The single purpose of exercise is to stimulate muscle growth. That may seem too simplistic but I think that often there is great value in getting to the crux of the issue. We all want optimal health, strength improvement, increased functional ability or fill in another phrase that you use to describe the specifics of the interrelated results. The important thing is to understand that these things come about by reactions of the human body’s protective mechanisms. The reaction characteristics are important. The outward show is not. It’s an easy trap to associate more performance with more effect. That direct correlation just doesn’t exist.
The purpose of a competition is to rate a performance against a scale for comparison. The measure of the external result is all that matters in this case. Strength, health, functional ability or whatever your chosen term is will contribute toward the competitive performance, but there are many other factors involved at the same time. Getting that one more repetition or lifting that increased weight is more likely to come from an improvement in efficiency and skill than from pure physical gain. Therefore it is important to decide whether our immediate goal is to improve physically (exercise) or to achieve a measure of performance (compete) because the best approach toward one is very different from the best approach to the other.
Legitimate strength gains, muscle growth and all of the residual effects that come along to keep proper balance will only be triggered by a high demand of strength use. This is not the same as a high registered performance. Our strength is continually changing moment by moment as it is being drained or recovered according to demand. Any technique that is used to get a higher level of performance output involves finding momentary recovery and this is contrary to the goal of exercise.
Consider lifting a bag of sand. Pick a weight for the bag that would be a serious challenge yet manageable. Using strict form and proper positioning, with your legs, lift to a standing position and then lower it and put it down softly. It takes about 2 seconds. Wait a full minute and do it again. Do that 60 times in an hour. How much of your strength is used up? (Hint: Can you do it once more immediately?)
Now consider the same bag of sand is resting on a scale that reads its weight accurately. From the same starting position put enough lift into that bag so that it moves only very little if at all but the scale reads a steady 1 pound and hold that amount of force perfectly still (if that’s possible) for 2 minutes. How much of your strength is used up in comparison to the first scenario? (Hint: Can you lift that bag one time immediately like in the first scenario?) Which of these scenarios would have a more profound effect on your body’s adaptive mechanism over the next week? Compare the amount of work accomplished (the measure of performance) in each scenario.
What happens to the exercise apparatus is not important. What is important is what happens to your momentary strength level and the response that is activated. Don’t try to defeat the machine. It doesn’t have any will against you. Don’t be concerned about achieving a personal best in performance measure. That only encourages the confusion of focusing on skill and efficiency. The important thing in an exercise session is provoking the reaction, flipping the switch, providing the impetus for the skeletal muscular system to be enhanced. This growth is a long term process and it doesn’t matter if there is anything immediate to show for the effort or not.
Become aware of the ways that we subconsciously learn to save energy. Make a conscious effort to override them. Acceleration, momentum, shifting positions, alternating active muscle groups, varying pace, gripping unnecessarily, grunting and grimacing as a distraction are some of the many ways that we avoid the onset of failure. Learn to do what is unnatural; approach the failure as the ultimate goal. That doesn’t mean deciding to stop the effort. It means continuing the effort without breaking form even beyond the point of inability to continue movement. Maintaining strict form means everything, continuing movement means nothing for exercise.
An objective view and proper instruction are invaluable to this end. Forget about challenging the machine for performance measure. Concentrate on challenging yourself to strict adherence to the instruction. Exaggerate careful control regardless of the fact that you will be used up sooner. That’s the real target.