Why progressive resistance training stops working and what to do about it.
Most of the readers of this site whose primary goal is to develop strength in some way, shape or form have probably reached the point where simple progressive resistance training has stopped working. If that weren’t the case, we would not need to look for new programs or methods to tease the next 5-10 pounds out of our bench press. I, for one have certainly reached that point. Progressive resistance worked for a while and then stopped. I heard about Louie Simmons and tried most of the things he talked about and started getting results for a while. After a while, my progress stalled again and I drifted back into the “more is better” mentality: More speed box squats; more dynamic bench presses; 2-3 different max effort exercises done in the same day. Needless to say I ended up with a sore back, sore shoulders, sore wrists. I then started to evaluate why some things had worked when I started doing them and why they eventually stopped working. I came up with the model I am going to describe. I do not pretend to be very strong, but I have started making progress again and believe that with this model in mind, I should be able to take myself to my potential.
What makes you strong is high FORCE contractions. Here I believe that the force that muscles are required to produce is the trigger for increasing the FORCE PRODUCING CAPABILITIES of a muscle. Now force is not strictly dependent on load. How much force do you exert on a 300 pound weight to raise it? Well, studies have shown that to reverse a 300 pound bench press touch an go, the average person exerts 330-360 pounds of force during a brief period of reversal, but less than 300 pounds through the rest of the range of motion-because you have already given the bar some MOMENTUM.
Why Westside methods are wrong in theory but right in application. If you were to try to understand the Westside system by reading about it you would probably conclude that there are two training methods that make you strong: 1) Trying to lift a sub maximal weight as fast as possible (Dynamic Effort Method) and 2) Trying to move a maximal weight regardless of how slow the weight moves (Maximal Effort Method). If you buy into premise 1 that high force contractions are the trigger for increasing the force producing capabilities of a muscle, the Westside model has some theoretical problems. First, the original recommendations for the Dynamic Effort Method were that you take 60% of your 1 rep raw max and perform 8 sets of 3 reps on the bench press as fast as possible and with about 1 minute of rest between sets. Louie Simmons wrote that it should take approximately the same amount of time to perform the 3 rep dynamic effort set as to perform 1 maximal repetition: About 3 seconds. The problem with this theory is that if you performed 3 reps at 60%, pushing as fast as possible, you would have to complete the entire set in 1-1.5 seconds to produce the same AVERAGE force as with a maximal contraction. Why does this method then work? The reason in my opinion is that the peak force production during the brief period of reversal with a 60% maximal weight is much greater than with 100% max weights. In other words, the speed of the repetition does not matter; what matters is the ballistic reversal of the weight. In practice (and in honesty I have never watched a training session from Westside, I am rather assuming that Louie Simmons has presented an accurate picture of his training practices in his many excellent articles) the Westside lifters practice a ballistic reversal of the weight-literally catching the weight and violently reversing it. What happens after the first 0.1 seconds or so in my opinion is inconsequential. What about Max Effort workouts and box squats? This brings me to my next premise.
We all have different self protective reflex set points. In the beginning stages of progressive resistance training, our reflexes adapt to regular loading. Our muscles get stronger from the weights we lift and our tendons adapt along with them so that we continue to produce contractions with enough force to make our muscles stronger. At some point, our strength has out gained the adaptations of the tendons so that the tendons kick in their protective mechanisms before we can produce enough force voluntarily to cause strength gains. Someone like Ed Coan must have a very high set reflexive set point which allows him to produce effective contractions voluntarily using regular repetitions only. For most people, the case is different. For an typical trainee who has plateaued at say a 300 pound bench press, the problem is that to reverse 300 pounds they may produce 330-360 pounds of force. The problem is, they need to produce more: say 380-400 pounds of force. Their reflexes sense when the tension in the muscle rises to a certain level: say 360 pounds and inhibits the contraction from going even higher. This lifter will never produce enough force using regular repetitions to trigger further adaptations in the force producing capacity or a muscle. The key here is that:
FAST APPLICATION of high force temporarily circumvents the protective reflexive mechanism. It takes some time for the reflexive mechanism to kick in and tell the muscle to let up on the tension. If one can get the force production of a muscle up to the level needed to trigger increases in force producing capabilities before the tendon reflexes can put a lid on tension, one can get an effective strength producing contraction. Voluntarily, muscle tension builds slowly, and the tendons are right there to shut em down when a certain tension is reached. Box squats break the eccentric-concentric chain. By relaxing the muscles briefly, the tendons also recoil to normal length. By rapidly flexing off of the box, the muscles can then reach the critical level before the tendons have stretched to the point that the kick in. The ME workouts done by Westside lifters have also developed to take advantage of this. It was originally presented that in the ME workout, you should choose an exercise similar to the main lift but which focused on the weak point in your range of motion. Now, it appears from my reading, that Westside lifters use almost exclusively broken eccentric-concentric chain movements on their ME day: Board presses and floor presses with a brief pause and chain supported goodmornings. Ballistic goodmornings would also suppress the protective tendon reflexes.
Doubled over bands are the only progressive way to consistently bypass protective tendon reflexes. The time tested way of tricking the muscle into contracting fast enough to temporarily bypass the inhibitory tendon reflexes (and also to take advantage of excitatory tendon reflexes) is to increase the downward speed and acceleration of a weight before reversal. Raw weights, no matter what the load can only accelerated downward at 1 G, maybe a little more if you actively pull them down. Bands are the only mechanism that actually increases the downward ACCELERATION and also therefore SPEED of the bar. This is because all objects fall at the same rate. One weight that is twice as heavy as another has twice as much force pulling it down, but it also has twice as much RESISTANCE TO ACCELERATION and so it still falls with the same acceleration. When bands are added, the downward force is increased, but the resistance to downward acceleration that the weight has stays the same. Doubled bands can be increased progressively to match long term increases in strength. I also believe that the reflex set point rises with this type of training so that the tendons can be pushed to a higher threshold before they inhibit contraction. Also, I believe that this method of training will thicken the tendons, making them less deformable and therefore less prone to signal an inhibitory reflex. Finally, I believe that the use of bands can extend the period of maximal contraction by eliciting an extended excitatory response from the tendons.
Tell me: Full of crap? Any examples that support or refute this model? True/False: I should spend more time working out and less time writing dissertations.
By the way, Jim Parrish (Joe average) has pioneered the REGULAR use of doubled resistance bands. I do not purport to specifically represent his views.