Editor's note: Check out the first article in this series: Gordon LaVelle's Short And Intense Bodybuilding Training System.
The first article in this series concentrated on giving a logical foundation to the idea that for muscle growth, it’s best to perform only a single all-out set for each exercise. But what exactly is meant by an “all-out set”? An all-out set is a set performed with the greatest possible effort and concentration, where you continue moving the weight until further movement becomes impossible. In other words, an all-out set is one performed with a maximum degree of intensity.
The first article emphasized the idea that intensity is the only important exercise factor for muscular growth. Intense exercise is what causes your muscles to grow. When your muscles are subjected to sufficiently intense exercise, growth has been stimulated. Once that happens, further exercise is not only pointless, but harmful. After the stimulation has taken place, you should conclude your training session and concentrate on other parts of the muscle-building equation, like getting proper rest and nutrients.
So how do you do one of these all-out sets? First and foremost, you have to muster a maximum degree of effort. That’s a given. But you also have to apply that effort in a meaningful way. This begins with the way you perform individual reps.
If you look around your gym, you’ll probably see people performing sets that last anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds. The people doing these sets will be banging out reps, often as quickly as possible. Their goal is to do a certain number of reps with a certain weight. Many if not all hold the erroneous belief that muscle growth comes from simply doing X number of sets for Y number of reps (usually 4-5 sets per exercise and 8-12 reps per set), so they’re mainly just interested in getting each set out of the way as quickly as possible.
These people seem to look at training the same way they might think about unloading a truck. If you have a truck to unload, you’ll normally want to do it as fast as possible, so that it’s over and done with. Once the truck is unloaded, the job is done. With weight-training, once five sets of ten reps for four exercises are complete, their efforts in the gym are finished, and they leave the gym, expecting to grow.
These people will often “cheat” to get the weight up, and then rely on the momentum generated by the initial thrust, or bounce, or heave, to help keep the weight moving. For a good demonstration of these methods, watch people do exercises like barbell curls and lat pulldowns. You’ll see a good deal of heaving and jerking, of rapid movement and momentum-assisted lifts.
The main problem with this type of training is that it prevents the targeted muscle from being trained in an ideal manner. In an ideal set, you want the target muscle to do all the work, to be the lone force making the weight move. With fast, herky-jerky training, a good portion of the work is performed by other muscles, and by momentum. This is good for lifting a large amount of weight quickly, but it is definitely not ideal for building muscle.
To get the most out of a set – and out of your training in general – you need to train in a more rational manner. Since you’re in the gym on any given day to work a specific muscle, you need to ensure that the muscle in question actually does the work. To best accomplish this, you have to train it slowly and deliberately.
You want to be able to count while the weight is going up, squeeze at the top, and count again as the weight is descending. The speed at which this happens is called rep cadence. There is some debate over the ideal cadence for slower-rep training, but ideally the ascending (also known as positive, concentric, or lifting) portion of the rep should last a bare minimum of two seconds, and the descending (negative, eccentric, or lowering) portion should last a bare minimum of three. Keep in mind, these are minimums. Some slow-cadence advocates recommend four or more seconds in each direction.
Here’s what a slower cadence does: First of all, it allows you to fully concentrate mentally on the muscle that’s being trained. Doing so can make a big difference in your training and your results. It forces you to give full attention to every rep; to make every rep count. You want to really feel every rep, to feel that it’s your muscular contractions alone that are powering the movement of the weight – not other muscles, and not momentum. Performing reps slowly helps to eliminate momentum from the lifting equation. With a slow rep, momentum isn’t moving the weight; your targeted muscle is.
Slow reps also force you to emphasize the negative portion of each rep - something which is very often neglected by lifters, especially by those who are dissatisfied with their progress. If you lift like most people, after performing the positive portion of a set, you let the weight rapidly drop to the bottom position. When you do this, you’re denying your muscles the opportunity to experience the most productive part of a set: the eccentric portion.
Your muscles are at their strongest during the eccentric phase. Slowly control the weight on the way down to exploit this fact. Do this especially on the last rep of a set. The vast majority of lifters will let the weight come crashing down after the final positive rep has been performed. By doing so they’re cheating themselves out of what they could have made into the most intense part of the set – using every last ounce of strength to lower the weight a final time in a slow, controlled fashion. Remember, intensity is the name of the game.
Finally, performing individual reps slowly makes the set as a whole last longer. There are two benefits to this. The first is psychological. Sets that last longer are, of course, more physically demanding than short ones. A lot of people shy away from single-set training because they’re afraid they won’t “feel like” they’ve done enough work. This is mainly because their sets are over with very quickly.
If, on the other hand, you take 45 seconds or so to complete a set, performing each rep slowly and concentrating on the negative portion, you might be surprised at how difficult this can be. If you then employ a beyond-failure technique like rest-pause or forced reps (to be discussed in the next article), you may find yourself not wanting to do any more than one set.
The second (theoretical) benefit to longer sets is physiological. In recent years, some research has suggested that time under tension – the length of time it takes to complete a set - can influence the effectiveness of that set. Although there is no consensus on this point, some research has suggested that sets which last between 30 and 90 seconds are superior for building muscle. But beyond that, it’s important to keep in mind that the most intense part of any set is the very end.
As a set begins, with each repetition, you gradually exhaust the targeted muscle’s momentary ability to generate force. As the set’s final rep begins, this momentary ability is on the verge of being completely spent. When a supreme effort is made at the end of the set, on the very last rep, optimum intensity has been reached, and growth has been stimulated. A longer set leading up to this final effort (of 30 seconds or more) ensures that the muscle’s momentary ability to generate force has been thoroughly depleted.
All of this can be boiled down to a single point, and it’s very simple: Always train very deliberately. You’re in the gym to put your muscles to hard work. So let them work. Don’t use momentum or sloppy form to heave the weight up. These are techniques people use to make a set easier, to get it over with quicker. You want to do the opposite. You want to make it as difficult as possible. You’re only doing a single, all-out set for each exercise, so show yourself no mercy. Do so properly, and you’ll stimulate growth.
Of course, all of this brings up an important issue. The previous article declared that if you have all the attributes of a modern professional bodybuilder—great genetics, a high level of dedication, determination and drive, a good work ethic, adequate nutrition, and of course large doses of anabolic steroids and other drugs—you don’t need to use good form when training. In fact, if you have all these things, you can go ahead and throw the weight around. Be physically and mentally reckless. It won’t matter. You’ll still get great results.
So why does this article advocate strict form and a measured rep cadence? Because it assumes that you don’t belong to the tiny minority of people who have all of those attributes. To get good returns, you’ll still need dedication, determination and drive – just like with anything in life – but you’ll want to give yourself the best means by which to transform that drive into measurable effect. If your aim is to build muscle, this is accomplished not by heaving and jerking the weight, but by lifting it in a deliberate, controlled manner.
Gordon LaVelle is a former two-time runner up in the NPC California State Championships. His books include and Training for Mass, Second Edition and Bodybuilding: Tracing the Evolution of the Ultimate Physique.