If you want to build muscle and get stronger, there are many roads that lead to Rome.
Well, if you’re new to strength training, there certainly are. The longer you’ve been in the game, the fewer there are.
No matter how you choose to train, there is no such thing as a perfect program, and any method you choose is going to have pros and cons.
Hitting big weights for sets of 1-3 will get you strong as hell, but if that’s all you do, you’re going to break down sooner or later.
The opposite? Pink dumbbells for a trillion reps? If you’re reading this, you probably already know that’s a waste of time and is just Jane Fonda aerobics. You’re be better off doing Extreme Zumba. At least you’ll learn how to kill it on the d-floor.
If you’re 30+ years old, want to build muscle and be able to perform like a stud, but have some wear and tear and want to stay healthy and injury free, you need to base your training around tried and true principles, and not be married to any particular method.
There are basically 3 mechanisms to building muscle:
- mechanical tension: lifting heavy things accomplishes this
- muscular damage: negatives and isometric holds do the job here. Think about how sore you are after a lot of lunges-there’s a lot of lowering your body back down into each rep, and that’s a big reason why
- metabolic damage: Lots of blood gets pumped into the muscles, and the hard contractions make it difficult to pump the blood out so it gets trapped, giving you a big pump.
I’ve talked about how I prefer to see people build up to something heavy, then hit a few back off sets in order to maximize their strength gains without overdoing it. This is a way to get a big bang for your buck to utilize mechanical tension in your training. Start with a compound lift, like a dumbbell bench press or front squat, and build up to the heaviest 5-10 you can with perfect technique. Rest, knock 10-15% of the weight off, and perform the same reps you did on the first set, and repeat one or 2 more times.
It’s common to hear that the bulk of your training after a heavy compound lift should be more like a traditional bodybuilder with lots of sets of 8-15 reps. If you’re a drug free guy, and you do a gazillion sets and reps, though, we end up with sore elbows, shoulders, and knees over times. Besides, you can only add reps and sets for so long before we end up with a program calling for 12 sets of 12 and our workouts take 3 hours.
Nobody has time or energy for that. If you do, then you should pick up a few hobbies.
So what’s the answer?
I love alternating reps for upper body lifts to supplement the heavy training we start our sessions with. I’m not talking about alternating dumbbell curls, though. Alternating low incline dumbbell presses, alternating rows, and alternating KB presses are how I sneak a lot of work into my client’s programs without having to do a ton of sets.
Why’s that different? Glad you asked.
It’s because each set takes twice as long to perform, and while one side is working hard to move the weight, the other is working really hard to hold the other side in a contracted position. As an added bonus, there’s a huge training effect to the muscles of the trunk as well, which have to work double duty to keep you stabilized.
Since it takes twice as long, the weight you’re using is kept down a touch, which takes some stress off of the joints, increases the amount of time your body is under tension, and if you slow down your tempo a bit, you can focus on all 3 phases of the movement: lowering, holding at the bottom, and the concentric.
This hits the trifecta of ways to build muscle. I’m all about training efficiency, and alternating reps are a great way to knock out a lot of work without beating the hell out of yourself. Mix them into your next upper body training day for 2-4 sets of 8-10 reps a side, and you’ll become a believer, too.