When you first arrive at the gym, your energy tends to be high. You’ve sidestepped the excuses, made the schlep, and the gleaming machines and weights are all laid out nicely before you ready to be put into action.
After a few warm-ups, you’re diving into your working sets. Blood is streaming into your targeted bodyparts, perspiration is beading, the iPod is thumping … all is right with the world.
But as they say, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And that begs a question: When you’re done, are you really done? Or could you do actually power out a few more repetitions?
Like a teppanyaki chef with a 5-year-old in the house, you can’t leave anything on the table. For maximum size-and-strength-building results, you want to literally force your muscles to adapt, and to accomplish that you need to constantly push them beyond their capabilities. In other words, you need to reach absolute failure.
The following intensity technique/exercise combos are designed to completely annihilate a muscle at the very end of a workout. You can mix and match the techniques and movements for variety, as all are effective ways to reach the point of momentary muscular failure, extending a set to the point where you simply cannot complete one more rep with good form. Try these, and you can walk away (or hobble, if it’s leg day), knowing you did everything you possibly could in pursuit of your goals.
Chest: Seated Hammer-Strength Machine Press with Rest/Pause
Choosing the standard, inclined or declined version of the Hammer Strength — which depends on which area of your pecs you want to emphasize — you’d complete 2–3 sets at the end of your chest workout. Load a weight with which you could only get 8–10 reps max, and aim for at least 12 reps, “resting” each time you reach failure for about five or so seconds … just enough time to regain a portion of your strength to continue repping until you hit 12 or better. (For instance, say you fail at eight, then rest and get to 11, then rest again and push through to 13 reps, at which point you can do no more and terminate the set.)
Shoulders: Upright EZ-Bar Row with Drop Sets
If you can, use the pre-loaded EZ bars for this exercise. Again, you’ll do 2–3 sets at the very end of the workout. Start with a weight with which you can only get 8–10 reps. Once you reach initial failure, rack the bar and grab the next lightest one, repping with that until failure. Repeat 1–2 more times before calling it quits.
Back: Pull-ups with Adjusted Grips
To extend a set, you can sometimes switch to an easier version of the same exercise to keep going. For instance, if you’re doing a dumbbell press for your chest, a flat press is easier than an incline — so if you start on an incline and reach failure, you’d pause to lower the adjustable bench to the flat position and then continue to rep. That theory works for pull-ups, too, which are a killer way to end a back routine. Start with wide overhand grip pull-ups until you can’t lift your head over the bar, then switch to the chin-style close underhanded grip, which call the biceps into action and are a little easier to continue the set. Once you fail, you can call it a day, or — if you have a spotter or a counterweighted pull station — use those to eke out a few more reps.
Quadriceps: Leg Extensions with Peak-Contracted Holds
A number of pros have adopted this technique at the end of their thigh workouts to really carve out the “teardrop” shape in their lower quads. They’ll do 2–5 sets of leg extensions, but instead of standard reps, they’ll hold the top position for up to five seconds, squeezing the quadriceps as hard as possible, continuing to do so at the apex of every rep until total failure is achieved.
A partner is needed with this finisher in which you rep to failure on a final set or two of lying leg curls, before getting help completing the positive portion of the rep. With that assistance, your partner then lets go so you can lower the weight slowly and under control. Stop after 3–5 reps or after you can no longer exert control on the descent.
Biceps: Preacher Machine Curl with Partial Reps
Bi’s are especially responsive to partial reps in which, once you reach failure through a full range of motion, you step down your ROM in increments, first to three-quarter reps, then to half-reps once you can no longer complete those, and finally to one-fourth “pulse” reps at the very end.
Triceps: Cable Pushdown with Ascending/Descending Sets
Stack-weight machines are ideal for ascending/descending sets, a technique where you work your way up in quick succession, then work your way back down the stack upon reaching failure. Say you start with 40 pounds on the pushdown; you’d do 10 reps at 40, then 10 at 50, 10 at 60, 10 at 70, and then, say, you fail at 6 on 80. From there, you’d immediately work your way back down, churning out reps until failing at each click of the pin.