Everyone loves the rush of setting a personal record.
There’s nothing like the feeling of moving the most weight you’ve ever moved in your life on a Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, etc.
Of course, part of what makes that accomplishment so gratifying is that for most people, it’s quite rare.
But what if I told you that you could set a PR today?
Because if you’re actively training and you aren’t worlds away from your previous best in a big lift, there’s a tactic that can give you a great shot of making that happen.
It comes from Travis Mash of Mash Elite Performance. A former World Champion powerlifter, Mash is the head coach of Mash Mafia, the most successful weightlifting team in America. He also trains athletes like NFL fullback Tommy Bohanon.
In this PDF e-book, Mash outlines what he calls the “Mash Method.” Here’s the concept in a nutshell:
Maybe it’ll be best to show you how you can use a simple version of the Mash Method immediately.
For example: If you wanted to PR your back squat with 405, put even heavier weight on the bar—about 105% or 110% of your max (around 445 would work). Then unrack 445, walk it out, and hold it for about 15 seconds. Then rack it.
Now within about 60-120 seconds, go for a 405 squat.
This is so simple but so effective. The weight will feel lighter. You’ll have the psychological boost of feeling more confident, and your nervous system will also be primed to actually lift more weight.
This method centers around a theory known as post-activation potentiation.
According to this theory, your muscles “remember” their most recent contractions, and that memory can impact the next contraction. So when you handle extra-heavy loads, even if it is just walking the barbell out from the rack or holding it in a locked out position for 10-15 seconds, it makes subsequent loads in similar patterns feel lighter than they would otherwise.
If you think about how most people train, they never load the barbell up with more weight than they’re actually going to use for their reps, so very few people take advantage of this phenomenon. I certainly hadn’t until I read about it in Mash’s e-book, but I’ve been amazed at its effectiveness. I’ve found it to be effective not only for PRs, but just about any set where I’m handling more than, say, 85% of my one-rep max.
As Mash outlines in the above excerpt, the sweet spot for this effect is about 60-120 seconds. Beyond that, it rapidly fades away.
But beyond the short-term effect, there’s no doubt that habitually handling heavier weights creates more permanent neural changes key for serious strength. Many people believe bigger muscles are the key to getting stronger, which is certainly true to some extent.
But most people drastically underestimate how important neural activation is to tapping into their true strength potential.
This is why two trained people with similar amounts of muscle mass and even similar training ages can have massively different Bench or Squat maxes.
When we tell our body to produce force, our nervous system transmits electrical signals from our brain to the relevant muscles. The more effectively these signals are transmitted and received, the more force we can produce.
A 2017 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined how low-load training compared to high-load training over a six-week period with regards to muscle growth and voluntary muscle activation. The researchers found that while the two training styles produced similar muscle growth, the higher-load training resulted in significantly greater increases in voluntary muscle activation.
From Science Daily:
The dissertation randomly assigned 26 men to train for six weeks on a leg-extension machine loaded with either 80 or 30 percent of the maximum weight they could lift.
Three times per week, the participants lifted until they could not complete another repetition. (The researchers were) able to replicate the findings of several previous studies, seeing similar growth in muscle between the two groups but a larger strength increase—roughly 10 pounds’ worth—in the high-load group.
But the researchers also supplied an electric current to the nerve that stimulates the quadriceps muscles used in leg extensions. Even at full effort, most people do not generate 100 percent of the force their muscles can physiologically produce…By comparing the force of a participant’s “hardest” unassisted kick with the maximum force they can generate when aided by electric current, scientists can determine how much of that capacity a person has reached—a measure known as voluntary activation.
When adjusting for baseline scores, the researchers found that the voluntary activation of the low-load group increased from 90.07 to 90.22 percent—0.15 percent—over a three-week span. The high-load group saw their voluntary activation jump from 90.94 to 93.29 percent, a rise of 2.35 percent.
Higher loads lead to a more efficient neural system, which creates greater amounts of voluntary muscle activation.
And not only can you move heavier max loads when you increase your maximal voluntary contraction, but it also takes less activation (and thus less energy) to move sub-maximal loads. This is why your Bench Press max is such a strong predictor of how you’ll fare on the 225-pound Bench Press Test.
If two people of equal size possess equal amounts of muscle mass, it’s the one who can voluntarily produce greater muscle activation that will be stronger.
Mash’s athletes are living proof.
Take 16-year-old Morgan McCullough, for example.
It’s not like he’s built like The Incredible Hulk, but in January, he became the youngest athlete in American history to Clean and Jerk 400 pounds:
Mash believes these heavy-load neural adaptations are something many CrossFitters miss out on.
Due to the high-volume nature of most CrossFit programming, many CrossFit athletes can exceed the expected number of repetitions in a set for 65-80% of their max. But they also rarely practice handling loads above 90% of their one-rep max, so their absolute strength is lacking.
Mash goes on to detail several methods for implementing the “Mash Method” in his e-book, so the full thing is well worth a read.
Photo Credit: sportpoint/iStock