Guide To Advanced Muscle Building Training Techniques

Boost your muscle and strength gains by learning how to use drop sets, supersets, rest pause training and other popular advanced training techniques.

Drop sets. Time under tension. Rest pause training. We've all seem terms like this used in muscle building workouts, quite possibly without explanation as to what they specifically mean or require. If you feel confused by one of these advanced training techniques, you've come to the right place.

This article will explain common advanced training techniques. These techniques are labeled advanced because they should not be attempted until you have met the following criteria:

  1. Muscle Building - You have gained more than a few pounds of muscle mass, and are confident that you know how to train without advanced techniques to gain muscle.
  2. Nutrition and Diet - You are eating properly, meaning that you have an understanding of how to structure a muscle building diet and are aware of how much protein you are eating on a daily basis.
  3. Lifting Form - You have a decent working grasp of proper exercise form. If your workouts consist on bouncing weight off your chest while bench pressing, or performing 1/4 squats, it is best that you avoid any advanced training techniques until your form is squared away.
  4. Strength - You have been routinely gaining strength. While absolute strength is not the be all, end all indicator that you will gain muscle, it does signal if you have been pushing yourself in the gym. Muscle building requires a progression of resistance on some level. If you're not currently pushing yourself in some form or fashion, odds are that advanced techniques will have little benefit.
  5. Persistence - Missing a lot of workouts? If so, you need to work on your motivation and dedication before worrying about advanced training techniques. Persistence is the biggest indicator of muscle building success. If you can't find the motivation to hit the gym, no magic training technique will help.
Quick jump to the sub-sections on this page:
Rep Tempo Pre-Exhaustion
Supersets Post-Exhaustion
Trisets Drop Sets
Giant Sets Cluster Sets
Burn Sets Negative Reps
Forced Reps Slow Negatives
Partial Reps Rest Pause Training
 Final Thoughts On Advanced Training Techniques

As with most things in the muscle building realm, it is best to not jump into the deep end of the pool first. Don't rush to the gym and try these techniques with heavy weight. Instead, give them a go with a moderate weight first. You will be surprised to learn that many of these techniques demand a lighter weight than normal. Learn how your body handles a technique before trying to progress in weight and push yourself.

Advanced Muscle Building Training Techniques

Rep tempo uses a controlled speed.Rep Tempo

Rep tempo is notated as a series of three numbers. The following are examples of how a recommended rep tempo might appear in a workout:

  • 2-1-2
  • 2-0-6
  • 4-1-6

These three numbers signify a time in seconds. The first number indicates how long it should take you to perform the rep, or concentric aspect of a lift. The second number advises you on how long to hold the weight at contraction. The final number tells you how long it should take for you to return the weight to it's starting position before beginning another rep. This is the eccentric aspect of a lift. Let's look at 2 examples:

  • Bench Press - For this example we will be using a 2-1-4 rep tempo. After unracking the weight, you would take 4 seconds to lower the bar to your chest. From that point you would take 2 seconds to perform the rep, and once the rep has been completed, you hold the bar for one second before lowering it (taking 4 seconds) once again.
  • Barbell Rows - For this example we will be using a 2-0-6 rep tempo. Unlike the bench press, the barbell row does not start with a lowering of the weight. Because this exercise starts from the ground, you will be immediately performing a rep. Take 2 seconds to pull the bar towards your stomach area. The middle number is a zero, so you do not hold the rep at contraction. Lower the weight back to the ground over a 6 second period, and then start the second rep.

It is not advisable to use a rep tempo for the deadlift. Taking an unnatural amount of time to raise of lower the weight can put an undue strain on your lower back.

Pre-Exhaustion

Pre-exhaustion is the practice of performing an isolation exercise before moving on to a compound lift that targets the same muscle group. The goal of pre-exhaustion is to allow an isolation lift to pre-fatigue a muscle, so that when you perform a compound lift, that muscle will have to work harder. It is common, but not necessary, to use pre-exhaustion in combination with a superset.

Here are some examples of pre-exhaustion for several major muscle groups:

Post-Exhaustion

Post-exhaustion is a superset variation. With post-exhaustion, you perform 2 exercises for a single muscle group back to back - first a compound lift, and secondly an isolation lift - with limited rest in between sets. The goal of post-exhaustion is to wear down a big muscle group with heavy weight, and then finish it off while it is fatigued with an isolation lift. Here are some effective post-exhaustion examples:

  • Chest Post-Exhaustion - Bench press followed by dumbbell flyes.
  • Back Post-Exhaustion - Barbell rows followed by straight arm lat pulldowns.
  • Shoulder Post-Exhaustion - Military press followed by side dumbbell laterals.
  • Quad Post-Exhaustion - Squats followed by leg extensions.
  • Hamstring Post-Exhaustion - Romanian deadlifts followed by leg curls.
  • Tricep Post-Exhaustion - Close grip bench press followed by tricep pushdowns.

A superset is often 2 exercises for the same muscle back to back.

Supersets

A superset is the performing of 2 sets of 2 different exercises back to back with no rest in between these sets. A superset can combine isolation and compound lifts for the same muscle group, two compound lifts for the same muscle group, or antagonistic exercises for opposing muscle groups. Examples of antagonistic muscle groups include back and chest, quads and hamstrings and abs and lower back. Here are some common examples of supersets:

  • Chest - Isolation then Compound Superset - Perform a set of dumbbell flyes, and without resting, perform a set of bench presses.
  • Chest - Compound then Compound Superset - Perform a set of bench presses, and without resting, immediately perform a set of dips or incline dumbbell bench presses.
  • Chest - Compound then Isolation Superset - Perform a set of bench presses, and without resting, immediately perform a set of dumbbell flyes.
  • Chest and Back - Antagonistic Superset - Perform a set of bench presses, and without resting, immediately perform a set of barbell rows.

Trisets

A triset is the performing of 3 sets of 3 different exercises back to back with no rest in between these sets. It functions in the same manner as a superset, but instead with an additional exercise. Most trisets target a single muscle group, and can be structured in several ways:

  • Compound, Compound, Isolation Triset - This is a form of post-exhaustion. Once the muscle has been worked with two beefy compound exercises, you move to a lighter isolation movement to finish off the muscle.
  • Compound, Compound, Compound Triset - A triple compound triset may very well be the hardest triset variation to pull off. Your body will be extremely fatigued after two heavy compound movements, and you will feel the pain
  • Isolation, Compound, Compound Triset - This triset is a variation of pre-exhaustion. You target and weaken the primary muscle group with a isolation exercise, and once it has been taxed, you hammer it with two compound lifts.
  • Isolation, Compound, Isolation Triset - This triset is a combination or pre-exhaustion and post-exhaustion.
  • Compound, Isolation, Compound Triset - It could be said that the isolation movement in this triset functions both as a post-exhaustion and pre-exhaustion lift for the final compound movement. The middle isolation exercise allows you take a slight break from heavy weight while continuing the muscle beat down.
  • Isolation, Isolation, Isolation - A triple isolation triset works well for smaller muscle groups such as calves, biceps and triceps. This form of triset could also be used as a finisher for larger muscle groups.

Drop Sets

A drop set is similar to a superset, in that you are performing multiple sets back to back with no rest between these sets. With a drop set you are using a single exercise. After you can no longer perform any reps, or at the point where you are fatigued with a given weight, you immediately drop the weight down and perform more reps. A drop set generally involves 3-4 total sets.

Drop sets work well with dumbbell or machine exercises, but can also work with barbell exercises if you have a spotter, or have arranged the plates before hand to be easily removed. In this case, several small plates are added to the bar, possibly 5's and 10's, instead of a 25 or 45 pound plates.

An example of drop sets:

  • Dumbbell Curl Drop Set - Perform a set of heavy dumbbell curls with as many reps as possible. Without resting, set these dumbbells down and grab a lighter set of dumbbells. Begin another set of curls, again performing as many reps as possible. Without resting, set these dumbbells down and grab yet another lighter set of dumbbells. Perform your third set of curls. At this point you can stop the drop set, or continue on with a 4th set of lighter curls.

Giant Sets

A giant set is a sequence of 4 exercises performed back to back without any rest between sets. While a giant set is generally used to target a single muscle group, it can also be structured in an antagonistic manner, working two muscle groups alternatively. Because of the number of exercises involved, a giant set can combine isolation and compound exercises in a wide variety of ways. Here are several giant set examples:

  • Chest Giant Set - Bench press, pec dec, chest dips and incline dumbbell flyes.
  • Chest and Back Antagonistic Giant Set - Bench press, barbell rows, incline dumbbell bench press, pull ups.

Cluster Sets

A cluster set is a large group of sets (usually 5 to 10) performed with the same number of reps, and using the same weight. Cluster sets are often structured so that there is a limited and specific rest in between each of these sets. The goal of a cluster set is to wear down a muscle by the use of cumulative fatigue; you repeat the cycle or performing a small number of reps, followed by a relatively short rest period. With cluster set training the early sets often feel easy, and later sets become progressively more difficult. Here are several examples of cluster set training:

  • 8 sets x 3 reps, 20 seconds rest - You perform 3 reps, rest 20 seconds and repeat this cycle until all 8 sets are completed. Use the same weight for all sets.
  • 10 sets x 4 reps, 30 seconds rest - You perform 4 reps, rest 30 seconds and repeat this cycle until all 10 sets are completed. Use the same weight for all sets.
  • 6 sets x 6 reps, 45 seconds rest - You perform 6 reps, rest 45 seconds and repeat this cycle until all 6 sets are completed. Use the same weight for all sets.

Another training technique in the cluster set family is single rep training. Single rep training generally uses heavier weights, and rest periods of anywhere from 30 seconds to 4 minutes in between sets. Single rep training is an effective strength building technique, and when combined with limited rest between sets, work very well for muscle building. In fact, a hypertrophy training style known as Max Stim training involves single reps with limited rest, and is known as a very effective bodybuilding system.

A cluster set wears down a muscle by the use of cumulative fatigue.

Burn Sets

A burn set is a single exercise that is performed in a very high rep range, generally 20-30 reps or more. A burn set is often used as a finisher, and is used to pump up a muscle, deplete muscle glycogen and/or to build strength endurance. While not considered an effective stand alone muscle building technique, burn sets do work well in a limited fashion in combination with standard hypertrophy training. The two major forms of burn sets are standard sets and extended training:

  • Standard Sets - You perform as many reps as possible with a single set and stop when you approach muscle failure or complete exhaustion.
  • Extended Training - Extended training prolongs a standard set. You perform as many reps as possible, and as you approach muscle failure, you take a very short rest period (often 3 deep breaths), and then perform more reps. You continue this resting and repping period until you reach your rep goal, generally somewhere around 30 to 40 total reps.

Negative Reps

Negative reps, or negative training, is the use of a slow, controlled eccentric aspect of a lift to stimulate muscle growth, or to train/prepare the central nervous system (CNS) to handle heavier strength loads. The eccentric aspect of a lift is the returning of the weight to it's starting position, normally in preparation for another rep. But in the case of negative training, this returning of the weight, or eccentric focus, does not involves positive reps (it could involve forced reps). Examples of negative training are:

  • Bench Press Negatives - A slow lowering of the weight from an arms extended position to your chest. A spotter(s) will help you lift the weight back up, and several more negatives may be performed.
  • Barbell Curl Negatives - With the barbell near your chest and your biceps in a contracted position, you slowly lower the weight until your arms are fully extended.

Negatives can be use as a stand alone technique, apart from a set, or at the end of a set after a trainee has already taxed themselves near failure.

Slow Negatives

Unlike negative reps, slow negatives are integrated into a set, and do not fall at the end of a set when reaching muscle failure. A set that utilizes slow negatives will have you performing a rep at normal speed, and then a slow negative eccentric motion in between each rep. This slow negative is usually performed over a period of 4 to 6 seconds. Here are some examples of sets incorporating slow negatives:

  • Bench Press with Slow Negatives - Perform a rep (pushing the bar from your chest), and slowly lower the bar back to your chest over a 4-6 second period. Continue this pattern until you feel you can no longer perform any more positive reps.
  • Seated Cable Rows with Slow Negatives - Perform a rep, pulling the cable handle towards your torso, and slowly allow the cable to return to it's starting position over a 4-6 second period. Continue this pattern until you feel you can no longer perform any more positive reps.

Forced reps fall at the end of a set.Forced Reps

A forced rep falls at the end of a set, after reaching muscle failure (the point in which you can no longer perform any reps on your own), and involves the assistance of a spotter. Simply stated - you perform as many reps as possible, and have your spotter help you complete several more reps after you reach a sticking point in the lift where you can no longer move the weight under your own power. An example of forced reps:

  • Bench Press involving Forced Reps - You easily knock out 8 reps, but fail on the 9th rep with the weight halfway off your chest. At that point you continue pushing as your training partner provides as little help as possible until the rep is completed.

Partial Reps

Partial reps, often half reps or quarter reps, can be performed in one of two ways:

  • Partial Reps from Pins - A bar is place at the midway point of the lift using pins (generally in a rack, and for exercises such as squats and bench press). The lifter positions himself and lifts the bar from the pins into a fully extended or contracted position.
  • Partial Reps from Contraction - For exercises such as squats and bench press, the lifter unracks the weight normally, and proceeds to perform only a half or quarter rep.

There are several close relative to partial reps in the realm of powerlifting. For the bench press, boards are often held on the chest of a lifter by a training partner, giving the lifter a higher than normal height to lower the bar to. For squats, a box (or bench) of varying heights is placed behind a lifter, and he proceeds to squat down until seated on this box, and then performs a rep.

Rest Pause Training

Rest pause training involves extended sets which involve performing as many reps as possible, followed by periods of short rest and then the performing of more reps. Unlike cluster sets, rest pause training encourages you to perform as many reps as possible before resting. In addition, the rest periods used in rest pause training are generally very brief, often no more than 15 to 30 seconds. Doggcrapp training (DC training), a very popular and effective muscle building system, relies almost solely on rest pause sets. Here are some examples of rest pause training:

  • Doggcrapp style Rest Pause - You perform 3 total mini-sets. Perform as many reps as possible for an exercise, then take 10-15 deep breaths. After this short rest, again perform as many reps as possible. repeat this pattern a third time.
  • Extended Rest Pause Sets - Whereas Doggcrapp training involves only 3 mini-sets, rest pause training can be structured to include anywhere from 4 to 7 (or more if you are up for some serious pain) mini-sets.

Keep in mind that cumulative fatigue will make it more difficult to perform many reps after 3 sets. It is recommended that if you are performing more than 3 consecutive mini-sets that you consider extending the rest period as you go along so that you are able to complete several additional reps per mini-set.

Final Thoughts On Advanced Training Techniques

There is a huge tendency in the muscle building and strength realm to add more, including training volume and advanced techniques, before they are needed. A beginning training will experience exceptional gains often with a very simple and basic approach. While it seems to make sense that adding more sets and advanced techniques will multiply gains, it's not generally the case.

Lifters in their first year of training are developing much more than muscle size; they are also training their central nervous system (CNS), smaller stabilizer muscles, as well as strengthening their connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, etc.). Incorporating too much complexity too soon is often a recipe for an injury.

Furthermore, advanced training techniques are often looked at as a substitution for progressively heavier weights. When a lift starts to feel heavy, beginning trainees often look to avoid adding more weight to the bar, and instead begin using advanced training techniques to create the appearance that they are training hard.

Advanced training techniques are not a suitable replacement for progression of resistance for beginner to early intermediate lifters. To maximize muscle mass, a minimal degree of strength must be achieved. This is not to say that you must train like a powerlifter - far from it. The point is this: while you are bringing up your overall strength, progressive resistance is the number one muscle building technique. This simply means that as a beginner, or early intermediate, no amount of advanced techniques will ever be as consistently effective as simply adding more weight to the bar.

Once you have gained a respectable amount of muscle and strength, and know your body fairly well, you may begin to experiment with advanced training techniques. As with all things, don't rush into the deep end of the pool. It's best to try one technique at a time, and learn how your body responds, before trying a second and third technique. Only fools rush into adding every new technique under the sun all at once.

Muscle building is an evolutionary process. Gradually, over time, you learn your body and make small and appropriate adjustments. If you add too much too soon, you are doing yourself a disservice. If things go wrong, how can you possibly discern what to pull back on? Advanced training techniques are a potent tool, to be used wisely with progressive resistance.