Feetfirst or headfirst?
For most of us standing atop the local pool’s high dive for the very first time, that question didn’t even cross our minds. Climbing rung by rung up the long ladder, trying not to notice the people below growing smaller and smaller, then creeping warily to the edge of the board, there was no doubt to the answer. In that moment, no amount of advanced instruction would have mattered. Nope, just close your eyes, step off and let the toes lead the way.
Walking into the weight room for the first time can invoke similar trepidation. Just show me how to lift and lower the weight, thank you very much, and save the fancy cutting-edge stuff for another time. A few sessions in, though, as you gain confidence, you start noticing what’s going on around you: the guy with the barrel chest and huge arms using every pair of dumbbells on the rack during a set, or the guy letting his spotter lift the barbell to the top on the bench press, only to let go so he can lower it ever so slowly to his chest.
Why, you wonder? To challenge their bodies and gain more muscle. If you’re feeling ready to do that, as well, and you’ve been training regularly for at least three months, there’s no need to wait any longer — dive headfirst into these four advanced techniques and wring more results from your own workouts.
1. Supersize Your Muscle Mass
If one is good, more is better, right? In some cases, absolutely not (think rabid dogs, zits and Two and a Half Men reruns). For exercise, as well, there is a case of “too much of a good thing,” especially when you push your body so hard it struggles to recover and stay healthy.
However, there is a training technique that gives you just enough of a good thing to be better for your gains, if you don’t overuse it. Supersets, tri-sets and giant sets are basically the pairing of exercises, back-to-back, with only enough rest in between to switch from one exercise to the next. Supersets involve two exercises back-to-back, tri-sets are three in a row, and giant sets are circuits of four or more movements. These combos can consist of exercises targeting the same muscle group or they can be made up of opposing muscle groups, like back and chest, biceps and triceps, abdominals and lower back, or quads and hamstrings.
Supersets, tri-sets and giant sets are good for shaking up a tired workout, and they’re especially valuable if you happen to be pressed for time, allowing you to get in and out of the gym faster without compromising the intensity of your workout.
SAMPLE SUPERSET WORKOUT: Delts
SAMPLE TRI-SET WORKOUT: Quads
SAMPLE GIANT SET WORKOUT: Abs
2. Get a Negative Reaction
Here’s some science to put to work for you: Research proves that we’re significantly stronger during the eccentric (i.e., “negative”) phase of a rep versus the concentric (i.e., “positive”) portion. That means your muscles can handle a heavier load as they’re lengthening — such as on the downward phase of a leg extension or bench press — as opposed to when they’re getting shorter, or flexing.
Admittedly, this interesting tidbit doesn’t help so much during most of your workout. Sure, you can take a little extra time on the eccentric portion of each rep, which is a very good tactic, but you’re limited by the amount of weight you can lift concentrically. Even if you can lower 115 pounds during a barbell curl, if you can’t actually lift 115 pounds in the first place, that’s not gonna help, right?
However, with a partner assist, you can add negatives to the end of a regular set taken to positive muscle failure, and you also can take advantage of this phenomenon if you’re training alone by doing one, two or three negative-only sets at the end of your bout. Here’s how to do the latter. Say you’re doing a wide-grip pulldown. Select about 20 percent more weight than you can handle as a one-rep max. Then have a training partner assist on the descent by pushing down on the bar with both hands, letting go at the bottom. You want to control the ascent, trying to take at least three to five seconds on the return. Continue in this manner, finishing as many reps as you can, terminating the set immediately when you can no longer complete a rep under control.
SAMPLE NEGATIVES WORKOUT: Chest
3. Rack Up the Gains
Sometimes, you have so much fun during an activity that you can’t wait to get right back in and do it again. Hopefully, you feel that way about working out, and if so, do we have the technique for you.
Running the rack involves the dumbbell rack — the long row of ’bells that (if you go to a relatively nice gym where the clientele is polite and the staff attentive) are in order, lightest to heaviest. The technique is simply this: Do a set of your chosen exercise with a pair of dumbbells, then set them down and pick up the next lightest pair and do another set. Keep working your way down the rack, with no rest in between save the time it takes to switch one pair of dumbbells for another.
Let’s use dumbbell curls as an example. Depending on your level of strength, you could start with a set of 45 pounders and perhaps get 12 reps before failing, then drop down to 40s and go to failure again, then 35s, then 30s. By the end, you’ll have reached muscle failure within one set four times total.
Note that you don’t necessarily need to go down the rack. You could pyramid up, too, or if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you could work your way up and then back down all in one grueling, rack-crashing mega-set.
SAMPLE RUN-THE-RACK WORKOUT: Triceps and Biceps
4. Give Yourself 100 Reasons to Grow
If you’ve never tried it, completing a 100-rep century set may not sound so hard. But once you set out to finish one, you’ll quickly learn what a true test of endurance and strength it can be. Ten reps in, you’re still coasting. Twenty, you may start to slow a bit, and by 30, your breath is labored, your sweat glands open wide. By 40, when you realize you’re not even quite halfway and the lactic acid starts soaking your muscles, you start to wonder whether 100 will even be possible. (The answer? It is, with the mental fortitude to push yourself onward.)
To do a century set, choose a light enough weight that you can finish 100 reps with, but one not so light as to be too easy. (Hint: If you’re at 40 and still cruising along with ease, you’ve gone too light.) An even better twist is to choose a weight you can get to 60 or 70 reps with, then either drop the weight about 20 percent at that point and keep going, or use the rest/pause technique, in which you stop for 10 or so seconds each time you reach failure to regain a bit of energy before continuing.
Because of the extreme nature of century sets, you don’t want to use them more than once per bodypart in a three- to five-week span. They are best used as an occasional depth charge to shock lagging muscle groups out of complacency. Also, when you’re first experimenting with centuries, use machines versus free weights because proper form will be tough enough to maintain as you reach the latter stages of the set without having to worry about the balancing issues of barbells and dumbbells.
SAMPLE CENTURY WORKOUTS: Back, Calves and Forearms
Looking for more advanced techniques? Check out the “Muscle-Building Basics: Advanced Training Techniques” article in the June 2012 issue, at muscleandperformancemag.com, for four additional options to try