Fighters are tough dudes. That’s no surprise to anyone reading this magazine, but that toughness can sometimes come at the expense of better performance. You see, when a fighter hits the weights, he usually approaches the task with the same intensity he brings into the cage: every set is taking to mind-blowing failure. But I’m here to tell you that pushing yourself to the brink in the weight room might be doing more harm than good.
For decades, athletes and trainers have put all their focus on the muscles. They want to make the muscles burn while training, and then they want those muscles to be sore for days after. Those side effects seem to be evidence of an effective workout. This is why training to failure has hung around for so long: it’ll make your muscles burn, and sore as hell. Plus, only wussies stop a set before it gets tough, right?
However, your muscles are controlled by your nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and associated nerves that innervate your muscles. When you throw a hard right or knock out a set of chin-ups on Venice Beach, that process starts in your brain, travels down your spinal chord and out to your muscles where the nerves give your muscles the signal to contract.
For the following strength building circuit, use a weight that you can lift 10 times while fresh for each exercise. If you can do more than 10 chin-ups or dips, attach extra weight to a chin/dip belt. If your 10 rep maximum for the deadlift is 225 pounds, that’s your correct weight. You’ll use this same weight for all four sets of each exercise.
1. CHIN-UP FOR 5 REPS Rest 30 seconds
2. DIP FOR 5 REPS Rest 30 seconds
3. DEADLIFT FOR 5 REPS Rest 30 seconds and repeat the circuit (exercises 1-3) three more times
Since you won’t be going to failure on any set, you’ll be able to perform each rep with maximum acceleration. This is important because, as you slow down or get close to failure, you recruit fewer muscle fibers.
Why is this important? Because you must respect the laws of the nervous system to get the most performance from your muscles.
Of all the variables that can mess up your quest to become a champion, fatigue ranks at the top of the list. Yet, fighters mistakenly seek fatigue when they lift weights to failure. Not only does this diminish your ability to train standup or Jiu-Jitsu the next day, but it also works against the nervous system.
You see, speed and muscle fiber recruitment are correlated. When exercise scientists hook up electrodes to an athlete’s muscles and measure his force and muscle activity, it’s clear that more muscle fibers get recruited as he increases his movement speed. Simply put, you use the most muscle fibers when you train fastest.
When your lifting speed drastically slows down as you approach failure, it’s because muscle fibers have dropped out of the task. Fatigue accumulates and your power plummets. Some have hypothesized that reaching failure in the weight room recruits more muscle fibers. According to the laws of the nervous system, this is bunk. If you recruited more muscle fibers during a set to failure, the exercise would get easier, not harder. Indeed, those last few reps at a snail’s pace are causing unnecessary fatigue.
Next time you hit the weights, stop each set once your lifting speed slows down noticeably, rest and repeat the task. In other words, perform more sets of fewer reps. This allows you to do more work with heavier weights as I outline in my book, Huge in a Hurry. You should approach strength training the same way you approach a fight: maintain your speed and power while controlling fatigue.
These days, fighters need to be stronger than ever before. Research by Izquierdo et al. (2006) demonstrates that avoiding failure when lifting weights improves power and strength more than training to failure does. For bigger, stronger muscles, research by Farthing and Chilibeck (2003) concluded that lifting fast is most effective for muscle and strength gains.