On a recent Saturday I needed a respite from work so I plopped down on the couch and “fired up the picture box.” (This is midwestern lingo for saying, “I turned on the television.”) Watching the tube on a Saturday afternoon is always a crapshoot. If you’ve got my luck, there’s usually nothing on except for reruns of Leave it to Beaver or that nauseating train wreck Full House.
Anyway, much to my delight, I flipped to a rerun of the World’s Strongest Man (WSM) competition on ESPN. You can’t help but be mesmerized by those gargantuan physiques struggling through events that display preternatural levels of brute strength.
The event I caught was Deadlift for Reps. In this challenge, the guys were given 60 seconds to lockout as many deadlifts as possible. While that might sound ordinary, keep in mind they were deadlifting the back end of two cars that were hinged to a massive bar.
I can’t remember who won the event, but I distinctly remember who came in second: Mark Felix from Grenada. The winner got 17 reps, but Felix just missed tying him with 16.
Why is this important? Because Felix was the favorite for this challenge. The deadlift was his thing. He started off looking stronger and more solid than any of the other strongmen. Indeed, he should have won. But he made a critical mistake. It’s the same mistake that many of you are probably making in the gym.
It’s easy for me to play armchair expert, especially since I help people build strength and performance for a living. However, I wondered if Felix knew what he did wrong. Like any great athlete, he was in-tune with his body. He knew he messed up, and he articulated it to big Bill Kazmaier after the event.
Since I don’t have the transcript, I’m going to use a little creative license and paraphrase how the post-event interview went between Mark Felix and Bill Kazmaier.
Bill: You looked strong, Mark, but you couldn’t pull off a win. What do you think happened?
Felix: I should’ve rested sooner. If I had, I think I could’ve gotten another two or three reps.
Felix’s reply was very telling. There’s a lot to what he said. But it requires us to dig a little deeper.
That’s the subject of this article.
The Millionaire Challenge
Let’s imagine for a moment that über businessman, Richard Branson, has a passion for weightlifting like he does for flying. He’s got billions of bucks and an insatiable desire to compete. And let’s say he happens to be your training partner.
As far-fetched as this sounds, it wouldn’t be beyond Branson to offer a million bucks to anyone who could beat him in a timed deadlift contest, just like the one in the WSM competition. The goal is to complete as many bodyweight deadlifts as possible in one minute. The winner gets a million; the loser gets a set of steak knives.
Now, if you and Branson had similar levels of strength, what approach would you use to win the event? If you’re like most people — and most of the WSM competitors — you’d push yourself to failure to knock out as many reps as fast as possible and then use the remaining time to will up as many more deadlifts as your soul could muster.
This is exactly what Mark Felix did, and it’s the reason he lost. He pushed himself too far, too fast. There’s a much better approach, but there’s more to say.
Let’s get to some science.
I Have a Theory
Everything I do in terms of training my clients for size and strength hinges on the neuroscience-based Size Principle. This principle states that motor units (the muscle fiber bundle along with its associated neuron) are recruited in an orderly fashion. The smallest, weakest motor units are recruited first. Then, larger, stronger motor units are recruited if higher levels of force are required.
The goal of any size and strength-building set should be to reach the upper right corner, as depicted by the region in red.
There are two ways to look at this. First, you could say that when you recruit the largest motor units, you’re also recruiting all the other motor units. The second way to look at it is this: the smaller motor units must be along for the task if you’re going to reach the largest ones. In other words, you can’t selectively jump to the strongest motor units without going through the smaller ones.
That’s the beauty of the Size Principle. When you understand it, you know how to make training for size and strength more effective. But it’s also why certain methods aren’t ideal for building strength, or maintaining your performance during a workout.
A triple-drop set is when you perform three similar movements in a row with little or no rest between each mini set. Here’s how a triple-drop set might look for the shoulders:
Dumbbell shoulder press for 8 reps
Rest 10 seconds
Dumbbell shoulder press with palms facing each other for 8 reps
Rest 10 seconds
Dumbbell side raise for 8 reps
Rest 3 minutes and repeat
I’m sure most of you have performed some version of a triple-drop set. And I’m also pretty sure that you could never repeat it with the same amount of weight the second time around. In fact, with each subsequent cycle you probably had to lower the load around 20%, even with 3 minutes of rest (theoretically, three minutes should be enough time to fully regain your strength from a shoulder circuit).
But you can’t regain your strength, and this goes for any type of training to failure. It’s the same mistake that Mark Felix made.
According to what the Size Principle tells us, as you approach failure you’re recruiting the smaller, weaker motor units. This is why the set gets harder. In essence, you’re trying to lift a weight after your strongest motor units went to the bench. If you recruited more of the large motor units, or if the large motor units didn’t drop out, the set would get easier, or stay just as easy, respectively. But it doesn’t because the largest motor units only have the capacity to withstand around 10 seconds worth of ball-busting effort. After that, they’re done.
So what happens if you keep pushing past the 10-second mark? You start fatiguing the smaller motor units, too. Then, if you keep pushing, you merge down to the smallest, weakest motor units. And this is where you run into problems.
I have a theory. When you fatigue the smaller, weaker motor units it sets up a roadblock to your biggest, strongest motor units. Remember, the only way to get to the biggest, strongest motor units is by going through the smaller ones. If the smaller ones are fatigued, you can’t reach the biggest ones.
Here’s how the roadblock looks.
This is why pushing yourself to failure for your first set keeps you from maintaining your strength. And this is why I don’t use triple-drop sets, except for metabolic conditioning (even then, I still question the validity of the approach).
A Better Way to Train
I doubt I’d need to twist your arm to convince you that being able to perform more reps with a heavier weight in a workout is more beneficial than doing the same amount of reps with a lighter weight. The system I use for training is based on maximizing your performance, and it’s the core component of my book, Huge in a Hurry.
I take what science demonstrates, and pair that with what I’ve experienced in 13 years of training people at all levels. The bottom line, like Charles Staley often says, is “manage fatigue.” You can’t maintain your performance if you push to failure right from the start. You need to dial it back in the earlier stages of a workout. By doing so, you’ll be able to perform more total reps with a heavier weight. That’s how you catapult your size and strength gains.
Don’t get me wrong, your workouts should be intense and challenging. I’m not telling you to go easy. I’m telling you to go heavy, go fast, and don’t push too far with your first few sets.
So now we’re back to Mark Felix. As he mentioned in the interview with Kaz, Felix said if he would’ve rested sooner he could’ve done more reps. Keep in mind, this was a timedevent. He wasn’t saying he needed more time to get more reps; he just needed to rest sooner. If he had, he could’ve done more reps in a minute.
And this is exactly why you should focus on the speed of your lifts. When your speed slows down drastically, your nervous system will be left to recruit the smaller motor units. If you keep pushing, you’ll fatigue those motor units and you won’t be able to reach the biggest, strongest motor units in subsequent sets.
Another approach, if you can’t lift fast, is to limit the duration of your sets to 10 seconds. Mark Felix’s first set of reps lasted about 30 seconds. That’s why he didn’t win.
So, when training for strength, keep your speed up, and limit your heavy sets to 10 seconds or less. When muscle growth is the primary goal, you can bump up your time to 15 seconds, because some fatigue is necessary for fast muscle gains.
Just remember, it’s not how many reps you do, or how heavy the load is that matters. What matters is how long the sets last. Keep it short. Quit when you’re ahead and you’ll get bigger and stronger — fast.