Dan John’s 6th Commandment of Lifting is “Go heavy, go hard.”
This is more than just a macho aphorism to “pump you up” it’s a reminder of what is necessary for development.
Strength is a neurological function. The better able you are to utilize your nervous system to recruit muscle fibers the stronger you are. That’s why, as you begin to explore the strength world, you’ll begin to notice a few anomalies, guys who are super strong, but not really all that big, often times they’re just, well, average looking. These guys understand that gaining strength is not so much about building what you don’t have but making the most of what you do have.
The best way to build strength is to “go heavy” and “go hard.” Going heavy means lifting heavy weight. “Heavy,” of course, is a relative term. It’s relative to your training and it’s relative to how you might be feeling on a particular day. This is another case where an internal dialog is so important.
Heavy, regardless of the number on the bar or on the dumbbell, is a weight that is difficult, but not impossible, to lift for the prescribed number of reps and sets.
With experience this will be easier to evaluate, but as a general guideline, heavy for 3 sets of 3 will be lighter than heavy for 5 sets of 2 which will be lighter than heavy for 6 sets of 1. The appropriate weight for 3 sets of 10, our general deload protocol, will be around 50% of what you lifted for 6 sets of 1.
As always we try and leave one or two reps “in the tank” on each set. Which means, if you just hit your third set of 3 and realize you probably have another four or five reps in you, the weight wasn’t heavy enough. By contrast, if it’s all you can do to finish the third rep of your second set, the weight is clearly too heavy.
Going hard means lifting as fast as you can. Lifting heavy weight as fast as you can often looks slow and is very different from flinging a light weight around. The latter movement is uncontrolled with lots of slop and slack, a perfect recipe for injury.
When you fling a light weight around, there is tension in the initiation of the movement, but as momentum takes over the need for that tension is diminished. As the weight reaches the end of the movement if there is not tension to halt the momentum tissues can be easily overstretched and torn. If the plane of movement is not controlled slop can take over and joints and tissues can be compromised by unfavorable angles that under even a light load can result in tears and dislocations.
Lifting heavy as fast as possible involves bracing, stabilization and the recruitment of many more nerves and muscle fibers, which is why it so beneficial. You are training your neurological system to be as effective as it can in generating as much force as it can.
This translates to a much more stable, powerful body capable of more dynamic movements, especially when relieved of a load. Heavy training in the gym equals a better, more capable body in the world.