Upping the Training Intensity: Plateau Busting Training Methods

Doug Lawrenson
Written By: Doug Lawrenson
December 9th, 2008
Updated: February 21st, 2012
Categories: Articles Training
21K Reads
This article looks at ways to can increase the intensity of your training routine and continue muscle gains beyond a plateau!

In order for us to achieve progression in our training, we must increase our work capacity. The body will react to this increased training work capacity by an increase in muscle growth and increased strength; this increase will quickly be followed by a training plateau unless training load is further increased. It is therefore important that we constantly make changes to our workout routine. This is normally achieved by changing the training routine, when the body has reached an adaptation to the training load that is placed upon it. By altering the training methods used, we can change the muscles capacity to lift a given weight. It is not practical just to lift the maximum weight possible and hope that will work. We need to train safely and with strict exercise technique, but at the same time use a load that will tax both the body's energy system and muscle fibres, but also in a gradual progression. If we don't increase the stress on the muscles then no progression will take place, causing any muscle gains to plateau.

We constantly see trainers in gyms who, because they have received results from a certain training routine, they will perform that same routine for many months and wonder why their results have ground to a sudden halt. What this really means is that their body has adapted to the stress given to it and has now stopped progressing. The only way out of this plateau is to create a new stress on the body. We can accomplish this by performing high intensity training. This type of training will shock the muscles into accelerated muscle growth and increased strength.

So now we know we have to create an overload to create a new stress on the body, just how do we accomplish this? There are various methods we can use and are given below.


This advanced method of training is normally used by bodybuilders as a method for alternating their training. A superset is an advanced training technique that requires performing two exercises together with either no rest, or limited rest between sets. A very popular way to increase the workout intensity, and perform more work in less time can increase muscle mass. Performing two exercises together normally requires the lowering of the weight in the second part of the lift that is normally lifted for that exercise. Supersets also reduce pressure on joints and can decrease the chance of injury or can be used to train around an old injury. Supersets are used either for the same body part and would normally involve using an isolation exercise first, and a compound exercise second, such as leg extensions and squats Or for two different muscle groups, normally an agonist and antagonist, such as your biceps and triceps. Other methods are supersets using two compound exercises or the use of two isolation exercises. All these methods will achieve greater stimulation of our muscle fibres by going beyond the limits of our normal training.

One advanced method of performing supersets that can be used is a pre-exhaust superset in which you select two or three isolation exercises and a compound exercise. Perform the first isolation exercise for approximately 10-12 repetitions at a weight that allows you to go to positive failure, then move onto another isolation exercise and perform another set, again to failure, followed by your chosen compound exercise. You can also perform what is known as a post exhaust superset again by using two or three compound exercises again to failure as mentioned in the pre-exhaust superset above, and then perform an isolation exercise to failure.

Bench Press/Dumbbell Flys Superset Video:

Extended Set Training

Extended set training is an advanced training technique, and uses different variations of the same exercise. Normally at the end of say performing a set of dumbbell press we reach the stage where we are unable to perform another repetition, but if we changed the exercise to say an incline dumbbell press we would be able to continue to perform some more repetitions. These changes in body position allow a greater training intensity and an increase in the number of muscle fibres that are being used. A weight to use on the first part of this extended set would be a weight that we could only perform 4-5 repetitions and for each change in the exercise we use a weight that will only allow us to perform 4 repetitions. By using either three or four exercises in our extended set we will perform between 12-16 total repetitions. Extended repetition training uses low repetitions which are normally used in strength training, but the total of 12-16 repetitions used in total, is best for muscle growth. Rest time should be minimal but because of the intensity you should rest between 4-5 minutes between each extended set, and perform 1-3 total extended sets. Extended repetition training due to the severe high intensity is best only used for a short time of approximately 4 weeks as overtraining can occur if performed for too long a period of time.

Pre-Exhaust Training

Pre exhaust training can push a muscle past the normal point of muscle exhaustion, causing extra muscle fibre stimulation that you wouldn't get from a straight set. Again this is an advanced training routine that would normally use an isolation exercise first followed by a compound exercise. By beginning with an isolation exercise first this will allow the muscle to be worked without using other muscles to assist in lifting the weight. Example would be if performing chest training then the isolation exercise would be dumbbell fly's or cable cross-over, followed by the compound exercise of bench press.

Dumbbell Flys/Bench Press Superset Video:

Post Exhaust Training

Post exercise training is similar to pre-exhaust training, in post exhaust training, instead of using an isolation exercise first followed by a compound exercise as we would in the pre exhaust training, we use a compound exercise first followed by an isolation exercise. An advantage of this training technique means that we would be far stronger in the compound part of the exercise and then be able to produce a dramatic muscle pump from performing the second exercise, an isolation exercise.

Partial Rep Training

Again this is an advanced training technique, and is extremely effective for building both muscle strength and muscle size. This technique should not be used by beginners due to the extremely heavy weights that are used in this type of training. To perform this training technique a spotter or power rack should always be used. The spotter would help lower the weight by either a quarter or half the distance of a full repetition and then you would then press the weight back up. The negative part of the repetition should be performed at a slow pace. A normal starting weight for this type of training would be approximately 20-30% above your normal 1 RM, although with squats the weight would normally be slightly higher. This training technique enables a good workout by using the exercises where you are strongest, such as squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, dead lifts or leg presses. Two methods are normally used with this method of training, firstly by either performing full repetitions followed by partial repetitions, or by performing partial repetitions followed by full repetitions.

Bicep 21s Involve Partial Reps:

Staggered Rep Training

This type of training is normally used to overcome weak points or to develop specific muscles. Using staggered sets is an ideal method to use and works best on the smaller muscles, such as calves and abdominals but can also be used for biceps and forearms. An example of this type of training would be by staggering a smaller or less developed body part between the training sets of a larger body part, say you were training your back and wanted to target the calve muscles with extra work, then you would perform a set on the back but instead of the normal rest period between the back training, we immediately perform a set on the calves.

Multiple Exercise Set Training

As the name suggests this type of workout technique involves the use of multiple exercises in one set, hitting the muscle group from all angles in just one workout. An example of this type of training would be similar to normal training but you perform one exercise, then have your normal rest time between sets of 60-90 seconds then perform another exercise for that body part. The normal amounts of exercises you use is up to you, but for larger muscle groups normally more than six exercises and until the muscle is exhausted. The main problem with this type of training would be availability of equipment. If you train in a gym then it would be best to find out when the gym is at its quietest, so that there would be more chance of the equipment being available for you to use.

Cheat Sets

This technique is used when after you perform your repetitions with strict exercise technique and you can no longer perform another repetition, you use other muscles to aid you to perform more repetitions. An example would be when performing bicep curls and you cannot perform another bicep curl, you can then cheat by using the back and shoulders to help in completing more repetitions.

Forced Reps

This advanced training technique requires the use of a training partner or someone to aid in the exercise. The exercise involves assistance to perform extra repetitions of the exercise when you find that you are unable to lift a weight with perfect exercise technique. An example would be when performing a bicep curl and you can no longer lift the weight a training partner would put a hand under the bar and aid in you lifting the bar. Or on bench press, when you are having difficulty raising the bar, your training partner would grip the bar with two hands and aid in the raising of the bar.

Forced Reps Video:

Forced Negative Reps

The training technique involves the use of a training partner or a person to aid in the exercise. Whilst we mostly concentrate on gaining strength to lift a weight in the positive part of an exercise, we must also build strength in the lowering, or negative part of the exercise. To do this we can get a training partner or spotter to push down on the bar when performing a bench whilst you resist the weight lowering. Another example would be on a bicep curl, from the top of the exercises as we lower the weight the training partner or spotter would try to lower the bar whilst you resisted the lowering of the weighted bar. A normal method would be to complete as many full repetitions as possible and then perform the forced negative repetitions.

Bench Press Negatives Video:

Static Reps

This advanced training technique involves emphasis on the workout tension by using a heavier weight than is normally used in an exercise. An example would be performing a bicep curl. Perform the lift as normal, but at the top of the lift, instead of normally lowering the bar, you hold the bar at the maximum contraction of the muscle for a period of 10-30 seconds.

Drop Sets

Drop sets are a popular advanced training technique. This method can be used when available time for training is short. or for maintenance training. It involves performing a normal set to positive failure, then lower the weight approximately 10% and perform more repetitions with the lower weight. Various methods of drop sets can be used, such as dropping the weight only once. Or you can use a triple drop set which means dropping the weight twice. A favorite drop set technique of mine is called "Down the Rack". This involves the use of dumbbells or machines with weighted stacks. An example would be when performing dumbbell curls, use a weight that you can perform 6-8 repetitions with strict technique and when you can no longer lift the dumbbells, place the ones you are using back on the rack and pick up the next lower weighted pair of dumbbells and perform as many more repetitions as you can, on failure at this weight then pick up the next lower weighted set dumbbells and continue as low down the rack as you want to go, or to the very last weighted pair of dumbbells.

Hammer Curl Drop Set Video:


This advanced training technique involves performing a set to positive failure, with approximately 8-10 repetitions, then with only a very short rest of about 10-15 seconds, we continue performing another set of repetitions and then take a short rest again, continue until we are unable to perform another repetition with good technique.

Rest/Pause Video:

Note: All the above training methods are advanced forms of training and are not suitable to beginners. Always make sure that a thorough warm up is performed to alleviate the chance of injury. If you are not sure of any of the above training techniques then post your questions onto the natural bodybuilding & fitness forum for an answer to your questions.