In the bodybuilding world, we have a tendency to get bogged down in complicated protocols, calculations and science. While none of those things are essentially bad, they can blind us to truly simple and painless solutions to common problems. We’re so busy looking for complicated answers that we miss the easy ones.
This is especially true when it comes to boosting your performance during your workouts. Very often, the changes you need to make are more psychological or neurological than they are physical. The neuromuscular response that’s responsible for most of your workout performance is more easily influenced by changes to your thought processes and your approach than you might think.
Here are three very simple, but thoroughly proven techniques for talking your body into giving more during your workouts, without actually increasing your workout time or changing up your program.
The 1 and 6 Set
Strength-conditioning legend Charles Poliquin popularized this strategy and its one of the best ways there is to coax better performance and heavier lifting out of your body. The theory is based on post activation potentiation.
In a nutshell, the theory is this: Doing a warm-up set at 40-50% of your 1RM (one rep max load) may warm up your muscles, but it also gets you partway to muscle fatigue and only stimulates a few select neuromuscular transmitters.
However, by warming up with one rep at 70-80% of your 1RM, you can actually stimulate both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers and increase the speed of neuromuscular transmission, making it seem easier to do the following six reps at a heavier weight than you normally lift.
For example, if you normally do six reps at 100lbs, you should do 1 rep at 120lbs, then rest 30 seconds to 1 minute and do 6 reps at 110lbs. Because of your initial rep and the neuromuscular response to that demand, that 110 pounds is going to actually seem easier than your normal 100lb lifts.
This is one of those simple tricks that is entirely psychological in nature, but several studies have shown that it can be extremely effective, especially when you’ve just increased your loads.
No, you don’t need to do anything backwards. Reverse reps is simply counting down your reps rather than counting up.
Researchers have found that counting your first, easiest rep as #1 and your last, most difficult rep as #6 (or 8 or 10), sends a signal to the brain that the higher the number, the higher the effort and this can lead to fatigue before you’ve completed that last couple of reps.
Instead, count your first rep as #6 (or however many reps you’re doing) and count down to the last rep. The added bonus of this is that instead of reminding you how many you have left to do, it reminds you how few you have left in the set. On paper, that doesn’t sound too significant, but it can make all the difference mentally.
Proper Warm-Up is Essential
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that less warm-up means you have more energy in reserve for your workout. Energy is just one small portion of performance.
The purpose of a warm-up isn’t just to get blood flowing to the muscles as injury prevention. Increased blood flow means increased neuromuscular activity and more muscle fiber stimulation. It also means more oxygen for your muscles so that they can perform better, rather than oxygen depletion and lactic buildup that will have you dropping the weights while you’re still short two or three reps.
Warming up properly doesn’t dip into your energy stores half as much as it ensures proper muscle function so that you can power through your workouts.
However, you need to warm up intelligently. Doing the typical 3 sets of descending weights or close to your normal load is counterproductive. This will deplete your energy and it actually serves little purpose for performance. You should never get anywhere near fatigue while doing anything other than your working sets.
Instead, try doing 10 reps, then 5, then a few single reps at ascending weights that never reach more than 60% of your working load. This way, your warm-ups are actually preparing your muscles for those heavier working sets and allowing you to move the heavy weight when it actually counts.
We don’t recommend that you do all of these tips at once or that you use any one of them too regularly, as they will lose their effectiveness. Instead, implement one strategy at a time for a week or so, then switch up to another and cycle through them as needed.
You’ll find that your performance will benefit and you’ll be less likely to become frustrated or start a cycle of counterproductive protocol-jumping in an effort to speed up your progress.