Supramaximal: More Than Your Max
Sticking points are the death of strength. If you've ever had a barbell cemented onto your chest after a failed rep, you'll understand this. So what's the solution?
Supramaximal training. It's the best technique for rapid strength gains because it supercharges your central nervous system (CNS). To do it, you use loads greater than your one rep max, but for partial reps.
So, if you fail on a heavy lift using full range of motion, then partials using more than your 1RM are just what the doctor ordered. Here's an example of how you'd do it with a bench press.
Try it and you'll crush strength plateaus, get excited again about training, and flip the switch for high performance muscle growth. Now, let's dig into how this works and how to add it to your training.
Isometrics prime your CNS to make you more efficient. After all, muscular strength isn't purely determined by your muscle size. That's why the biggest guys aren't always the strongest. Supramaximal training is based on muscle mass AND the extent to which you can contract muscle fibers. That's called intramuscular coordination.
By lifting a supramaximal weight through a partial range of motion, you're creating a post-activation potentiation stimulus that improves performance on the next exercise. There are two things happening here.
First, the nervous system becomes excited due to the heavy load from the previous exercise, causing an increased response in the subsequent exercise. From the overload movement, actin and myosin (which bind for contraction) react with the increased amount of calcium released during the muscle contraction. This helps you produce more powerful muscle contractions going forward.
Second, intramuscular and intermuscular coordination both improve.
Intramuscular coordination is the ability of your muscles to fire together more effectively. Intermuscular coordination is the firing of muscle groups working together in a specific movement at specific joint angles.
Regardless of the mechanism, here's the deal: lifting supramaximal weight fires up your CNS allowing you to lift heavier weights on subsequent exercises. So, you'll bust through specific strength plateaus and prime your body for strength, size, and performance gains.
Supramaximal training – lifting from the sticking point of a lift with weight greater than your max – is a great tool to break through the phase of the lift that you struggle with most... and increase your strength.
An example of this would be training the top half of your squat if you get stuck after you're out of the hole.
This is an important concept because strength is specific to a joint angle. This is why your squat isn't exactly the same if you bring your feet in two inches or point your toes out more. Each small tweak changes the angles of the joints which changes how muscles fire. It's essential that you work the partial range of motion from your sticking point to get stronger.
Make sure you're setting up with the same position that you'd be in during your sticking point, use the same grip and stance width to maximize strength gains.
Supramaximal partials will hammer your fast twitch muscle fibers, which are primarily responsible for size, strength, and explosive power. With ultra-heavy weights, partials create tons of mechanical tension – an essential component to maximizing hypertrophy. But there's a catch.
Intensity and volume have an inverse relationship, meaning when intensity is high, volume must be low. You can't do a ton of supramaximal partials or you'll absolutely obliterate your CNS and recoverability. So supramaximal partials won't create a ton of metabolic stress. They aren't directly a great muscle builder.
But don't write them off if muscle size is your main goal. The way supramaximal partials help you grow is indirect.
Let's use squats as an example. Doing quarter squats from the pins or other supramaximal partials will help you gain size by potentiating your nervous system. A fired-up nervous system, especially with heavy partials, improves both intermuscular coordination and intramuscular coordination.
You'll be recruiting more muscle fibers (score!) and moving heavy weight more efficiently. You'll get stronger, and in turn, that extra strength will allow you to lift more weight for more reps while recruiting more muscle fibers.
Heavy partials by themselves won't get you bigger than a house. But let's say you do supramaximal partial squats, followed up by a full range of motion squat, then cap off your workout off with lunges, RDL's, and higher rep work. The result can be greater gains in size and strength than otherwise possible by making every other training stimulus more effective.
Here's a sample lower body workout:
- Warm-up: 3 sets of squats. First set 50% 1RM, second set 75% 1RM, and third set 90% 1RM.
- A. Supramaximal Top-Half Squat: 3 sets x 2-4 reps at 100-115% 1RM. Rest 90 seconds. So that means if your 1RM for the full squat is 300 pounds, you'll perform your supramaximal partials using 300 to 345 pounds.
- B. Back Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps at 75-80%. Rest 90-120 seconds.
- C. Goblet Squat: 1 set x 25 reps. Rest 90 seconds.
- D1. Bulgarian Split Squat: 4 sets x 12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps, 5 reps. Rest 45 seconds between legs.
- D2. Single-Leg Hip Thrust: 4 sets x 12 reps. Rest 45 seconds.
- E. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets x 10-12 reps. Rest 60 seconds.
Supramaximal holds are an extreme method capable of breaking you down if you don't plan them carefully.
- When to Do Them: Program supramaximal holds for three-week blocks as the first exercise you do in your strength program. Much longer and you'll hit a wall and burn out your CNS.
- How Heavy: Research points to 110-140% of your 1RM. But err on the side of caution. Most lifters base their numbers on their all-time max, not what they're currently capable of. So keep it at about 115% of your 1RM. Example: If your bench press 1RM is 250 pounds, make your partial bench press 285 or 290 (round the numbers as needed to keep it simple.)
- Position: Work directly on your sticking point to maximize strength carryover. On the bench press the most common position is about half-way up, right as your triceps should kick-in to finish the movement. In this case, you'd work a few inches off your chest with a supramaximal lockout.
- Exercise Selection: All supramaximal training must be specific to your goal and the sticking point you're looking to crush. We covered the squat and bench press above (see videos). Here's how to use this method with other lifts:
- Deadlift: Rack pull or block pulls
- Overhead Press: Press from the pins, jerk from pins
- Bent Over Row: Partial row from blocks
- Sets and Reps: Volume must be kept low. Warm up as you normally would for your main exercise, then set up at your sticking point. Start with 3 sets x 2-4 reps. Add a set after two weeks for 4 sets x 2-4 reps. You should never miss a lift, but you'll be shaking like a leaf.
- Execution: Lift with as much force as you can muster through the concentric. Pause for a second at the top, then lower under control for 3-5 seconds. This "accentuated eccentric" adds a ton of stress for size and strength.
- Rest: 90 seconds between sets. You won't be gassed, but your central nervous system will need the break. Also, take about a 3 minute break before moving on to your primary strength movement.
Supramaximal sets are a great tool to bust through strength plateaus and potentiate your central nervous system to unlock superhuman strength and size. Add supramaximal sets before your main lift with and watch your gains go to the next level.