If all else has failed you in your pursuit of more muscle, it may be time to revisit a basic, standing philosophy about hypertrophy: The more weight you can move, the more your muscles will grow. While you may have dutifully followed that rule of thumb, as you’ve probably discovered, there’s a lot more to getting stronger than just adding weight to the bar.
Here’s some information that can help, and immediately — you can drastically increase the poundages you can move by simply taking advantage of your body’s existing energy systems. Think of it as a loophole in the strength-and-mass disclaimers we’ve heard so many times before. Mass seekers, meet rest-pause training.
Rest in Effect
Though oddly and redundantly named, rest-pause training is an awesomely effective intensity technique involving heavy weight and carefully calculated rest periods that has been used by plateauing bodybuilders for decades. The gains are so drastic that some people choose to train this way year-round. There’s just something enticing about constant improvements in strength and size.
“There’s nothing out there that will help you add size more effectively than rest-pause,” says Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS, a Los Angeles-based fitness expert, celebrity trainer and founder of PrayFit (prayfit.com). “You can safely add more weight to your lifts by training this way. And the cumulative pounds used in each workout ends up adding volume and intensity, which translates to more size and strength.”
The science is simple. For short bursts of work — like the kind used during a set of heavy bench presses — your body relies primarily on ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and CP (creatine phosphate), collectively called phosphagen. But these stores begin to deplete rapidly after 10 to 20 seconds. (The good news is that they replenish fairly quickly, as well, in 10 to 20 seconds.) What this means is, if a typical set of 10 reps lasts, say, 40 seconds, you’re only getting the most out of this crucial muscle fuel for the first half of that set.
What rest-pause training does is cut your bouts of work short — you stop before muscle failure, ensuring that your phosphagen stores never fully empty out. Instead, you wait a few moments midset for them to build up again and dive right back in to pump out another few reps. You are essentially pausing your way to more reps at a heavier weight.
And because you are not going to complete failure, your form is almost guaranteed to be solid throughout the exercise, meaning proper muscle recruitment from start to finish. “Since you’re not taking your sets to failure, you never get to the point of being sloppy,” Peña says.
Adding It Up
Another way to look at rest-pause is to compare the total pounds lifted per exercise. Hypertrophy is the result of cumulative work, so if you’re normally benching 225 to failure for four sets of six reps, that’s 5,400 pounds worth of reps. If you rest-pause and do 200 reps for three reps, six times for two sets total, you’ve moved 7,200 pounds. It’s these extra 1,800 pounds of muscle-shredding work that results in new slabs of strong, dense sinew.
But don’t get it twisted. Rest-pause will kick you in the can. With each passing exercise, your phosphagen levels start to drop off and your muscles start to feel the effects of all that heavy work. Without going to failure, you’ll still “enjoy” the same resulting soreness you would from your traditional training, and the unfamiliar, shortened rest periods will have you sucking wind from the first rep to the last. Pair this type of training with rest and good eating and new muscular dimensions are well within your grasp.
If you expect to start moving around strongman-size weight loads, then it’s time to rethink your training — to make strength a priority. And rest-pause is just the technique that can elevate your power, performance and physique.
The Big-Bang Program
It’s “time” to get massive. For each workout, you’ll need a stopwatch (or a clock within view), your workout journal and something to write with. Diving in, here’s what you need to know.
Each set comprises several smaller segments of work. For example, for the Smith-machine squat on Monday, you’d choose a weight that you can do no more than five times (i.e. 5 RM, which stands for “5-rep max”) and complete two reps at a time, resting 15 to 19 seconds after those two reps. Do that six times. That’s one set. Rest two minutes, then switch to the barbell hack squat. Because this exercise calls for two sets, simply complete your segments of three with the prescribed rest, then wait two minutes before doing it again. On the leg extension, you’d repeat this process once more, or seven times total.
Each Monday, you’ll get the toughest workout of the week out of the way by training legs. Then you’ll train arms on Tuesday, rest-pause style before having a “recovery” day on Wednesday with a more traditional abs and calves routine. You’ll go back to rest-pause on Thursday with chest and shoulders, and finish the week with a hard-and-heavy back day that leads off with deadlifts.
Follow the Big-Bang plan for six weeks. At the end of those six weeks, you can either restart the program using higher starting weight loads or return to your usual programming with heaps of new strength.