Achieve Bodybuilding Nirvana Through Instinctive Training

James Chan
Written By: James Chan
March 4th, 2010
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
8.8K Reads
James Chan tells you how to tap into your instinct and train correctly for bodybuilding size and muscularity.

Instinctive Bodybuilding TrainingNobody knows you like you, which is why “instinctive training” is a concept that’s been promoted for advanced trainees.  After all, you have to some years of experience in the gym before you can know what you body responds to.  For the bodybuilder, achieving instinctive training is like attaining a state of nirvana.

Question is: how can one tap into his instinct to train correctly for size and muscularity?  Advanced lifters say they know how to train instinctively but will give you some vague nebulous answer about what is instinctive training.

Instinctive training is not just based on internal cues (how one feels) but on external cues (performance) as well.  Instinctive bodybuilders take note of their performance, and these performance cues guide them in their workouts, whether they realize it or not.

These external cues can help a lifter of any level make progress in and out of the gym.  With these performance cues, you will be able to auto-regulate a workout.  Rather than go into a gym with a program with preset number of reps and sets, auto-regulation allows you improvise at the gym while adhering to loose, flexible program parameters.  With auto-regulation, the goal of the workout will determine your sets and reps.

The following are auto-regulatory methods that you can use to determine things such as:

  • When to terminate a set.
  • How many sets to perform for an exercise.
  • When to terminate an exercise.

These auto-regulatory methods help you manage fatigue and overtraining.  Through these auto-regulatory methods you can attain a state of bodybuilding nirvana, that which is known as instinctive training.

Rep Speed

Fast-twitch muscle fibers have the greatest potential for growth.  To tap into these fast-twitch muscle fibers, you have to lift heavy weights and lift them as fast as you can.  The actual speed of the lift is going to be slow with heavy loads, but it's the intent to move the weight explosively that matters.  More speed means more tension on the muscles being worked.

Once the speed of a lift slows down, you should terminate the set.  When your rep speed slows down, it means that your nervous system is about to give out.   Hence stopping a set once your rep speed slows down is a way to manage fatigue, and it allows you to do more quality sets in a workout.

Bottom line: Lift the weight as fast as you can.  Terminate the set once you slow down.


This performance cue is related to previous cue of rep speed.  You should always to lift a weight in perfect form.  Once your form breaks down or the range of motion shortens, terminate the set.  There is no point in performing extra reps, if those reps are of poor quality.  The breakdown of exercise form means that you are about to reach muscular failure.  Old school bodybuilders will tell you that complete muscular exhaustion is good for growth.

Although performing a set to complete muscular failure will give you short-term growth, repeatedly training to failure will hamper your efforts to gain size and strength in the long run.  You are more likely to overtrain if you perform each set to failure.  Training to complete exhaustion is analogous to plugging in a dozen appliances into two-plug outlet and turning on each of these appliances: you will short circuit and your ability to recover and grow will be compromised.

Bottom line: Terminate the set once your form breaks down or when you can no longer perform the exercise through it entire range of motion.

Critical Drop-off Point

One performance cue that will help you determine the optimal number of sets is called the “critical drop-off point.”  Coined by strength coach Charles Poliquin, the critical drop-off point is when a muscle reaches a 5-7% decrease in performance either in weight or reps. Once this critical drop-off point is reached, then the exercise must be terminated.  This 7% rule applies for loads of 85% of your one rep maximum (1RM) or more.  For loads less than 85% of your 1RM, there should be no more than a 20 percent drop-off.

Most of the time, however, you will not have a calculator with you to determine this critical drop-off point.  A simpler method to help you determine the critical drop-off point is to terminate an exercise if the decrease in reps is greater than 2 reps (if your target rep range is 3-12) or greater than 3 reps (if your target rep is greater than 12 reps).  For example, if you perform 6 reps on the first set of an exercise, then you will continue to perform sets for this exercise at the same weight until your reps fall below 4.

Bottom line: Terminate the exercise once your reps decrease by more than 2.

Measuring the Pump

Another method to determine the optimal number of sets is to measure your pump.  In other words, how many sets does it take to engorge a muscle with blood to its maximal size?

The pump is not anabolic in and itself, but it is indicative of your anabolic state.  The late great Vince Gironda believed that when a muscle is taken to its maximum pump and then stopped before the pump subsides that this would indicate its optimal volume:

“Overtonis is a condition caused by too many sets, too many different exercise combinations - in short, overwork, which causes muscle tissue loss, hormone depletion, weakness and a smoothed-out appearance, inability to produce a pumping effect and a general lassitude or weakness.  Overtonis causes the central nervous system to cease pumping blood into capillaries, which might otherwise rupture. To achieve a maximum pump, exercise until you notice pump loss. At this point, check back the number of sets, tempo and repetitions required to achieve this effect. This is your personal exercise requirement level.”

Gironda’s pupil, Larry Scott, would measure his upper arms with a tape measure after each set to determine the optimal number of sets to reach the maximum pump.  Scott found this to be a more accurate method to determining maximum pump sets, since he didn’t notice a difference in the feel of his muscles when the pump decreased in size.

Bottom line: Perform the least amount of sets to achieve the maximum pump.  This is your ideal number of sets for that body part worked.

Diminishing Sets

Having a set number of reps to aim for in a workout is a simple and solid plan to follow if you want a combination of size, strength and muscularity.  Simply choose a target number of reps and perform as many sets as you can until you reach that rep total.  This way you don’t have to design a program and try to figure out the number of sets or how long you should rest.  The goal (total reps) will determine the method (the number of sets).

Question is how do you determine the ideal number of target reps for each exercise?

Muscular growth is biased towards higher volume.  In other words, the more reps you do, then the more muscle growth you will achieve. The volume has to be performed at a certain intensity zone of course, 70-90% of your 1 rep maximum. In general, however, the higher the volume, the greater the gains in muscle mass.

What constitutes higher volume?  At the low end of the hypertrophy scale are 20-25 total reps per body part. This is why the 5x5 method works so well at developing size and strength, because the total volume (5 x 5 = 25 reps) meets the minimum standard for size gains.

At the high end is 100-150 total reps. The 10x10 method is at the upper end of the volume threshold for size and muscular gains. Any more than 150 total reps and you are going to overtrain rather quickly.

There are exceptions to the 100-150 reps limit: calisthenics and calf exercises. The calves thrive on high rep training, so 200 total reps for them would be fine. Certain calisthenics exercises such as push ups work well with 200 rep targets, since a well-trained athlete can easily reach 20-30 reps in a single set.

Different set targets should be chosen for different exercises and different body parts.  Rep targets are determined depending on how well you can perform the exercise. So if you can only do 8 reps of pull-ups, then 50 reps total reps would be an appropriate target as opposed to 100 or 200 reps.

One training tactic that you can employ is a technique called "diminishing sets." The goal of this technique is to reach the target rep in the fewest number of sets with minimal rest (10-45 seconds). So if you perform 5 sets of 100 calf raises in one workout, your goal for the next workout is to perform 4 sets or less of 100 calf raises.  Here’s a sample program utilizing diminishing sets:

Diminishing sets are an excellent technique for achieving muscularity and fat loss.  It’s simple in planning, brutally hard to execute in the gym and will help you achieve the lean hard body in no time.

About the Author

James Chan is a police officer for the University of California Police Department.  His latest book “Strength and Physique, Tactic and Strategies” is available on  For more of his insights into strength training and bodybuilding, visit his blog at

Posted on: Tue, 03/16/2010 - 14:50

Good Article, thanks

Ryan Milton
Posted on: Wed, 03/10/2010 - 18:59

We have email before (meaning you answering questions for me). Roughy in 2 weeks I am starting back in the gym. I have been off since May last year. I did not get the fusion surgery and probably be on Duragesic maybe for pain. Now on percacet 10 mg 4 a day. (history). New gym much better machines and due to the NCS disability (ataxia) will make lifting less dangerous towards a injury. What exercises for legs do you recommend to ease my way back with minimal stress to the L1 to L5 region. At 6'01" and 165 need to get to 180? I have all the proper supplements so no problem there. I just know I must take it slow or I will end up with another blow out in my back. Last thanks about the tip using planks for abs.
Thank you for your time James