I few weeks ago I received an email that included a very good question:
I am having trouble adding weight to my weighted chin-ups. Now it seems that every workout I seem to be losing a rep but sometimes I can easily do 5. Any tips?
This is actually a problem that a lot of people have, and I struggled with this too for a long time too.
Going Hard all the Time
If your strength in the gym fluctuates from workout to workout, it may be because of going all out, all the time.
I don’t know exactly why this is but if you train to failure repeatedly, you reach a sort of plateau where sometimes you are very strong and other times very weak.
I learned this from the book Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert. Here is a paragraph from the book:
If you can “kill” yourself, and keep coming back for more, again and again, and your poundages are going up, then you are training within your capabilities and doing fine. Few people can do this, however, because they do not have the recovery ability to cope with it.
While you should push yourself to the limit for most of your workouts, “most” does not mean “all.” Learn not to push yourself to the limit during some periods. This is difficult to do if you have been locked into the “hard all the time” philosophy.
Even if you don’t want to cut the intensity down, you will be forced to do so.
That’s so true. If you train full-bore all the time you can make progress but certainly not in a straight line. You will endure a lot of frustration and at some point you will be forced to stop training to failure. And usually that’s when you’ll overcome the strength plateau.
In the same chapter, Stuart then explains what you should do if you’ve been training to failure all the time and you’re stuck:
Learn to keep just a little left in you so that you know there is always something there for next time. When you have made your last perfect rep and know there is only a partial rep left in you, keep it in and wait the extra workout or two until you can perform that rep perfectly. Do not drive yourself to exhaustion and stagnation by forcing out reps you cannot currently do. Save that energy and effort, and combine them with a bit more time and patience.
Whatever you try, never persist with something that does not help to keep your training poundages moving up, no matter how much it may be promoted by others.
What you need to do
- If you consistently fail to get the required reps for an exercise, you’re using weights that are too heavy for your average workouts. Decrease the weight until you can easily get the required reps and are always able to replicate the last workout.
- Stop grinding reps. By not pushing your sets to absolute failure, you’re always leaving some strength in the tank. This will give you the confidence that you’ll be stronger next time.
Use micro loading when possible.
- When you are feeling especially energetic, resist the temptation to add more than your usual small poundage increment. Otherwise you will be unlikely to be able to cope with that weight the following workout.
When to go Lighter in your Workouts
While doing your warm-up sets, if the weights feel heavy and mentally you don’t see yourself replicating your last performance, make that day a lighter day.
Decrease the weights by 10% and work in a higher rep range. You can still work hard, pushing your sets close to failure, you just do this to avoid the disappointment that comes from regression. If you try to replicate your last workout and you fail, chances are next time you will be worried you’re going to fail again.
By working in a higher rep range you avoid this mental trap. Next time, when you’re feeling strong, you can return to your normal working weight, never knowing whether or not you’d have failed the last time.
Also check out the articles Why you Can’t Maintain your PRs and Training to Failure | Good for Muscle Growth?. There is also a psychological component to strength progression and training to failure can make you dread your workouts – leading to stagnation.
The Program I use for building muscle
The program I follow right now is The Greek God Program. It uses very high intensity and low volume to promote rapid strength gains. The key however is not pushing to failure often.
Greg designed this program specifically for the “model type physique”. You gain strength while staying lean and only training certain key lifts once every 4-5 days. Lifestyle oriented.
I’m now doing the MEGA workouts from the program. These are the more advanced routines. You still train with high frequency but you’re also doing slightly more volume which helps trigger more sarcoplasmic growth.