By Ron Harris
Sooner or later it will happen. Either an injury or a more insidious long-term degradation of the joints like arthritis will force you to lighten up considerably on the meat-and-potato compound movements that built most of your muscle mass. That’s when a lot of people just give up and quit lifting. They assume there’s just no way to maintain their size and still have that elite physique they worked so long and hard for. As someone who has been through the gauntlet and came out the other side, I have some tips on how you can maintain – or even gain – even when you can’t go nearly as heavy on exercises like chest and shoulder presses or squats anymore.
1. DO THE COMPOUND MOVEMENTS LAST
Most of us are so accustomed to doing lifts like the bench press or squats first in a workout that it never occurs to us to do them last. That’s crazy, you won’t be able to use anywhere near as much weight! That’s the whole point. Your shoulders might not be able to handle a 315-pound bench press anymore, but they might be okay with 225. If you do all your other exercises for chest first, that 225 will feel just as heavy on your pecs as 315 used to. Same deal with squats. Hammer your legs with leg extensions and curls and leg presses before you squat, and you can make them work your legs just as hard without putting anywhere near as much strain on your knees and lower back by using less resistance.
2. SLOW THE REPS DOWN
One simple yet highly effective way to make any exercise feel heavier is to slow the rep tempo. Rather than exploding the weight up, squeeze it up, forcefully feeling the target muscle contract every inch of the way. An added bonus is that if you’ve always struggled to master the mind-muscle connection or get a deep pump and burn in the target muscle, this will do the trick.
3. SHORTEN YOUR REST PERIODS
Another way to increase the stress on a target muscle is to perform multiple sets with very little rest between them. Let’s say you were capable of bench pressing 315 pounds for 10 reps before a shoulder injury, and now it’s not safe to go any heavier than 225. Ten reps with that might feel too light, but try going again for ten reps with only 30 seconds rest. Then do it again, and again. I guarantee that fourth set with 225 will have your pecs screaming and will have those muscle fibers convinced they were just pushing up 315.
4. USE MACHINES
Maybe you just can’t bench press or squat with a barbell anymore. While free weights will always be the gold standard for building both size and strength, that doesn’t mean machines can’t also be highly effective training tools. Try every machine in your gym and you’re bound to find a few that will challenge various muscle groups and hit them just right. You can load them up with some decent weight and get back to the business of making gains!
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