How to Take it to the Limit

Part 1 - Establish a Foundation First!

by David Maurice

A former lifting partner who opined that I wouldn’t be satisfied until he lost control of his bowels during lifting probably wouldn’t believe this, but I don’t consider that maximal effort has much value in and of itself. I think it is a means to an end, and I think that it can make for a very appropriate goal for a workout, but ultimately its value is proportional to its contribution to your gains.

Failure is not a prerequisite for growth, and many gain well without ever training to failure. But without training to failure for a period of time, a trainee can not know what it means to train to failure, or to one rep short of failure. One does not and can not know where the limit is unless one goes to the limit - repeatedly - while in control mentally and physically. In the process of making repeated limit efforts, the perceived limit will be moved, and what was failure for the lifter becomes a prelude to failure for the more experienced lifter. Such training will benefit the lifter even if the lifter henceforth does not train to failure, for the lifter will assimilate the feeling of overcoming extreme physical discomfort in completing a rep.

So what I will try to do in this article is to offer you some basic ideas which I hope will help you to build the confidence to push your limits, and some ideas for specific, productive, ways to push your limits.

Establish a Foundation First!

There are four factors which must be addressed before you try to take a set to the limit:

1) Form. You must learn which variants of the basic movements are suitable for your body, and how to perform them. This involves going through the motions without significant resistance to verify that the movement does not compromise your joints in any obvious way, or exceed your safe range of motion. Sometimes it is even necessary to incorporate some remedial flexibility work at this point prior to proceeding. Learning proper form means practicing the motion until it is practically second nature. You will probably need a partner to watch you and give you feedback, and that partner should have guidelines for proper form to follow. For details on the proper form for most productive movements, get a copy of Stuart McRobert’s The Insider's Tell-All Handbook on Weight-Training Technique.

2) Control. You also have to control the weight at all times. That means moving slowly. An easy test you can use to ensure you are moving slowly is the pause test. You should be able to pause at any point in the movement and hold the weight there. This pause may interfere with your ability to complete all the reps you intended - don’t worry about it. Have your partner randomly test your ability to pause and hold, until you become consistently good at it.

You could of course use any fixed cadence so long as it allowed you to successfully perform the pause test. If you feel that a fixed cadence will help you to be more consistent in maintaining control, get your partner to handle the timing and give you feedback, so that you can concentrate on your form. If you train alone you might be able to use a metronome to handle the timing for you. Initially this would require some attention to the metronome, however, so don’t even think of trying this unless you have your form perfected, and even then limit yourself to submaximal resistance for your initial efforts.

The lockout (top) and stretched (bottom) ends of your range of motion merit extra attention. Try to make the transitions from concentric to eccentric, and vice versa, as smooth as possible. For many movements it is worth pausing briefly at these ends, followed by a very gradual transition to motion. I challenge even those of you who believe in faster reps to try this; to move smoothly for that first centimeter or so takes considerable motor control and mental focus. Developing that control and focus is worthwhile for all.

3) Discipline. You must develop the discipline to maintain form and control throughout a set, even as the set becomes hard. Knowing proper form is not the same as recognizing form breakdowns when the effort level becomes high, and so it is beneficial to gradually push a little bit harder on exercises, while learning the identification and prevention of form problems. Form is sometimes forgotten when the focus is on getting that last rep or two. You never want to rush your reps, and you never want to come out of that biomechanical pathway that represents proper safe form for you. Discipline is something which is developed slowly, and which should become better for as long as you lift.

4) A safe setup. You always need to either have a spotter or some mechanical means to prevent you being trapped by the weight, or from being stretched beyond a safe range of motion. For example, if you are squatting, do it inside a power rack, with catch pins set so that should you fail at the bottom, the bar will only travel about an inch before being caught. If you are doing dips, make sure that should you become stuck at the bottom, you can simply put your feet down on to the floor or onto a sturdy box. Think about how you could become injured, even with perfect attention to the three previously mentioned factors, and adjust the equipment you are using to eliminate the danger.

A good spotter will help you to increase your effort by giving you the confidence to push to your limit; a bad one will effectively reduce your effort by helping too much. Many spotters are too eager to help you get through a sticking point. Some spotters seem to feel the need to always be giving a few pounds of help. Instruct your spotter that they should not give any help at all, should not even touch you or the barbell, unless the barbell starts to move down, or if you get stuck at the bottom. Then and only then should the spotter offer just enough help to enable you to slowly move the weight. In other words, the spotter should only help during part of one rep, and that rep should be a slow uncomfortable experience.

Once you have adequately addressed these four factors, you are ready to learn to push your limits. One of the most basic "tricks" to facilitate this process is the use of weights which allow you to keep squeezing out reps after it gets hard. Most people aren't able to do this with heavy weights and low reps, as this combination often results in a sudden inability to complete a rep. You need a weight which allows you to get a "maybe" rep or two. A "maybe" rep is one where it will seem quite borderline if it even can be completed, and yet with honest effort it you will be able to complete it, albeit even slower than your other reps. Then try another rep, and keep pushing until the bar won't move. Not until you don't think you can do another rep; until it won't move. Because you now have confidence that your form is spot-on, your discipline is great, and you have faith in your mechanical system and/or your spotter, you have little reason to fear injury. So what is the worst that can happen? Extreme discomfort. But that doesn’t last very long. Be tough, push through it. This is what you are seeking, remember?

Depending on how hard you were working before, you may need to reduce the number of sets you do, or the frequency with which you train. If this is harder than what you have been doing, then try it for a while and see if your progress is better. If it is, the next step is to push the bar for a period of time after it can't be moved anymore. Try five seconds of this functional isometric to start. If your progress improves again, you can try holding for longer times. NB: Be aware that performing a functional isometric in the bottom position of bench presses, dips, and any form of deadlift, is dangerous for most people. Squats, chins and rows are not without their risks in the bottom position. While there are exceptions to every rule of thumb, I would urge you to be conservative and to not perform functional isometrics in the bottom or stretched position.

In Part 2: Some Productive Applications

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