By Jeremey DuVall, M.S., CPT Men's Fitness
The search for sleeve-busting biceps and chiseled chest has led lifters to try virtually anything to gain more muscle and see better results. All of the new, cutting-edge techniques that are emerging have led us to forget one thing - what actually works. Real training programs should be based off of results, which in this case, refers to effectiveness at putting on huge amounts of muscle.
There are tons of training programs out there that promise a big return on your training investment. Some focus on an extremely high training volume whereas others promise big gains with relatively little training. It’s hard to find a workout program that actually delivers. To actually build muscle and transform your physique, we went back to the basics and highlighted 5 methods that pass our litmus test - results.
1. Rest-Pause Sets
In terms of producing hypertrophy, training volume is crucial. Putting enough stimulus on the muscle for growth is imperative if you want to see any kind of results. Rest-pause training typically works by having the lifter perform a few reps, racking the weight for 15 seconds, and then un-racking it and continuing to work. This continues for several sets. JC Deen, trainer and author of JCDFitness.com explains why this method works so well. “This type of training is very effective for mass gain because it allows you to approach fatigue very quickly while allowing you to get in more of the reps that 'count' so to speak.”
To introduce rest-pause training into your routine, start by picking one exercise at the beginning of your routine, preferably a heavy hitter like back squats, bench press, etc. After a thorough warm-up, load the bar with a weight that equates to somewhere between your 3- and 5-rep max. Get under the bar and perform one repetition. Rest 15-30 seconds, then repeat. Aim to complete 10 sets. Once you can get all 10 with good form, increase the weight for your next session. Because rest-pause training can be extremely taxing, start with only one or two exercises a week and progress up.
2. Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets
Our muscular system works as a series of levers and pulleys that move our joints during an exercise. As a result, there are certain positions and exercises that give your muscle more of an advantage. For instance, wide grip pull-ups are more difficult than their close-grip counterparts because of the position of your limbs and the muscles involved. You can capitalize on this concept by starting at the positions your weakest and moving towards stronger positions as you fatigue for a whole new world of exhaustion.
To start using mechanical advantage drop sets in your routine, pick an exercise at the end of your workout as a finisher such as pull-ups. Start with a wide grip and perform as many as possible. When you can’t do any more, immediately shift to a parallel grip with your palms facing each other and continue. After that, shift to a chin-up grip (underhand) and crank out a few more. You should be able to get at least two to three more reps with each grip change. This same method can be applied to bench press and back squats. Start with one set at the end of your workout and progress up to three sets over the course of a few weeks.
You may use supersets in your current program to increase training density and fatigue a certain muscle group. Complexes take this concept to the next level. By working three to four exercises in a row, you’ll compound fatigue on a certain group of muscles leading to an insane stimulus for growth.
To incorporate complexes in your routine, pick a group of muscles to target. For this example, we’re going to use the chest group. Select three (intermediate) or four (advanced) exercises according to the following layout:
1. Power exercise - 3-5 reps (Example: Clapping Push-up)
2. Strength Exercise - 6-8 reps (Example: Dumbbell Bench Press)
3. Isolation Exercise - 8-12 reps (Example: Cable Chest Fly)
4. Bodyweight Fatigue Exercise - As many reps as possible (Example: Close Grip Push-up)
By the time you get to the bodyweight fatigue exercise at the end, your chest should be thoroughly exhausted. Because this complex combines power, strength, and hypertrophy rep ranges, you’ll stimulate a ton of muscle fibers and create a huge potential for growth. Be sure to move in a fast and explosive manner during the power exercises. “The high velocity contractions required to execute the lifts correctly recruit what are called high threshold motor units, which activate your fast twitch muscle fibers. These fiber types have the greatest potential for improvements in size and strength, compared to their slow twitch counterparts,” according to Jon-Erik Kawamoto, head trainer at JKConditioning.com.
There are three distinct phases during a lift. First, there is a muscle shortening phase or concentric contraction when lifting the weight (think of squeezing the muscle). Next, the muscle is lengthening under load to lower the weight back down - referred to as an eccentric contraction. Finally, there is typically a pause or isometric contraction between the two. The eccentric phase or slow lowering of the weight causes huge amounts of muscle damage and therefore spurs tons of new growth. To make matters even better, you’re stronger when lowering a weight than actually pressing one up meaning you can handle heavier loads on the lowering portion and cause more muscle fatigue. This all translates to negatives being a fantastic method for building strength and size.
Since negatives are extremely intense and can leave you sore for days afterwards, it’s best to start slow with only one or two exercises in your program. Using a spotter, load up your five rep max on an exercise (preferably a total body move like bench press). Perform the exercise as normal but take 5-6 seconds to lower the weight. With the help of a spotter, lift the weight back up. Aim for two to three repetitions.
5. Time Under Tension Training
In one corner, there’s a guy blowing through 12 reps in no time at all then spending a two-minute rest break perusing his Facebook news feed. In the other corner, a diligent lifter is timing his sets, making sure they last 30 seconds before putting the weight back down. Who builds more muscle? Probably the 30-second guy slowing down his reps. Kawamoto explains “Many trainees tend to focus on sets and reps, but many don't consider the tempo of an exercise.
Time under tension is an important component when adding muscle to your frame. It can be the difference in making the same exercise feel more difficult or not.” Take your tempo to the next level. Start by aiming for 25-30 seconds per set. With each rep lasting approximately three to four seconds, you’re looking at eight to ten reps per set. Have a buddy use a stopwatch and hold you accountable for the entire length of the set. Rest 60-90 seconds while you watch them suffer before repeating.