Whether it be in business or in everyday life, the way you execute your daily tasks and objectives determines your outcome. The best schematics and blueprints mean nothing if the constructor can’t measure and cut the materials to follow through.
I hear a lot of talk about “the best exercise to grow your legs!” or “run this eastern European weightlifting program for X result.” People often ask me what the optimal or best exercise to grow a certain muscle or get stronger is. In reality, I love the sciences and I love programming methods, but there is no perfect program or magical exercise unless execution is at the same level.
If I give a new client the Mr. Olympia program, the same one the last Olympia winner used for over 12 months to train and win on stage, can I expect them to achieve massive gains? Not at all. The level of execution of muscle contraction, dedication, intensity, body awareness, and lifestyle aren’t the same. The execution of each factor is THE key reason why progress is made.
There are three areas in which execution needs to be spot on in order to make a program or exercise effective.
The first area is body awareness. To me, this means having a good sense of your joints and segmenting them from the nearest base of support. Being able to move your shoulder blades separate from your rib cage, your pelvis/lumbar spine separate from your thoracic spine, and even things like rotating your trunk independent of your hips. The reason this is such a useful skill is that it is highly beneficial to know how to downregulate certain muscles or restrict regions of the body in order to activate and bias other areas for the outcome of muscle activation.
I will feel my glutes more in a squat if I orient my hips in a way to position me for more glute activation in a squat. People often feel lower back pain in a straight leg deadlift or RDL. This usually comes from an inability to control their lumbar spine and bias their glutes and as a result their pull from their back instead of initiating movement with their hips. The position sets them up for poor activation and subsequent poor execution of the movement. Better body awareness allows me to set up in better positions to initiate better patterns and have better muscle activation.
The second area of execution is the ability to contract the muscle effectively. Time under tension highly dictates muscle growth and intramuscular coordination. If I am new to the gym setting or have been out for a long time, there is a good chance both of these skills need to be retrained. The reason this is important is that if I am performing a movement and I am very lackadaisical about tension, I am hindering my rate of progress. When I am able to do a bicep curl and hold tension from top to bottom and squeeze the contractions, I create better tension and connection from my mind to my body. This skill allows me to downregulate some other muscles to better focus on the one I wish to train. A great example of this is the chest fly. I have a ton of clients who struggle to activate their chest during a fly and usually feel the movement in their front shoulder or traps. Through some creating of tension in various positions or biasing more pressure through different fingers, we can learn to flex and contract the chest. Enough repetition of this skill leads to more effective tensioning of the chest during the chest fly and more growth in the chest muscles and less within the front shoulder or traps.
The final area of execution is intensity. I agree that recovery is important and not every day can be 100%, but if you are not taking your reps to near failure and consistently stay around 70-80%, then there won’t be a lot you even need to recover from. I want to preface that I am not telling you to take every exercise to near failure all the time. There is a time and a place for percentages. What I am saying is that when your rest period ends, you should be starting the movement, not getting set up. When you have 8-10 reps, you should be able to complete 11 maybe 12 max at set one. It depends on your training age, but intensity matters a ton. Too little weight and you won’t be stimulated enough.
How Can I Improve These areas?
If you want to improve your ability to control your body and get set up in better positions, then I would recommend something that forces you outside of your normal everyday movements. If you don’t move a lot in your day, then rotate more. If you sit in spinal flexion, get into more extension. My biggest piece of advice is you get into your end ranges. Find the neutral or middle position of a movement at a joint and go as far as you can in all directions. Your hips move forward, backward, left, and right, they rotate and do all of those things at once. Go online and look up C.A.R.S (controlled articular rotations). There are a ton of youtube videos. The point of these is to move through and challenge a new range of motion at one joint and restrict movement at the nearest joint to facilitate true motion at the desired joint.
If your goal is to improve contraction ability to have better activation through exercises then I would recommend slowing down your exercises. Going through a slower range of motion helps you learn what muscle is moving and how to control it forward and backward through contraction and lengthening. My other piece of advice if you struggle to activate a certain muscle in a specific movement is to change the pressure through the foot or hand or your setup. Pushing through my pinky and ring finger can help me activate my chest more on a chest fly. Adjusting the width and angle of my feet can add more space for my hips and depth in my squat. Starting with a more rounded upper back can lead to a better deadlift off the floor. Adjust the little things at the far ends of the body and the middle will tend to orient itself in your favor.
If your goal is to increase your intensity in your training then I am going to steer you towards the RPE and RIR scale. RPE is the rate of perceived exertion, how hard is it out of 10? 10 being a 1 rep max and a 0 being asleep. I would suggest you train around 8-9 on most lifts. Especially those single joints, on machines, or most dumbbell movements. An RIR is my reps in reserve, so how many reps do you have left in the tank when you hit the top end of the rep range? Meaning, if my rep range is 6-8 and I have an RIR of 2 then I need to choose a weight that allows me to get to 8 and I would be smoked if I did 10. I could not do more than 10. 8 is my rep limit and +2 is my RIR. I would stick around an RIR of 2-3 for everything except barbell strength work (that’s a different topic).
The best way to make gains in the gym is to execute the plan. Don’t spend too much time finding the perfect plan and instead invest in your own abilities to execute the plan through elite body awareness, contraction ability, and ruthless intensity.
Jacob Gray | Certified Personal Trainer at Pursuit | LinkedIn