Advanced training techniques are often the subject of magazine articles and internet message board discussions. While many training techniques have been created and employed by millions of bodybuilders the world over, most of the so-called "new" training methods and training techniques are merely variations on the group of traditional advanced training techniques employed by professional bodybuilders.
While the "new" training techniques may come in and out of vogue, professional bodybuilders have always employed an unchanging arsenal of highly-effective and highly-specific advanced training techniques that's stood the test of time.
I had the chance to interview bodybuilding legend and Labrada Nutrition Founder and CEO Lee Labrada. Lee Labrada is a bodybuilding legend and a member of the IFBB Professional Bodybuilding Hall Of Fame. During his competitive career, Lee never placed lower than 3rd in the Mr. Olympia contest, always brining in a conditioned, muscular physique. To many, Lee Labrada is the true uncrowned Mr. Olympia.
In this interview, Lee discusses advanced training techniques and provides his Professional expertise of over 30 years.
[ CS ] Thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
Let's get right to it. We're talking about advanced training techniques - specialized training techniques that have been the almost exclusive inside knowledge of the top professional bodybuilders over the years. While a lot of information has been published in various places, very little understandable information has been available to the public on how exactly to correctly understand and use these techniques. This is where you come in.
When people think of advanced training techniques they may have one or more of the following come to mind:
- Forced repetitions
- Partial repetitions
- Pre-exhaust technique
- Cheat sets
- Drop sets
- Giant sets
- 2-up-1-down negatives
- Strip sets
In your professional opinion, why are advanced training techniques necessary?
[ LL ] Bodybuilding is all about putting stress on a muscle. If you cannot achieve a sufficient amount of stress using straight repetitions and sets, then these advanced training techniques can help the advanced trainer push the muscle beyond the normal failure point and into that growth threshold.
For example, beginners seldom need to use forced repetitions because their bodies are adapting to the stimulus that they are getting from doing straight sets and repetitions. Advanced bodybuilders, by contrast, can benefit from the techniques that you had just mentioned because all of these techniques raise the amount of stress that is placed upon a muscle.
Forced repetitions is one of the evident manners in which you can increase the amount of stress placed on the muscle. With this technique, a training partner assists you to do forced repetitions at the end of a set. This typically throws the amount of stress on the muscle into the stratosphere. Used prudently and judiciously, these techniques can really help trigger tremendous growth.
[ CS ] In your career, did you use advanced training techniques all of the time? Or, did you use them selectively and sparingly and for a specific purpose?
[ LL ] I always used advanced training techniques selectively and sparingly - selectively and sparingly are the key words.
I feel that even an advanced bodybuilder - a professional bodybuilder - can overtrain if they use these advanced techniques too much. Addressing the specific techniques that I used, I favored forced repetitions at the end of a set when I was training with a partner.
In the case of forced repetitions, it's very important to not overkill the concept - meaning, perform only one or two forced repetitions. If you're doing three or four, you're doing too much and will burn out the muscle.
Partial repetitions is another technique that I used - sparingly. I was always a fan of doing full repetitions on every set. However, at the very end of a set where you cannot do any more, and especially if you don't have a training partner, the partial repetitions are good for eking out a little bit more out of the exercise.
The legendary Tom Platz - arguably the owner of the best quads in all of bodybuilding, and certainly the best pair of legs I've ever seen - was a master of partial repetitions. Tom was one of these guys that would finish a set of chins, and literally hang there just trying to eke out the last few inches; for him it was a do-or-die effort.
He was so committed that even if he could move only two or three inches on his final set, he would still be trying to pull himself up as much as he could. Partials are all about exhausting the muscle until you cannot do any more.
I also always used the pre-exhaust method - meaning, that I would perform an isolation movement - i.e. leg extensions - followed by a compound movement - i.e. leg press - that worked more than one joint. I found that on the second exercise, the muscle would be pushed into the range of failure very quickly by first employing the pre-exhaust method.
By employing the pre-exhaust method, the isolation exercise would focus solely on the target muscle, and the compound exercise would work the pre-fatigued muscles as well as trigger other muscles to kick in to help drive the pre-exhausted target muscles past the point of normal failure.
[ CS ] Let's talk very briefly about each of these techniques. Can you briefly describe what you would be doing for each of these techniques? Let's start with cheat sets.
[ LL ] Basically, cheat sets is the practice of using sloppy technique at the end of an exercise to overcome the sticking point. The sets were used with specific exercises like curls. I always used cheat sets very sparingly as I was a stickler for good form.
I was not very fond of drop sets because it was my feeling that stimulating the muscle was enough to go to exhaustion at the particular weight that I was using. I did not feel that it was necessary for me to strip down the weight and go back into the set.
While I did not feel that overtraining was a particular risk with this technique, I did not think that drop sets would allow me to train the muscles using the heaviest possible weights.
As a case in point, if I was to start a set of curls and then drop the weight by 20 pounds, there is a rest there involved while I'm stripping down the weight. Following this, you may only be able to perform two or three more repetitions. I felt like this method would never give the muscle enough recovery time at the cellular level so that the muscle could again exert its greatest force.
[ CS ] So is it accurate to say that the declining muscular efficiency would be so great that the benefit of this technique would be lost?
[ LL ] Yes, and this is why I did not care for the technique.
In the case of the rest-pause technique, this was an interesting technique that I did not use very much. This technique is employed by performing as many repetitions as you can with maximal weight. Once you can not perform more repetitions, you set down the weight for a short pause of 3-4 seconds and then continue performing another repetitions. Keep repeating this until you can't do any more.
In my view, this technique is more suitable for powerlifting or strength building, and not so much for bodybuilding.
I liked supersets, especially when employed with the pre-exhaust technique - i.e. an isolation exercise followed by a compound movement. In my view, this practice was highly effective.
[ CS ] At this point, I think it may be good to clarify the difference between a superset and a giant set for the readers who may not know the difference.
[ LL ] A giant set is the practice of going from one exercise to another very quickly. It's my view that this practice is great if you are in a hurry to finish a workout, or if you are more focused on improving your conditioning.
One of the risks with this technique, however, is that the ability of your body to exert energy becomes the rate limiting factor - meaning that the muscle is fatigued so quickly that there is a tremendous loss of efficiency and benefit. For this reason, I do not feel that this is an effective technique.
As a final thought on giant sets, I don't think that there is a risk of muscular depletion and overtraining presented by this method because, like the other method mentioned, it involves sub-maximal weights.
However, within the context of a long and intense workout, central nervous system overload is a distinct possibility. From my perspective, high-intensity exercise is effective for workouts of short duration only. With a long workout, high-intensity training results in overtraining and central nervous system burnout.
1 of 3: The Central Nervous System (CNS):
The human central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. These lie in the midline of the body and are protected by the skull and vertebrae respectively.
This collection of billions of neurons is arguably the most complex object known.
The central nervous system along with the peripheral nervous system comprise a primary division of controls that command all physical activities of a human.
Neurons of the central nervous system affect consciousness and mental activity while spinal extensions of central nervous system neuron pathways affect skeletal muscles and organs in the body.
[ CS ] This is an excellent point. So the take-home message on giant sets is to use sub-maximal weight only.
[ LL ] Giant sets are good for conditioning, but not so great for building size and not appropriate for contest training.
Slow negatives is a technique that is incredibly effective and can be used at any time - even when training alone. For example, at the end of the set your muscles are failing but you want to get more out of the set in order to drive it into the critical "growth phase."
You can achieve that by slowing down the negative - the eccentric portion of the exercise. To clarify, the eccentric portion of the exercise is the portion in which the muscle is lengthening under tension.
In the case of a biceps curl, the lowering of the bar would constitute the negative or eccentric portion of the exercise. By contrast, the concentric part of the exercise is the positive part of the exercise - the action of raising the bar towards your shoulders.
With this method, it is common to cheat the weight up and then slowly lower the weight, often taking up to four seconds on the way down. This really causes the muscle to grow.
Burns is another advanced technique that I consider to be a fancy name for forced repetitions. With this method, you would use a sub-maximal weight that is so light that you could still use it to continue to pump and work the muscle after lactic acid has built up. When you keep working under these conditions, your muscles really light up.
Strip set refers to reducing the weight that you're using by 10% or so with each succeeding set. For example, if you start out with 100 pounds for curls, then on your next set you would do 90 pounds and 80 pounds on your subsequent set.
I was a huge proponent of this technique. Once you are warmed up, I think that you should start with your heaviest training weight, doing as many repetitions as possible, and begin to strip 10% of the weight off with each succeeding set while going to failure on each set. This is a very powerful training method.
[ CS ] Let's talk about safety. Many of the younger and less experienced bodybuilders focus only on moving weight and not so much on moving their muscles under the weight correctly. This is responsible for a lot of the injuries and stunted growth that we see in younger bodybuilders.
Additionally, the "hardcore" mindset that is promoted in the magazines today unfortunately fuels this practice, while almost totally ignoring safety issues.
In your view, what are some of the safety issues and concerns that bodybuilders need to be aware of to use these techniques correctly and safely for the best results?
[ LL ] I am so glad that you brought that up. Too often bodybuilders focus on just moving the weight, and they don't focus enough on what exactly is taking place during the movement. Remember: your muscles are blind - they cannot see how much weight you are handling, but they can feel the resistance that you have on them.
Many times, a bodybuilder reaches a point where his enthusiasm is such that he wants to continue to increase the weight, and this is often accomplished only by getting out of the correct plane of motion - and this is where injuries occur.
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My advice for younger bodybuilders and novice bodybuilders is this: it's not the size of the tool - it's how you use it! You can utilize a lighter weight to your advantage to increase muscle growth without damaging the joints or throwing yourself into a precarious position where you can get injured.
Secondly, when using these advanced techniques - and especially when we are talking about negatives - it is critical to have a good training partner. For example, I'll need my training partner if I am doing leg presses and I decide that I am going to continue the exercise to exhaustion - which I challenge any reader to do because it's a spiritual experience.
Eventually, I will reach a point where I reach negative failure, which begs the question: who is going to pull the weight off of me when I reach negative failure? How am I going to get the weight up? And, can I control the weight on the way down in such a manner that I don't ruin my knees, or end up with my knees going through my chest? These are just some considerations.
The biggest problem and source of injury amongst young trainees is using too much weight on exercises, at the expense of correct form. As a result, they throw their body into an incorrect and unnatural plane of motion and end up screwing up tendons, ligaments and joints.
[ CS ] So, staying true to form at all times is critical. I know that you are a huge proponent of maintaining "continuous tension." Tell us about that.
[ LL ] Yes. Continuous tension is one of those really important tips that I always give to my students. Continuous tension is one of the greatest training techniques - ever. Utilizing continuous tension involves maintaining tension on the muscle at all times. This may sound very basic, but most people do not do this correctly.
To return to our example of leg presses, most bodybuilders load the leg press machine with so much weight that they have to keep their knees locked at the very top of the movement, and they lower the weight down halfway to perform a partial repetition - then they push the weight back up and lock their knees out again.
By contrast, I always use considerably less weight than the ego-lifters but I perform a full range of motion all the way down, and all the way up - just shy of locking my knees out. As a result, the muscle is always under continuous tension and I never stop moving the weight.
If you were ever to see me doing an exercise, it looks almost as if I am pumping the weight through the full range of motion, never stopping at the bottom and never stopping at the top.
On leg presses, locking out your knees takes the stress off of the muscle and puts the full weight load on the joints - one of the most vulnerable points in your body. By stressing continuous tension, I always achieved tremendous results and never experienced any serious injuries.
Continuous tension also has the benefit of aiding the mind muscle connection - putting you into a state of constantly being aware of how the muscle is feeling. And I would rather use 80% of a maximal weight and be able to focus on what is happening within muscle - to really get my head into the muscle and to feel it work for the entire range of motion - instead of using a weight that is too heavy and does not allow me to feel what my muscles are doing.
[ CS ] This brings us to our next question, and I want to address the fact that the "hardcore" mentality promoted in the magazines today lends itself to the misconception that professional bodybuilders use only advanced training techniques.
[ LL ] It's important to understand that the magazines are always looking to promote the advanced training techniques because that is the only way that they can keep their articles interesting from one month to the next.
The truth is: bodybuilding is not conceptually that difficult. At the end of the day, building muscle is about subjecting your muscles to a stress that they are not used to - your muscles don't care so much how you achieve this. Once you create the stress that the muscle is not accustomed to and provide your muscles with what they needs in terms of rest, recovery, nutrition and supplementation, your muscle are very likely to grow.
From the perspective of the magazines, it's important to have elements that spice things up so that readers stay interested. As a result, magazines are always digging out the advanced techniques.
This is one big mistake that novice bodybuilders make: they get into routines that are very advanced and that cause them to be overtrained. Perhaps the volume is too high or the techniques are too esoteric.
If you want to get big, keep it really simple: use basic sets and reps and utilize heavy weight with good, strict form.
Most champions, train with basic movements and they keep it simple, using these techniques sparingly. In many cases, professional bodybuilders use advanced techniques only before competitions. These movements do not supersede or replace a basic program.
[ CS ] Many of our readers may be in a familiar situation: they're sticking it out at the gym, they're eating in a way that they think is right - and they're not growing. Many of them might think that they are "hard gainers" but it is certain that they've hit a plateau. At this point, they might start thinking about using these advanced training techniques. What is your opinion of this?
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[ LL ] The growth phase is an amazing phase - where you are growing and adding weight and making progress - but eventually you will hit a plateau.
At this point, take a step back and give your body a chance to recoup and to regroup itself in order to set itself up for more growth. Usually, when you hit a plateau, it is usually your body saying "I need time to restructure and to cement into place the gains that I've already made." Give your body that time.
Building muscle is hard work, and it is critical that you give your body the chance to rebuild its energy stores and to realign itself in order to regain its equilibrium at a bigger size.
I always recommend that my trainees lighten up on the weights that they use and reduce the stress that they're putting on their body - I recommend this for a period of at least one week. In the gym, then, they'll use lighter weights and simply pump the weight to stimulate the muscle and pump some blood through the muscle, all the while avoiding muscular burnout.
When faced with a plateau, it's important to examine your diet and supplementation program. Many times, diet and supplementation are the rate-limiting factor for most bodybuilders.
[ CS ] Now that we've examined these techniques in detail, is there anything that bodybuilders can do in conjunction with these techniques to get the maximum benefit? For example, stretching, nutrition, supplementation...?
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[ LL ] Stretching is a wonderful technique.
On its own, stretching keeps the muscles from shortening and keeps them long and functional. It also helps to stretch the connective tissue and fascia, enabling the free flow of blood and nutrients while simultaneously giving the muscle an area into which to grow.
Stretching is very conducive to growth and very conducive to not just putting on more size, but functional size - muscle that you can use for a variety of tasks besides show.
Another technique that I like is the judicious use of cardiovascular exercise. In my view, cardiovascular exercise is much more than simply a method of exercise to burn body fat.
Cardio is something that can be used to flush toxins and waste products out of your muscles, thereby accelerating recovery. It does this by increasing your heart rate - increasing the rate of the mechanical pump that is your heart - thereby increasing the circulation of oxygenated and nutrient rich blood throughout your body.
There are many things that you can do from a nutritional and supplementation perspective.
[ CS ] What can a bodybuilder do as far as nutrition and supplementation are concerned in order to get the most benefit from these advanced training techniques?
[ LL ] With these advanced training techniques, there is an increased risk of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is true any time that you tax a muscle beyond its current capabilities - something that you do frequently if you are a good bodybuilder.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness refers to deep tissue muscle soreness that you experience 48 to 72 hours after a heavy bout of training. This condition is particularly associated with heavy negative training - any workout that uses really heavy weights and accentuates the negative portion of the exercise. Knowing how to deal with DOMS is important if you are going to grow.
Mechanically, massage and ice compresses can be employed to lessen pain. As mentioned, cardiovascular exercise is also great. From a biochemical standpoint, the use of systemic enzymes - enzymes that work at the level of the body - is ideal. These systemic enzymes should not be confused with digestive enzymes because they are not the same.
Systemic enzymes are very effective at reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and increasing recovery ability naturally. Sadly, the use of these enzymes is often overlooked by the bodybuilding community - there is a staggering amount of ignorance about the use of these very powerful enzymes.
The bodybuilders and powerlifters who are in the know, the ones who have used these systemic enzymes in conjunction with their training, have told me that their results are nothing short of spectacular.
There is one product that I have formulated for myself - it's called Sorenzyme. I developed this product over many years based on my experience using enzymatic therapy when I was traveling through Europe. All of the enzymes in Sorenzyme have been clinically documented to reduce DOMS.
[ CS ] In your view, who should not use these advanced training techniques? And when is it not appropriate to use them?
[ LL ] In my view, the simplest answer is that beginning bodybuilders - bodybuilders in their first year or two years of training - should not use these advanced techniques. These bodybuilders are going to get a phenomenal response from using the basic techniques. Intermediate bodybuilders should use advanced techniques sparingly and for brief periods of time to increase their working intensity.
These techniques should be used with the full knowledge that they can quickly bring on overtraining if not used judiciously.
[ CS ] Lee, this has been an awesome interview. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
[ LL ] Yes. It's a real pleasure to be able to talk with the readers of Bodybuilding.com and to impart my 30 years of bodybuilding wisdom. Thanks.