Many people never become stronger because they think strength training requires a lot of time and experience. Thankfully, these are total misconceptions. Anybody, especially beginners, can safely make significant strength gains in very little time and with hardly any experience. While there are many ways to accomplish this goal, I’m really excited to share a new method with you that I’ve been using to great effect for the past couple months.
If everyone wants to become stronger, why don’t they?
Everyone wants to become stronger. But I know many people, and I’ll include myself, who don’t become stronger. It would be easy to blame people for being lazy or undisciplined. But these aren’t the main reasons that many people fail to become stronger.
One of the greatest obstacles is that people don’t know what it takes to become stronger. Or, they think they know what it takes, but what they think isn’t true.
One of the most harmful misconceptions is the notion that a great amount of time and experience is required to become stronger.
This misconception underlies the two most common reasons that people give for not exercising:
- “I don’t have enough time.”
- “I don’t know what I should do.”
The subtext to both of these is “and thus I’ll do nothing because I don’t want to waste my time or injure myself.” Another common reason that people don’t perform strength training, or exercise at all, is that they simply don’t enjoy it.
In reality, it takes very little time and hardly any experience to gain strength. Substantial strength gains can be achieved in such little time, that even someone who hates every second of their exercise should have only a few seconds which they can complain about. And, I’m willing to bet that many of those who claim not to enjoy exercise would change their minds if they realized how much stronger they could become in such little time.
If you’re a beginner, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that everything I’m saying here applies only to experienced athletes. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Beginners have the most strength yet to be gained in the shortest period of time. Unfortunately, the uninitiated also have the highest likelihood of missing out on that strength due to the misconceptions mentioned above.
What it Takes to Become Stronger
While there are a million and one tactics that can be used to gain strength, they all boil down to a single concept.
A muscle will grow stronger if it is trained very nearly or completely to fatigue or failure, and then subsequently provided with proper rest and nutrition.
This process can be repeated almost indefinitely with ever increasing improvements in strength.
Too Old, Too Feeble, Too Weak
I know what some of you are thinking: "at some point, I’ll be too old to become stronger.” You might even be thinking that none of this applies to you because you’re too old, too feeble, or too weak.
It all depends on your point of comparison.
If you compare your 60-year-old self to your 30-year-old self, in most cases, your 60-year-old self will have a lower strength potential than your 30-year-old self. That much is true.
However, if you compare your 60-year-old self who participates in strength training to your 60-year-old self who does not, it’s obvious who the winner will be.
In youth we train to become stronger. At some point, as we age, we train instead to maintain our strength and to mitigate the decay in strength that comes with aging. So, while at some point, our absolute strength will plateau and then decline, our relative strength can still increase above what it would have been had we not trained.
The Best Way
But now back to my point on what’s needed to become stronger, or in the case of the older person, to maintain and slow the loss of strength. Muscles grow in response to a stress that brings them close to fatigue and failure. The next logical question is, "what is the best way to produce muscular fatigue and failure?" There are many possible answers.
One way is to participate in sports or activities like tennis, soccer, hiking, walking, running, cycling, or any one of many other activities. Certainly, these activities will build some muscular strength and endurance if they are done to exhaustion. But if they are done casually, they may produce only a little bit of strength and endurance, or hardly any at all. Of course these activities can be quite valuable in their own right, and I don’t intend to diminish them in any way. But, for the purposes of this discussion, we’re looking for a way to get stronger as quickly as possible with the highest margin of safety. The way to get this done is not through recreation or sport, but by strength training.
The Many Methods of Strength Training
There are a great many methods of strength training. For instance, take weight training, resistance training, plyometrics, and calisthenics for a few examples. Once we settle on a modality, there are more questions: should we lift heavy for a few reps, or light for many reps? Should we move the weight in fast and explosive movements, or slowly and deliberately? Should we stop well before failure, or train to failure? Should we focus on the concentric part of the movement, or the eccentric part? What about isometrics? Should we train once a week, once a day, or even more or less frequently than that?
The various strength training tactics are innumerable. And to the extent that any of them are used either in isolation or combination to produce muscular fatigue and failure, they all work.
To figure out which tactics are best for us, we need to first focus on our objective and strategy. The objective is to get stronger. The strategy is to reach muscular failure and fatigue in the safest and most efficient way possible.
As a beginner, or someone who has never lifted weights or done any kind of strength training, how can we sort through all of the various techniques, rep schemes, and lifting techniques to find what’s right for us? It’s hard. It could take a relatively long time for the uninitiated trainee to learn safe and effective methods of strength training.
ARX is a New Way
What I’m about to write next is going to sound like a late-night TV infomercial, because it seems too good to be true. But, it is true. There is a solution to this problem—the problem of how untrained, inexperienced, strapped-for-time, and even elderly and immobile individuals can train safely, effectively, efficiently, and with minimal risk of injury in order to reach muscular fatigue and failure—the answer is ARX (adaptive resistance exercise).
I have no financial disclosures or conflicts of interest to report. I have nothing to do with ARX other than that I train on their machines at a gym near my home.
That said, ARX machines are the most efficient method of strength training I’ve ever experienced. To my knowledge, ARX machines enable the trainee to obtain a training stimulus that is not reproducible with any other method of training. In short, the machines work by mimicking effective compound movements like squat, chest press, pull down, deadlift, and others by using resistive cables that adapt in real-time to the force applied by the trainee throughout the full range of motion. It’s as if the trainee is lifting weights that constantly adjust to the trainees strength in any given position of the lift.
In trying to describe the ARX machine, a video is worth more than 1,000 words. I recommend watching at least a few seconds of these videos of me performing a leg press and a chest press on ARX machines. You’ll see in the videos that I put a lot of intensity into my effort. To a beginner, this might appear intimidating, but it’s important to know that you don’t have to push this hard.
Leg Press on ARX Alpha – Comparable to a Squat
Chest Press on ARX Omni – Comparable to a Bench Press
How ARX Works to Efficiently Develop Strength
Note: This section is a detailed comparison between traditional weight lifting and training on ARX machines. If you’re not interested in technical points, you can safely skip this section.
In attempting to describe the machine’s characteristics, I’ll contrast it with traditional weight lifting using the bench press as an example.
In a traditional bench press, the lifter positions him or herself underneath the barbell which is sitting in a rack above his or her head. The lifter is lying flat on their back and looking up towards the ceiling. The lifter gets into the proper position, then reaches up to grasp the bar with the arms in near full extension. The lift begins as the lifter lowers the weight to the chest, resisting the weights tendency to fall under the force of gravity. Depending on the technique, the lifter might pause at or near the chest, or even bounce gently off of the chest with the elbows in a nearly fully flexed position. The lift is completed when the lifter pushes the weight off of his or her chest and back up towards the ceiling with the elbows near full extension. Let’s break this down into three fundamental phases.
The Three Phases of a Bench Press
- Lowering the weight down towards the chest
- Pausing with the weight hovering just over the chest while the arms are in a flexed position
- Pushing the weight back up towards the ceiling
During which part of the lift can the lifter hold the most weight?
The lifter can hold the most weight during the lowering of the weight in step one. For instance, while I can only bench press a little over 200 pounds, I might be able to hold 300 or more pounds at the very top of the lift. While I’m lowering the weight slowly, I might be able to hold slightly more or less than 300 pounds at various points during the lowering until I reach the lowest part of the lift.
The part of the lift in which I can handle the least weight is just after part two and at the beginning of part three, as I try to push the weight upwards from my chest. At this point, I might be able to handle 200 or so pounds, but no more. This then, is the part of the lift that limits how much weight I can bench press.
In effect, there is only one moment in the lift which uses the full force of my muscular strength. The rest of the movement is a sub-maximal effort. This is true no matter how well rested I am or how strong I am — one moment in my lift is the limiting moment.
So, you can see, with a conventional bench press, every repetition is going to have a phase (the lowering phase) during which I am using a weight that’s really quite easy for me to control. Then, at the bottom, it might be a little bit too hard, and then again, it’s too easy through the rest of the lift. If we’re trying to achieve muscular fatigue and failure as quickly as possible, this is wasted time.
Of course, it’s not entirely wasted if my goal is to get better at bench pressing—which is a skill as well as a strength training exercise. But, that’s not my goal. My goal is to get stronger. To get stronger, I want to reach total muscular fatigue and failure as fast as I can.
Weightlifters are Smart
Weightlifters are smart, and they realized this a long time ago. That’s why there are many techniques to deal with the inefficiencies and shortcomings of lifting static weights.
For instance, some lifters will perform "negatives”—the downward or lowering part of a movement, and then they’ll drop or rack the weight. This allows the lifter to handle heavier weights than they’d otherwise be able to handle. To use the bench press as an example, this would be like lowering a very heavy weight down to your chest, and then having your lifting partners help you lift the weight back up.
Another technique is to hang chains from the barbell. At the top of the lift, all of the chain will be hanging from the bar and none of it sitting on the floor, this means the lifter is holding the heaviest weight when the barbell is at the top of the lift. As the weight is lowered down, the chain starts to pile up on the floor and the weight decreases so that the lifter has a lesser weight to handle from the bottom of the lift. When the weight is pushed back up, this happens in reverse. Another technique is to fasten resistance bands to the weight, which applies resistance in the reverse order when compared to chains.
Yet another technique is to perform repetitions in "super-slow" motion which puts the muscle under tension for a longer time. Though the weight might be the same, slowing down the motion requires the muscle to do more work, and it lessens the advantage of momentum that can carry heavy weights through weak parts of the movement.
A partner or spotter can provide assistance when the lifter begins to reach failure in the weaker part of the lifts, which will allow them to move weights that would otherwise be too heavy.
Finally, lifters sometimes perform drop sets, which is the process of dropping a little bit of weight off of the bar as the lifter nears failure so that he or she can do another few reps, and then again the weight is dropped, and so on and so forth.
All of these techniques are aimed at getting the lifter to failure throughout a full range of motion by taking advantage of the strength curve and all of the methods of putting the muscle under tension so that it can work hard and fail.
ARX Does it All
What’s remarkable about ARX, is that it does all of these things at the same time. ARX is like lifting a barbell that can be set to move at a fixed pace (like "super-slow" training) with maximal isometrics (like having a spotter) and under variable tension (like chains) so that the lifter can perform the "lowering" or eccentric part of a lift (like negatives) under maximal load, and with progressively less tension as you near failure (like drop sets).
It does all of this without any effort or knowledge on the part of the trainee or his or her partner. If the trainee gives way and stops pushing or pulling during the lift, he or she doesn’t crumble underneath a heavy weight, the machine just finishes moving into position whether the lifter holds on or not. No injury occurs. The final result of all of this is that the lifter is able to use maximum muscular effort throughout a full range of motion without fear of failure or injury and with little regard for refined technique (technique always helps obtain best results and avoid injury, but it’s not necessary at first).
An ARX machine can be set to move from the fully retracted position to the fully extended position and back again with a certain cadence. Let’s say the machine is set to move you from the bottom of the bench press to the top in two seconds. It can pause at the top for one second, lower you back down in two seconds, and then pause at the bottom for another second. No matter how hard you push on the machine to try to move it up faster, the machine moves at a constant speed, and pushes back on you with a force exactly equivalent to the force you apply. At the top, you can push against the machine all you want, it won’t move, it’ll just stay there for one second. Then it begins to lower back into you, and no matter how hard you push, you’re going from the top of the bench press to the bottom in two seconds, with a weight equivalent to the force you apply at any moment over that time period. The same happens at the bottom, and the cycle repeats.
What this means is that the trainee has the ability to lift the heaviest weight he or she can lift at every single moment of the lift. The resistance is constantly adapting in real-time based on the force applied at any given moment. The end result is that five or six repetitions is sufficient to achieve a supreme degree of muscular failure and fatigue that I have never experienced in any other method of exercise.
ARX effectively does what every creative weight lifting technique or modification tries to do, but all in one, and without having to learn lifting techniques, without needing an experienced spotter, or having to learn how to set up chains, barbells, or other intimidating equipment. Almost anybody can go today, having never done any sort of strength training before, and can train to near complete fatigue and failure on ARX machines in near perfect safety.
Of course technique helps, and you need a smart trainer who will coach you and set up the machine and repetition scheme in a way that makes sense for you, but other than these minor caveats, there’s no reason not to try this.
ARX is Impactful for All Levels of Skill and Experience
In this article, I’m emphasizing the value of ARX for beginners because I think it has the potential to be very impactful for people who are constrained by time and who have little experience in strength training. That said, I consider myself to be at least moderately experienced in strength training, and ARX has had a major impact for me in a short time. I think its potential for advanced trainees is significant. It’s simply the most potent training stimulus I’ve ever experienced.
In 6-12 minutes of training, I’m so thoroughly toasted, it takes me roughly 10 days to recover for a subsequent workout (a little less for legs, 5-7 days, and a little longer for arms, chest, and back, roughly 10-14 days).
So far, I have two minor concerns.
Connective Tissue Injury on Eccentric Loading
First, I will admit that, although I think the injury potential for these machines is orders of magnitude lower than it is for almost every other method of strength training, there is a potential for injury. This injury potential comes almost entirely from the ability to achieve super maximal eccentric and isometric efforts. In these efforts, a person with great muscular strength has the potential to damage connective tissue—insertional tendons to be exact.
I’ve had soreness in my latissimus insertions for nearly six weeks now, and it’s because I resisted the eccentric movement of the machine trying to pull me out of the fully flexed position on a pull-down. I was able to produce an enormous amount of resistive force to keep my arms in a fully flexed position against the machine. To understand this force, think about holding on to a pull-up bar in a fully flexed position while someone loads a hundred pounds onto your hips. You could hold yourself up momentarily, and then your arms and shoulders would give way. Similarly, at the very bottom, you might hold on too tight before letting go of the bar. In the moments between the heavy loading and the giving way of the arms, a great stress can be placed on the tendons. I held on too tight and too long in end-range positions, and suffered a minor strain. Despite my good knowledge, I went back for more training even before my strain fully resolved.
This type of injury is possible, but it’s more likely for an experienced trainee than for a beginner. Beginners are less likely to generate the muscular force and intensity necessary to cause this type of an injury. Nonetheless, it’s worth being aware that the ARX machines can allow the trainee to generate enormous forces in the eccentric portion of an exercise. This problem can be mitigated by having a conscientious trainer who sets the range of motion appropriately and coaches the trainee to avoid this pitfall.
Second, the other issue with ARX training alone is that it leaves a little bit of doubt in the trainee’s mind as to the applicability of the strength gained during ARX training. Sure, I can generate a certain force on the ARX machine, but does this really translate to a faster sprint, a heavier squat, a heavier bench press, or the ability to lift boxes, furniture, appliances, grandchildren, or whatever I might be wanting to move or lift? I have no reason to doubt that strength gained on ARX machines will translate to strength in other modalities, but it still needs to be tested by this trainee.
ARX machines are just one way of many to become stronger
The ARX machines are a unique and incredibly efficient and safe means of strength training. If you can find a location near you that has ARX machines, I encourage you to try it out. If you don’t live near a facility with ARX machines, there are many other ways to engage in safe, effective, and efficient strength training that require just a bit more effort, knowledge, and experience. But, the same principles apply. It’s possible with traditional weights, weight machines, or even body weight alone to achieve muscular failure safely in a short period of time. If you’re interested in learning more about efficient strength training, you can read this article I wrote a couple years ago: “Building Strength and Mobility with 1 Workout per Week.” And for a deeper dive on the topic of safe and efficient strength training, I recommend checking out Dr. Doug McGuff’s book, “Body by Science (paid link).”
If you have specific questions on how to build a strength training program that works for you, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
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