See if this sounds familiar: You pick up a full carton of milk, put it down, then pick up another carton that’s almost empty. Of course the empty one feels lighter, but it’s suddenly so light you accidentally almost launch it across the room. What’s going on?
You’re faking out your nervous system: When you pick up the heavy carton, you recruit the amount of muscle mass needed for the job—so when you suddenly pick up the lighter carton, you have more strength than you need to lift it. Believe it or not, this same principle can be used in the gym to drastically increase your strength. Here are three great ways to pull a fast one on yourself.
1) Heavy loading
WHY IT WORKS: A 2013 meta-analysis at the University of Tampa found that multiple sets of barbell exercises done with heavy weights led to acute increases in force output. Translation: Lifting heavy immediately makes you stronger.
HOW TO DO IT: After a thorough warmup, choose a barbell exercise—almost any squat, bench press, or deadlift variation will do—and work up to a load that’s 80–93% of your max (if you’re not sure what your max is, take a conservative guess). Now perform two sets of 1–3 reps with that weight, resting three to five minutes between sets. Rest another seven minutes to let any fatigue dissipate, then go ahead with your normal routine. Because your nervous system will be hyperactivated from the heavy loading, subsequent sets will feel lighter and more explosive. That means you can train harder and achieve a greater muscle-building stimulus. “Heavy loads prime the neuromuscular system,” says strength coach and physical therapist John Rusin, D.P.T.
2) Explosive lifts
WHY IT WORKS: Using heavy weight isn’t the only way to get stronger. Lifting lighter loads with maximum speed also fires the nervous system to recruit more musculature.
HOW TO DO IT: At the beginning of a workout, perform a barbell movement with 30–50% of your max, doing two sets of three reps, and accelerating the bar as much as you can. Rest two to five minutes, then continue your workout. “Using submaximal loads maximizes bar speed,” says Rusin, “allowing the lifter to tap into fast-twitch motor units without causing prefatigue”— meaning, in layman’s terms, it recruits more musculature without fatiguing your system and hurting your performance later in the workout.
3) Isometric contractions
WHY IT WORKS: Sometimes you don’t have to actually lift a weight at all to get stronger from it. Just pushing against the resistance without moving it is another kind of training, known as isometric muscle contraction. In 2014, researchers at the University of Athens found that subjects got the greatest neuromuscular recruitment when performing isometric half squats with max weight.
HOW TO DO IT: Go to a squat rack and set the spotter bars at the midrange of the movement, so if you were halfway down into the squat, they’d stop the bar from going any lower. Now load the bar with so much weight you can’t lift it off those bars. From here, set up under the barbell and try to squat it up. Of course, you won’t be able to, but straining against the bar for three to five seconds is enough. Rest five seconds and repeat once more. Rest six to 12 minutes, then go on with your workout.
Although no actual movement will occur, you’ll cause tremendous nervous-system activity that will carry over to the rest of the day’s training. You could also try to set a new squat PR at this time—since what normally feels like a heavy weight will now feel lighter by comparison.