Results. Start any type of workout program and the first thing on your mind is going to be how long you have to wait before you see ’em. Could be two weeks, could be two months. If you’re dedicated, they’ll come. The longer it takes, however, the more disenchanted-and less committed-you can become. If that happens, your physique invariably pays the price. That’s why efficiency is so important: Efficiency in the gym translates to faster results, which keeps you in the game mentally and emotionally over the long haul.
How to ensure you’ll be able to reach the required level of proficiency? Among many factors, one of the most critical is the training principle called continuous tension. In a nutshell, this means putting tension on the muscle group you are working by incorporating a slow, controlled range of motion for each rep throughout the entire movement. Putting this principle to work not only assures you of a higher-quality and more thorough workout, it also puts you firmly in the fast lane toward better results.
Step 1: Ignore your numbers
It’s not all your fault. You get hammered over the head with so much advice about sets and reps that shooting for a specific number becomes second nature. Problem is, if you’re overly focused on completing a set number of reps, you’re not paying as much attention to the muscle you’re working. Now, ignoring your reps does not mean staring into space and daydreaming about Halle Berry in the middle of your first set of bench presses. It simply means focusing on the feel during each rep; this will prevent you from using improper form and speeding through to reach a precise number.
“The point is to slow down and not worry about sets and reps,” says exercise physiologist Jim Wright, Ph.D. “It’s one of the first steps in learning muscle control, which is the single most important factor in developing each muscle to its maximum potential.”
We recommend using a three-count on both the positive and negative components of every movement. Concentrate on flexing the working muscle on the positive portion; then, at the top, pause and flex the working muscle hard to achieve what’s called a peak contraction. Then, while maintaining the contraction, slowly lower the weight, but instead of simply returning to the starting position, act as if you’re pulling the weight down (or up on the negative).
“If you’re used to curling 80 pounds for 10 reps, start with a set of curls with 55 pounds,” explains Wright, “but squeeze the muscle as if it was 80 pounds. The key is to keep the working muscle as tight as possible through the range of motion.”
Since continuous tension works best when used with slightly higher rep ranges, try to shoot for at least eight reps but no more than 12, and don’t worry if you don’t make it. You can’t become so focused on reaching that 10th rep that you relax your concentration on form. Likewise, it’s also best to stop short of muscle failure on each exercise.
Contrary to popular belief, failure is not when you can’t force out another rep without a spot. It’s when you can’t complete another rep without breaking your form. In most instances, your form starts to deteriorate before you realize it, and you begin to incorporate secondary muscles into the movement instead of using strictly the primary one.
And remember, start light. Trying to wow your buddies with the amount of weight you can hoist is like trying to impress the ladies with how many beers you can chug-totally pointless, not to mention potentially embarrassing and harmful.
Step 2: Position your body
With apologies to graduates of Catholic high schools for bringing up painful memories, assuming “the position” in gym lingo is a relatively painless command. It simply means preparing for each movement by positioning your body most efficiently.
“Every exercise involves assuming the position,” Wright says. “Keep every muscle tight to get through the entire repetition. Flex everything, especially your abs and glutes.” Specifically, keep your lower back tight and in its natural arch, with your shoulders back and chest out. For standing movements, keep a slight bend in your knees.
Although you may have heard otherwise, you don’t need to use a full range of motion all the time. This means not locking out your arms or legs at the end of the exercise. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. “It depends on the movement,” Wright says. “What’s important about locking out in certain situations is achieving that peak contraction.”
In the exercises provided here, however, locking out isn’t necessary to reach peak contraction-doing so will take tension off the working muscle and give it a chance to rest. “Go through a range of motion that keeps the load on the muscle,” Wright says. “Once the load is removed, tension is dramatically reduced, often to nothing at all.”
The following are six exercises for the six major muscle groups: close-grip cable rows for back; bench presses for chest; standing barbell curls for biceps; lying French presses for triceps; lateral raises for shoulders; and leg presses for, yep, legs. Remember, though, that the continuous-tension principle isn’t restricted to just those exercises. Once you get the hang of these moves, try incorporating the tactic into other movements in your workout. Then watch those results come.
Click the workout link below to view the exercises.