We know you don’t come to us every month just to read about which muscles the bench press works or to get tips on how you can avoid becoming “too big”—so we don’t insult your intelligence by wasting pages on information you already know or aren’t interested in. Rather, we give you what you want: a steady supply of great workouts and advice on new and better ways to break out of training ruts and build more muscle faster than ever (we leave the filler to the other magazines).
This article is all about strategy—the best methods for busting plateaus and making new size and strength gains. These are the tricks our trainers use on their own clients—which include everyone from average joes to elite athletes. And since their careers depend on their ability to get results, success is the only option. In other words, get ready to grow.
“The key to building big muscles is to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible,” says Chad Waterbury, a strength and conditioning coach in Los Angeles (visit him at chadwaterbury.com). “However, your largest, strongest muscle fibers fatigue very quickly,” which is evidenced by a decrease in your rep speed toward the end of your set. You can get more out of those fibers by using triple sets.
How it Works: Choose a weight that lets you get 10-14 reps. Perform each rep as fast as possible, but keep perfect form. As soon as you feel your speed beginning to slow, end the set—do not go to failure. Rest 30 seconds and repeat. Then rest 30 seconds and repeat once more. Now rest 180 seconds and repeat the entire triple sequence. Terminating your sets when you begin to lose speed allows you to focus on the muscle fibers that have the greatest potential for growth. Once they’re fatigued, continuing to perform the set is almost moot. By stopping to rest until those big fibers are recovered, you’ll reap the most growth stimulus the set can offer.
1 1/2 Reps
You already know that compound exercises are the best muscle builders. “The problem is, they don’t always emphasize the muscles that you’re trying to build,” says Waterbury. For example, the chinup works the biceps hard, but since it’s mainly a back exercise, your back muscles can overpower the movement. Rather than doing curls to isolate the biceps, use the 1 1/2-rep method. “This allows you to build up the smaller muscles you want to focus on,” says Waterbury, “while also deriving all the strength-building benefits of compound movements.”
How it Works: Perform half of a full repetition for a particular exercise. Then return to the starting position and perform a complete rep through the entire range of motion. The half rep and full rep together count as one full rep. For example, on the chinup, start from the full hang position and pull yourself up halfway. (In this portion of the range of motion, the biceps are working at their max.) Lower yourself back down, and then do a full chinup (in which the lats are the prime movers). On the squat, you would lower yourself into the bottom position, come up halfway, and then go back down and up again to the start position. Perform five sets of 4-6 reps like this twice each week and you’ll shatter strength plateaus while stimulating a ton of new growth.
Heavy and Fast Sets
“There are two indisputable ways to build big, strong muscles,” says Waterbury—”by lifting heavy and by lifting fast.” Trouble is, muscles can’t move really heavy loads fast (it takes milliseconds longer to coordinate a muscle action under high tension), and while they can move light loads quickly, light weights aren’t stressful enough on muscles to elicit growth. How do you lift heavy and fast in the same set to reap maximum benefits?
How it Works: Choose a compound exercise for what- ever muscle group you’re training. For example, if it’s a chest workout, you could use the bench press (as opposed to the dumbbell fly). Perform a set with a weight that al- lows you to get five reps (do not go to failure), rest 10 seconds, and then hit the floor and do as many plyo pushups as you can (explosively push up so that your body rises off the floor and you can clap in midair—see “Pushup 2.0,” on page 16). Rest 180 seconds, and then repeat the sequence twice more. The set of five reps allows you to lift heavy weights, providing plenty of muscular tension. The explosive plyo pushups recruit your biggest and strongest muscle fibers. This combination provides a one-two punch for lightning- fast muscle gains. If you’re training legs, do squats followed by body-weight jump squats. “This method also works really well for biceps development,” says Waterbury. Perform one set of weighted chinups for five reps, rest 10 seconds, and then do a set of barbell curls as fast as possible with a load you could lift 10-12 times.
It can be difficult to train hard when time is short. One solution is to grit your teeth and aim to complete as much work in the given time frame as possible, and that’s where density training comes in.
How it Works: “Pick a target time period in which to complete each exercise in your workout,” says Jim Smith, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning coach in Sayre, Pa. (visit him at dieselcrew.com). You won’t need many exercises with this protocol, so you’ll save time right off the bat. “Now choose a weight that you can successfully execute 10-12 reps with, and perform as many reps as you can in 30 seconds.” Rest 30 seconds and repeat—continue in this fashion until your chosen time period is complete. For instance, if you chose five minutes and you’re training squats, you would squat for 30 seconds, rest 30, squat again, and so on until five minutes was up. The workout will be brutal, but in the end you’ll have completed a massive number of reps in a relatively short time (much shorter than you would doing normal sets), providing more than enough volume for muscle growth. Density training is also good for enhancing your muscular endurance and your lactate threshold, which will allow you to bull through other high-rep sets in the future.
You’ve probably tried the pre-exhaustion method before, which involves performing a set of an isolation exercise followed immediately by a compound movement. The goal here is to work one target muscle group in an area of the body first and then tax it some more with a compound movement in which the other muscles in that area can assist you in getting more reps. For instance, you could do a set of biceps curls prior to chinups. The challenge, however, is that isolation lifts don’t permit heavy loading (you can chinup with a lot more weight than you can curl), so you’re cheating your- self out of the chance to lift big, muscle-building weights when you’re fresh. Post-exhaustion training is just the opposite.
How it Works: “Work the muscles with a compound lift first, and then follow it with an isolation exercise that involves the prime movers,” says Smith. That means you can do chin-ups paired with curls, close-grip bench presses with triceps extensions, and shoulder presses with lateral raises. Now you can thoroughly stimulate your target muscles with a heavy weight first and then finish off with a move that provides a more direct hit afterward.
You can break a plateau in a matter of seconds. In fact, you don’t even have to lift more weight or adjust your sets and reps. “By gradually reducing the time you take between sets,” says Rachel Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., a performance-enhancement coach in Santa Clarita, Calif., “you can force your muscles to recover more quickly, and that leads to faster growth.”
How it Works: Reduce the amount of time you rest between sets by 5-10 seconds every week—but make sure you don’t have to decrease the weight you’re using to allow for it. In other words, if you’re currently resting 60 seconds between sets, try going for 55 or 50 seconds next week, and 50 or 45 seconds the week after. Continue in this manner for four weeks. At that point, you’ll be recovering in approximately half the time you used to, and you’ll need to use heavier weights to return to your old rest periods again.
Your body is capable of lifting some badass weights—you just don’t always have the confidence to try. One great way of reducing your inhibitions toward heaving big loads is to use back-off sets, which allow you to use heavier weights than normal for a higher-rep set.
How it Works: Choose a weight that allows you to get about six reps, and perform two sets with it. Now reduce the weight by 40%, and do as many reps as possible—however many you complete, it’s sure to be more than you could have gotten if you’d just done a normal warm-up and then tried to rep out with that load. “Your nervous system is already excited from your heavy sets,” says Cosgrove (rachelcosgrove.com), “so when you do the back-off set, it’s primed to make your muscles do more work than usual.”