A1: Keep the ends of the rope apart throughout the set. Make sure your shoulder blades and upper back are fixed. Get a full ROM and contract your triceps hard at the bottom of the rep. Rest for ~30 sec before A2.
A2: Bring the DBs straight down to your anterior delts. Drive your elbows forward and get max elbow flexion. Extend through the concentric rather than pressing. Take the last set to 1RIR.
B: Taper the load down through the working sets. Each load reduction should be ~5% to fall in the rep ranges with the given RIR. After the last set, perform a double drop set with load reductions of ~25% on each drop. Take the drop sets to technical failure.
C1: Set the incline to ~75º to resemble an overhead press. Use neutral handles that are about shoulder width. Get a full ROM here and keep your elbows tight to your midline to encourage triceps/anterior delt engagement. Leave a few reps in the tank here but try to push the load as you get comfortable with the movement. Have a spotter to assist with unracking and racking the bar.
C2: Keep the tempo very controlled here. Perform the concentric with full supination, pause in the contraction and rotate to pronation, then perform the eccentric. This will bias the biceps on the way up and forearms on the way down. Take the last set to 1RIR then immediately shift to alternating hammer curls and continue to 1RIR.
D1: Keep all tension in medial delts. Control the eccentric. Take the last set to failure. Rest ~30 sec before D2.
D2: Keep all tension in rear delts but allow for natural scapular retraction. Take the last set to failure. Rest ~30 sec before D3.
D3: Adjust the bench to a ~30º decline. Hook in your ankles/legs to provide an anchor. Hold the load against your chest. Try to keep the movement isolated to trunk flexion/extension to force the abs to engage. Minimize use of hip flexors. Take the last set to 1RIR. Full rest before returning to D1.
If you stick around in the weight room for long enough (or just hangout with some of the old-timers who have been around-the-block a few times), you will begin to understand why the overzealous newbies eventually morph into the wise and cautious gym shamans. Through the years of blood, sweat and tears, wisdom is picked up but so are aches and pains, many of which are irreversible. That knowledge always seems to come just a little too late—a product of experience rather than a warning passed down from the elders.
The days of cold maxes and every-set-to-failure mindsets are forcibly reevaluated when we realize that our physical body, no matter how big and strong we make it, is frail. And that fragility always comes back to bite you in the ass unless your training can evolve alongside the repercussions of the novice mistakes we all make.
Nobody wants to hear that they need to take it easy and just let their foot off the gas a little. So I’m not going to propose that. I understand that the same mindset that allows someone to get to inhuman levels of muscularity and strength is also the mindset that prevents logic and reason from being applied when it’s needed.
Luckily, you don’t have to train light and leave 5 reps in reserve on every set as you get older. And the accumulation of injuries says nothing about taking a break from training or giving up—In fact, it can often imply the exact opposite. Getting older and becoming more injured creates a less reckless and more thoughtful athlete. Rather than YOLO-ing every session and approaching training as a life-or-death scenario every time you get under the bar, we have to evolve from the stereotypical meathead who is destined for a wheelchair into the all-knowing Yoda focused on longevity over the here and now.
So if it’s not about pulling back on training, what is the answer?
Well, we can get the same “protective” effects by subtly tweaking the exercises you choose and the order in which you perform them.
Not every exercise has to be done with a barbell and it also doesn’t have do be done with the max load your body can move from point A to point B. Not every exercise has to involve integration with every muscle group and it also doesn’t have to load your spine. Shifting the tempo, modality, stance/grip, resistance curve, plane of motion, and angle can all have blunting effects on the risks and destruction that are caused in the natural course of lifting really heavy shit repeatedly.
Along the same lines, there is no rulebook for training—especially hypertrophy training. No exercise is mandatory. We don’t have to go from the heaviest movement to the lightest through the session. And we don’t have to go from most complex to the simplest. A leg day can start with leg extensions just as naturally as barbell squats. Want to perform your bench presses last in your push day? What’s blasphemous for the powerlifter is potentially intelligent exercise sequencing for a bodybuilder looking to improve their pecs.
The gift of getting older and more experienced as a lifter is getting comfortable with the idea that everything you’ve been led to believe as absolute truth is more flexible than you could’ve ever imagined. There are no rules other than the one’s you find through anecdotes, questioning, conjecture, and experimentation to create your own personal knowledge. Wisdom allows you to see through the bullshit of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen and develop your own picture of the world (and gym). You eventually have a eureka moment showing you that the reason very few people get to this point (and even fewer voice their realizations) is because of how anti-sexy and marketable the reality is. It’s impossible to sell moderation and conservatism and longevity to an audience that is motivated in bursts of weeks rather than looking years ahead. One that wants to be validated rather than challenged, given the answers rather than find them, see transient results tomorrow rather than lasting results next year.
Nobody wants to hear that the path to their dream physique will take years and be mostly boring and filled almost entirely two-steps-forward and one-step-back. If you’re trying to gather a following or build a business, it’s certainly easier to do so behind the slogan “EVERY SET UNTIL YOUR EYES BLEED” instead of “We will teach you to methodically, reliably, and safely improve your physique, health, and quality-of-life.” For some reason, all-caps conveys importance and prevents us from seeing past the loudness to evaluate the underlying message.
So what does cut through the bullshit?
I’ll tell you one thing—getting hurt. If there is anything that will make you question what you’re doing quickly, it’s injury and the frustration of the rehab process. Getting hurt is seen almost as a rite of passage in some circles (mostly, the same ones using all-caps) but I think that we should be just a bit smarter about how we approach training, and maybe, just maybe, we can learn from those who came before us. Those that have already made the mistakes that we’re destined to make if we don’t head their warnings. We don’t have to go through the pain and frustration of injury if we just train a little more intelligently—and this requires putting our egos aside.
You wanna hit barbell squats? Well, your knees are saying Pendulum Squats.
You wanna knock out some heavy bench presses? Hmm…Your pec tendons are feeling more in the mood for a pin-loaded machine press.
You wanna crush some barbell bent over rows? I can hear your low back begging for seated low cable rows from here!
Now, I know that these exercises are not one-to-one correlated and some of them have VERY different mechanics. The key is to understand what the goal is…The reason we’re going to the gym in the first place. What’re we trying to accomplish? If it’s to grow the most muscle possible, we are going to have to balance the scales a bit between stimulus and risk—and note that this is a dynamic scale with a thumb gradually pressing down with more force on the risk side as we age.
Hypertrophy is flexible and can be achieved through just about infinite means and with many approaches. I’ve talked about this before but being able to separate the underlying intent to grow muscle from other distractions (such as trying to get stronger, more explosive, impress your gym crush, etc) is crucial if you’re going to maximize your efficacy and minimize your risk of injury.
One of the greatest strengths inherent to hypertrophy training is how unbound to rigidity it is. Whereas strength training leans heavily into exercise specificity and needs to follow a structured flow to get the most out of the primary movements, growing muscle can be achieved through wider ranges of variability and chaotic structure. Training for power is even further along the rigidity spectrum than is strength training. And those with sport-specific goals are always going to be bound by the needs of their sport which comes with tons of baggage; most notably, the carving of exercise selection around the demands and actions prevalent to the sport.
Above all else, hypertrophy affords us with many unique branches that can all lead to the same outcome which greatly increases the margin of error within programming.
Experimenting with the selection and sequencing of exercises can create outcomes that are additive. The traditional method of “heaviest to lightest” and “complex to simple” and “compound to isolation” is great if you want to brute force your approach (and sometimes this is warranted) but there are generally more efficient ways of going about it.
Growing muscle is all about getting more out of less. If you can use less weight, volume, and number of exercises while getting the same response, that’s a good thing. This feels almost counterintuitive to what should be true but remember that everything has a risk and cost associated with it. Every rep of leg extensions creates a bit more wear and tear in your knees. Every time you hold a heavy barbell over your chest, there is a chance your pec could pop. Every additional set and movement in your program is time that could’ve been spent eating, recovering, making money, playing with your children, and, most importantly, seducing your partner.
Doing more for the sake of more is a dumb mindset to have and typically is reflective of inability to critically think or problem solve. We’re looking for efficiency with the exercises we choose and the order we perform them.
Can we get the same pec stimulus from a deep ROM and slow tempo DB press that we get from a loaded-up, half-rep barbell bench press? If the answer is yes and we’re explicit in our primary goal of “growing the pecs”, then it seems obvious which movement would better suit our needs (independent of further context of course).
And what about the goal of growing the glutes? Sure we can perform barbell squats first in our workout and create a large stimulus, but we’re also going to be severely impacting our CNS as well as potentially running into conflating factors like overactive quads, joint pain, poor neuromuscular coordination, and even lack of confidence to push close enough to muscular failure to have an effect. Potentially a better strategy might come in the way of placing a movement like hip thrusts or even glute kickbacks BEFORE squats in order to prime the glutes and nervous system for more forceful output as well as creating a pre-exhausting effect that enables greater local stimulation with less load on the bar. Obviously this is just an off-the-cuff example but the application can be stretched to its limits because of the flexibility and prioritization of efficiency that comes with hypertrophy training.
Tangentially, this shift in program design is, in part, due to zooming-in on the intent underlying the program (broadly) and exercise selection/order (specifically). Without the implicit acknowledgment of primary goals, hypertrophy gets conflated with any number of other enticing yet secondary outcomes. The most common example of this is an intense, blinding focus on strength or load-on-the-bar. It’s impossible to completely sever the interconnectedness of muscle growth and strength improvements but, again, the primary goal must be understood clearly. And if that happens to be to grow the most amount of muscle possible, ego must be brushed aside at times and sacrifices made in favor of efficient hypertrophic results.
Even though it might feel like I’m raining on the parade of my fellow meatheads who just want to lift heavy shit and not worry about much else (there’s a time and place friends!), when one door closes, another opens. A shift away from always maximizing brute, mechanical tension can facilitate strategies that have the same magnitude of stimulus (or even stronger) but with less negative externalities.
Let’s look at a few really awesome examples of the types of strategies I’m referring to here:
1)Rather than performing Close Grip Bench Press first in the session, try supersetting with a Cable Pushdown variation to pre-exhaust the triceps and lower the threshold to hit failure.
2)Trying to use Stiff Leg Deadlifts to hit your hamstrings? Consider placing them after a leg curl variation that fully shortens the hams. This emphasis on shortening will increase the brain’s perception of tension (i.e. mind-muscle connection) and work the muscles through their weaker positions. The SLDLs can then have a greater effect per unit of load while minimizing nervous system fatigue generation.
3)Many trainees find it hard to isolate or feel their glutes when performing heavy hip thrusts. Sometimes this is an anatomical weakness, other it’s a matter of simple execution tweaks, but we can also use intelligent exercise combinations to circumvent these issues and get more out of our hip extensions. Before your next bout of heavy thrusts, perform a variation of unilateral hip extension (such as machine glute kickbacks or bent knee quadruped donkey kicks) and pelvic tilt/control work (such as RKC planks or birddogs). This will get your brain and glutes on the same page and translate over into your heavy thrusts leading to greater efficiency and strength of contractions.
While efficiency is undoubtedly important for maximizing our hypertrophy goals, those goals don’t mean much if we can’t see them through to the end.
Longevity is the ultimate goal, but it’s fragile. Very few of the overzealous and hyper-enthusiastic trainees who start on their journeys are able to sustain it throughout their lifetime because of accumulated injuries and general burnout (aka psychological fatigue). There are many ways to extend your gym-life but almost all of them tend to involve some sort of “scaling back” which, as we’ve learned, isn’t the most well-received message among the meathead cohort. Instead, we need to find a middle ground; one that allows for continued hard training and intensity while also reducing unnecessary risk, both acute and chronic.
On the former, careful and deliberate control of exercise variation and order can have a profoundly positive influence. Hypertrophy training opens up Pandora’s box of tools and techniques that dampen the intrinsic risk associated with lifting heavy shit close to technical and muscular failure.
We’re always one rep away from disaster and the unfortunate part of this is that it’s mostly random. No matter how advanced or skilled or technically proficient or cautious you are, bad shit just happens sometimes for seemingly no reason. There’s no way to predict when a pec might tear or quad tendon might rupture or disc slip, but we can be more intelligent with our programming to *try* to eliminate as much needless risk as possible.
Part of this can be something as simple as changing modalities: a machine variant will typically be a safer option than barbell. Sometimes, it can be an aversion to entire movement patterns: many bilateral squats can effectively be replicated by their less-axial-loaded, unilateral counterparts. And other times, it can mean reimagining the workout flow: performing lighter, isolation exercises before heavier compounds can pre-fatigue the target muscles, flush the joints with blood, and lower the load needed to achieve requisite intensities.
But acute injuries aren’t the only thing that us dedicated gym-goers have to keep in the back of our minds…The build up of wear-and-tear from repeated micro traumas can be invisible and even undetectable in the present but can completely cripple your future.
This silent killer is somewhat impossible to completely prevent; after all, resistance training itself is meant to be a buildup of micro traumas that force positive adaptations. But the difference is that these desirable breakdowns of tissue are within the bounds of recovery capabilities and tend to be focused on muscular trauma (I.e. sheering of myosin/actin cross bridges to create more resilient machinery). In contrast, the negative side of this comes on when our workload exceeds what our physiology can tolerate. This leads to a chronic inflammatory response as our bodies attempt to futilely repair the damage being done.
When the stress presented to a muscle is beyond what it can recover from, it’s called overreaching (and can turn into overtraining).
When it’s local to a joint (including tendons, ligaments, cartilage, etc), this can evolve into multiple pathologies representative of unresolved inflammation, the most well-known being tendinitis.
On the surface, these afflictions seem benign enough; annoying for sure but probably not going to completely derail your training. However, that’s the thing with wear-and-tear—you tend to not pay it too much attention until it’s too late. Then tendinitis becomes tendinosis. A weakened tendon suddenly gives. Cartilage that has been worn down over the years finally has nothing left and your bones become intimate dancing partners for eternity.
Choosing the right exercises isn’t going to eliminate the accumulation of stress and inflammation. But it can substantially reduce it. For example, just take one of the more famously deleterious joint-destroyers, the Barbell Skullcrusher, and compare it to its more biomechanically-minded counterpart, the DB Skullcrusher. The former is going to create much more torque on the elbow and wrist joints while not substantially increasing the potential hypertrophic potential. There are instances when using the barbell variation might be applicable, but where longevity is concerned, it’s almost a non-conversation as to which movement is better. And in the instances when those Barbell Skullcrushers are suitable, performing them as the first exercise in a training session might allow for more load and thus greater ego stroking but it’ll also direct more of that tension right into the tendons rather than the triceps. Shifting the order of movements even just subtly can mitigate this issue to a large degree—using something more “joint safe” like a cable pushdown to get blood into the joint and muscle or even a more stimulative exercise like a heavy press to fatigue the triceps can circumvent much of the potential wear-and-tear.
Obviously, this is just one of MANY examples that can be extrapolated to make the same point: choose exercises with favorable biomechanics and be liberal with the order of said exercises to minimize unnecessary torque and degradation of your joints.
Similar to the way in which wear-and-tear can be a slow breakdown of the physical structures of your body, systemic fatigue can be thought of as the accumulated pressure on more abstract systems, notably your nervous system.
Our brutish natures often cause us to discount the relevance of nervous system fatigue or what is more commonly referred to as “burnout”. We think that mitigating burnout is a matter of will—those who succumb to it are weaker individuals but not us! We’re too mentally tough for that!
However this view is myopic and fallacious. CNS (central nervous system) fatigue is just as much of a physiological process as the soreness in your muscles or the inflammation in your joints. It’s all feedback from your body telling you that you’re pushing beyond your current capacities. It’s your own physiology telling you to pump the breaks or something is going to brake.
Unlike muscles or joints though, burnout doesn’t act on nociceptors. We can actually feel our brains sending signals to our adrenals telling them to release cortisol. We can’t feel the down-regulation of TSH and FSH levels. We don’t notice in real time that our sex hormones or that our efferent nerve impulses to motor units are suppressed.
Burnout is the ultimate assassin. And unfortunately, the stigma surrounding those who succumb to it is that of laziness and lack of dedication and weakness. But as we’ve seen, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
So can we reduce nervous system fatigue? And if so, how?
For those that have been following along up until now, you will probably know that one of the strategies for burnout mitigation is to be more intelligent with programming, specifically exercise section and, you guessed it, sequencing.
The best all-encompassing term I’ve heard presented in this realm comes from Dr. Mike Isreatel who coined the phrase “SFR” or stimulus-to-fatigue-ratio. Essentially, for every unit of stimulus an exercise or technique provides, SFR attempts to capture the unit of corresponding fatigue increase.
We can look at SFR from many levels: the individual exercise, the execution of that exercise, where it’s placed within a session, the proximity to failure, and even progression models themselves.
For our purposes here, we want to shift our exercise section towards improving this ratio (that is, more stimulus with less fatigue) as well as structuring our training sessions in such a way that dampens the “burnout potential” of any single movement.
If we can get the same stimulus with less weight, that’s CNS friendly. So is reducing axial-loading. And so is preferring movements with greater ROMs. And so are synergistic exercises that have a combined stimulus that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Burnout is real. But it doesn’t have to be your fate.
Though often overlooked and scoffed at by many defiant members of the fitness community, intelligent exercise section and sequencing doesn’t imply “softness” or “taking the easy way out” or “being a pussy” as is so often propagated on our favorite social media talking-heads.
Not needlessly destroying your body doesn’t seem very soft to me.
Actually, the testosterone-fueled, egocentric, cult-leader-esque desire to be louder, more demeaning, and portray an “us against them” mentality seems pretty indicative of insecurity and a lack of faith in their dogmatic ideologies…but that’s a conversation for another day :)
Every exercise you choose and every slot you place it within your training structure should have a “why” that’s carefully weighed to maximize efficiency and longevity while reducing risk and energetic/temporal waste.
Good programming is an art form—with scientific and aesthetic considerations. Michelangelo used a chisel instead of a sledgehammer for a reason.