Lets be honest here, most people who go to the gym are there to get BIG, hyooge, swole, buffed, and pumped. From stick-thin newbies to experienced lifters of already gargantuan proportions, everybody wants to put on a few extra pounds. The problem is that a large proportion of people don’t know how to do this. They go into the gym without really knowing just how they are going to stimulate this growth. Magic, I guess, because that’s what a lot of people I see in my gym are going to need.
Now, sadly, most of the info in this article isn’t really meant for total beginners. Though I’ve organized the techniques in order of difficulty, this is done according to my own ability and nobody else’s. I have no idea how easy or difficult you’ll find this stuff.
For the most part, this information is meant for people who have at least a few years of good training under their belts, and a good basis in heavy lifting. For the beginners – focus on compound free-weights movements and bodyweight exercises to build a strong base to work with in the future. You’ll more than likely put on mass whatever you do anyways – aaah, to be a newbie again…
The rest of you, however, I don’t recommend using all of these techniques in one program, but using one or two in various ways will produce some really good results. It has for me, anyway.
A lot of this is based on the concept of TUT or time under tension, which basically states that a key factor in stimulating hypertrophy is not just the amount of weight used but the amount of time the muscle is kept under constant stress. The techniques here utilise this concept in different ways.
So if you need something extra-intense to kick start your gains, a change of pace to push through a rut, or just something new to try for your next program – read on!
Technique #1 - Broken Pyramids
A popular sets/reps setup for gym goers is the pyramid scheme, I think everybody has tried this at one time or another, but the traditional “true” pyramid configurations don’t really work for me.
The first variation is the descending pyramid, which looks something like this:
8reps, 6reps, 4reps
Well the problem with this is obvious – you’re doing your heaviest and most difficult set at the very end, after you’ve fatigued yourself with 3 previous sets! I don’t know about any of you, but by the time I get to the last set of anything I’m coming to the end of what I can give that movement. Where’s the logic, then, of having the heaviest set last?
The second variation is the ascending pyramid:
4reps, 6reps, 8reps
This is better than the other one, and out of the three usual setups I think this one is probably the best. The only problem is that you have your heaviest set right off the bat, which is good In terms of logic, but when using a straight rep scheme like 4x4, I usually don’t find the first set difficult at all. In this ascending pyramid, you want the heavy set to count.
The third, and probably most amusing, of the variations is the complete pyramid:
8reps, 6reps, 4reps, 6reps, 8reps
The same problem from the first variation applies here, and not only that, but you have two more sets at the end. Id rather get out of the gym earlier if I’m honest with you. After the first three sets most people are too fatigued to keep good form on the last two anyway – its just dead weight.
This brings us onto what I’ve found to be the best way of using this variable rep scheme. The ‘broken’ pyramid:
6reps, 4reps, 8reps
The heaviest set is now in the middle after a sort of “warm-up” set, though that’s not to say that set isn’t beneficial too, because its still relatively heavy without having excessive volume to fatigue you before that all important 4rep set. Once you’ve got your heavy one out of the way, you switch the dynamic to relatively high reps at the end with slightly less intensity than the other two.
It may seem simple and basic, but as this rather un-complicated technique goes, this way seems the most logical to me in terms of in-the-gym performance.
Technique #2 - Target Sets
This is a technique I’ve mostly used with bodyweight exercises, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be performed with weighted movements too. This is really a technique that utilises high volume to achieve greater time under tension, while maintaining a good degree of intensity. It’s also a killer on your CV conditioning!
The premise is simple. Pick a movement, pick a rep range. Take the usual weight you can do for that rep range, for the purposes of this example we’ll say its 10 reps. Multiply this by 3, this is the amount of reps you’ll be doing today.
Yeah, yeah, I know it’s impossible. Let me finish.
So, 30reps is now your “target” for this movement. What you do now, is to try and complete the movement in as few sets as you possibly can. That’s right, that’s all there is to it. Start off with a good number of reps, either the number you’re supposed to be doing, or go for as many as you can.
Once you do a set, rest for 30 seconds, then do another set, and keep going until you complete the target. It doesn’t even matter if you end up doing sets of 2, or even 1 rep – just reach that damned target.
Your final tally could look like:
10, 8, 4, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1.
But you still reached the 30, and that’s what counts. You’ll be surprised at how difficult this is, and also with the level of muscle soreness you’ll get the next day! I’ve seen great increases in a few areas using this technique, namely hypertrophy, conditioning, and muscular endurance.
Technique #3 – Extended Negatives
This is a classic method of implementing TUT into your program without too much hassle. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though!
A standard rep is broken up into three or four parts. You have the concentric, or positive portion (where you bring the weight up); the first isometric (pause at the ‘top’ of the rep where the weight doesn’t move); the eccentric, or negative (where you lower the weight); and some people also count the second isometric (pause at the ‘bottom’ of the rep right before you begin another concentric).
The extended negatives technique puts emphasis on the eccentric portion of the lift in order to stimulate hypertrophy. This is called ‘tempo’ lifting, where the time taken for each portion of the lift is noted down in order to gauge the speed of the rep.
2/1/2/1 – would be a notation for “2 second positive, 1 second isometric, 2 second negative, 1 second isometric” meaning that the rep took a total of 6 seconds to complete.
1/1/1/1- is commonly shown as a regular “controlled” tempo that the majority of people use in the gym. No part of the rep is given emphasis, but the rep is still performed in a normal manner.
x/1/3/1 – would be a three second negative portion, with the usual pauses at the isometrics, but the ‘x’ written in the space for the positive portion notates an explosive or fast speed or performance.
Actually utilizing extended negative portions into your program is simple, but may require a little trial and error to get the right amount of weight.
I’ve found for each extra second you add to the negative portion, decrease the weight by 2 reps. I.e. if I was using my 8RM weight originally, and decided to implement a 1/1/4/1 tempo I would lower to weight to my 14RM in order to perform the reps correctly.
Trust me, it may seem like a drop but once you try slowing that eccentric down, the gravity starts to feel real heavy. Obviously these are just guidelines, it will probably take a “practice” session for you to select the right weight for each movement.
Technique #4 – Split Sets
This is something I’ve only started using recently, but is proving a very intense and enjoyable way of working out.
One of the most effective and time-tested ways of packing on muscle has been to lift heavy. There’s no way getting around it, to be big you’ll probably have to lift big and eat big.
The logical way to do this in the gym is to lift in the low rep ranges with a heavy weight, right? Yep – sounds right to me. But what if you could take a heavy weight, say, your 4 rep weight, and do it for 6 reps? Surely if 4 reps at a heavy weight was beneficial, then 6 reps at the same weight is gonna be even more-so! Sign me up!
But hang on, this is looking like another “shut up, that’s impossible” things, isn’t it? Again, let me finish.
The way to do this is the split the set up into manageable parts, because lets face it – doing your 4 rep weight for 2 reps is easy. Well, that’s exactly what you’re gonna do. But you’re gonna do it three times.
The concept is pretty simple, split the set in half, then add a half on giving you three small sets. The key to this technique is mid-set rest intervals, because I know its impossible to do all three sets immediately after each-other.
Once again, this may be a case of trial and error, but as a rule of thumb – for every extra rep you are adding (i.e. reps above your usual amount of reps for this weight) add 5 seconds to the rest in between each of the “mini-sets”.
So in this example, a 4x4 rep range with a 2:00 RI would look something like this:
1st Set = x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps
2nd Set = x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps
3rd Set = x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps
4th Set = x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps / 0:10 RI / x2 Reps
In this way you can actually stave off muscular fatigue until the very last portion, or even completely, while performing more reps than you should physically be able to at a given weight.
A word of warning, though – this is pretty intense on your muscles as well as your conditioning, because it’s almost set up as some sort of ungodly circuit so just be careful. Remember to keep your form tight, have a spotter handy, and stop repping before you reach muscular failure.
Like I said in the introduction, I only really recommend you use one of these techniques in a program as they can quite taxing on the CNS and your body in general, I think they work pretty well in a phase-oriented program where you can switch to other things every few weeks. If that’s the case, I’d definitely think about including one of these as your hypertrophy phase.
With that said, remember the golden rule – train safe.