Muscle on Weight or Weight on Muscle?

I’m sure I’m not the first have this thought. I have no doubt many others have looked around a gym and noticed that almost everyone models their workouts as if they were machines designed to do as much work as possible. Should the muscle move the weight or should the weight move the muscle? Let me explain.

If our goal is to move more weight, more reps or work out longer, the weight is just along for the ride. We’ve taken a mechanical approach to getting stronger. More work means more results. And there is no doubt that this method works, but when you take a mechanical view of lifting, the way to make progress is to get both strong and more efficient. Efficient in the mechanical view is not about the most efficient way to target muscle fibers, but it is about the most efficient way to lift more weight or do more reps.

Efficiency in a mechanical approach is all about making the exercise as easy as possible. For someone lifting A LOT of weight, that might sound blasphemous, but it is true. Remember the goal with the mechanical approach is to lift more weight or knock out more reps. Anything that causes fatigue to set in earlier will prevent the mechanical lifter from reaching their number. Delaying muscular fatigue until the work volume is reached becomes the goal. By changing the rep speed and where the lifter takes pauses, one can do more work.

If you look across the gym, you will see most of the people doing two second reps. One second up, one second down. They use momentum to push up quickly past the sticking point, lock out briefly at the top, which allows a little recovery time and then control the weight as it falls, which allows more recovery time. At the bottom, they bounce the weight back up. This is the mechanical recipe for lifting. Minimizing the time spent on the targeted muscles will delay fatigue.

As the weight increases, the positive rep speed decreases, but it is still the optimal efficient speed, because to do anything less than optimal would reduce the weight or reps. Or in the case of heavy free weights, jeopardize safety.

chest press

Incline Press by ARC Equipment

The opposite of the mechanical approach is High Intensity Training (HIT). Here the goal is not to efficiently lift more weight or knock out more reps, but to efficiently target and fatigue muscle fibers and then leave the gym. The weight is strictly a tool used to trigger a biological process efficiently and with minimal risk of injury. The work is not moving the weight around. The work is what the weight is doing to the muscle. This means the rep speed is purposely inefficient. We aren’t trying to do more work, we are trying to get the weight to do more work.

The most inefficient set from a mechanical point of view would be a static hold workout like the one used in the book Hillfit. Here no work is getting done, but the muscle fibers are being effectively fatigued.

Today when I sit down at a chest press machine I have no rep or weight goals. Where the pin is at on the rack is not that important to me. The lighter the weight feels, the less efficient my rep speed will be. My goal is muscular fatigue not a specific amount of weight or reps. Once I’ve hit that level of fatigue, the workout is over. That might take as little as 5-10 minutes. But that is OK. I no longer have any interest in learning how to efficiently move more weights at the gym. The weights are tools to serve me.

Before I get push back in the comments, let me be clear: BOTH METHODS WORK. Whatever motivates you and is in line with your fitness values is the best approach.

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