Anecdotes; Assemble!

Anybody who spends a fair time in the gym will come across a fair bit of little tips and tricks that they hold on to dear and apply to their training. A smorgasbord of anecdotes unique to every individual that would be beneficial to be shared, scientific articles be damned.

Given how my physiology section of this blog is sorely lacking, I figured I would throw something out there. Given how I am almost mentally retarded when it comes to the science of physiology, I figured an article of anecdotes would be the best blend of benefit to the reader whilst also avoiding having an intellectual hammer smacked upon my head by more educated readers.

Muscles contractions are not equal: Assessing muscular ‘feel’

I outlined in my localized growth factors article (one of the more underappreciated articles on this site) about the factors that can aid in inducing muscle growth on a local level. These factors are mostly induced by heat, acid, the state of cellular nutrient surplus and mechanical stress. Aside from the third one, the others can be done via weight lifting and seem to have dose-dependent benefits unto the muscle.

Adding more stress onto the muscle during a workout (or lifetime even) does result in enhanced growth factor production, and with nutrition and rest this would lead to more muscular recovery. The problem lies in putting more stress on a muscle without actually making yourself temporarily weaker in the process. I’m sure many readers are intimate with the feeling of cutting a rest period short and going back to a set, and the inadequate rest makes an easy set of 8 have to be terminated at 5 reps due to fatigue.

Due to these reasons, I have fallen in love with isometrics. If kept short, they do not seem to affect strength levels much, if at all. It is a form of active recovery and muscular hypertrophy in one. One of my favorite means to this end is to simply hold the last rep of a set. If doing pull-ups, I would drill my chest into the bar for a few seconds and then negative down. If doing dumbbell presses, I would simply lower the dumbbells to the bottom position and hold them there for a nice stretch. I also sometimes do non-stressful isometrics between sets, like holding the top of a push-up position or hanging from a pull-up bar with the back contracted.

Another rep technique I noticed is the point of turnaround. I attempt to contract at the point in which the muscle naturally resists gravity, and I do so with a powerfully fast contraction. To illustrate this point, lay down on a bench or the side of a couch and let the arm off the edge just fall outwards to the side (like a dumbbell fly). There will be a point where your pec naturally resists gravity and tension is felt; this is where I contract on all chest isolation exercises. If you do the same with biceps you may find that this point is just before 180 degrees, same logic applies. (Not a technique to be used with big compound exercises like squats and deadlifts all the time, but a good thing to keep in the workout repertoire).

Some cheating motions that seem to benefit the muscle greatly

If we were to paint two extremes, one being humping a barbell and curling a barbell with so much vigor your glutes hurt and the other being a modification which still retains over 90% of the tension on the target muscle, then this section would be devoted to the latter.

I do my fair share of bodybuilding training and have seen quite a bit of ingenious methods of cheating to get more volume in on the active muscle. Namely:

  • Doing dumbbell presses with about a 15 degree incline, and clenching the glutes so hard on the press that your ass comes off the bench slightly
  • Doing triceps extensions (high cable tower) until failure, and then falling to your knees and doing a few more reps in which you try and bash your palms into the floor. Same idea can be applied to high-cable crossovers, but instead bashing palms together.
  • Low-cable curls in which one lays on the ground (a technique where you can focus solely on the contraction and, by design, cheating is limited) or sits on the ground with their elbows inside their knees.

Progression sets

Not sure what these are called technically, but by ‘Progression sets’ I mean doing exercise A on the target muscle, and then after fatigue modifying the exercise slightly and relatively instantly to a slightly easier variation to get a few more reps with focus either on the same muscle or a related group. Progression sets would make a set in which one could do X amount of weight for 10 reps into a set (or say, 3 exercises) with X weight totalling 15-20 reps; a great way to add volume.

Hopefully some of the examples will illustrate what I mean by these:

  • (Instant) Doing wide-grip pull-ups (pronated grip) until failure, then changing to wide-grip chins (supinated grip), after that is done to failure switch to close grip pull-ups and finally regular close-grip chinups. 4 exercises done one right after another, all progressively easier for more reps.
  • (Short rest) Using a variable bench and dumbbells, Perform shoulder presses until near failure. Rest the dumbells and only take enough rest to lower the benches incline about 15 degrees and then repeat. The progression should be shoulder press into two incline press sets (different angles) to a flat bench press. If a decline bench is available then one could finish off on that. I usually call these ‘spectrum presses’ and pair them with a trap isometric between sets (band pull-aparts are a favorite)
  • (Instant) Hang cleans to failure, switch into hang high pulls (jerking the bar up to nipple height but not catching it with the delts, but just controlling the decent back to the hips) to failure, followed by shrugs.
  • (Instant) Simply strict overhead press into a slightly worse-form overhead press (some hip momentum), eventually going into an all-out push-press and then just a plain olympic lifting jerk press.
  • (Relatively Instant) Set up pins on the outside of a power cage at about half-way up your shins. About 6 feet behind set up a small (1-2 inch) platform with a loaded barbell. Essentially, perform deficit deadlifts on the platform for the prescribed amount of reps. Roll the bar forward 3 feet and perform regular deadlifts. On the last rep, walk the bar towards the cage and drop it on the pins outside the cage, perform rack deadlifts. Incredibly exhausting, and straps may be needed, but a good back hypertrophy set. A belt might be needed as doing lower back exercises for a high amount of reps can get compromising.

In addition, the notion of drop sets (doing an exercise with X weight until failure, and then dropping the weight down to 0.75X or so) is also a form of a short rest progression set.

Muscles appear to react differently to training

I have no clue why, but some muscles on the body seem to react differently to different styles of training. Think of the deadlift as a back builder. It works well, but if you told somebody to curl a very heavy weight for 3 sets of 5 reps and call it a day for hypertrophy, most likely you would be met with a blank stare.

What I have noticed, and it seems many other people also note this for hypertrophy, are:

  • Deltoids seem to respond better to high volume
  • Quadriceps seem to respond to heavy + high volume (think marathon front squats)
  • Biceps seem to respond to high volume and tension
  • Triceps and chest seem to respond well to heavy pushing for low reps
  • Lats and upper back muscularity respond well to time under tension and isometrics
  • Glutes and hammies respond well to high strength activities (powerlifting, sprinting)

I think many of these might be due to the muscle fiber composition of said muscles (glutes being very high fast twitch content, for example) but I have no clue if that can explain all the reasoning behind the above.

Other things

Other little things that I like but cannot explain why are:

  • I learned over at T-Nation from Christian Thibadeau to start chest workouts with some overhead pressing movement to alleviate shoulder pain. I was skeptical at first, but it turned out to be magical. My chest workouts do tend to start with standing OHP with a light weight now.
  • Same guy (good guy to follow, btw) introduced me to doing antagonistic pairing on some exercises. I have found that doing any motion which retracts the scapulae together, done immediately after a pressing exercise, really helps the body with the next pressing set.
  • Resetting the body after each rep (changing foot position on a squat or deadlift, dropping from the bar from pullups, racking the bench press bar and resetting your back position) seems to help incredibly with neural recruitment during sets; in-so-far that I now prefer rest pause sets to straight sets for anything 5 reps or below.
  • Using Fat grips (or any method of increasing bar circumference, a towel works as well) until failure, and then dropping said grips to rep out with normal grip, and finally switching to using lifting straps is a great way to increase overall volume on back days. The same idea can be used for pushing exercises if you omit the third steps (as straps are pretty useless on most pushing exercises)
  • Building off of that, I have found a use for straps on dumbbell lateral raises. Preventing the dumbbell from becoming a flying murderbell across the weightroom floor.

In summation

These are the little things I have noticed in the gym, and when applied to my training I have received benefit from. I cannot speak scientifically on why these are working (in part because the science just isn’t there, or more-so because this isn’t my academic field), but hopefully a few of the techniques can be added into your routine with some benefit.

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  1. Gregor says:

    I definitely concur with statement #4.
    I don’t know how many times I heard people complaining about their ‘over training’.
    And when you actually list some of the most obvious symptoms of what makes up over training, they become silent very quickly.

    I guess it has to do with most fitness people being hypochondriacs to some degree.

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