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Supramaximal Training
Pushing Intensity to the Max

How intense should your workout be?
How intense should your workout be?

There is a small percentage of people who are always pushing the boundaries. If lifting for 60 minutes is good, they'll see what happens if they regularly lift for 90. When they finish a marathon race, they start training for a 100 miler. Every limit is nothing more than an artificial boundary that someone, somewhere, will eventually bust through.

Personal trainers can be very influenced by those athletes, because no matter what extreme programs you give them, those athletes seem to always do better. 

Everything's good as long as those ultra-challenging programs are only used on appropriate people. That doesn't mean elements of extreme programs can't benefit regular people; we know they can. We know how to modify High-Intensity Training (HIT) for regular people and it's become an effective weight and fat loss technique. HIT works because researchers spent years figuring out the best way to safely implement it.

Now there's something more extreme. It's called Supramaximal training and it can be used in both weight lifting and cardio programs. Here's how the two versions work.

In weight training, it's called Supramaximal Eccentric Training or (SET). It means you'll be using more weight on the return or negative portion of an exercise than the initial pressing portion. To make it a little more clear, let me use the bench press as an example.

Start by loading up the bar with 10% more weight than you can lift. You won't be able to press the bar into place, but that's OK because you'll be using people as spotters that can. They help you push the bar up, then YOU use all your strength to lower the bar back down, as slowly as possible.

Researchers know we're capable of handling more weight on the return or eccentric portion of an exercise than the initial pressing or concentric phase. Estimates are between 15% all the way up to 50% or higher. If it was a regular bench press, you'd be limited to the weight you could lift.

With supramaximal eccentric training, you've got people to help you get the extra heavy load into place. That way on the return portion your muscles are actually getting the extra challenge you normally wouldn't be capable of giving them. The old school name for this type of lifting is heavy negatives.

Supramaximal Cardio Training is equally extreme. It's a cardio workout where you alternate between periods of all-out effort combined with rest times with almost no activity at all. In the exercise portion, you're moving at a rate so fast you're literally running out of breath. You can perform supramaximal cardio by running, cycling, swimming or doing other aerobic activities that allow short bursts of all-out effort.

The difference between supramaximal and interval training is the intensity. When performing interval training, you want to get your heart rate up to 100% of your VO2 max, keep it there for a while, then let it drop back down to between 50 and 70% of your VO2 max. Intervals are hard, but you're never supposed to exceed 100% of your VO2 max.

In Supramaximal training, the goal is to get your heart rate to between 115% and 150% of your VO2 max. You keep it there for a period of time, then let it drop back down to 50% of your VO2 max before starting again. During the intense phase, you're working at keeping your heart rate up high enough where breathing actually becomes difficult. During the recovery period, you're at full rest or at most very little activity.

Supramaximal programs have serious drawbacks. The first; when researchers looked at them in the lab, they found only a very small segment of the population was capable of performing them properly. The second; subjects were at extremely high risk of pulling, tearing or straining something when pushing their bodies to such limits. The final problem was the recovery time. Unlike traditional programs where recovery can happen in 48 hours, supramaximal programs can take as long as 7 to 10 days for recovery. Subjects were much more likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.

Because of all the issues and how little we understand about proper techniques around this training system, I believe there's just too much risk and too little reward for people to attempt. Let the researchers figure out the ideal populations that would benefit and exactly how supramaximal programs should be run before you risk them.

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