We're creatures of habit, which is why we tend to languish in programs that have us grunting away at the same 12 lifts for the requisite three sets of ten repetitions, season after season. As it turns out, advice from on high suggests that such an approach is too much time spent doing too many exercises anyway. The alternative? Something called breakdown training, says Wayne Westcott, strength training consultant for the National YMCA and author of the recently published Building Strength and Stamina.
With breakdown training, you employ no more than five lifts that cover the major muscle groups and heft the weight in a completely different manner. "It makes you dig deeper, push harder, and stimulates muscle tissue," Westcott says. Here's how it works: Lift the usual ten to 12 reps on your first set, but then quickly reduce the weight by 10 to 20 percent and crank out another set. You're striving for the same number of reps, but you'll probably never get there, because you haven't rested. No matter-your muscles will be plenty sore, foreshadowing improved strength. Rest one minute after each lift.
Machines are more convenient than free weights, because reducing the weight typically means simply moving a pin. Give your muscles a wake-up call with the following five exercises, but regardless of how enthralling this method seems, don't get too carried away: You shouldn't lift more than every other day.
Sit beneath the lat bar with your back straight. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, your arms spread in a V (a narrow grip works your biceps more, while a wider grip focuses on your latissimus dorsi muscles). Pull the bar down in front of you until your hands draw even with your collarbones. Slowly let the bar return to its starting position, stopping when your arms are straight.
Strap yourself into an ab press machine, anchor your feet, and push your chest into the pads in front of you. Fold your arms across your stomach and crunch the weight all the way to your knees, being careful not to jerk the machine into motion. Let the weight up slowly-you'll feel it burn-and return to the upright position.
Position yourself in a hip sled machine with your feet on the weight platform. Keeping your back straight and your neck relaxed, let the weight down, but don't let your knees touch your chest. Now, press the weight until your legs are fully extended. Let the weight down slowly for the next rep. This is the one machine on which you'll need a partner to swap the weights for your next set.
Climb into the machine just as you would with the ab press, the only difference being that the weight pads are behind your shoulders. Lift the weight smoothly by leaning back into the pads, and go as far as the machine will allow you to go. Lower the weight by slowly folding your torso back toward your thighs, but don't let the weights touch down.
Settle into the seat of a chest press machine and strap yourself in if there's a belt. Grip the weight levers with your hands and, you guessed it, press until your arms are fully extended. Let the weight back toward you slowly, until your hands are again even with your shoulders, which should be just before the weights touch back down.
Jim Harmon, who's been following the same running program for 17 years, wrote "Be a Thigh Master" in the May issue of Outside.