We often put a lot of emphasis on the importance of having a training partner. For safety reasons, timely encouragement and for help to get past sticking points, there’s no denying that a partner is invaluable.
But for many of you, training alone is your only option. You have to self-motivate, self-spot and you have to get yourself to the next level on your own. If that’s the case, we’re here to tell you that if it’s all up to you, your gains just might be in the best hands. Whereas having a partner allows you to blast past failure with forced reps, after learning about what tactics you can do sans training partner, and the kinds of gains they induce, you might agree that a training partner would likely just get in the way, anyway.
Regardless of whether you train solo or not, one overriding principle holds true: Your body will only change according to the level at which you stress it. In other words, if you don’t overload your target muscles and push yourself beyond normal limits, your gains will slow to a halt. Economists may call it the law of diminishing returns, but it applies equally well to your bodybuilding efforts. Quite frankly, a standard, straight-sets approach each day just isn’t going to cut it because you quickly adapt to the stress level you place on your body after a few months, especially if you don’t continue to up the ante, so to speak.
Now if on the other hand you force your body to work harder, differently or for longer periods of time, then we’re talking about continued gains in muscle or strength. Here, we dive into techniques that allow for those very principles of overload. How do you increase the overload to improve muscle gains without a training partner to assist you? We break down six training tools that cause damage, promote muscle confusion as well as increase the time under tension of the target muscle — all techniques the solo trainer can use to his advantage. We’ll isolate each scheme, what it is, how it works and offer some examples of how to work it into your routine.
Solo Tactic #1: Rest Pause
What is it:A favorite among competitive bodybuilders whether they have a partner or not, rest-pause is a technique that helps boost your intensity by allowing you to tap into your creatine phosphate (CP) system. CP is responsible for supplying energy for powerful bursts in muscle fibers, such as sprints and low-rep explosive sets of weight training. Although CP lasts only briefly, fortunately it’s replenished during rest periods very quickly.
With rest-pause, you train briefly with a fairly heavy weight, then rest for a very brief period, then train again, then rest again, repeating this sequence over and over. It basically allows you to complete more reps with a given weight than you could otherwise accomplish in straight-set fashion. Straight sets exhaust the CP system whereas using the rest-pause technique allows you to blast the target muscle but rest it before reaching failure, tapping into your body’s ability to quickly replenish energy. How quick? Really no more than 15–20 seconds. With that replenished energy you can restart your set having regenerated greater force and more reps at a given weight. The more force and reps you can perform in a given time period, the bigger your muscles will grow in response.
How to use it: While the load and the rest periods can vary, we suggest you select a weight that would cause you to fail between 6–7 reps, but do only 3–4 reps, then stop. It might feel at first like you should keep going as you haven’t reached muscle failure, but resist that urge and force yourself to stop. Rest for 15–20 seconds, then repeat for another 3–4 reps.
Continue this work, rest, work, rest sequence as many times as possible until you cannot do three reps. All that starting and stopping constitutes just one set. Each set then, comprises several small segments that make up a full rest-pause set. So if you do four small sets of 3–4 reps at a time that makes one rest-pause set, which totals 12–16 reps with a weight that would’ve caused failure at seven reps!
One important note: You can also use the rest-pause technique at different intensities. The 6–7RM is a fairly heavy weight, but later in your workout you might want to use a 10RM weight, or even a 12RM weight, in which case the total number of reps on a given set — and the pump — will escalate significantly. Because you don’t have a partner, it’s important to make sure you’re safe and that you use your time wisely as you attempt to increase your intensity through these tactics. That’s why it’s important to select the best tools for each.
The rest-pause technique is great when applied to most machines, either plate-loaded or pin-loaded, as well as within the power rack or Smith machine. It might not be the best choice to do with tools like dumbbells or barbells because getting a weight into and out of position takes time and effort. While some bodybuilders are staunch supporters of this technique, incorporating it every time they step foot into the gym, in actuality, rest-pause employs a very high level of intensity with heavy weights, which can lead to overtraining. Instead, we encourage you to throw in several weeks of straight-sets workouts to rest your joints and avoid overtraining.
What a Sample Program Looks Like:Here’s an example of what a single rest-pause set might look like when applied to the overhead press for shoulders.
* Choose a weight that you can do for just seven reps (your 7RM) but don't do seven -- do just four and rack the weight, then follow rest-pause protocol.
Important Note: When you can't perform at least two reps, you can quit the set and rest a full two minutes to restore your system. Even though CP recovers quickly, when you string together multiple sets like this, eventually the stores are too diminished to allow you to continue at a very high intensity.
Best used with: Pin-loaded and plate -loaded machines, power racks and Smith machines, cable-driven exercises
Avoid using with:Dumbbells, free-weight barbells
Solo Tactic #2: Partial Reps
What is it: If you’re looking for the opportunity for some serious barbell work but find it difficult to push yourself without a spotter, this is your technique.
The partial-rep technique basically breaks a lift into smaller components within the range of motion (ROM), allowing you to handle a weight that’s much heavier than you could normally use if you were working in a full ROM. This is especially helpful for those who go it alone.
Every lift has a particular range of motion, but no matter the lift or exercise, that ROM can be broken down into pieces. By working in a shortened ROM, you allow the muscle fibers to adapt to the heavier weight at a given point. (As an example, think of the guy who does very shallow squats with very heavy weights — far heavier than he could ever do for a full range of motion. He’s engaging in exactly this type of training.)
Now typically, when you think of partials, it’s the last few inches of the ROM that probably come to mind as you lock out the weight. But actually, any portion of a lift is considered a “partial” if it’s less than the full potential ROM. Because you don’t have a spotter to help you through the tough sets, it’s up to you to make each and every inch of a set the best it can be, and partials allow you to safely work heavy on your own.
The best place to do partials is on the Smith machine or, even better, the power rack where you can adjust the safety bars to limit the range of motion. With free weights it’s difficult to stop the motion at the intended point, but that’s easily solved when using a power rack and a barbell. While you can build up your strength over a portion of the ROM with a heavier than normal weight, it’s important to know that you don’t want to always isolate your partial training to only one particular portion of the ROM, because your gains in strength will be limited to that particular ROM. (The guy who always does shallow squats still has skinny legs.) Therefore, over time, you’ll need to adjust the safety bars, working various parts of the ROM so that you gain strength throughout. If it’s the last few inches of a lift where you begin, that’s fine. Just make sure that from one set to the next or from one workout to the next, you change the safeties to another level, affording a different angle the same benefit of using more weight than normal.
How to use it:At whatever angle you choose to train using partials, we suggest starting with about 10–15% more weight than you can lift for your full-range 10RM. (That is, choose a weight that you can do for 10 and only 10 reps, then add 10–15% more weight.) Again, week to week, you can lower the safety bars to the next setting (usually a couple of inches) and expand the ROM. If you choose to lower the weight a couple of inches in the same workout, you’ll obviously have to reduce the weight somewhat, but you should still be lifting more than you could handle through a complete ROM at each level. Then, from week to week, the weight you begin each training session with will be more than the previous week, based on your new foundation of strength.
What a Sample Program Looks Like: Here’s how your bench press approach using partials might look from week to week or even set to set.
10RM + 10%
4 inches from top
6 inches from top
10 inches from top
12-14 inches from top
* You can change the safety bar positions from set to set as shown here, or do all of your sets in the uppermost position, and then change the safeties on your next workout to the next lower position.
Best bodyparts: Chest, legs
Best used with: Power rack and Smith machine, some machines with range-restriction capabilities
Avoid using with:Free-weight dumbbells, barbells, cables
Solo Tactic #3: Drop Sets
What is it: A Godsend for those who train alone, drop sets are a way to increase the intensity of a session by immediately reducing the weight of an exercise and continuing to do reps after initial failure. For example, if you can complete eight reps on the dumbbell preacher curl, you immediately grab another set of dumbbells (roughly 20% lighter) after the eighth rep and continue curling, doing as many reps as possible with that weight before reaching muscle failure yet again and quickly trading for another lighter set.
This can be done numerous times, but regardless of how many drops you perform per set, it’s considered only one set. To add to the already intense nature of drops sets, it’s critical to keep your rest periods short.
How to use it: Basically, rest as long as it takes you to grab a lighter set of dumbbells and get set up on the bench. Or, if you’re on a machine, you basically rest only as long as it takes you to adjust the weight and get into position again.
Using this immediate drop-set mentality forces your target muscles to continue contracting against a lighter resistance, causing an elevated response of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1, both instrumental for gains in mass. Dumbbells and pin-loaded machines are excellent choices for drop sets, simply because it’s easier to get to the next set of weights or adjust the load with that equipment than it is to strip the plates off both sides of a barbell, for example, which dilutes the muscle-building effect by lengthening the rest period.
If you wait too long between sets, the benefits of the tactic are diminished, and because you’re training alone and achieving muscular failure frequently, you can do so without worrying about the weight crashing down on you. In terms of rest between workouts, you should allow as few as four days and as many as a full seven days between workouts that employ drop sets because of the intense nature of the technique. You should also incorporate drop sets for a few weeks and then take a rest from the technique for a few weeks to avoid overtraining.
What a Sample Program Looks Like:Here’s what a standing dumbbell curl would look like when using the drop-set tactic.
Standing Dumbbell Curl
* It's important that you select a weight that corresponds exactly with your desired failure on your first set. If you stop the set at a rep in which you could have continued the set, the weight was too light.
Best used with: Pin-loaded machines and dumbbells
Avoid using with:Barbell exercises, plate-loaded machines
Solo Tactic #4: Forced Reps
What it is: Though you may think this great technique is meant to be used with a training partner, go back to the definition of forced reps and you’ll find that it can in fact also be employed by a solo trainer.
Forced reps involves reaching failure on a set and then “forcing” more reps beyond that initial failure. By forcing your muscles to contract after initial failure, the chances of muscle growth increase dramatically. In fact, studies have shown when weightlifters use forced reps, their growth hormone (GH) levels rise about three times higher than when they train to failure and then stop. That increase in GH not only helps add muscle size and strength but also assists in fat loss.
But even though you train alone doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy the benefits that forced reps allow. You just have to get creative and be patient when it comes to your routines, since you’ll be working one side at a time with unilateral movements.
How to use it: The key will be to use your non-working limb to assist the working side to blast beyond failure at the end of a set. For example, during overhead triceps extensions, your non-working hand should be resting under your working triceps to help force more reps than you could normally do by using just your working arm. Same thing goes for biceps exercises like dumbbell curls and leg exercises such as the leg press. You can use your hands to assist your quads or you may even allow your non-working leg to provide just enough of a lift on the platform at the end of a set to squeeze out a few more reps.
By applying the forced reps tactic upon certain exercises, it forces you to work each side independently. Doing so allows for other benefits like being able to spot muscular strength imbalances between sides of your body. And because forced reps are so intense, much like drop sets, you need to allow ample time between workouts of the same bodypart to allow for adequate rest and recovery.
What a Sample Program Looks Like:Here’s what a typical set of forced reps would look like when applied to your triceps workout.
Overhead Triceps Extension
6 (+ 2-3 forced reps)
8 (+ 2-3 forced reps)
10 (+ 2-3 forced reps)
* Choose a weight so that you reach muscle failure at the target rep. Additional forced reps are done with the assistance of the non-working hand
Note: After each set, you can either rest and repeat on the same limb, or you can alternate sides.
Best bodyparts: Biceps, triceps, legs
Best used with: Single-limb moves, dumbbells, leg machines, cables
Avoid using with: Barbell moves, most chest, delt or shoulder exercises
Solo Tactic #5: Pre-Exhaust
What is it:Probably one of the more underused and misunderstood techniques, the pre-exhaust method involves performing a single-joint (or isolation) exercise(s) first in your session, then following it with compound (or multijoint) exercises. This is a reversal of how you normally approach your training for larger bodyparts.
Because you don’t have the benefit of a workout partner, making sure that the target muscle gets completely fatigued is imperative. Therefore, the goal of pre-exhaust is to fatigue the target muscle group so that when you perform the multijoint exercise afterward, not only does the target muscle continue to be trained, but the set won’t end prematurely because of stabilizer or secondary muscle group fatigue.
Pre-exhaust tactics, in fact, can replace the “forced rep” benefit you get when having a partner because you can most certainly train a target muscle harder and to a point of greater overall muscle fatigue. In fact even using the word “fatigue” is a bit of a misnomer; you want the target muscle to be fully destroyed at the end of your workout and not subject it to the limitations of any assisting muscles, and pre-exhaust better allows you to do just that. As an example, while you’d normally do bench presses before flyes and squats before leg extensions in a mass-building workout, with pre-exhaust you flip the order by doing the single-joint move first.
How to use it:To pre-exhaust a given bodypart, you simply do the single-joint move (one set of joints is working, not two or more) before the multijoint exercise. To pre-exhaust the quads, do the leg extension before hitting it with a heavier compound exercise such as the squat. (Remember, you typically use less weight on the single-joint exercise than you can with a multijoint move, and that doesn’t change no matter what order your exercises.) The squat incorporates not only the quads but also requires the assistance of your hamstrings and glutes (among other muscles). By hitting just the quads by beginning with the leg extension, you can be more assured that by the end of your last set of squats, your quads will have been completely trained and any weakness in your glutes or hamstrings will not bring about the end of the set.
A couple of points to remember:Typically you do single-joint moves toward the end of your workout, which by then you’ve already achieved a degree of fatigue. Doing them first means you’ll be fresh and be able to use slightly heavier weights than normal. Resist the temptation of doing very heavy weights on single-joint moves, even when doing them first in your workout, as they usually put greater pressure on your joints. Likewise, you’ll be somewhat fatigued when you get to your multijoint exercises, so don’t expect to be able to push the same kinds of weights that you do when you’re fresh and you do that exercise first in your routine.
Second, you can do more than just one single-joint exercise before you do your multijoint move. For example, on chest day you could do incline-bench dumbbell flyes and the machine pec-deck (each of those exercises hits the pecs from slightly different angles) before doing your compound chest presses. For shoulders, as another example do lateral raises (a single-joint exercise that targets the middle delts) as a way to pre-exhaust the shoulders before overhead presses (a compound move that hits all three delts heads, though primarily the front and middle delts). Because overhead presses are dependent upon the weaker and smaller triceps muscle, by pre-exhausting the delts with lateral raises, by the end of the overhead press sets — which are dependent upon the triceps — your delts will be more completely fatigued.
What a Sample Program Looks Like: Here’s what a typical pre-exhaust day would look like when applied to your leg training.
12, 10, 8, 8, 8
10, 8, 6, 10
10, 12, 15
8, 10, 12
Lying Leg Curl
10, 12, 15
* This is your pre-exhaust exercise, but you can do more than one exercise. Each set needs to be taken to complete exhaustion before moving on the compound, multijoint move, which in this case is the squat.
Best bodyparts: Chest, legs, delts
Best used with (for isolation moves): Cables, dumbbells, machines
Avoid using with:Barbell moves (which are typically multijoint in nature)