What does the phrase “pain-free training” conjure in your mind? Does it bring up images of those colorful dumbbells that are smaller than your hand? Does it include exercises that look more like they belong in a physical therapist’s office? Or maybe you picture old people waist-deep in a pool?
That crap isn’t for you. Pain equals gain, right? Words like intensity, beast mode, and balls-to-the-wall are seemingly synonymous with progress in the gym. If you’re not gutting every rep and set to the extreme, then you just aren’t training hard enough. Sound familiar?
The problem with that mindset in training is that it can bring real pain. The kind that can keep you sidelined for a significant amount of time, or for good. Real pain and injury are no joke, and certainly aren’t a prerequisite for progress. But how did we get here, and where is this all going?
If It’s on the Internet…
Instagram and YouTube fitness stars are all about extremes. Ripped bodies, record-breaking lifts, and insane exercises get views, likes, and comments. It’s an addictive cycle that acts much like a drug. You’re not considered a hard worker unless you can squat X amount of weight—and you must go all out and full range. Very little time on social media is devoted toward how to make real progress, and certainly not on safety. That stuff just isn’t fun to watch!
These unqualified professional internet stars claim to be experts in the field of the hardcore. They perform staged workouts for all to see and salivate over. Many even post their mishaps for their ever-hungry web audiences. Then, young, impressed newbies try and imitate these feats and, more importantly, take these acts as gospel on the intricacies of programming and practice.
With the obvious benefits of social media and our access to a plethora of free information, it can also pose a threat to real, science-backed information and education. The boring truth is easily clouded by sensationalism and circus acts. Essentially, bells and whistles trump logic and effectiveness.
Feats of Strength vs. Time Under Tension
When it comes to hypertrophy, the mechanisms that produce optimal results aren’t 100% clear. Strength progression is still an important and effective factor that can stimulate increases in muscle size. Taken to the extreme, this mentality is evident in the aforementioned internet warriors vying for your attention and risking possible injury.
One mechanism that is known but is seldom paid any real attention is time under tension. The more time a muscle is placed under stress, while training toward momentary muscular failure, the more potential for hypertrophy. Why is this principle so ignored in gyms across the country? Ego. Many lifters will sacrifice form, function, and time under tension to simply move the most weight they possibly can from point A to point B. Partial range of motion, fast reps, and an overabundance of weight for the goal of hypertrophy all become acts of futility and allow for no real progress.
If strength is your number one goal, then by all means train for strength. Hypertrophy, on the other hand, demands a different approach. You must subject the targeted area to a significant amount of tension for a period of 20-40 seconds of stress. This is a tough order for most, since you will most-likely have to reduce the amount of weight on the bar, which means you have to bury your ego down deep.
The Rules of Pain Free Hypertrophy
If your goal is to get big, a few rules need to be followed for pain-free lifting.
Drop the Ego
Your first order of business is to leave your ego at home. When training for muscle size, big numbers in the big lifts aren’t number one on the priority list. You’ll need to reduce the weight a bit in order to practice proper form and technique. Do your homework. Once you perfect the fundamentals, then you’ll find that you’re able to progress in your loads again.
The common practice is to perform reps as fast as possible, in an effort to outpace fatigue and lift as much weight as you can. But to reach that time under tension, you have to slow down your reps. To start, count both the eccentric and concentric portions of the rep for two seconds each. This will be a challenge at first, but training it to become a habit.
Another mistaken belief is that you go to the gym to lift weights. Weightlifters lift weights. When it comes to hypertrophy, think of your sessions as training the muscle, rather than simply lifting a weight. When you shift your perspective, you will affect your outcome immensely. Get your mind into the muscle, rather than the barbell.
With your new attitude toward training you’ll start to pay closer attention to fatigue. Since your goal is to focus on muscle versus the barbell, you’ll need to pay your dues and fatigue the muscle to exhaustion. Remember, you’re not a weightlifter or powerlifter. When it comes to increases in size, pain may be the enemy, but fatigue is your friend.