Take your upper-body training to the ultimate level by mastering these advanced techniques for strength and muscle growth from one of the best books ever on the subject.
The following is an excerpt from a training manual that set a new standard on weight training: “Stronger Arms & Upper Body,” by Joe Wuebben and Jim Stoppani, PhD (Human Kinetics, 2008). In this passage, the experts list some of the proven methods used to raise intensity to insane levels in the gym, giving your muscles a growth and strength shock you won’t forget. The authors begin the chapter by explaining supersets, giant sets and the like, but we’ll skip to some of the more exotic techniques that will give your workout a definite boost. Be warned: These moves are not for beginners. And when using advanced techniques, always use a weight appropriate for your strength levels.
Advanced Training Techniques
For beginning or intermediate lifters, sticking to basic training principles might be the best approach because the muscles likely have yet to adapt to even the most rudimentary lifting methods. But after a time—whether it be six months, a year or even two years—your body will require more aggressive modes of training in order for you to continue to see increases in muscular size, strength and endurance.
Increasing intensity is the key, and the longer you’ve trained, the more creative and innovative you’ll need to be to make your workouts more intense. Hence, many of the following advanced training techniques are specifically recommended as a means of boosting intensity, whereas others provide a new stimulus to promote continual results.
The premise with forced reps is also training past failure, but instead of decreasing weight after reaching failure (drop sets) or resting (rest-pause), you’ll continue to do reps with the same weight with the help of a spotter. The objective, as with rest-pauses, is to do significantly more reps with a particular weight than your body is capable of with straight sets. For example, when doing a set of bench presses, you’d take the set to failure, at which point your spotter helps you just enough to be able to get two or three more challenging reps. The work of the spotter is crucial. If the spotter helps too much, you won’t work hard enough to get the full benefit of forced reps. On the other hand, if the spotter doesn’t help enough, you likely won’t be able to get many more reps. You can also do forced reps without a spotter on unilateral exercises by using the nonworking arm to assist, as well as on machines that have a foot plate that moves the handles (as some chest press machines have).
Forced reps are one of the most effective advanced techniques for increasing muscular strength and size. But at the same time, they put such a stress on the muscles and joints that overtraining is inevitable if you do them too frequently. As a rule, do not do forced reps in every workout; when doing them, limit them to only the last 1 or 2 sets of an exercise.
You can perform reps through less than a full range of motion to achieve three distinct goals: Add intensity to a set by training past muscular failure; concentrate on a particularly weak portion of an exercise’s range of motion (ROM) to increase overall strength in that lift, which can eventually lead to gains in size as well; and overload a muscle in the strongest part of its ROM to spark muscular growth.
When simply looking for a boost in intensity, perform partials after reaching failure on a set with full-ROM reps (as opposed to doing an entire set of partial reps). For example, when you do seated rows, the most difficult part of the ROM is the last portion, when your hands are closer to your midsection. Therefore, at the point in the set when you can no longer pull the handle to your midsection, do reps in only the first half of the ROM (the easier portion), from where your arms are fully extended to partially bent. Do partials that way until you reach failure again and can no longer move the handle even a few inches. In general, the easiest portion of the ROM is the limited range at which you do partials.
When working on a weak point in an exercise’s ROM, do the entire set using partials (do no full-ROM reps). For example, with biceps curls, the weak portion is the bottom half, from the arms-extended position to where your elbows are at 90 degrees. The entire set will be in this limited ROM. During any type of barbell, dumbbell or machine press (for chest or shoulders), the weak part of the ROM is the bottom half. If using a barbell, have a spotter present to help you rerack the bar if and when you reach failure.
To overload the strongest part of an exercise’s ROM, first select a weight that’s heavier than you’d normally use, since the weak portion won’t be limiting your strength as usual. And because on most exercises you’ll do the top half of the ROM, a power rack or Smith machine with adjustable safety pins is most effective. The reason is that you need to make sure you don’t lower the weight past the point at which the muscles are at their strongest; safety pins will ensure this. For example, if doing partials on barbell presses (whether it be flat bench, incline, decline, or overhead presses), set the pins to where you’ll begin each rep with your elbows at greater than 90 degrees. On each rep, that is your starting point, and you’ll press up from there to an arms-extended position to complete the partial rep.
When doing partials to increase strength on the weaker ROM of an exercise or to overload the stonger ROM of a lift, perform partials first in the workout (when you’re at your strongest) and follow them immedi-ately with full-ROM training for that exercise and muscle group.
Performing reps at a very slow pace maximizes muscle growth because of the principle of time under tension. In short, extending the duration of each rep (the period in which your muscles are under the tension of resistance) will increase their potential for growth.
One slow rep should take approximately five seconds on the positive and five seconds on the negative. For example, a set of 10 reps on preacher curls at a slow pace would take a little over 90 seconds to complete, which is more than twice as long as it would take to do 10 normal-speed reps. With normal-speed reps, you typically perform the positive faster than the negative; with slow reps, however, you should do both phases at the same speed. The weight you select for a set of slow reps will likely need to be lighter than that of a regular set, provided you’re aiming for the same number of reps. You can perform slow reps on most exercises, though we recommend selecting those exercises that allow you to drop or rack the weight safely upon reaching failure (assuming you don’t always have a spotter present), because this technique fatigues the muscles rather quickly.
Use slow-rep sets only occasionally in your training. Select just one or two exercises and do 3 or 4 sets of slow reps. Remember that normal-speed reps should make up the majority of your sets.
Whereas slowing down rep speed can maximize growth, performing each rep in a set as fast and explosively as possible (ballistically) will develop strength and power by maximizing the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. You can also enhance muscle growth through ballistic training, albeit indirectly. The stronger you become, the more weight you’ll be able to use in the future on a particular exercise for the same number of reps, which can lead to hypertrophy. In addition, fast-twitch fibers have more growth potential than slow-twitch fibers, which is another reason why using fast reps fosters hypertrophy.
With ballistic training, you do the negative portion of each rep under control instead of dropping the weight. On the positive portion, though, you press or pull the weight (depending on the exercise) as quickly as possible through a full ROM, often to the point that the weight leaves your hands because of the increased speed of the rep.
Exercise selection, amount of resistance, rep count and even rest periods are crucial when doing ballistic reps. Not all exercises lend themselves to being performed explosively because safety becomes a more valid concern with this style of training. For example, free-weight pressing exercises for the chest, where the bar or dumbbells are directly over you and you could drop them if you lose control, aren’t the best choices for ballistic training.
Machines, especially Smith machines, are often the ideal equipment, since the weight can safely leave your hands at the top of a rep. Because the path of motion is fixed, it will be much easier to catch the bar coming back down than it would be with free weights. Examples of appropriate exercises are Smith machine flat bench, incline or decline press (chest); Smith machine one-arm row (back); and Smith machine overhead press and upright row (shoulders). For arms, cable curls (biceps) and pressdowns (triceps) lend themselves to ballistic reps.
The amount of weight you use for explosive reps needs to be much lighter—approximately half the resistance—than you would use for normal-speed reps. The whole point of ballistic training is to move the weight on the concentric portion much faster than normal. Using a heavy weight won’t allow you to achieve this, and it can also lead to injury. But even though the weight will be such that you can perform considerably more reps than usual, reps should stay in the range of three to five. In other words, you will not train to failure when doing ballistic reps. Again, the objective is to move the weight very quickly on every rep of every set to increase muscular power; doing too many reps will fatigue the muscles and slow the speed of the reps near the end of the set, which defeats the purpose. And because you need to minimize fatigue when training for power, rest periods between sets should be at least two minutes.
As with slow-rep training, you should use ballistic-rep sets only occasionally; normal-speed reps should make up the majority of your sets. When implementing this technique into a workout, select just one or two exercises and do 3 or 4 sets of ballistic reps.
As mentioned, variety in training is key to ensuring long-term progress, and rep speed is certainly not the exception to this rule. Using only one rep speed in your training will allow your muscles to adapt to the predictable stimulus, which can lead to plateaus in results. You should sprinkle ballistic and slow-rep sets into your program on a continual basis, but a more creative way to spark gains in size and strength is to occasionally do slow-, fast- and normal-speed reps in a single set. This technique is known as variable-speed sets.
In each variable-speed set, you perform a third of the reps explosively, a third very slowly, and a third at a moderate speed (your normal rep speed). As with ballistic reps, machine exercises tend to be safer, though you can use free-weight movements, too.
Weight selection is key here; the resistance should be neither too light nor too heavy. Thus, if your target is 15 reps, select a weight with which you can do 20 to 25 normal-speed reps. Do the first 5 reps as fast as possible, do the second 5 slowly (five seconds up, five seconds down), and do the final 5 reps at normal speed. Rest two or three minutes between each set to allow for ample recovery. And again, use variable-speed sets only occasionally by doing 3 sets of them for only one exercise of each muscle group.
This technique involves not moving the weight at all—that is, holding one position statically for an extended time. As with slow reps, a muscle’s time under tension can be maximized with static contractions to increase the size of muscles. The redeeming quality of static contractions is that the sticking point (the weakest point of the ROM) is eliminated, which allows you to overload the muscle more than you’d normally be able to do.
To perform a static-contraction set, select a weight that’s significantly heavier than you would normally use for the particular exercise, and have a spotter help you lift the weight to a point about two to four inches from the full-contraction point of the movement. For example, on biceps curls and presses (either for chest or shoulders), it will be just short of the top position. On pulldowns, it will be just shy of the bottom position. At that point, hold the weight without assistance for 10 to 20 seconds, then have your spotter help you return the weight to a racked position. Once you can hold a weight for more than 20 seconds, it’s time to increase the weight. After 2 sets of static contractions, do three full-ROM sets of that exercise as well as other full-ROM exercises for that muscle group.
Chapter 3 advises you to perform compound exercises before isolation movements when training chest, back and shoulders. The preexhaust method is the one exception to this rule. It involves beginning your workout with an isolation exercise (a flye or crossover for chest, straight-arm pulldown for back, or lateral raise for shoulders), then following that up with a compound movement (some form of press for chest, pulldown or row for back, or overhead press or upright row for shoulders).
The logic behind preexhaustion is that on compound exercises for the upper body, the arms tend to tire out before the chest, back or shoulders do. For example, you might fail at 8 reps of seated rows because your biceps were too fatigued to go on, even though your back muscles still had plenty of energy left in them and were able to do several more reps. In this case, the effectiveness of the exercise is diminished because the whole point of rowing exercises is to fatigue the latissimus, not the biceps.
However, if you do an exercise that isolates the back muscles from the biceps before doing rows, the larger muscles (latissimus) will be prefatigued before the compound exercise and thus more likely to fail at about the same time as the biceps, if not sooner. This concept applies to doing dumbbell flyes or cable crossovers before flat, incline or decline presses for chest or lateral raises before overhead presses for shoulders. [The book includes sample preexhaust workouts for the chest and shoulders.] You can use preexhaustion occasionally to add variety to your workout or to offset your arms if they are acting as a weak link in compound chest, back and shoulder exercises.
A standard lifting pyramid is a manner of increasing the amount of weight you use on each successive set while decreasing the number of reps you perform. Theoretically, you shouldn’t be able to do as many reps with a heavier weight unless you’re terminating sets well before reaching failure. Many advanced lifters and athletes use this technique to ensure progressive overload and to incorporate a variety of rep schemes, because in the course of one exercise you might pyramid from 15 to 20 reps down to 6. However, a pyramid can also be more gradual than that, increasing weight by only 10 to 20 percent so that the rep scheme for a particular exercise might entail, set by set, 12, 10, 8 and 6 reps.
The opposite of a standard pyramid is a reverse pyramid. As the name implies, in each successive set of a given exercise, the weight decreases as the reps increase. Thus, a reverse pyramid might look something like this: 200 pounds for 6 reps in set 1; 180 pounds for 8 reps in set 2; 160 pounds for 10 reps in set 3; 140 pounds for 12 reps in set 4. One of the major benefits of doing a reverse pyramid is that the heaviest sets are performed when your muscles are still fresh and able to handle maximum loads to increase muscular strength and size.
Incorporating both types into your workout will allow you to reap the benefits of each while promoting variety in your training that will lead to better gains in size and strength and minimize training plateaus.
Get The Book
“Stronger Arms & Upper Body” (Human Kinetics, 2008), by Joe Wuebben and Jim Stoppani, PhD, is a cutting-edge training manual for jacking up your upper-body strength and size with proven methods and programs. This comprehensive guide provides detailed exercise instruction and complete workouts in readable prose to give you all the tools you need to enhance your athletic performance through power gains, and to put on slabs of muscle to fill out your shirts like never before.
You can get the book at brick-and-mortar retail stores and via the Internet, or you can order directly from Human Kinetics at humankinetics.com, or by calling them at (800) 747-4457.
Image courtesy of Neil Bernstein.