It’s been a while since I really felt ‘right’ about my lifting. For the longest time, I thought that I simply didn’t care as much as I used to, but now I’m sure that I still care. In fact, the problem wasn’t one of caring, but of belief.
I didn’t believe that lifting needed to be what it seems to have turned into…
I started lifting weights in high school for a number of different reasons, but none of those reasons were competitive sports.
I am not an athlete.
I can remember when I was first introduced lifting weights for the purpose of bodybuilding, and I can remember how it was portrayed as a ‘thinking persons’ activity – a physical sort of philosophy. The way Arnold and Frank Zane and Lee Haney all talked about weight training, it was more akin to yoga and meditation then it was football or MMA. It was a physical chess match between you and yourself, and it was this approach to weight training that appealed to me.
Lately lifting has turned into sport where we compete on youtube by posting videos of our best lifts, or compete in crossfit or powerlifting or even obstacle courses, we race and we challenge based on time or speed or weight… or level of pukey exhaustion.
We create haphazard workout programs based on the latest ‘proven’ scientific theories, instead of doing what we WANT to do.
The science has taken over, and the art has died.
This isn’t a judgment on how you train now, but on how I have trained in the past.
Pushing to the point of breaking, always sore, always ‘almost injured’. Sure I looked good, and I was strong but from a 1,000 mile high view it all seems so superficial and desperate. And I’ll be honest – it wasn’t that enjoyable.
Yet, this is not, and never was the only approach to bodybuilding and weight training.
From my experience effective weight training is nothing more than the beauty of discipline manifested through mundane consistency.
It’s more poetic than simply ‘following a program’ could ever allow. There are almost infinite combinations of exercises and variations of each specific lift that you can use to meet your individual goals.
But what is the true goal?
My view is that the ultimate goal is to use weights to create weakness so that we may ultimately grow stronger.
That’s the simplest way I can describe weight training – create temporary weakness so that we may grow bigger and stronger.
Weakness can be created in a number of different ways – it is not limited to attempting to move a really heavy weight a couple of times, or moving a lighter weight as many times as you can. It’s also not limited to one set to failure, or 10 sets per exercise.
It works as a goal for almost every method of weight training, excluding the actual practice of exercise technique, but even then a case could be made for executing proper technique in a state of weakness… but I digress
When it comes to creating weakness what I want to talk about today is the middle ground, not lifting heavy, or light, but how to really get the most out of exercises using the 6-12 rep range.
I’m not going to be pulling data from studies or attacking other people’s opinions on training, and I’m going to speaking mostly about breathing… So if that sounds ‘meh’ to you, you can probably stop reading now…
Still with me? Good.
Alright – time to lay all the cards on the table – I think proper breathing is the key to a great weight training session using moderate weights… Now I’ll explain why…
Take a deep breath and then exhale. Breath as if you were meditating, or doing yoga, or trying to calm down after someone cut you off in traffic.
In, then out. Fill your lungs, but not in an uncomfortable way, pause briefly, then let it out.
Do this ten times (yes, TEN times), and try to notice how things change when you concentrate on your breathing…
You think less about other things, and you are a bit more aware of… you.
In the most basic form, you are meditating when you are paying attention to your breathing.
What I want you do now is complete a couple more breaths, only now I want you to pay attention to their timing. I can count 1 one thousand, 2 one thousand on the inhale, a brief pause then 1 one thousand, 2 one thousand, 3 one thousand on the exhale (you might be a bit different, there’s no ‘right’ here).
The speed of your breathing is what we are going to use to dictate ALL of your lifting when using moderate amounts of weight.
You will inhale on the concentric and exhale on the eccentric portion of every rep at this exact pace of breathing.
You will pick a weight that you can complete 6-12 reps at this speed then you will do everything in your power to maintain this pace of breathing AND this pace of lifting throughout your entire workout.
As phoo-phoo as it may sound – when it comes to getting the most benefit out of lifting moderately heavy weights I think your breathing should guide your lifting – In other words, your breathing dictates your rep speed, not the other way around.
When you can no longer complete lifts without holding your breath or maintaining this breathing rate, your set is done. Take a short break (30-60 seconds) then attempt another set. When you can no longer complete 6-12 reps without your breathing breaking down, then you are done with that exercise. Take a break and move to another.
This is how you create weakness. It seems like simply another way of discussing time under tension, but it’s slightly different – the focus isn’t on the weight – it’s on your breathing.
It’s also NOT super slow lifting, a 2 second concentric and a 3 second eccentric is pretty standard advice, I’m just giving you a reason to prioritize rep speed in your training.
It may take 2-3 sets of an exercise to create this weakness or it may take 5-6 (depending on the muscle group and the chosen exercise). The weight is irrelevant – you choose whatever weight allows you to complete 6-12 reps while maintaining your breathing rate.
This weight may vary slightly from day to day (up or down) but over the weeks the weight will slowly increase.
And this brings me to another weird revelation – if your goal is muscle size, then the increase in weight needed is a side effect of training, not the goal. If we could build muscle while never ever increasing the weight used, that would be fine.
The goal isn’t strength or strength progression, because as far as I can tell this is an inevitability of consistent strength training. You will get stronger, so there is no sense in worrying too much about getting stronger. If you are consistent, and you don’t get injured, and you are creating weakness with each workout, you will ultimately get stronger.
When you use heavier weights it become near impossible to use this breathing technique – you need to hold your breath for portions of the lift. The solution is simple – don’t use weights that are so heavy that you have to hold your breath.
When you use lighter weights it becomes easy to follow this breathing technique, but difficult to create weakness in 6-10 breathes, and again the solution is simple – increase the weight.
It may take 2 exercises or 3 or 4, but you will reach a point where that muscle group is ‘done’ then you move on, but always keep your focus on your breathing.
Again this isn’t rocket science – it’s the exact same advice you’ve heard countless times before, 2-4 exercises per muscle group, 2-6 sets per exercise, 6-12 reps per exercise using a weight you can handle with strict form. The only difference is I’m defining ‘weight you can handle with strict form’ using breathing rates as your guide, as opposed to simply moving the weight at a slow steady pace, since ‘slow and steady’ become subjective when you start to get fatigued.
The problem with this style of training is that it’s actually extremely difficult – difficult not to get distracted, difficult not to allow your breathing to quicken, or to hold your breath and it’s extremely difficult to concentrate on breathing for this long (30 minutes to an hour typically). There is a very high level of focus and ‘absorption’ that is required in this style of training – you truly need to be absorbed into your training.
NOT concentrating on your breathing is the easy way out. So is holding your breath and pushing/grinding the weight. The same goes for screaming and grunting.
Again, pushing heavy weights works, fatiguing on light weights also works.. and this – controlling medium weights is yet another technique that works. And in my opinion the key to controlling medium weights is to breathe. Concentrate on breathing and allow yourself to get absorbed into you work.
You will feel challenged, and you may or may not be sore the next day, but the main difference is the feeling immediately after your workout is unique, and hard to describe – so I’m not going to try – but it is cool and is different then the overall body heavy body fatigue you get from heavy weights or the exhaustion from light weights used to failure…
Create weakness by pushing heavy weights, fatiguing with lighter weights and CONTROLLING medium weights. Try using your breathing as a measure of control.