Bodybuilders are perhaps the most individualistic athletes, extolling self-reliance. Onstage, it's just you, your muscles and your skimpy posing trunks, nothing to hide behind, no props, not even a barbell. Furthermore, bodybuilders usually train alone, whether in the basement or a crowded gym. The workouts for so many other sports that don't involve teams (golf, tennis, boxing, to name a few) nonetheless often include other participants and coaches. In bodybuilding, you might have a training partner or a personal trainer guiding you through some of your reps, but the fact is that pumping iron is a solitary purist most of the time.
Solitude is bliss when it allows you to blaze your own path and perform the workout that best suits your physique, without regard to another person's needs or the often rigid prescription of a trainer. Flying solo, though, also has its downside. The worst part of training alone is the absence of helping hands to assist you through the final brutal reps of a set. Such support is needed most when it comes to two tried-and-true Weider Training Principles: forced reps and negatives. These two techniques can improve your intensity and results, so it's worth seeking assistance to perform them.
FORCING THE ISSUE
The key to intense workouts is taking your sets beyond failure, beyond the point at which the pain prevents your muscles from performing another rep. One excellent way of achieving this intensity is to do several forced reps when you can no longer complete repetitions on your own. For a forced rep, someone physically helps you move the weight.
To get a sense of how forced reps affect your muscles, consider a descending set. Imagine that you perform lying triceps extensions for 10 reps with 90 pounds. At the end, when you have reached failure, you immediately strip off 10 pounds, which allows you to perform three more reps. This is a descending set.
Following the Welder Forced Reps Training Principle, you can perform those same three extra reps without stripping off 10 pounds. Furthermore, if done correctly, the extra reps are even more intense than they are in a descending set. After you reach failure with the 90-pound barbell, another person will ever-so-gently place his fingertips under the bar and help you do three more reps by offering just enough force to keep the bar moving through the sticking points.
You should be straining all the way.
In our 90-pound-barbell example, about four pounds of stress are removed from the first forced rep via your partner's fingertips (for the equivalent of an 86-pound barbell), seven pounds from the second forced rep (for the equivalent of an 83-pound barbell) and about to pounds from the final forced rep (for the equivalent of an 80-pound barbell), so that you are always straining with the maximum weight you can utilize (as opposed to 80 pounds through three reps of a descending set).
Aiding and Abetting
The key to forced reps is moving the weight at an average rate, not too slow, not too fast while you are lifting with maximum effort, with just enough assistance from a spotter to do so. You can be injured if the weight you're lifting is so heavy that its progress through the rep stops for more than three seconds (especially in the middle range of pressing movements). On the other hand, if a weight goes up very fast, the spotter is probably doing too much of the work.
The amount of aid the spotter gives should increase for each forced rep. Eventually, when your muscles are thoroughly taxed, you will not be able to contribute much. It will then be difficult for the spotter to judge how much help to provide. This is the time to stop doing forced reps, because you'll either be tempted to use sloppy (and dangerous) form or the spotter will be doing virtually all of the work. (A bench press session in which you utilize forced reps should not turn into an upright row session for your spotter.) The rapid onset of failure is why forced reps are usually limited to five; three forced reps are the average. If you are performing them correctly to expand an already torturous initial set, you generally won't need or be able to do more than three forced reps.
You can do forced reps for most exercises. There are exceptions, however; those include deadlifts, barbell rows, lunges, standing calf raises and power cleans. It's difficult for a spotter to render assistance for those types of movements. It's easiest for a spotter to help with forced reps for exercises such as pulldowns, barbell curls, and chest and shoulder presses.
It is best to perform forced reps after a medium-range set (eight to 12 reps). With lower-rep sets, failure comes on so fast that it can be difficult for a spotter to gauge how much help to provide, and that can be dangerous. (For that reason, use only experienced spotters for forced reps after a heavy set of chest presses.) Conversely, at the conclusion of higher-rep sets, failure can come on so slowly and the amount of assistance needed can be so slight that it can be tough for a spotter to judge when and how much help to provide for the forced reps.
THE POSITIVES OF NEGATIVES
There is scientific evidence that we are stronger in the negative (or lowering) portion of a weight exercise than in the positive (or lifting) half. The Weider Reverse-Gravity Training Principle takes advantage of this often-overlooked strength. Reverse-gravity, or negative, reps are performed by lowering the weight approximately four times slower than usual, utilizing eight to 12 seconds for the descent.
Assisting against Nature
There are two ways to do assisted negative reps. The first and best method is to have one or two training partners position a weight that is 20% heavier than you normally handle. For instance, if your normal weight on a barbell curl is 100 pounds for 10 reps, load the bar to 120 pounds and have a partner help you raise it to the top position. From there, slowly lower the weight to the starting position, fighting gravity all the way. Try to do this for 10 reps. When the weight begins to go down too quickly, your helper(s) can assist with negative forced reps, slowing the weight for you slightly. These negatives cause quite a bit of muscle soreness, which is a sure indication that muscle growth will take place.
It's important that you do such negative sets for exercises that are safe to spot and easy to perform. Machine exercises are generally best. Some free-weight lifts, including squats, deadlifts and lunges, are too dangerous and cumbersome and should never be considered for negatives. It's also important that your partner(s) have the time, energy and skill to perform the positive portion of your lifts and to guide you through the descent. It's not unheard of for athletes to train using only negatives. Such sets are very intense, though, and they actually work best when they're performed only on occasion to shock complacent muscles and to adapt bodyparts to heavier weights in order to break through strength plateaus.
The second way of performing negatives with assistance is to utilize them at the end of a set, just as with forced reps. Let's return to our example of barbell curls for 10 reps with 100 pounds. After you have reached failure on the 10th repetition, another person (or two) can lift the bar back to the contracted (chest-level) position. You then attempt to lower it as slowly as possible. Because you should have more negative strength than positive strength, you should be able to perform another three to five slow descents with the 100-pound barbell. In fact, the spotter may want to push down on the weight slightly to make the negatives even more difficult.
Even when you have done all the negatives you can in this manner and the floor is starting to feel like one giant magnet tugging at the weights, don't stop. With the help of at least two extra hands, perform negative forced reps. Your partner lifts the bar to the contracted position, then gently helps you to slow the weight's descent for an additional three negative reps. All the while, you should fight the forces of gravity like an aging nudist. A set to failure, followed by negatives, followed by negative forced reps, is about as intense as weight training can get.
For most exercises, it is impossible to safely perform either forced reps or negatives without assistance. There are, however, a few lifts for which these techniques can be performed alone, at least in a limited manner.
You can execute forced reps safely without aid for one-arm biceps, triceps and forearm movements, including concentration curls, dumbbell triceps extensions and dumbbell wrist curls. For these exercises, your free hand can be used to assist your working hand for a few extra reps at the end of an intense set. The temptation is to give yourself too much of a boost and make it easy on the straining arm. Don't! To decrease your ability to help too much, limit the assistance provided by your free hand to only one or two fingers as you carefully prod the dumbbell for a few forced reps.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Though you can perform modified versions of both forced reps and negatives without the aid of a spotter, you're going to need help to get the full effect of these training principles. Don't be bashful about asking for assistance. Bodybuilding may be one of the most individualistic sports (distance running comes to mind for giving bodybuilding a run for that title), but when it comes to pushing sets beyond failure, a partner, trainer or skilled spotter is virtually a necessity. When the going gets toughest, we all need a pair of helping hands.