You’re stronger than you realize. And I’ll prove it to you.
And once I prove it to you, you’ll understand why knowing this truth will help you get even better results from your workouts.
“I had no idea how strong I was!” That statement never gets old. Every time I’ve heard a woman say that after completing a tough set or setting a new personal record, I smile.
My first session with a new client from over a decade ago is still memorable. Her best set of squats was 95 pounds for ten reps. She said, “I feel stuck. I just can’t break past that 10th rep.” After completing the warm-up sets I loaded the bar to 95 pounds. I told her not to count any reps but to focus on nailing every rep; I’d tell her when to stop. She looked a bit confused and concerned but I assured her she could stop at any point if she wasn’t confident she could keep going.
After uttering, “I guess this is what I’m paying you for,” she ducked under the bar and went to work. “Don’t count. Focus on each individual rep,” I reminded her. She smoothly cranked out ten reps. “You’ve got a few more,” I urged her. Two more reps later she paused a moment to take a breath. “Those were strong and smooth. How about two more?” She did three then racked the bar.
“That was more than ten, wasn’t it?”
“Try five more!”
“What? I didn’t know I was that strong!”
Get Out of Your Own Way
All she needed to do was get out of her own way. She had it set in her mind that she was stuck at ten reps with that weight. But by focusing on each rep and the way it moved and felt, she knew she was able to keep going beyond the point she normally stopped.
Yes, those last five reps were tough but, more importantly, completely doable, as she proved to herself. And, yes, she was sore after that workout from pushing into new training territory.
The next session she squatted that weight for 20 reps.
This isn’t because she magically got crazy strong in a short period of time; she pushed herself. Rather than stopping when the set got hard, she knew she could work through the discomfort and crank out more solid reps. If she knew without a doubt she could get another rep — without compromising technique or range of motion — she would attack it.
We did this to prove she was stronger than she realized. We did the same thing with other exercises like the dumbbell bench press, cable pulldown, Romanian deadlift. She quickly blew past all personal bests and set new ones.
All because she realized how strong she was, and what she was truly capable of doing.
Not everyone is willing to learn this lesson, however, because there is significant discomfort involved. There is nothing easy about a challenging set of squats or Romanian deadlifts — stopping a set when you know you can truly only do one or two more reps (known as leaving “reps in reserve“), but no more. When your brain is screaming, “Stop, this is hard!” but you know your body is capable of more, so you keep going.
Those who are willing to push themselves, to get out of their own way, to discover what they’re capable of doing, to embrace the challenge and discomfort rather than succumb to it, most definitely reap the rewards.
Now, if you’re ready, it’s your turn to discover that you’re stronger than you realize.
The Three-Exercise Workout
After warm-up sets you will perform a single all-out set for push-ups, rear-foot-elevated split squats, and inverted rows.
- Perform 2-3 warm-up sets to prepare you and help you select a weight, or variation, that allows you to perform approximately 12-15 challenging reps.
- Perform a single all-out set for each exercise.
- Push each set to technical failure: The point you can’t do another rep with the same technique and range of motion as previous reps. Be honest about this! With split squats, for example, your legs will get tired and your mind will say you’ve done enough, but you can likely perform more reps without compromising technique or range of motion. You must focus, commit, and make it happen despite the physical discomfort. (Obviously never train through an injury or pain.)
- Perform as many non-stop reps as you can, and take no more than 1-2 seconds between the last few reps. (Watch the push-up video below to see what I mean.)
- Every rep must look as similar as possible: Use the same range of motion and technique on every rep. The only acceptable and easily noticeable difference is that the last few reps can be slower than the first, due to fatigue.
To show you what an all-out set looks like, here’s a set of deficit push-ups from one of my recent workouts.
I performed 18 non-stop reps then took about one second between the last six. I ended the set when I wasn’t confident I could complete another rep. Notice every rep (except for the last few being slower) looks relatively similar: same range of motion and technique with every rep.
1) Push-up or elevated push-up
Depending on your strength, you will either perform traditional push-ups or elevated push-ups using a barbell set securely in a power rack, or Smith machine. Remember, for the all-out work set you must identify a variation that allows you to perform approximately 12-15 reps; use the warm-up sets for this. (If traditional push-ups are too easy perform deficit push-ups, as I did in the previous video, or elevate your feet on a sturdy surface.)
Need help modifying push-ups or want to know how to perform them correctly? Watch this video:
Perform these with a controlled, full range of motion. Your chest must touch the ground, or barbell if doing these in a power rack or Smith machine, on every rep.
2) Rear-foot-elevated split squat
Other options include regular split squats, or a leg press or hack squat if you’re currently doing those exercises in your workouts and thus are familiar with them. Here’s a (very old!) rear-foot-elevated split squat tutorial:
I prefer the split squat or rear-foot-elevated split squat: Make them more challenging by holding dumbbells in each hand. Perform 2-3 warm-up sets, add weight as needed so you can perform about 12-15 reps, and do a single all-out set to technical failure. Rest about one minute then repeat on the other leg.
At a minimum, the top of your thigh should be parallel with the ground on every rep. You can increase the range of motion and make the exercise more challenging, if desired, by elevating the front foot 2-6 inches. If you have trouble with this exercise, check out this article for common rear-foot-elevated split squat mistakes and how to fix them.
3) Inverted row or cable pulldown
I recommend the inverted row. Here’s a tutorial for this exercise:
Your mid to lower chest must touch the bar on every rep. Perform 2-3 warm-up sets to select the appropriate bar height so you can perform about 12-15 reps. Then perform an all-out set.
The above exercises — push-up, rear-foot-elevated split squat, inverted row — were chosen because you can safely push them to failure. I wouldn’t recommend this with barbell squats and deadlifts, for safety reasons. If you can’t complete a push-up, you just lower yourself to the ground, for example.
Commit to giving every work set everything you have, stopping only when you know you couldn’t do another rep with correct technique and range of motion. Don’t cheat yourself.
This three-exercise workout will soon show you that you’re stronger than you realize.
What is the Value of This Lesson?
Most people say they work hard and put a tremendous amount of effort into their sets, but after taking the challenge presented here, realize they’ve been cutting themselves short. Someone may get 20 reps with the all-out set using a variation they previously performed for 15 reps, which they had previously thought was near max effort.
If someone has been terminating their work sets when they could have done five or more reps, you see the effect this can have on their training and the results they achieve from it.
Being able to push yourself once a set gets hard is a skill. Being able to identify when you can only truly do just 1-2 more reps and terminating a set at that point is a skill. Tackling the challenge presented above will help you fine-tune these important skills, and help you take your workouts, and the results they will produce, to a higher level.
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