In the course of interviewing pros about their workouts, I occasionally hear something that causes me to roll my eyes and mutter to myself, “Yeah, right.” When Toney Freeman told me that he was doing 25 reps on all his sets, including upper body, and getting great results, I totally discounted it. He’s a genetic freak enhanced by a dizzying array of supplements, so not for one minute did I consider that such a rep range could have any value for a genetically average drug-free trainee.
Then it came to pass toward the end of 2009 that I needed a break from heavy lifting. I began the year in the middle of heavy off-season training for the Team Universe, then transitioned directly into four months of strict and rigorous contest prep for the show in September. No time for a break after that, as I wanted to take full advantage of the rebound phase. For a few weeks after a contest prep your body is temporarily primed to soak up nutrients and respond to hard and heavy training with new muscle growth. Having just turned 40 and muscle gains being as rare as my teenage daughter’s cleaning her room without prompting, I couldn’t afford to let that magical phase pass me by.
After about 10 weeks I was very pleased with the modest—but very real—gains I’d made. So it was time to chill out. My joints and tendons were killing me. My motivation to go superheavy was gone too. I knew at least a week off from the weights would be a great idea, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I love weight training the way some people love meth or alcohol—just can’t go without it. So I reached a compromise with myself. I would shear the overall volume of the workouts in half for two weeks, train with higher reps and moderate weights and stop shy of failure.
The first week went very well. Toward the end of it I worked biceps and decided to try an exercise I’d abandoned long ago due to wrist pain—incline dumbbell curls. I did a quick warmup with 20s, then knocked out four sets of 15 reps with a 25-pounder in each hand. The pump was intense, and my wrists didn’t bother me a bit—not like the agony when I’d tried to use 40s or 45s in the past. The next day my biceps were more sore than they’d been in many months. Was I on to something?
The next week I bumped the volume up a bit, kept the rep range the same—15 to 20—and allowed myself to go to failure on the final set of each exercise. I’d planned on doing this for two weeks only, but I was having such a good time that I extended the higher reps to a third week, when I went to failure on all work sets. I felt refreshed. My joints and connective tissues felt much better. I hadn’t lost any size, and I was ready to tackle the big weights again.
Now I plan on breaking up long periods of heavy weights and eight to 10 reps with three-week “recovery” phases of training like Toney—with higher reps. If constant heavy training is beating the hell out of your joints and knocking dents in your enthusiasm, you might consider doing something similar.
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.