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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single set.”
– Swole tzu
I know that you don’t come to TheSwole for clichés, but we use them in every article anyway. The topic today is that thousand mile finish line, the spot on top of a summit waiting to receive a flag, that fat bench, or just a big swole bicep. None of these things start with anything spectacular, in fact they begin with something ordinary and tame. What portends a difference, though, is focus in a single direction. They all require continuity and work towards a goal, and a mindset to see that through. So, in an effort to help you help your body get stronger, bigger and better conditioned, I’ll once again spill the magic beans on some weight lifting secrets.
Progressive Loading is the concept of, well, progression. With lifting you have training days, sessions, sets, reps, and finally, weight used. All these are different ways to improve in, and, in other words, progress. The more you progress with the weights the stronger, faster, leaner, and bigger you get. Progressive loading is about getting steady progress. We’re not interested in how much you can max once a month, but in how it went last time and how can you improve today. That doesn’t mean you max out every work-out, but that in every session you see some mark of improvement, be it one more rep over last time you used that weight, one more set, or even the same numbers with better form. This is why I believe determination is the quintessential part of training. Put your mind to the iron and the iron will bend; but a defeated mentality, cynicism, and lack of heart will get you nowhere.
With progressive loading you are progressing, but the body likes to resist, adapt, and find ways to negate your training. You will quickly find straight sets and a static rep range insufficient. The key to successful training is to incorporate a variety of set types and rep ranges, as well as targeting specific range of motion.
Drop-sets are one of the greatest mass and strength builders. They are also a strong weapon in your arsenal for broad-spectrum training. You see you have 2 major types of muscle fibre. Type I (slow twitch) is used for endurance and type II (fast twitch) is used for strength and explosiveness. Within the fast twitch fibres there are three different types of fibers that get engaged when put under stress, type A engage immediately and exhaust within 2-4 seconds, type B 4-6 seconds, type C 6+ seconds. For example, a person can lift 80 lbs 6 times, while he can lift 100lbs 3 times. This is due to the strength threshold each muscle type has.
Here’s how drop sets help you engage all of them. First you are going to begin by loading a weight you can do for 3-4 reps, the 4th rep should be very close to failure, then you are going to drop the weight by about 25% and again go to failure, which should be another 4-5 reps, finally dropping the weight by 30% and exhausting the muscle. When doing drop sets it’s very important to do ‘clean’ reps, i.e. don’t cheat on form.
Here’s an example of a drop set on bench press:
225 x 4
170 x 5-6
120 x 8
I only recommend doing drop-sets with a good spotter or in a power-cage if you are going with free weights. Otherwise use the smith machine or hammer strength.
RP sets have really been popularized by DoggCrapp and his eponymous, advanced, bodybuilding routine. The concept is to perform a single set of a specified rep range, for example between 11 and 16. You will do this by dividing that into 3 ‘mini-sets’. For example, begin with a weight you can use for 7-8 reps, really focusing on individual reps and approaching failure at the 6-7th rep. Then, rest for 30-40 seconds while taking really deep breaths and hammer the same weight again. Hopefully you can get 4-6 reps. Repeat, hoping for 2-3.
RP sets should really only be used when you have quite a bit of experience training, as a beginner is not able to judge his abilities to the extent that he could take full advantage of them. Another thing to note is that RP sets are going to take a heavy toll on you, so don’t count them as ‘just another set.’ In reality they are more like 3-4 heavy sets when done right.
One of the best known set structures, the superset is a simple concept: stack two exercises together and perform one after the other. Some people recommend using exercises with target muscle agonists (eg. bench paired with tricep extension), whereas others recommend targeting antagonists (eg. bicep/tricep). I’m not a big believer in super-sets but I can see their benefit mostly on accessory work. Near the end of your session, you can, for example, do dumbbell shoulder press and then right away move to side raises. This really is the same concept as drop-sets; you are trying to fully exhaust the muscle.
Cluster-Sets should really be reserved for the very experienced as they are complicated, difficult and requiring of an experienced spotter. The idea of CS is to cram as much heavy reps as possible into the shortest possible time in order develop athletes who are strong yet well conditioned. The concept is very similar to rest-pause training except it also incorporates the drop-set. There are different levels of cluster training and they must be periodized because of the great stress they are going to have on the CNS. The trainee would start with 80-85% of their 1RM or 5RM, so for example if your max is 300lbs, start with 255. The goal is to get 10 reps here, so the trainee would perform 5 reps with the 255 then rack the weight. Rest for 10-15 seconds, perform 2-3 more reps, rest for 10-15 seconds and perform another 2-3 more reps.
CSs should only be performed periodically, allowing a couple of weeks rest between CS cycles. If you are trying to fit this into your powerlifting routine, use it on the Max Effort (Strength day).
Rep structure is defined by tempo, which is the time it takes to perform the positive (eccentric) and negative (concentric) portion of the lift. Also take into account whether there is a static hold at the top or a pause at the bottom. It’s important to understand that different rep tempos are going to produce significantly different results and the trainee should understand the differences in order to maximize his or her goals.
This is pretty much universal to all programs. A positive should be performed as an explosion which fully engages muscles and CNS. Make sure in particular to use explosive positive on Max Effort days on which you would do any type of max since you want to generate the most power. The tempo for an explosive positive is usually between 1-2 seconds.
The popular controlled negative aims to control the weight as it comes down. This concept is particularly important to the DoggCrapp style of training, and generally any kind of weight training involving free weights/barbells is going to involve some type of controlled negative. Just think of how important it is to be in control of the weight during the the “squating down” portion of the squat, or when bringing the bar down to the chest during bench. Incorporating controlled negatives will teach you how to control the weight as it comes down and properly ‘load’ the weight into the muscles so you get a good reflex back up at the positive. Controlled negatives vary in tempo, but generally take 3-4 seconds, depending on the movement. Ideally you should feel as though you are resisting gravity rather than actually working to stop it.
This is the opposite of a controlled negative. Controlled positives are usually discouraged, especially for athletes. But for bodybuilders they can be a great asset as they increase the time the muscle is under pressure as well as stretching of the muscle. These are going to really aid in hypertrophy, but if you are after strength gains then forget about this completely.
You should experiment with these different techniques and find what helps you the most. One important thing to note is that when you switch to a new form of training it will take your body some time to adapt, generally from couple of days to a week or two. After the initial adaptation you should start seeing progress again. Try one or two methods mentioned above and tell me how that works for you: