Stimulate! Don't Annihilate

There is a great saying in lifting circles, Stimulate your Muscles, DO NOT Annihilate them.  It's a saying that I have not followed closely enough over my years of training but I am taking much more seriously now days.  On a basic level, stop piling on useless volume once muscles are properly stressed.

T-Nation has a solid article published back in January, The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters  by Christian Thibaudeau that re-surfaced this topic in my mind.  I believe this practice applies even more-so to fellow wheelchair lifters as we have a limited amount of areas we can truly work on the body.  We have Chest, Triceps, Back, Biceps, Delts and Traps that we can train.  That is it if your injury puts you at Para or worse like myself.  One of the main themes of the article is that the biggest mistake experienced lifters make is doing way too much volume.  We fall into the trap of thinking more is better but this is not how the body works and we actually get to a point where we cause more damage than benefit.

Once a newbie lifter graduates into intermediate or advanced they tend to continually applying way too much volume.  One way to help prevent this problem is to limit your workouts to 50 minutes or less.  If you split your workouts into a Chest/Tris day, Back/Bis and Delts/Traps I would recommend staying well below 30 sets.  For me 20 to 25 seems to be a sweet spot of getting a challenging workout in but not throwing tons of useless sets at the end that bumps up the volume.  A very basic breakdown is as follows:

  • 5-ish warmup sets
  • 5-10 sets on your main lift (Bench, Military Press, Rows)
  • 3-6 sets on an accessory lift (Close Grip Bench, Dips)
  • 3-6 vanity lift (Cable Curls, Cable Extensions, Dumbell Raises)

Another approach is to do fewer workouts per week, but hitting all areas.  Full disclosure, for wheelchair lifters I am NOT in favor of a workout that hits all the areas unless it is a challenge for you to get to the gym at least 3 times per week.  Doing too much work in a single session is obviously better than doing nothing, it just gets to a point of diminished returns as bodyparts in the latter part of the workout get hosed.  

As an example, the shoulders get way too much work on most chest movements so adding some military presses or dumbell raises to an already exhausted pair of shoulders is counterproductive and will do little for your delts.  The first lift of the day should be the focus of the workout, that is the lift that should be the biggest mover, involving the most bodyparts and pushing the highest volume or weight.  This lift is the showcase, the main attraction, everything else is a supporting actor. Each exercise after that first lift is an accessory or cosmetic lift.  One could split this major movement into a press and a pull but the quality of work will suffer on that second movement.  If it doesn't suffer, than you were not working hard enough on the first movement.

My preference is working out 4 days per week with three of the workouts spent focused on Chest/Tris one day, day two focused on Back/Bis, day three focused on Delts/Traps and then the fourth day is a do whatever the hell I want day where I may mix in several supersets in a crossfit timed fashion.  Or it can be spent on focusing on a bodypart that I feel needs some attention or is just a fun/challenging movement.

Another problem with too much volume for wheelchair lifters is your joints will give out.  If you pile way too many cable pushdowns after already doing heavy bench and other triceps movements your elbows will F-ing HATE you!  Same goes for pounding set upon set of isolation curls after you have done a bunch of heavy rows, pullups and barbell curls.  And when you feel a pop in your elbow, good luck buttercup; cause you will be babying that elbow for weeks.

So just follow these basic principles:

  1. Get in the Gym and favor frequency over longevity.  
  2. Hit your muscles hard, but smart.  (better have a GREAT reason to be there > 50 minutes.)
  3. Then get the hell out with your limbs still attached.