to ensure optimal muscle recruitment and spinal health
- Selecting an appropriate load for the exercise
Maintaining Continuous Tension through the Entire Set
Owning the weight requires keeping constant tension on the muscle you want to train, and keeping it off your other muscles. It seems stupidly simple, but almost no one is actually doing it. In reality, most people simply move the weight from point A to B with no thought as to how or why they are doing it. The mantra heard here is, “more reps, more weight, more gains!” Unfortunately, in the absence of control, this mantra couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Keeping constant tension on the working muscle requires you to initiate the movement with that specific muscle. From the starting position you squeeze that muscle, generating tension prior to any movement, then continue to squeeze that muscle—in both directions—through an appropriate range of motion for the particular movement you’re performing.
For a biceps curl that means your arms are extended (straight), you contract your bicep before you move the weight, and then continue contracting as you crush your forearm into your biceps. Still contracting your biceps you reverse the movement, fully extend your arms (bonus points for contracting the antagonist muscle, the triceps, at the bottom). Next, before starting the next rep you ensure proper tension, initiate with the biceps, and start the whole process over.
That is a pretty basic description of a curl (I think about a few more things while I’m doing my curls but let’s keep things simple for now), yet I’m willing to bet you aren’t thinking about those things while you’re lifting. I’m here to tell you that you absolutely need to start thinking about these things—creating tension at the extremes of the range and maintaining continuous tension—if you want to grow.
One of the best cues to learn how to maintain continuous tension is to move the weight one pound at a time. On the concentric phase (e.g., pushing on the bench press), think about beating the weight one pound at a time rather than simply moving the weight by any means necessary. If you’ve never tried this, it’s unbelievable: expect to feel your muscles engage like never before. On the eccentric (e.g., lowering the weight on the bench press), think about resisting the weight one pound at a time. Don’t be surprised if the target muscle (or even your entire body) begins shaking like a leaf. That’s what owning the weight feels like!
Using the Maximum Available Range of Motion
Owning the weight means we limit ourselves to one variety of reps: full reps. We want to, as completely as possible with the chosen exercise, lengthen (stretch) and shorten (contract) the working muscle. Doing so produces better gains, period. As I hinted at before, it is necessary to contract the antagonist muscle in the stretched position of the working muscle (e.g., contracting triceps at the bottom of a biceps curl or contracting quadriceps at the bottom of a lying leg curl) in order to fully stretch the working muscle.
We don’t do cheat reps. We don’t perform partial reps. Against all desires of our ego, we don’t pile 400 pounds onto the bench press and have two spotters assist us with forced reps. While you could probably argue a case in which these things might be effective, the truth is that in the vast majority of cases they simply are a not-so-wonderful way to waste your time (not to mention risk injury) in the gym.
One exception to the partial rep rule is if you have a particularly challenging time controlling the weight through a certain portion of the movement. If, for instance, you have difficulty not bouncing out of the bottom of the squat, you can prioritize working the bottom half of the range. Even so, we can still integrate full reps with the partial reps, using the one and one half rep method. Squat down, come halfway up, go back down, and then come all the way up (that’s one rep).
Doing partial reps at the bottom might sound like a more efficient way to improve the bottom half of your squat. However, not training the top half of the squat is obviously not a very effective way to get better at squats overall. The one and a half rep method allows us to practice the exercise as a whole while doubling our training time on the challenging portion of the movement. Clearly this method is more practical, not to mention efficient, than practicing half squats and full squats separately.
Maximizing Input Based Stimuli Before Output Based Stimuli
Making progress towards any goal requires progressively increasing the difficulty of training, and there are several ways to achieve these increases. Most trainees make training harder using external variables by increasing sets, reps, load, or some combination of these variables, referred to as output based stimuli. While these are certainly effective when used appropriately, it is wise to first ensure you’re creating as much tension and contracting as hard as humanly possible—known as maximizing input based stimuli. By maximizing input based stimuli first, your body will be primed to make optimal adaptations when you utilize output based stimuli.
Optimizing Posture to Ensure Optimal Muscle Recruitment and Spinal Health
Posture is a clearly overlooked component both in and out of the gym and has a significant impact on performance (not to mention overall health). Inside the gym, poor posture produces poor results, period. Maintaining a tight, stable core and a neutral spine are the cornerstones of optimal posture. Whether sitting, lying, or standing one of the best cues for posture is, “lock it down,” meaning keep your abs braced (locked down) to prevent extension (arching) of your lumbar spine. Core stability and spinal neutrality will put your body in the safest, strongest position.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of exercises for which 90% of people use sub-optimal posture and the resulting consequences.
- Arched back (rather than locking the abs down keeping back flat) on the incline bench press changes the angle of your body, effectively turning the exercise into a flat bench press (with extra pressure on your spine)
- When you allow your chest to cave in and back to round on a row or pulldown, it becomes impossible to fully shorten your lats, and thus is impossible to own the weight since you simply can’t contract the working muscle fully
- Looking forward or up (instead of keeping the chin tucked allowing your neck to stay aligned with the rest of your spine) during squats, deadlifts, good mornings, and bent over rows compromises the integrity of your spine and robs you of strength and power (maximum strength requires a neutral spine)
Almost every trainee is committing one or more of these errors. Guilty? Rather than feel bad about yourself, know that now you have the tools to get better results! Keep in mind that altering these bad habits takes some time and effort, but the rewards will be immense.
Selecting an Appropriate Load for the Exercise
As long as you don’t let your ego get in the way, this should be the easiest principle to follow. You should select a weight that permits adherence to the first four principles, the prescribed tempo and repetition goal. Very simply, if you can’t maintain tension and optimal posture through the entire appropriate range of motion, including the extremes of the range, move the weight at the proper tempo, and achieve the proper number of reps, the weight is too heavy. Honestly, if you’re new to owning the weight, reducing the load for an exercise by 40% is a pretty good place to start, especially when it comes to your ability to maximize input based stimuli.
Don’t expect to master these principles overnight. As with anything that is worth doing, you will need to invest a significant amount of time and energy into the process. For most people, the first step will be unlearning the bad habits they have developed over their training career using that mantra, “more reps, more weight, more gains,” and replacing them with the five principles of owning the weight.
As always, however, we are more concerned about the journey rather than the destination. Yes, the ultimate goal is perfect ownership of the weight, but every stride you make towards adhering to these principles (and every step you take away from your bad habits) will provide better results. After all, the name of the game is constant improvement, not perfection. Simply put, start making improvements in your ability to own the weight and you’ll start seeing bigger gains in no time!
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