Don’t Skip This Part! – Exercise’s Most Productive Time
don't skip this part! - exercise's most productive time
If I could pick just one issue that would have the biggest impact on most peoples' exercise results, it would be to increase their effort level when an exercise gets hardest and most challenging. This means increasing the effort right at the end of a set of repetitions on each exercise. This certainly would be my #1 recommendation to people who exercise on their own either at a regular gym or at home. And even for our company's own personal training clients, I find that although on the whole our clients work much harder during their workouts than most other people who exercise, many of our clients could achieve even better fitness results if they gave even more effort at the most productive time.
What “even more effort at the most productive time” means in practical terms is to carry every set of strength training repetitions to the point of “muscle success.” Muscle success is the point on an exercise at which after several repetitions your muscles become so fatigued that completing another repetition is not just difficult, it's actually impossible. You're pushing or pulling as hard as you can, and the weight refuses to budge even a fraction of an inch because your muscles have become so fatigued. You're attempting to make the weight move, but it's momentarily impossible for you to do so. If you continue maximally pushing or pulling for several more seconds to make sure you're really at this point of muscle success, you'll have achieved deep momentary fatigue in the targeted muscles.
Deep fatigue in the muscle sends a strong signal to your body that it needs to get stronger, improve muscle tone, and increase your metabolism. Within certain limits, the deeper you momentarily fatigue your muscles, the greater the changes you stimulate in your body.
Although this next point may sound counterintuitive, in a lot of ways long workouts are easier than briefer “high-intensity” workouts. How can a long workout be easier than a (properly performed) brief workout? Because in order to exercise for a long period of time, you can't push yourself really hard on each of the exercises you're performing. You have to pace yourself at a lower intensity to workout for a long period of time.
I've experienced this firsthand. Prior to stumbling upon slow-motion strength training in 1992, I was doing resistance training for 2 hours a day, 6 days a week – 12 total hours of exercise per week. I would rarely (if ever) fatigue to the point of muscle success on any of my exercises (lengthy workouts require pacing yourself with a lower level of effort, which reduces how intensely you're able to train). When I tried slow-motion strength training, I learned to fatigue all the way to muscle success on every set of each workout, and my results improved significantly (I added 10 pounds of lean muscle tissue during the first 9 days). Plus, the amount of time I spent exercising was FAR less (reduced from 12 hours a week to about an hour a week).
My dramatically improved results weren't because I was working out less, though. It was because I'd learned to make my muscles work harder. The higher intensity (pushing harder at the end of each exercise) stimulated better improvements in my body. And because my effort and intensity were much higher than before, I couldn't sustain that high effort level for very long. So the extra intensity didn't just significantly improve my results, it also necessitated briefer workouts.
It's certainly a lot easier to terminate each set of repetitions before you reach “muscle success” and do a much longer workout than it is to “gut it out” and take each set you perform to a deep level of muscular fatigue. But stopping short of muscle success will make your workouts less productive.
Taking a set of repetitions to this muscle success point is not fun while you're doing it. It's uncomfortable. Your muscles often vibrate and burn. But it's the best thing you can do to generate results from your training. The fun part is the results you get afterward in stronger muscles, enhanced cardiovascular efficiency, faster metabolism, stronger bones, and added body-shaping lean muscle tissue.
A fair amount of people have a lot of difficulty pushing themselves to work hard enough to achieve “muscle success” as described above. If pushing every set to this muscle success point is more challenging than you're able to do on each exercise, at least make sure to fatigue the muscles as deeply as you can on each set. The deeper you fatigue the muscles, the more effective the stimulus is, and it will require more significant adaptations from your body.
So, when your repetitions start to get challenging, try to cultivate a mindset of looking forward to the burning and shaking sensations you're experiencing. That's where it's beginning to get really productive!
Matt Hedman is a Master Level Super Slow instructor and the founder of The Perfect Workout, which is the largest privately-owned 1-on-1 personal training company in the United States with over 60 fitness studios nationwide. He graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Washington. He worked briefly as an engineer in GE, until he found his passion for HIT, and pursued a career in personal fitness training.