Just because it’s hurting doesn’t mean it’s working – but some of the most painful ways to train really do offer the biggest results. Train heads into the hurt locker to investigate the reality of the agony you could use to up your performance.
1 Technical Drop Sets
Standard drop sets are simple enough: you go to failure, you grab a slightly lighter dumbbell (or strip some plates off the bar) and repeat once or twice. Technical drop sets are the more sophisticated option: to do them, you’ll slightly change the mechanical demands on your target muscle, allowing you to squeeze out a few more reps with the same weight. A classic example is the Zottman curl/strict curl/hammer curl combo, but others work just as well – say, dropping from a decline press-up into a regular one, or adding a couple of push-presses to the end of your strict overhead pressing. Just don’t overuse this tactic – as well as hurting at the time, it’ll cause some spirit-crushing DOMS . . .
2 Weighted Stretch
Hypertrophy comes from a combination of fibre recruitment, mechanical tension and muscle damage – so a training method that combines all three should see you make dramatic increases in size. In a recent study, scientists combined normal hypertrophy-style reps with weighted stretches designed to increase time under tension – with test subjects who did calf stretches in between sets effectively doubling the size of their calf muscles. It also works with dumbbell flyes: grab a weight that’s around your typical 12-rep max, and when you hit failure, let it ‘stretch’ your pecs in the bottom position for 30 seconds. Go again with a lighter weight, and repeat for a horribly painful, yet wildly, effective) chest pump that’ll trigger new growth.
3 The Hanging Band
Hanging Band Training sounds ominous, but looks sort of…fun, involving as it does trying to squat, press or otherwise lift a barbell with one or more kettlebells hanging from each end via a resistance band. When you lift, you need to stabilize the bar as the ‘bells bounce in every direction, forcing your muscles to work through a cocktail of pain. You’ll recruit more muscle fibers, improve intramuscular and intermuscular coordination while upgrading your proprioception It’s a joint-friendly move that you can try with almost any overhead lift – you should be able to manage it with 80% of the load you’d normally use for each lift, rotating it in every three or four workouts. The benefit involves shoulders that are built to last, regardless of the painful costs.
4 Big boy Tabatas
You’ve almost definitely done Tabatas – 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times – as they are wildly popular. But have you ever done them properly? Here’s a hint: if they didn’t make you hate your life and swear to never do them again, the answer is probably ‘no.’ A real Tabata is a series of all-out sprints, done with nothing left in the tank on any interval, and in the original study (conducted by Dr Izumi Tabata) they were so unpleasant that professional cyclists could barely be persuaded to start pedaling again for the last few reps. That’s a kind of intensity that you can’t match with many movements, so stick to the rower, spin-bike or air-bike – and go hard enough to coax your pre-workout meal to challenge gravity.
5 The true HIIT
Sure, everyone says they’re practicing HIIT when they do a few sets of air squats, but it’s worth doing the real thing. Real high-intensity training has a range of benefits including upping your V02 max and reducing lactate accumulation (so you can train harder, for longer). That said, it’s not always better to increase the work at the expense of rest – you’ll want to tweak your workout depending on your goals. More rest builds power and less builds cardio, while more volume builds work capacity, but hurts intensity. For best results, rank your effort out of ten and try to keep it the same in each interval. Start with 10 rounds of 15 seconds’ work and 45 of rest, and go from there to truly embrace the real agony that HIIT can offer you.
6 20-Rep Squats
“If you do an honest 20-rep program, at some point Jesus will talk to you,” says strength coach Mark Rippetoe of the least pleasant squat plan imaginable, created in the 1930s by Mark H. Berry and popularized more recently by lifters like Tom Platz. The idea is deceptively simple: you’ll warm up, then put your 10-rep max on the bar and squat it . . . for 20 reps. You’ll do it by resting for 2-3 breaths with the bar on your back between each rep, meaning that willpower is more important than sheer strength – and yes, you’ll make gains. Oh, and did we mention that you have to put the weight up each week? Try it and as well as speaking to Jesus, you will have a bull rider’s walking swagger after doing it.
7 The Assault Bike
Fitness – if you’ll pardon the pun – is cyclical. It was only a couple of decades ago that the assault bike – or Airdyne, as it was usually known back then – was being used as a clothes-hanger in dusty boxing gyms and now it’s back to being the hottest piece of training kit used in elite CrossFit competition. Why? Because it allows you to throw your whole body into an all-out thrash, leaving you utterly exhausted after even a minute of effort. The current record for calories burned in a single minute is 87, held by Gym Jones co-owner Rob McDonald – but even managing 50 is impressive. To get started, do 30 seconds of effort followed by 30 seconds of rest and repeat four times, then rest three minutes. That’s one ‘block’ – do three to truly test your upper and lower body’s pain thresholds, because the intensity should leave you wanting to file charges against the machine.
8 The Versaclimber
How fast can you climb 100 feet, straight up? It’s unlikely you’ve got a ladder and the inclination to try it out, but a Versaclimber offers the next best thing – and lets you work almost every muscle in your body with zero impact and minimal risk of injury (it mimics the pattern a baby uses when it’s learning to crawl). Low resistance allows endurance-building sprint workouts, while cranking it builds strength – and the position you’re forced into promotes good posture outside of the gym, while allowing plenty of range of motion. For top-end sprint speed, short and nasty is best. Do five seconds of full throttle sprinting, followed by five seconds of ‘recovery.’ Repeat 10 times, rest for a minute, and do the whole thing again.
Back in the Charles Atlas era, lifters knew the power of isometrics – squeezing a muscle without moving it, to maximise hypertrophy with minimal risk. Isometric training is basically the same as heavy dynamic partial range of motion strength training – during an isometric, the muscle shortens slightly because the tendon elongates, while the joint angle remains constant. This makes them a uniquely brutal way to add difficulty to almost any exercise, especially when combined with other movements, but perhaps best used with curls. Hold your dumbbells in a flexed position for 10 seconds before you curl to ‘pre-exhaust’ the muscle, then go straight into a set of curls to failure, rest for 60 seconds and repeat three times.
10 Slow Squats
You can use tempo training with almost any movement, but squats should be where you start…even if they’re one of the least pleasant. By slowing down your eccentrics you’ll develop better movement patterns, fire up the small stabilizer muscles you normally neglect by using your stretch reflex to bounce out of the bottom of the movement, and get a ton of time under the tension you need to build muscle. You can also work hard without overloading on weight – forcing your training to be safer even while it makes you curse your life. A good start is to do one session of squats heavy and one session tempo-based – dropping the weight to 70% of your normal load, but slowing down every rep to a five-second descent.
11 And Finally… Fran
In CrossFit, the most feared workout trend is Fran – 90 reps in total that the very best in the world can do in under two minutes. It’s deceptively simple, but also horribly clever – because the reps decrease in each round, anyone in good shape should be able to blast through it almost unbroken, increasing the cardio element of a workout that involves every muscle in the body. In case you need a reminder, it’s 21, then 15, then 9 reps each of thrusters (a front squat straight into an overhead press) and pull-ups, which you can use some momentum to do if you’re confident. The second round is the most mentally challenging – resist the temptation to drop the bar, and keep a bucket nearby.