Learn how to incorporate both high and low repetitions into your program for explosive gains in size and strength.
It is widely known that using high repetitions (15+) increases your muscular endurance, using low repetitions (1-5) increases your power and strength, and by using moderate repetitions (8-12) and higher training volume (total work done) you are training to achieve muscular growth or hypertrophy. Of course because some peoples bodies respond different to different types of training there are always going to be variances to these goal specific repetition ranges.
There are some bodybuilders who believe repetitions as low as 4 to 6 for most muscle groups are best for muscle growth while there are others who believe going as high as 15 repetitions is conductive for hypertrophy. But even with that said, in general the different repetition ranges do not deviate a w`hole lot.
Unfortunately many bodybuilders (usually beginners or intermediate level) simply choose one resistance that will allow them to come to failure at their moderate target rep range. In the same fashion I see many endurance athletes select one very light resistance that will allow them to perform an overkill amount of repetitions.
These methods are not necessarily wrong by any means, but it could definitely be improved upon or kicked up a notch. Using advanced techniques such as drop sets, rest/pause, extended sets, and incorporating both high and low repetition sets allows you to work your muscles in different energy systems while still reaching your target repetition range and achieving your specific goals and then some.
Some of these techniques will allow you to increase your strength or power as well as increase your muscle size and endurance all in one workout or even in one set. These techniques can be used to bust through training plateaus or to productively and efficiently speed through a workout in limited time.
These techniques are ideal for bodybuilding because they allow for a more complete fatigue and failure of the muscles while also creating greater progressive overload due to incorporation of low repetitions and heavy resistance. Often times endurance athletes neglect actual "strength" training because they don't think it will translate to their sport, which is completely untrue.
So, some of these techniques can be very beneficial for endurance athletes because it allows for an increase in both muscular strength and endurance. Due to the high intensity these techniques require you should limit the use of them in your program in order to prevent overtraining.
Drop sets are probably the most commonly used technique that allows you to work with both high and low repetitions in one set. A drop set entails performing an exercise with a certain amount of repetitions with a given weight, and then immediately "dropping" down to a lighter resistance and performing some more repetitions.
A double drop set would mean that you would "drop" twice, using a total of three different resistances during one complete set. A drop set serves many purposes. It allows you to increase your strength as well as build muscle and endurance if designed correctly.
It also serves to really tax and fatigue every last drop of energy your muscles may have at the end of a workout by upping the intensity as pumping some blood into the muscles. Drop sets are also great if you are in a time pinch but still want to give your muscles a real good throbbing.
There is no one way to do a drop set. There are almost infinite amounts of repetition schemes that can used to perform this type of set. Therefore, I will not attempt to discuss all of them. A classic example would be to use a resistance that causes you achieve failure at 5 or 6 repetitions (strength component), then drop to a resistance that allows you to only perform 5 or 6 more (muscle hypertrophy component).
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These are done with barbells. Do a set then, without racking the bar, get two spotters to pull off a preset amount of weight. Continue with that weight. Keep stripping as desired. This will thoroughly burn out a muscle. It is similar to drop sets, but there is absolutely no rest.
You can even take this set one step further by dropping the resistance one more time and shooting for failure at 6 or more (muscular endurance component). With this double drop set, you performed a total of 16 to 18 total repetitions (or more depending on how many reps performed on the last drop set).
But you got your strength component, muscle hypertrophy component (if total volume is high enough), and your muscular endurance component all in this one set - not to mention the coveted look and feel of blood engorged muscles.
It is crucial that each portion of a drop set is taken to fatigue - there is no point in dropping to a lighter weight if you can still perform more repetitions with a heavier one. We are not merely trying to create a good muscle pump but are more importantly trying to create progressive overload, which is what will actually cause the muscles to become bigger and stronger.
Priority should always be given to the first portion of the drop set, because here you have the most energy, are handling the most weight and therefore have the potential of creating the most overload on the muscles.
For example: if you're first priority is improving your power and secondly strength and even muscle gain, then the repetitions used for the first portion of your drop set should be very low (1-2) and the following repetitions and number of drops should fit accordingly with your interest in strength or muscle gain. The number of repetitions for each drop does not have to be equal to the others.
Prior to performing a drop set make sure that you have your weights all set up and ready to avoid any rest in between a drop. With pin-loaded machines make sure you know how to pull out and place the pin back into the weight stack. If you're using dumbbells, make sure that the ones you'll need are lined up by your feet or lying on a nearby bench so all you'll have to do is bend over and pick them up without hesitation.
With plate-loaded machines or bars, make sure you have the right plates on there so that all you or a training partner will have to do is strip off a plate or two on each side for every drop. In order to prevent delays, you do not want to add safety collars to the bar or be taking off plates and adding other ones!
Take a few seconds before performing a set and confirm with yourself or your partner what needs to be stripped off for every drop so that it happens without hesitation.
Drop sets are best incorporated into your program at the end of your workout or for the last set or two of your very last exercise for each muscle group.
This technique may be called different names by different trainers, but that is not important, what is actually important is what it is and how to incorporate it into your program. As effective and straightforward as this technique is, I don't see it used nearly as often as I'd like to see.
I feel it is one of the best plateau busters and best ways to condition yourself to get strong enough to move up in weight in a particular exercise. This technique is best suited for people who don't have a spotter or training partner to help you get a couple of forced repetitions up. This technique allows you to reach your target repetition range with a given weight even if you have fatigued by allowing you to crank out a couple of extra reps for good measure.
This is one instance where in my book momentum is allowed, and in most cases may actually be called for, and therefore this technique has the potential to cause injury if you overexert and allow your form to become sloppy. So in other words, as long as your form is proper and safe you can cheat a little.
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This is an advanced technique that allows you to get more reps with the same weight.
Rest-Pause Training works very well for high rep training as well when lactic acid burn forces you to stop. Do a set of calf raises until you can't take the pain, rest for a few seconds and shake out your legs to allow the lactic acid to be cleared somewhat, then do more reps until you seize up again. Shake it out and continue. This allows you to push to muscular failure instead of lactic acid failure.
Say you are shooting for 10 repetitions of the standing barbell biceps curl, but you come to muscular failure at 8 and cannot perform a 9th. You would rack the weight for no longer than 10 seconds, grab the bar off the rack again, and then try to crank out 1 or 2 more repetitions with whatever little reserve of energy you have.
Another example of using lift/pause would be with the dumbbell shoulder press. You would perform as many repetitions as possible and then rest the dumbbells on your shoulders or knees for just a couple of seconds before getting them back up there to crank out a few more. This technique should not be used to get more than 2 to 3 extra repetitions.
If you can get more than 2 or 3 reps, either your pause was too long or you did not come to failure the first time. In my opinion any rest longer than 15 seconds is a completely different set. The rest/pause should only be long enough for you to take a couple of deep breaths and for muscular, respiratory, neurological and psychological fatigue to go away just enough so that you can regroup and get those last couple of reps.
To really crank up the intensity you could do a double rest/pause which is definitely not for the faint of heart or will. This will test your intensity, determination, and willpower for sure. Using the previous example, if you could only get 1 extra rep on your first pause, but really had your mind set on putting 10 on your workout card, you could do another pause during the same set and shoot for that 10th rep.
As long as the pauses are kept very brief this is still considered only one set, but you may want to make a mental note or a note on your workout card stating that 10 was not achieved through a continuous set but through rest/pause.
Using this technique, you'll force your muscles to adapt due to the high intensity and progressive overload achieved and eventually will be able to perform all ten repetitions in a row without a pause. Once this is achieved, then you'll be able to move up to the next heaviest resistance if you wish.
You should only use this technique on exercises where there is no danger to you by performing them by yourself (such as biceps curls or dumbbell shoulder presses) or if you have a good spotter. You obviously would not want to use this technique for potentially dangerous exercises like the barbell bench press, barbell squat, etc. unless you have a trustworthy spotter.
Extended Sets (Same Part Supersetting)
This technique is similar to a superset in that it pairs two different exercises together for one total set, except you do not use opposing muscle group exercises for extended sets. For an extended set you instead use exercises that work the same muscles or muscle group.
Extended sets are also similar to drop sets in that one total set is separated into 2 or 3 portions without rest in between, but in most cases for the extended set the resistance is kept the same throughout in order to avoid any rest.
For extended sets, basically you select 2 or 3 different and easily interchangeable exercises that fatigue the same muscles but hit the muscle fibers differently. So when you fatigue with the first exercise you immediately go into the next exercise until fatigue, and then to the next if need be.
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This is a good way to train if time is limited. Supersetting involves doing two exercises with no rest in between. There are a number of different types of supersets.
Same Part Supersetting
This is the most common type. Do two different exercises that work the same bodypart, e.g. incline curls then barbell curls.
This is essentially pre-exhaust supersetting. Do a set of an isolation exercise then a set of a compound exercise, e.g. dumbbell flyes then bench press.
Do a set of an exercise for one bodypart then immediately do a set of an exercise for the antagonistic bodypart, e.g. barbell curls then tricep pushdowns.
Upper Body/Lower Body Supersetting Do an upper body exercise then a lower body exercise, or vice versa, e.g. chest then calves or calves then chest.
In-Set Superset Do two different exercises within a rep.
Do not superset muscles that assist with the other exercise unless you do them second, e.g. do not do pushdowns then bench press - tricep fatigue will limit your bench press work. You can, however, do the bench press first then do pushdowns.
An exception to this is if you are doing it to push your triceps further with the assistance of the pecs and shoulders. Then do triceps first. This would be a type of pre-exhaust superset.
The order you place your exercises is crucial and has to do with biomechanical advantages, which basically means that you can lift more with some exercises because of the angle of your body or bodyparts or because you have other muscles assisting. An example for an extended chest set: start with the incline bench press, go directly into the flat bench press, and then directly into the decline bench press.
The reason the exercises are ordered in this particular order is because you're biomechanically weakest on the incline, stronger on the flat press, and generally even stronger on the decline press. Think about it, if you were to order it in the complete opposite order, chances are good you wouldn't even be able to budge the weight by the time you got to the flat and especially incline press and therefore this technique would be useless.
So your exercise order in an extended set should go from your weakest exercise to your strongest one and incorporate similar movements in order to work the same muscles but prioritize different muscle fibers. The repetitions used for every portion will depend on how many different exercises you include in your extended set.
If you're focus is to build muscle than you'll generally want your total repetitions to be in the moderate repetition range and your total volume to be high, such as I discussed earlier. Your first exercise in the extended set should be one or two reps higher than the following exercises.
Check out this great article (right) for Superman Arms if you are interested in more examples of extended sets and sample repetition ranges.
Low Rep Sets & High Rep Sets In The Same Workout
Another way to get the best of both worlds of high and low repetitions in one workout is to have low rep/heavy weight exercises and higher rep/ lighter weight exercises. This is one of my personal favorite methods of working out. What this program entails is structuring your workout so that your compound or multiple muscle group exercises are ordered first and your easier or more isolated exercises are last.
The point of putting the hardest exercises first is because you are fresh and you want to be at your strongest for these exercises in order to produce the most possible overload. The only problem with going super heavy and low rep is that you usually don't get that pump that is associated with moderate to high repetitions.
If you're like me, you leave the gym feeling a little unsatisfied and feeling as if your muscles haven't been completely fatigued. So in order to fix this problem and push your muscles into hypertrophy and leave the gym pumped and content, you'll use your secondary exercises to pump some blood and nutrients into and really fatigue those individual muscles.
- [ Example for a leg workout: Low-rep squats, Low-rep leg press, High-rep leg curls, High-rep leg extensions. ]
By using this technique you'll be moving some serious weight and creating the most overload with your big mass-building exercises (such as barbell bench press) but you will still be achieving the pump and fatigue associated with bodybuilding.
As with all other resistance training programs, this program generally should not be used for more than 4 weeks because your body will adapt, your training will plateau, and your results will diminish.
Different Repetition Sets For The Same Exercise
This is not necessarily an advanced technique by any means, but more of a suggestion or option that could be used to change up your training program.
You will either need a training partner for this or you will have to work exclusively with machines or self spotting machines such as a smith machine. This will allow you to maintain and work on your strength (or power) on your different exercises as well as allow you train for a pump and fatigue on these same exercises.
After warming up, you would start out each exercise with 2 very heavy sets, where the resistance is heavy enough to cause failure at 5 repetitions or less. Your form on these first two sets does not have to be flawless or pretty, but it should be proper enough to prevent injury to yourself and others.
You don't need to concentrate on peak contraction, slow eccentric contractions (the negative portion of a movement), using very little momentum or most of the other things you've been told you should do for proper textbook form.
You have some leeway to cheat a bit and bend a few rules. Your goal on these first two sets is simply to move as much weight as possible so that you can improve your muscular strength, or power, if desired, as well as create the greatest overload. You should rest 2-3 minutes between these sets.
Once you have finished these 2 very intense and exhausting sets, finish the exercise off with 2 more sets using lighter resistance and higher repetitions (12-15). Your rest between these sets should be about 60-90 seconds. Now for these 2 sets it is actually very important that your form is very good and the repetitions are performed in a strict, slow and controlled manner.
It is on these 2 sets that you should focus on peak contraction and really squeezing the muscle for all its worth at the top of the movement and well as slowing down on the eccentric portion of the movement. So you finish this one exercise with 4 sets under your belt and with the inclusion of more exercises to increase the training volume, the stimulus potential for your muscles to both grow and become stronger or more powerful.
Structure all of the exercises in your workout either like this or with at least 1 "balls-to-the-walls" strength set and 2 strict and concentrated higher repetition sets.