We’ll admit, providing an article of advanced training techniques under the guise of a “muscle-building basics” article sounds counterintuitive. Incongruous, even, like finding a laminated menu at a five-star restaurant or the word “dignity” in a sentence about the Jersey Shore cast.
But trust us, the concepts aren’t as incompatible as they may initially seem. Truth is, when it comes to bodybuilding and weight training, “advanced” tricks of the trade aren’t just for the pros. A Mr. Olympia competitor may be bigger, stronger (and honestly, a lot more spray-tan orange) than you, but the same workout tweaks and tips that help him build more size can help anyone with three or more months of steady training experience under his or her belt.
That’s because physiologically, muscle is, well, muscle. Some of us have less, some have more, and we each have varied amounts of what are called fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. But even with those differences, all muscle thrives on the challenge of being pushed beyond its limits, giving it the impetus to grow bigger and stronger to be prepared next time it’s faced with a similar load.
With that in mind, the following four advanced techniques can work for you if used judiciously as part of your regular weight-training routine. Try them for yourself and see which you like and what you respond to best. They’re certain to make your gym time much more productive.
Go the Distance — and Then Some: Drop Sets
Although like snowflakes or Chicago Cubs failures, they’re all unique in their own way, each of the techniques in this article are designed to push you a little further in your workout, helping you move more weight more times than you may have thought possible. This is considered to be increasing “intensity,” and the more intense a workout, the more beneficial damage you cause to your target muscle fibers. While “damage” isn’t great in most cases, in training it’s vital because a muscle left undamaged does not have any reason to recover and grow stronger and larger. In other words, no damage, no results.
In the case of drop sets, then, the idea is to push your muscles to their breaking point, then lighten the load and do it again for good measure. To do the technique, you start with a standard set to failure, then immediately “drop” the weight roughly 20 percent and rep again to failure.
It’s very simple to accomplish on a machine — just reset the pin in the weight stack. But don’t be afraid to also try it with dumbbells and barbells, especially, for the latter, with those handy preset bars.
Like any intensity technique, you don’t want to use it every set, but with one or two exercises within a workout, incorporating a drop can ensure that you’re appropriately taxing your body and priming the pump for growth.
Sample Drop-Set Workout: Back
Play Red Light, Green Light: Rest/Pause
Sure, it sounds redundant. On second thought, it is redundant. But that doesn’t make the rest/pause technique any less effective in practice. To explain it, let’s explore a lying dumbbell press for the chest.
First, do full reps to failure, using enough weight to reach that threshold by 10 or 12 reps. Stop with the dumbbells in the down position for 10 seconds, then continue repping until failure. Continue this pattern two to four more times, either aiming for a certain number of reps as a total goal (such as 25 to 30) or until you’ve reached failure and don’t feel you can continue the set safely. At the end, you’ll have completed more reps with a given weight in a shorter amount of time than if you had performed standard sets, thus increasing your overall intensity.
Why does this work? When you terminate a set, your muscles actually regain a good portion of their strength within seconds. Normally, you don’t take advantage of this quick rebound, instead resting the typical 30 seconds to two minutes, which is not a bad idea, because, in most cases, you really want to fully recharge. However, by using this technique sparingly in your workouts, you force your body to rise to a new and unexpected challenge. As the trite old bodybuilding saying goes, “Keeping your body guessing keeps it growing.”
Sample Rest/Pause Workout: Chest
Get a Head Start: Pre-Exhaust
If you’re ready to put logic aside for a moment — hey, members of Congress do it all the time, why not us? — there’s a strategy that can pay nice dividends in the weight room.
Normally in a workout, you would do the most challenging exercises first. These “compound movements” employ multiple muscle groups, such as a squat (quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes) or a bench press (pectorals, front deltoids and triceps), to name two. The reasoning is, these exercises require the most energy and move the most weight, meaning it makes sense to do them when you’re fresh, then follow them up with “isolation” exercises, such as leg extensions or pec-deck flyes, in which one muscle group is the main mover.
However, sometimes flipping that concept on its head, as with the pre-exhaust technique, can help attack a lagging muscle in a whole new way. That’s because in some cases, the ancillary “helper” muscles, such as the triceps in the bench press or the biceps in a pull-up, give out before the main target, causing you to have to stop a set before you fully fatigue the muscle you’re really after.
Look at the following sample routine, for instance. It’s built for someone whose triceps are the “weak link” and tire while his deltoids are still rarin’ to go. But if you do laterals first — which target the delts while leaving the triceps largely out of the equation — your shoulders are already pre-fatigued a bit before you sit down for presses. The assistance muscles (triceps) are fresh and able to continue, allowing for the delts to be pushed to their true limit.
Again, like with other intensity techniques, you don’t want to rely on pre-exhaust too often. Here, it’s because it compromises how much weight you can lift on your compound moves, and as a rule, you want to be able to rep with as much resistance as possible to maximize strength. Employing pre-exhaust in every third or fourth workout, though, should help you strike the right balance.
Sample Pre-Exhaust Workout: Deltoids
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
15 (warm-up), 12, 10
Bent-Over Dummbell Raise
Seated Smith-Machine Press
12, 10, 10, 8, 8
EZ-Bar Upright Row
Make It Short and Sweet: Partial Reps
You may remember being told, “Don’t do anything halfway.” That otherwise well-intentioned advice doesn’t apply here. In fact, even halfway might be a touch too much. That’s because the partial-reps technique involves doing repetitions from one-quarter to one-half of the full range of motion of an exercise after you have done as many full reps as you can. It’s a way to ensure a muscle group has absolutely no energy left to muster.
To do it, choose a resistance that will cause you to reach muscle failure at the target rep range. Taking our arm-workout example, on cable pressdowns for triceps, you would stick the pin at a weight that you can’t finish more than 12 reps with. But at rep No. 12, instead of just stopping the set, you continue, first doing as many one-half reps as you can, then “pulsing” out one-quarter reps until you simply can’t move the stack anymore.
Obviously, this tactic can give you an unbelievable bout of delayed-onset muscle soreness the next day. You wouldn’t want to use it on every set, or even in every workout, because it can lead to overtraining, during which your body struggles to recover from workouts. Used judiciously, however, partials are a potent weapon in the battle for more muscle.