Many trainees, frustrated by their lack of progress, seek the “latest training breakthrough” in an effort to stimulate new gains. In this article I would like to discuss a concept which, once understood and applied, can set the trainee on the satisfying path of regular progress. Sorry, folks, this is definitely not the “latest training breakthrough”; in fact, it is literally millions of years old. I call it the Survival Instinct.
To better understand the Survival Instinct, a quick review of basic human physiology is helpful. The goal of every autonomic subsystem within the human body is the perpetuation of the survival of the organism. In other words, everything that happens within your body is designed to keep you alive and healthy. For example, when you cut yourself your blood coagulates to form a clot at the site of the cut to stop the bleeding. If this did not occur automatically, you would obviously bleed to death. Similarly, the actions of blinking your eye, coughing, hunger, acquiring a suntan etc. all exist for the same reason- they are all protective mechanisms responding to potentially harmful stimuli.
Muscular hypertrophy can be viewed in the same light. In response to a potentially harmful stress applied to a particular skeletal muscle, that muscle grows larger and stronger in order to protect the organism from possible future exposure to that stress. The key point is this: in order for the process of hypertrophy to be carried out, the stimulus must be perceived by your body as a threat to your survival. For this to occur, you must work at or near the limit of your existing capacity.
The practical application of this principle is something almost everyone reading this can relate to. Imagine the first time you ever did a certain strengthening exercise- let’s say it was the barbell curl. Suppose you did 10 reps with 80 pounds. Since this was your first time doing it, that set represented a 100% increase in intensity over what you had done before (which was nothing). This dramatic leap in intensity will activate your Survival Instinct, stimulating your biceps to grow a little bigger and stronger to protect you from this perceived threat in the future, just in case you decide to do it again. And if you did do it again, and you were fully recovered, it was a lot easier the 2nd time around- the result of added muscle tissue to your biceps. The next step is very important: if, from now on, you don’t try to do more than 10 reps, more than 80 pounds, or both, you are working well within your existing capacity and your Survival Instinct will lie dormant. Since your body has already built your biceps up to the point where they can handle 80 pounds for 10 reps, anything less than or equal to that is not perceived by your body as a threat to your survival and there is no reason for you to grow, no matter how many sets you do. It is that little extra, moving into new territory in weight or reps, that will cause your Survival Instinct to kick in and propel you toward the higher levels of muscular size and strength you desire.
How can this concept be systematically applied in each workout? By utilizing a repetition range. A repetition range refers to the establishment of upper and lower limits on the number of repetitions that will be performed in any given set. For example, a trainee may select a repetition range of 6-10 for upper body exercises (I like 6-10 for upper body and 10-15 for lower body). Thus, the trainee would select a weight for each upper body exercise which would cause him or her to reach a point of momentary muscular failure, where no further volitional movement was possible, somewhere between the 6th and 10th repetition. Doing so will insure the trainee is working to the limit of their existing capacity. If at least 6 reps cannot be performed, the weight is too heavy and should be reduced to allow 6 to 10 to be performed. Once more than 10 reps can be performed, the weight should be increased the next workout to once again allow for only 6-10 repetitions. Note that the set should not be terminated arbitrarily just because a certain number of reps have been achieved. Always push to your limit if you want to involve the Survival Instinct, then adjust the weight accordingly the next workout.
To illustrate this point, let’s say a person is currently able to perform 8 reps on the bench press with 150 pounds and is unable to complete a 9th rep. Using a 6-10 rep range, this person would stick with 150 pounds each workout until, as the result of getting stronger, he or she is able to perform 10 or more reps with 150. Once that happens, the weight should be increased to 155 the next workout and as many reps as possible performed. Once 10 reps can be exceeded, the weight goes up to 160 on the next workout, and so on. This system insures that both intensity and progression are being effectively utilized.
In summary, don’t leave anything on the table when you workout. Push to your limit on each and every set, and increase reps and/or weight whenever you can. By doing so you will harness the power of your Survival Instinct and elevate yourself to new levels of muscular size and strength.