The concept of progressive overload is one of the most important in bodybuilding. There are different types of progression – the most basic is to add weight to the bar when you can hit a certain number of reps. Beyond that you can add sets, add reps, increase time under tension and manipulate time (rest between sets).
In bodybuilding, when people define the word “intensity”, they usually do so by using the concepts I just mentioned. However, there is also the concept of “intensity of effort”, a term made popular by Mike Mentzer and his Heavy Duty program. This is a measure of perceived exertion during the workout, a “failure and beyond” concept with the use of various extended set techniques. The Mentzer program only advocated one set per exercise but it was a super intense set to be sure.
Nowadays, you have quite a range of opinion regarding training past failure, from the idea of stopping just shy of failure with the use of no techniques whatsoever to those that advocate training past failure with the extreme use of extended set techniques. Of course, this leads to a lot of debate over what routine is “the best” and all that. The truth is, there is no one “best” routine. You can have a favorite routine or two, one that really seemed to work for you, but the truth is, everything works, some work better than others but everything works – for a while.
A big part of bodybuilding is trying different routines and using those that produce results and discarding those that don't. Training to failure and especially past failure is not for everybody. We all have a different tolerance to pain and not everyone is willing to endure training in that manner. I personally have a lot of fun with that approach and I use it on and off throughout the year. However, since variety in training is so important to results, I change up what I do every few weeks.
There is an exception to this – if you are training for strength you should stay with a routine for a while to improve strength. In fact, I believe that as long as you can get stronger, you should always use core mass and strength movements (like squats, deads, bench presses) and build your routine around those. You can hit your power move and then do something completely different on your remaining moves and change it up as much as you want.
We adjust to any routine in as little as three weeks. You can make small changes such as exercise order, rest time, and so on and keep the routine going or make radical changes or simply adopt a whole new routine. I like to use techniques like supersets, rest pause and drop sets to mix it up a little and I like to combine these ideas into one set. Even if you do not train past failure, you should experience it once – this allows you to know what it's like to push your body to the point where it cannot do anything more. This gives you a reference point when you train – did I really stop because I couldn't do one more rep? Even non-failure training has you doing challenging reps – is it the rep that was a challenge or did I get lazy? Using your past failure experience as a reference point, you can honestly answer that question.
So, with all that in mind let's look at some of the different intensity techniques that are out there:
Rest Pause And Some Variations
Rest pause style training really came into it's own as a Mike Mentzer popularized intensity technique back in the late 70's - early 80's as part of his “Heavy Duty” program. My understanding and use of this has always been to simply complete a set when you hit failure, rack the bar, count to 8, unrack the bar and do as many reps as you can, re-rack the bar, doing this 3-4 times for one set. The main way to use this technique the way Mentzer did, again as I understand it, is to warm up, take your max weight and do 1 rep, rack the bar, count to 10, and proceed to do 1 more rep, re-rack the bar, count to 10 and so on until you hit 8-10 reps. Following are several other variations on this technique (warm up before using these techniques):
- Variation #1 - Use 75% of your current max poundage for the number of reps you plan to do in a normal set of your chosen exercise. Example - if you bench press 225 for 10, use 170 lbs. Do 10 reps, rest 10 seconds, do 9 reps, rest 10 seconds, do 8 reps and so on to 1 rep.
- Variation #2 - Determine a poundage you can do 10 reps of your chosen exercise with. Add 10% more weight to the bar - not 10 lbs, 10 % more weight. Do 6 sets of 10 reps. After the first set, rest 15 seconds. After each remaining set, add 15 seconds rest. Add more weight when the 6 sets of 10 seems easy.
- Variation #3 - Using a weight that allows 3 reps of your chosen exercise. Do 1 rep, rack the bar for a 10 count, do 2 reps, rack the bar for a 10 count and so on until you hit 10 reps.
Supersets are two exercises done for the same muscle back to back, no rest. However, I have used this technique mainly on arms and it does work pretty good. Pre and post-exhaust: everyone knows about pre exhaust training - where you "pre-fatigue" a muscle by doing an isolation exercise first than follow with a compound exercise. While I like and have used this effective technique, I've always felt you lose something with it.
Let's face it, if you pre-fatigue your chest, as an example, with flyes or the pec dec, you can't use as much weight on your bread and butter mass builder - the bench press. The post exhaust is the reverse - do the heavy, compound exercise first when you are strongest, follow it with a isolation exercise, something you can handle when you are weaker. This allows you to continue training the muscle by falling back to a lighter, easier exercise, it allows to extend the set for more intensity and it lets you do your mass builder first thereby letting you use more weight.
Tri-sets – Three exercises for the same muscle done back to back with no rest.
Forced reps - This is where, at the end of a normal set, you have someone give you just a bit of help, enough of a pulling or pushing motion, depending on the exercise, to get the bar up. You can shoot for 3-4 extra reps per set on these.
Drop sets – These are also known as stripping, up and down the rack and breakdowns – this is where you do as many reps as you can with your working weight and when you fail, you grab a bar or dumbbell that's about 10% lighter and keep going until you again fail, you do this for as many “drops” as you can. Up and down the rack refers to doing, for example, side laterals – you start with x weight, do as many as you can, drop to the next pre weighted set of bells and go all the way down to the bottom and then start back up the rack again. You can also use drops along with supersets or trisets for one hell of a workout.
Burns – These are short reps, maybe just a few inches of movement, usually done at the bottom position at the end of a set. Then there are “X-reps” the Ironman magazine technique of burns done at a specific point along the range of motion.
Static holds - Using cable rows as an example, you would start your rep, hold the bar at your waist for a 10 count then complete the rep - this is one rep.
21's - One of Arnold's favorites. Using the curl as an example, you would do 7 full reps followed by 7 half reps from the starting position to half way up followed by 7 half reps from half way up to the top of the movement. All of this counts as one set.
1 and ½ reps - As you complete a normal rep, continue and do the first half of the rep, going half way up and coming back to the start position. This counts as 1 rep.
You can combine some or all techniques on one set, which is a lot of fun. Here's an example:
For my leg workout some time back, this is what I did:
Squats - 3 warm up sets of 15, 12 and 10 reps. Two working sets in the 6-8 rep range. My first working set was a new poundage level for the 6-8 reps, I got 6. On the second working set, I did a superset of squats (I used 10lbs less) with leg extensions on which I did a 5 drop drop set, holding the weight at the top for a 3 count at the end of each sequence, averaging 4-6 reps per sequence. I also used some rest pause throughout to get the reps I wanted to get, forced reps in the final few sets and burns on the last set.
This type of training approach does several things: promotes maximum hormone release through the use of basic exercises and intensity techniques, keeps the muscles under tension for quite a while (according to research twenty seconds is the minimum a set should last for maximum muscle stimulation), you are hitting different fiber types by using different rep ranges (extended set techniques like supersets and drops act to extend your rep totals), you are training to and beyond failure, you are not ignoring strength or intensity. So, for this type of training, I covered a lot of ground.
Next time you train, give some of these ideas a shot. You'll be trying out a big piece of bodybuilding history if you do.
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