The purpose of this column is tri-fold. Purpose number one is as a "refresher course" for seasoned lifters. Sure, deep down, you may know this stuff, but it's been so long since you first read about it that you've forgotten the rationale behind the subject matter.
Secondly, this column's for those readers who have just graduated from the newsstand mags. Maybe they've been reading nothing but Muscle and Fitness for the past few years, and as such, know pretty much nothing about the science of the sport, except for maybe the "science" of Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman's glute training.
Lastly, this column is for the newbie who may have stumbled onto this site and mistakenly thought he'd landed on some weird planet populated by a strange breed of weight lifting rocket scientists who, at times, slip into surfer dialect. By reading this column, the newbie can be acclimated to the rarefied atmosphere, slowly, so he doesn't get the bends.
You're Only as Strong as your Weakest Link
Aside from getting your nuts trapped in a vice, there's nothing worse than hitting a training plateau. Whether you're trying to gain muscle, lose fat, or get stronger, the longer you're at a plateau, the harder it becomes to stay motivated.
Hitting a plateau for a couple of weeks is bad enough, but when you're stuck for several months or a year, you start wondering whether it's time to check yourself into a mental institution! Why bother being committed to a training and diet regimen if you're not going to make any more progress? You might as well throw in the towel, pick up the remote control, and plug into the "matrix" with all the other obese and lazy souls.
Or you could use your head and take a critical look at your diet and training program. Are you getting enough calories? Are you taking the right supplements? Are you getting enough rest? Is your program well designed? Do you have a weak link? If you're an avid T-mag reader, you probably have the first four questions nailed. However, number five could be the reason why you've been at a plateau since the first episode of the X-Files.
Let's face it, in every area of life, you're only as strong as your weakest link. If you're good at making money but horrible at managing it, you have a weak link that could lead to disastrous consequences. The same is true with your body; if your arms are strong but your legs are weak, you're injury prone. Imagine being a boxer with a 400-pound bench press and a 200-pound squat. When your opponent hits you with a jab, you're going down like a ton of bricks.
After watching a "top heavy" bodybuilder bench press 500, Arnold once stated, "Nice bench, but your legs would snap like twigs if you tried squatting 500 pounds." Although the top-heavy guy had an impressive bench, he had a weak link that could have lead to a career-ending injury.
If you have a weak link, at best your progress is going to stall. At worst, you're going to suffer a serious injury. That's the bottom line and you're kidding yourself if you believe otherwise. Your weak links are going to hold you back from whatever goal you go after, whether it's gaining muscle, gaining strength, or losing fat. (Hell, weak links are probably the reason why you still have that lame ass job or are in the wrong relationship, but that's another subject for another article!) By kicking the crap out of your weak links instead of pampering them, you'll be back on the road to Gainsville!
The Golden Rules of Weak Link Training
The first thing we need to do is discover where your weak links are. The best way to do this is to do unilateral training (one arm or one leg at a time). I tested this theory on myself and reaped some excellent results so I'll use yours truly as an example.
Recently, I started doing one arm dumbbell lifts to add variety to my routine. I soon realized that my right arm was stronger than my left. I could one-arm press 70 pounds easily for five reps with my right arm, but I struggled to hit five with my left arm. I wasn't surprised that my right arm was stronger. After all, I'm right handed and use it more than my left arm in daily living. However, I was amazed at the extent of the imbalance.
At first I thought I should just keep training and wait on my left arm to catch up. Guess what? It didn't. Eventually, I could do five easy reps with 70 pounds with my left arm, but by then I was up to eight easy reps with my right. As my left arm was getting stronger, so was my right and the imbalance prevailed. Not only was this imbalance frustrating, it was potentially dangerous. Guess what happens when you do bilateral exercises (two arm movements) with a weak link? The stronger body part does more work than the weaker body part, of course! This will eventually lead to a serious injury, especially as the weights get heavier.
To illustrate, let's say that you're bench pressing a heavy weight and your right arm is stronger than your left. First, you might have difficulty lowering the weight evenly. If you can't lower it evenly, you aren't going to be able to press it in good form. Second, when you press the weight, your right arm is going to contract 100% and your left arm is going to fall behind and struggle to catch up. This puts a hell of a lot of stress on the weaker arm, which isn't ready to do its part.
In addition, your right arm is doing more work than it should. Imagine your right arm as an industrious worker at a factory and your left arm as a slacker that's always late and doesn't keep up. Eventually this slacker will be a liability to the factory just as your weaker body part will be a liability to your goals.
Best case scenario, your body prevents further strength gains in your right arm to avoid an injury. Worst case scenario, you suffer a serious injury and your lifting days are over or you have to spend a ton of dough on a physical therapist. The alternative is to admit that you have a weak link and bring it up to par. Sounds like a better option, doesn't it?
Here are the five golden rules of correcting a weak link:
Always work the weaker body part first.
Do extra reps or sets for your weaker body part.
Don't train to failure!
Cut out all bilateral exercises until the imbalance is corrected. (Or at least decrease their prominence in your overall program.)
Let's break these down.
1) Always work the weaker body part first.
For example, if I'm doing one arm presses, I'll start my workout with my left arm and then move to my right arm. If I started with my stronger arm, I might be fatigued by the time I got to my weaker arm. This, in turn, will make the results more difficult to track.
2) Do extra reps or sets for your weaker body part.
How do you make a slacker get more done? You make the slacker work harder! There are several ways this can be done:
Use the same weight but do fewer reps for your stronger arm. For example, let's say you're doing one arm bicep curls with a 45-pound dumbbell and your limit is five reps with your left arm and seven with your right arm. Instead of doing seven reps with your right arm, do five until your left arm catches up. Doing five with your right arm will maintain the strength while you address your weak link.
Use less weight with your stronger body part. Let's say you can do five dumbbell triceps extensions with your right arm using 40 pounds, but can only do three reps with your left arm at that weight. Continue to use 40 for your weak arm, but drop the weight to 35 for your stronger arm. Continue this until you can get five reps with the weaker left arm.
Do extra sets for the weaker body part. If you normally do sets of three for both arms, start doing five sets with the weaker arm. Use the same weight for both arms.
3) Don't train to failure!
Some lifters think that everyone in the gym finds it impressive when they bust a gut and barely make (or just miss) a lift. But the truth is that training to failure all the time is a sure way to slow or even stop your gains. Training to failure doesn't play a role in addressing a weak link and shouldn't be used until the weaker muscles are up to par.
4) Cut out all bilateral exercises until the imbalance is corrected.
You'll correct the weak link much faster by training unilaterally exclusively. If you do a lot of bilateral work, your stronger body parts are going to keep getting stronger while your weaker ones lag behind. If you can't or simply don't want to cut out all bilateral exercises, then at least decrease their prominence in your regimen.
For example, if you train four times a week working each body part twice a weak, do two full workouts with unilateral exercises and then do two workouts where you split your routine in half. In other words, do 50% unilateral and 50% bilateral. Get your weaker muscles up to par as fast as possible and you can jump back into the bilateral game much sooner.
5) Avoid overtraining.
Make sure you're getting all the rest and nourishment you need. Take a day off between each workout and make sure you're getting at least eight hours of quality sleep each night. Also, keep your protein intake high and make sure your supplement regimen is top notch. Failure to recover from workouts will lead to overtraining and no exercise will get you out of that.
At this point you may be wondering what unilateral exercises you can do for each major muscle group. There are plenty of unilateral options. Here are some examples:
Chest: One-arm dumbbell floor presses (performed just like a bench press only you're lying on the floor.) One arm machine presses would work too, but stick to free weights whenever possible for best results.
Back: One-arm dumbbell rows
Shoulders: Standing one-arm dumbbell presses, one arm lateral raises, and one arm dumbbell shrugs.
Quads: One-legged squats with or without weight (you can do these with one leg up on a bench behind you or with bodyweight only by holding one leg in front of you but off the ground), one-legged leg presses, one-legged hack squats, one-legged extensions, and single-leg partial squats.
Hamstrings: One-legged deadlifts or King deadlifts (see pics), and one-legged hamstring curls.
Calves: One-legged calf raises (standing and seated)
Biceps: One arm dumbbell curls, one-arm reverse curls, and one-arm hammer curls.
Triceps: One-arm extensions or skull crushers and one-arm rope pulldowns.
By addressing my weak links and correcting imbalances in my shoulders, I was able to break a training plateau in my one arm dumbbell presses. I went from 70 pounds for three reps with my left arm to 80 pounds for seven reps in just three weeks!
I plan on training like this for another six weeks and then testing my strength on two arm shoulder movements such as handstand pushups and barbell presses. Give unilateral training a shot for six weeks and you'll be thrilled with your results, too!