Train smart and use mechanical tension, metabolic stress, muscle damage, or a combination of the three. This article shows you how & why to train smart!

Every experienced lifter has either been one or seen at least a dozen of these people.

A new gym goer walks in the door and right up to the rack. No warm up needed. He picks up the heaviest weight he can handle.

People stand by in shock as the young man struggles to move the weight up and down.

Gasping...heaving...grunting. It’s a tense moment for everyone in the gym. A concerned member asks one of the trainers to wait with a defibrillator at the ready.

Four reps later, he slams the weights down to the ground; with a bright red face, he lets out a loud grunt. Everyone watches as he picks up his chalk riddled gym bag and post-workout shake and moves onto his next task.

It’s over. He did it.  No one died. It was a good day.

Does this sound familiar?

If so, let's have a conversation about how to safely build muscle and get stronger without killing yourself in the gym.

How to Train SMART

I can tell you I'm not a big fella by any means. After several back, hip, shoulder, and knee issues from a car accident and gym mistakes, I've learned what it means to be smart about training and how to build muscle without a ton of heavy lifting.

I couldn't use heavy weights for a long time due to the pain it caused me. There was shooting pain in places you couldn't even imagine. So I flexed - not my biceps but my brain. 

smart training bench press

Here's what happened when I started using other methods: I gained muscle. I learned what smart training really meant. But you might ask, “what are these other methods?”. Well, let me tell you.

I used “smart training”. Smart training doesn’t just mean I used good form, it also means I used varying intensities and training methods to gain muscle as opposed to only using one - which would limit my potential. I used everything from lower intensity volume training to drop sets to purely negatives. The one thing I didn’t use was a ton of heavy weights.

Guess what. It worked. I no longer feel broken on a daily basis. Eventually, as the healing process took its course, I was able to slowly start lifting heavier with intermittent pain. Further down the road, I’m nearly 100% pain free and pulling weights heavier than I used to for a lot less volume.

Related: Max Adaptation Upper Lower (MAUL) Workout

Training smart feels counter-intuitive. Maybe training smart is counter-intuitive. Sometimes you just want to push the most amount of weight possible, and that’s okay. We should also consider the possibility muscle can actually be built outside of just heavy weights, however.

Here’s what the research says about building mass with weights that won’t crush your body if you drop them. There are three options you can choose from:

  • Mechanical Tension: lifting heavier weights
  • Metabolic Stress: getting a pump
  • Muscle Damage: full ROM and max tension

Mechanical Tension: The World on Your Shoulders

Most people seem to think that in order to use mechanical tension effectively, they have to nearly kill themselves every time they pick up a weight. Hmmm, that’s not you, right? Keep listening.

When was the last time you hit the weights and didn't say to yourself, “I can probably do more,” even when you knew the form might not be the best, and went for it anyway? I know I have. I get under the bar, struggle to perform 8 good quality reps and then say to myself, “well, at least I did it...I guess.”

Mechanical Tension Heavy Deadlift

Wanting to test your limits is not a bad thing. You just have to be smart about it. Muscle growth happens at almost all training intensities. Limiting yourself to only maximum effort lifts undercuts your potential for size.

For instance, we can build muscle through many intensities1. Some exercises will be closer to max effort (80-90%), while others are closer to the lower end of your 1RM (30-40%). These can be equally as effective when taken to failure.1

Metabolic Stress: Get a Pump

Lifting heavy weights may feel awesome, but there is definitely more than one way to build a house. A power house.

Using less than max effort weights (submaximal loads) is a great way to build muscle, stay injury free, and keep yourself in the game for a long time. Long term, consistent, and smart training is where the real gains happen.

“Chasing the pump” has shown to be one of the most effective ways to maximize muscle fiber recruitment. The great thing is, you don’t necessarily need a lot of weight to get a good pump going as long as you’re focusing on getting a full contraction on each rep.

To give you an idea of how this would work, here’s what a chest routine might look like:

Exercise Sets Reps Temp Rest Perceived Exertion/10
1. Dumbbell Chest Press 4 6-8 2:0:2:0 60-75 sec 8
2. Incline Bench Press 3 8-12 2:0:2:0 60 sec 7
3. Pushups 4 8-15 1:0:1:0 60 sec 7
4a. Machine Chest Fly 2 failure 2:0:2:0 45-60 sec 4
4b. Machine Chest Press 2 failure 2:0:2:0 45-60 sec 4

Muscle Damage, But Not Too Much

Muscle damage is one of three main tools we use to promote muscle growth. If you want to gain size, but are dealing with an injury or just want to build some serious strength while getting bigger, use this. To use muscle damage in your training, focus mostly on the negative and creating as much range of motion as your body safely allows.

To give you an idea of how this would work, here’s what a chest routine might look like:

Exercise Sets Reps Temp Rest Perceived Exertion/10
1. Dumbbell Chest Press 3 6-8 2:0:2:0 60-75 sec 8
2. Cable Chest Fly 3 10-12 2:0:2:0 60 sec 6
3. Incline Bench Press 3 8 2:0:2:0 60 sec 7
4. Full ROM Bench Negative 2-3 5-10 3:0:1:0 60-120 sec 8

Muscle damage can also change the way your body responds to injuries all together. Researchers tested a theory about slow eccentric movements (negatives) to determine whether or not it had any effects on injury prevention2. They found that those with low eccentric hamstring strength had a much greater risk of injury (2.7- 4.3 x more) than those who had stronger eccentric hamstring strength.

This tells us that by adding in negatives to strengthen the eccentric phase of movements, we can reduce our risk of injury significantly. This principle can be systematically applied to other muscles of the body.

Related: Power Hypertrophy Upper Lower (P.H.U.L.) Workout

Take the shoulders as another example. We can minimize the likeliness of injury as long as the lift is performed with good technique.

Here’s how a shoulder workout might look like including muscle damage:

Exercise Sets Reps Temp Rest Perceived Exertion/10
1. Dumbbell Overhead Press 4 8 2:0:2:0 60 sec 8
2. Dumbbell Overhead Press 2 8 3:0:1:0 60-90 sec 7

By doing controlled negatives in our workouts we add size, strength, and injury resilience to our bodies. You want to be careful not to use this method too often as it takes a long time for the muscle to recover. If you are training similar movements a couple times per week, use only a small amount of muscle damage at the end just to help growth and not to wreck yourself.

The old adage, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself” is still as relevant in the gym today as it was in Ice Cube’s world back when the NWA was around.

Take Away

Building muscle shouldn't feel like a rocky training compilation where you are the big, dead slab of meat he knocks around until it starts bleeding again.

If you can lift heavy in a smart way, go for it. If not, maybe you shouldn’t be lifting heavy in the first place. Sometimes you simply need to train smart before training hard. Growth is not all about pushing the most amount of weight possible. If this was the case - powerlifters, not bodybuilders, would be the biggest guys in the gym.

Mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage all play significant roles in a good training program, so use all of them to your advantage. Muscle growth should not potentially cost you your life. Be smart about your training and live to see your gains tomorrow.

  1. Schoenfeld, Brad J. "Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations?" Sports Med Sports Medicine 43.12 (2013): 1279-288. Print.
  2. Horst, N. Van Der, D. W. Smits, J. Petersen, E. A. Goedhart, and F. J. G. Backx. "The Preventive Effect of the Nordic Hamstring Exercise on Hamstring Injuries in Amateur Soccer Players: Study Protocol for a Randomised Controlled Trial." Injury Prevention 20.4 (2013). Print.
Posted on: Tue, 08/02/2016 - 03:17

Be smart about your training and live to see your gains tomorrow.

James Harris
Posted on: Tue, 11/29/2016 - 03:56