About 15 years ago, long before the advent of YouTube channels showing every stunt and risky trick imaginable, there was an MTV series which took the world by storm. You no doubt remember the profane name, as its stars like Johnny Knoxville would engage in the most dangerous stunts each week for the sheer shock value for the simple fact that nobody else on television was doing such a thing. Whether hanging onto the top of moving cars or eating worms, their mantra was a simple one: "If you're going to be dumb, you'd better be tough!" Every week, at least one cast member would be admitted to the hospital with injuries sustained as they worked to top the previous weeks' stunts. And the ratings were historic at the time.
The decades have passed, and their silly dangerous antic pale in comparison to what kids today are doing on the internet. Yet their mantra of "If you're going to be dumb, you'd better be tough" can still provide a learning lesson for those of us in the gym today who are willing to be tougher than our peers in the name of making muscle size and strength gains, even when that means training harder - and seeing more pain - than everyone else around us. There's nothing wrong with being tough, and the biggest and strongest guys in your gym are usually the toughest too. But there's also nothing wrong with training smarter in addition to training harder. Let's look at a few ways you can train SMARTER on your back & biceps days.
More warm ups
Let's face it, it can be very difficult to force yourself to walk for 5 to 7 minutes on the treadmill to warm up your legs, when it's 6:15 pm on a Wednesday and you just spotted the only squat rack in the gym open up. Times like these, most lifters will abandon any thought of warming up their leg muscles, joints, and tendons, and run - not walk - to the available weight station. However, the flow of blood and oxygen to the entire body not just the legs) which result from warming up properly can help you to avoid injuries while at the same time achieving greater lifting performance. Warm up every chance you can get - you'll lift more weight and dodge injuries too! Back injuries are very common - and one common thread is that most sustained never bothered to warm up first.
Always starting heavy?
Just about every workout, for every muscle group, follows the same basic premise. Complete 2 exercises with heavy, free weight compound movements. Then move to 2 exercises of the machine/cable variety. This makes practical sense, as your balance begins to fail as muscle integrity wanes. However, starting your back workout with cable rowing or machine pulldowns can allow you to etch in some serious muscle detail by hitting the muscles with some high rep work when you're at your freshest, and strongest. Give it a shot!
You've no doubt grown to appreciate the wide variety of "assisted" pull up machines that most gyms offer these days. Being able to pull up your body weight MINUS 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 pounds, has allowed you to embrace the mechanics that you love of the body weight pullup for back development, without all of the pain which accompanies moving 200 or more pounds for this movement. Too many of today's lifters cannot complete a single pull up because of this innovation. Even if you enjoy the gains and find this to be a productive exercise, you should attempt at least one set per week of pure body weight pull ups, without any assistance. Before you know it, you'll be knocking out those repetitions without any help at all!
Isolate by slowing down!
You've no doubt grown to this level of muscle mass and strength gain success by powering through your repetitions, punching every exercise in the face as you exploded that weight up, knocking gravity off its high horse and growing stronger as a result. However, doing so often means you have to move through every repetition at a speed greater than desired. Slowing down on any exercise, particularly the isolation movements, can help you to trigger more muscle fiber firings, pulling into play some dormant muscle fibers. Your weight used may become less impressive, but the pumps will be greater and your growth will gradually increase as a result. Slower reps with lighter weights has helped many intermediate lifters boost their way to advanced trainer status!
Vary the repetition ranges
Every muscle group in your body is made up of a wide array of slow and fast twitch muscle fibers. You should be working to hit all of them! This means you should use very heavy weights for low repetitions (to hit the fast-twitch muscle fibers) when you want to increase your thickness. Likewise, dropping the weight and completing more reps will fire up those slow-twitch muscle fibers, helping to etch out some detail and fine definition in your muscle groups. Do it all, and you'll grow every muscle group to its potential!
Remember - there is nothing at all wrong with being tough. If you're the toughest in your gym, then you are probably among the biggest and strongest, as you've been willing to push yourself through pain when most people around you just put down the weight. However, as you pass beginner levels and attain intermediate then advanced status, the weight lifting game becomes much more cerebral, and those who train smarter - as well as tougher - are going to be the last man (or woman) standing when it comes to making gains. Good luck!