By now, you’re probably pretty comfortable with your weight training routine. Bench on Mondays, leg day on Thursday, and plenty of protein shakes mixed in. Gains all around.
But there will come a time in the near future when you’ll want to experiment with more advanced methods, or “intensity techniques,” as they’re often called. These are ways to tweak the traditional set/rep matrix to increase the intensity of an exercise, or even an entire workout. If you’ve been at this for a while, some of these might be familiar. But to really stretch your abilities—and see big gains—you’ll need to learn the full suite of intensity techniques.
Before you charge on ahead, though, know this: We don’t recommend employing more than a couple of these techniques in a single workout. They’re very taxing on your muscles and on your central nervous system, so overtraining and injury are real possibilities if you push it too hard with intensity techniques. We do encourage you, however, to try them all as you progress. You’ll probably find that some work better for you than others, and that some are better applied to different body parts and exercises. Regardless, you should keep each of these techniques in your training arsenal for future use as you continue to work toward your ultimate physique.
What is is: Two sets of different exercises performed back-to-back with no rest in between. A superset, by definition, consists of exercises for different muscle groups (such as chest and back, or quads and shoulders). A compound set works the same way, except the exercises in a compound set target the same muscle group (as in two bicep exercises, or a chest press and a tricep exercise).
Why you should do it: To burn more calories and get more work done in less time. When supersetting different muscle groups, one body part recovers while the other works, and you can cut rest time in half. When compound-setting for the same muscle group, you can thoroughly exhaust it, which is great for bringing up a weak area. New research has found that you burn about 35 percent more calories during and after a workout that uses supersets versus standard sets.
How to do it: Opposing muscle groups like chest and back are ideal for supersetting to promote muscular balance. Not that there’s anything wrong with pairing, say, shoulders and biceps, but opposites always attract with this technique. When compound-setting the same muscle group, it’s usually preferred to do the more difficult exercise first.
Example: Biceps/Triceps Supersets
Barbell Curl: 3 sets, 10-12 reps
Lying Triceps Extension: 3 sets, 10-12 reps. Rest 1-2 min.
Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 2-3 sets, 12-15 reps
Incline Dumbbell Curl: 2-3, 12-15 reps. Rest 1-2 min.
2. Giant Set
What is it: Four or more exercises for one body part performed consecutively without resting between exercises. While a superset can incorporate two different muscle groups, the official definition of a giant set involves only one, whether it be shoulders, chest, back, or legs.
Why you should do it: To significantly increase volume and intensity for a single body part in the shortest amount of time possible. A giant set is one of the most aggressive ways to attack a weak area in your physique, since you’re not only ramping up intensity but hitting the muscle group from a multitude of angles as well.
How to do it: As with supersetting a single body part, when choosing exercises and a sequence for a giant set, it’s best to go from heaviest to lightest — in other words, the exercise that allow you to lift the most weight should be done first, then descend from there (unless you’re purposely pre-exhausting to bring up a particular body part). Why? You want to maximize the amount of weight lifted through the entire giant set, and if isolated exercises are performed before compound moves, you’ll have to go much lighter on the latter. Be careful not to overtrain with this technique. Giant sets are inherently high volume, as every set is multiplied by at least four.
Example: Shoulder Giant Set Routine
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press – 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps
Dumbbell Upright Row – 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps
Dumbbell Lateral Raise – 3-4 sets, 10-12 reps
Dumbbell Bentover Lateral Raise – 3-4 sets, 10-12 reps
Note: Using dumbbells is a great way to not lose your “station” at the gym from one exercise to the next.
What is it: A set where, after reaching failure with the initial load, the weight is immediately decreased and reps are performed to failure once again. The set is either finished at this point or multiple dropsets are performed, where the weight is decreased further and failure is reached each time.
Why you should do it: Dropsets allow you to take your muscles past failure on a given exercise and extend a set without resting, which increases the exhaustion in that muscle group for better gains in size and definition. If you have a weak body part that could use some extra attention, dropsets are ideal.
How to do it: Dropping the right amount of weight is key, as is exercise selection. If you don’t lighten the resistance enough, you’ll only be able to do a few more reps, if at all. If you drop too much weight, however, your muscle won’t be challenged enough to get the full benefit of the technique. If you failed at, say, 10 reps with the initial weight, you’ll want to fail close to that rep count on subsequent dropsets — at 8-10 reps, rather than 3-5.
To achieve this, a good rule of thumb is to decrease the weight 20-30 percent for each dropset, as research confirms this is the best weight range for optimizing results. For example, if you were using 80-pound dumbbells for bench presses, you would drop to a pair of 55s or 60s, then to a pair of 35s or 40s. The best exercises for dropsets are dumbbell, machine, and cable moves, where weight can be decreased quickly to minimize rest. Picking up a lighter pair of dumbbells only takes seconds. On machines and cables, moving the pin allows quick changes as well.
Example: Bicep Dropset Routine
• Dumbbell Incline Curl – 3* sets, 8-10 reps. Rest 2-3 min.
• Cable EZ-bar Curl – 3* sets, 8-10 reps. Rest 2 min.
• Preacher Curl – 3* sets, 12-15 reps. Rest 2 min.
*Perform two dropsets on the last two sets.
4. Partial Rep
What it is: A technique where reps are performed short of your full range of motion (ROM), typically at the end of a set when strict reps are no longer physically possible due to fatigue, which doesn’t allow you to lift the weight past your “sticking point.”
Why you should do it: Because you’d rather not stop to rest, lighten the weight, or end the set just yet. Achieving full ROM is always recommended, but partials can help you extend a set seamlessly to fatigue your muscle fibers that much more, even if it’s just in the bottom or top half of the movement.
How to do it: The majority of the set is still taken through a full ROM. Using biceps curls as an example, let’s say you choose a weight you can do for 10 strict rep, when you’ve reached failure and are unable to move the bar past a certain point, simply do reps where you’re lifting the weight as far up as possible.
Example: Legs Routine
• Squat – 4 sets, 8-10 reps*. Rest 2 min.
• Leg press – 3 sets, 10-12 reps*. Rest 2 min.
• Leg Extension – 3 sets, 12-15 reps*. Rest 1-2 min.
• Leg Curl – 3 sets, 12-15 reps*. Rest 1-2 min.
*Perform partial reps at the end of your last one to two sets after reaching failure on full ROM reps. Do partials until you can no longer budge the weight.
5. Forced Rep
What it is: A technique where, after reaching failure on a set, a spotter assists in lifting the weight so that you can get past your sticking point and continue the set.
Why you should do it: Research confirms that forced reps increase growth hormone (GH) levels more than sets taken only to muscle failure. This anabolic hormone secreted by the pituitary gland plays a key role in muscle and bone growth. GH is also critical for fat burning—studies have shown that athletes using forced reps drop more body fat than those stopping at failure.
How to do it: The key to effective forced-rep training is having a spotter who knows what he is doing. The objective is to get two to four forced reps at the end of a set—not 8-10. For that reason, the spotter shouldn’t be helping too much and taking on most of the work. He should make you work hard throughout each and every forced rep, providing just enough assistance to get you past your sticking point. That said, the spotter shouldn’t be making you work so hard that the reps each take five seconds on the concentric portion.
Example: Shoulder Forced Rep Workout
• Barbell Overhead Press – 4 sets, 8* reps. Rest 2-3 min.
• Smith Machine Upright Row – 3 sets, 10-12* reps. Rest 2 min.
• Barbell Front Raise – 3 sets, 10-12* reps. Rest 2 min.
• Cable Lateral Raise – 3 sets, 12-15* reps. Rest 1-2 min.
*Perform 2-4 forced reps on your last two sets.
What they are: An advanced method where, with the help of a spotter, only the eccentric (negative) portion of each rep is performed—and at a very slow pace. Traditionally, strength athletes have performed negatives as stand-alone sets, but this technique can also be used at the end of a regular set to train the muscles past failure.
Why you should do them: Negatives provide a unique shock to your muscle and are very effective at increasing strength as well as muscle growth. Most people disregard the eccentric portion of the rep, thinking that the muscle is only working when you’re lifting the weight, not lowering it. Not true. Resisting the weight on the negative is a crucial aspect of strength and is actually the part of the movement most closely associated with muscle soreness in the days following a workout. And that soreness equates to increases in muscle size and strength.
How to do them: The specifics of how to do negatives is crucial. First, you’ll need a dependable spotter. After reaching failure on a set doing regular reps, you’ll do two to three negatives in this manner: Your spotter will help you lift the weight through the positive portion of the rep. Then, for the negative, you’ll do all the work, lowering the weight slowly for a count of three to five seconds. The spotter will again do the positive, and so on. But even though you’ll be lowering the weight on your own, your spotter will need to be highly attentive while you do so in case your muscles give out and you can no longer resist the weight.
Example: Chest “Negatives” Routine
• Barbell Bench Press – 4 sets, 8* reps. Rest 2-3 min.
• Barbell Incline Press – 3-4 sets, 10-12* reps. Rest 2 min.
• Flat-bench Dumbbell Flye – 3 sets, 12-15* reps. Rest 1-2 min.
*Do 2-3 negatives on the last two sets.
7. Rest-Pause Set
What it is: A set where, after reaching failure, you rest a short period of time and continue to failure once again using the same weight. A typical set in this manner consists of one to three rest-pauses.
Why you should do it: Like dropsets, rest-pauses allow you to take a set of a given exercise past the point of muscle failure, which can lead to gains in muscle size, strength, and shape. But in this case, the short rest period allows your to stick with the same weight instead of going lighter. As a result, what once was a set of 10 reps with 100 pounds becomes a set of 15-20 reps with 100 pounds by way of rest pauses, so more total work has been performed.
How to do it: Pick the weight you’d normally use for a given set, go to failure, rest 15 seconds, then pick the weight back up and rep out again. Repeat one or two more times. The number of reps you’ll be able to perform will decrease significantly with rest-pause so don’t expect to fail at 10 reps, rest 15 seconds, then get another 10. Chances are, you’ll only be able to get three to five more reps tops. One way to avoid a big drop-off is to stop a couple reps short of failure on the initial set, which will allow you to get more reps after resting.
Example: Back Rest-Pause Routine
• Pullup (or assisted pullup) – 3-4 sets, 6-8* reps. Rest 2-3 min.
• Seated Cable Row – 3 sets, 10-12* reps. Rest 2 min.
• Lat Pulldown – 3 sets, 12* reps. Rest 1-2 min.
*Perform 2-3 rest-pauses on the last one or two sets.