By: Brent Carter, SSC

When a lifter tugs on the bar for a couple seconds or pushes on the bar for a couple seconds, he has not utilized all the ATP that was available to them. This lifter could likely have gotten the rep and done the work and thus progressed. When a lifter fails to accomplish the work, the lifter is also failing to apply the stress necessary to drive adaptation. If you didn’t struggle for at least 5 seconds, you really didn’t give it your full effort.

Five Reps or Five Seconds

Photo: Nick Delgadillo

The Spartans, known for their prowess in battle and valor, had a saying: “Come back with your shield or on it.” This meant you were either victorious in battle and returned intact, or you perished and were thus transferred home on your shield (another Spartan custom). The shield was used to protect not just the soldier carrying it but his allies and countrymen standing next to him. To return home without your shield meant you fled, dropping your shield in the retreat; it would be admitting not just defeat but cowardice. “With your shield or on it” means victory at all costs, but if you do fail, to do so with honor.

Barbell training can be scary, particularly in a lift like the squat where you are standing under a heavy bar with your eyes bugging out. And at the end of a heavy set, you might start to wonder “Am I going to be able to stand back up under this?” It’s that tiny voice of self-preservation inside of your head that starts to undermine the training that led up to this moment. Due to the law of diminishing returns, it requires greater and greater efforts to continue to make progress in the gym. This includes both physical efforts as well as mental efforts. If a lack of mental focus and drive is present, then the lifter may never fully realize their physical potential. While we do not need or want our lifters to grind out lift after lift, workout upon workout, it is inevitable that the novice trainee will at some point have to learn how to put their game face on and grind out a heavy rep in a heavy set without giving up.

Thus, I give you the Spartan equivalent: “Come back with five reps or five seconds of effort.” You either did your fives (favhes) or you put a full five seconds of effort into the attempt. If you did this you were either victorious or you failed with honor.

The bar speed is a direct result of how much force the lifter is producing. More accurately how much additional force the lifter is producing beyond that which gravity is producing. A barbell that weighs 405 and experiences a force of you pulling on it at exactly 405 in the opposite direction of gravity does exactly nothing. It just sits there until you are able to muster MORE than 405. The “surplus” of force you produce above and beyond 405 dictates how fast that bar starts to move in the direction you are pulling it. Now if this is really near a limit set, the bar is not going to move very fast because it is darn near the MAXIMUM amount of force you are capable of producing. BUT if progress is to be made, weights have to get heavier and the reps must be completed—hence the five reps that you were supposed to do today.

Energy Systems

Why five seconds? Why not ten seconds, or three? This requires a VERY brief review of metabolic pathways, specifically the ATP-CP cycle. You might remember from high school biology that ATP is the biological currency we use to get work done. This little high energy compound Adenosine Triphosphate is what gets ALL of our biological work done, whether it’s shuttling certain compounds inside or outside of the cell, or in our example, allowing for muscular contraction. Work does not get done without this little molecule.

So much so that the body will quickly shut down if it becomes unable to produce ATP. This is actually the mechanism by which the common poison cyanide works, disrupting your ability to produce this molecule in a most effective and permanent way. All muscular contractions, including the ability to breathe and cardiac function stop without the ability to replenish ATP.

The most direct and fastest way to get ATP is to 1) utilize what very little storage capacity you have of ATP and 2) use the fastest method of regeneration of ATP. Your ability to store a sufficient supply of ATP is very minimal (hence why you die so quickly when a poison like cyanide disrupts your ability to produce more ATP). But, because this energy is stored and waiting in the wings, it is readily available when a very large amount of work must be done (like moving a very heavy weight or trying to move something very quickly, both of which require high amounts of force). As stated, you will exhaust this supply quite quickly and must, therefore, regenerate it in order to keep doing work. If we were talking about a low force situation, like endurance training, you would have more time on your hands to regenerate this fuel substrate, AND the relative force requirements are low. But as we are talking about getting stronger, which requires more and more force output, it’s not good enough that we regenerate low levels of ATP. We need a whole bunch of this stuff and we need it now! For this, we turn to the ATP-CP cycle or the Creatine Kinase cycle.
This metabolic pathway replenishes your ATP stores very quickly as there is only one step involved. Creatine phosphate donates one of its molecules to restore ATP into working order and there ya go. This is a one-and-done step vs the other forms of ATP regeneration which required at least 8 times that many steps. As a result, the regeneration of ATP via the Creatine Kinase cycle is quite fast. You are, however, limited by the amount of Creatine Phosphate present in the muscle (this is why creatine supplementation is very popular and demonstrated to be effective for strength and power athletes) to the extent that these first two energy silos (stored ATP and ATP-CP) only get you so far. While they are the fastest suppliers of ATP they also peter out relatively quickly, on the order of up to maybe 8 seconds. Compared to the metabolic processes that take place during a marathon (or ultra marathon if you are that crazed) which can go on and on. It is for this reason that you will never see a true max deadlift that takes 12 seconds. The lifter will simply run out of available ATP for the attempt.
So, when a lifter tugs on the bar for a couple seconds or pushes on the bar for a couple seconds I know in my coaching eye this lifter did not utilize all the ATP that was available to them. This lifter could likely have gotten the rep and done the work and thus progressed. When a lifter fails to accomplish the work, the lifter is also failing to apply the stress necessary to drive adaptation. If you didn’t struggle for at least 5 seconds, you really didn’t give it your full effort.

Five Reps or Fives Seconds of Effort

So back to our new mantra. Next time you are facing down a brutally difficult set, fix your mind on how you are going to lift it, not whether you will finish. Come back with victory or honor, with your shield or on it; with five reps or five seconds.

This article is inspired by and dedicated to my lifter Francisco Villalobos who has more Spartan grit than probably any lifter I know.


* Brent Carter is a Starting Strength Coach and SSOC Team Leader. He received his degree in Exercise and Sports Sciences from Texas Tech University with emphasis in biomechanics and exercise physiology. He has over 10 years of experience coaching clients of all populations and with various goals. He founded the Focus Barbell Club, a weekly educational group dedicated to learning the basic barbell lifts using the Starting Strength method. The club continues to grow, drawing new trainers and students from the Focus Personal Training Institute, where Brent is among the esteemed faculty as a teacher of Advanced Concepts in Personal Training.

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