Something I used to always ask myself as I showered post training was did I really leave everything on the gym floor. Did I push as hard as I should have? Did I go as heavy as I could? Would an extra set or two have been possible?
As far as I can tell this is all pretty common – at least for those of us who care about progressing forward with our strength and conditioning. It HAS to be normal. Those ten or fifteen minutes between your last set and stepping out of the shower have given your body time to recover enough to allow you to “feel” like there is more left in the tank.
Realistically, whether you’re training optimally and hard enough isn’t something that anyone else will be easily able to tell you with 100% certainty. Only you are in your head and know exactly why your calling that last rep the end. Even still though, it can be difficult to determine when that cut off point is, especially if like me you avoid failure and grinding reps at all costs.
There are some guidelines however that I follow to ensure that the training I do is optimum and really allowing me to work effectively, with the number one being a simple awareness of what I’m doing. When I started off, and even for a long time after, I simply moved the weight around. I’d lie on a bench and move the bar from the rack, to my chest and back up again. I’d hang from the power rack, pull myself up and then lower myself back down. Sure it looked ok and I was getting stronger from it, but it was far from ideal. I was simply moving weight.
Nowadays thats all different. Gone are the days of pull ups consisting of just pulling myself up high enough to get my chin over the bar and leisurely falling with only enough stability to not drop completely. Now I ensure my entire body is tense, I squeeze my upper back, lats and biceps to move my body upwards. I feel them contract, squeeze them and try and move myself up as fast as I can. I no longer follow a pattern thats straight up and down and rather then just try and manipulate my chin over the bar, I aim to touch my chest off it. The entire exercise is done under complete tension with a good proportion of my energy going towards maintaining that tension and ensuring I am feeling my way though the rep.
The same goes for barbell exercises. Military presses are not just done now moving the bar from a front rack position to overhead. They are done with entire body tension from toes to shoulders, trying to bend the bar in half and pushing as explosively as possible, again ensuring I feel every muscle I’m supposed to be working on the way.
This of course comes at a cost – increased difficulty. The amount of pull ups I can do falls dramatically and the weight on the military press is significantly reduced. Considering the fact however that I’m not a powerlifter, this is completely ok. Despite the fact that I am moving less weight, I am working out the muscles I’m supposed to and am training much MUCH more effectively. I am getting stronger and faster, developing a systematic ability to maintain tension when required and developing a mind-body connection that cannot be got by just going through the motions.
The last 6 months this has been a key focus of mine. Sure there are individual sets and even days where it becomes difficult or falls out of my mind, but that doesnt matter. I am striving for it to become easier, more natural and increasing my ability to maintain this tension and mindset for longer. Pairing this with being explosive, introducing pauses at the difficult end and overall choosing more intelligent exercises for my needs has led to the best progress I have personally seen to date.
A knock on effect this training style has is making that fine line between knowing you did enough and thinking you’re a lazy fuck much easier to determine. When your ability to be explosive falls away, when the tension you’re trying to build disappears at the first sign of movement and pauses are next to impossible? Thats when you’ve done enough.
Push hard, smart and with awareness and making that link between know how hard is hard enough and actually doing it becomes much easier.