The principle of dividing lifts into sets of reps, with rest stops between, is actually the most basic muscles-shocking techniques, since the rests allow you to do more reps. What follows are more-sophisticated ways to challenge your muscles. Try any one method for three or four weeks. The move on to a different one. Remember: Variety is the key to progress in this game.
Go Farther with Smaller Steps
Sometimes you can get a fuller workout by actually decreasing your range of motion: For example:
Burns. These are partial repetitions, which consist of pressing a weight only halfway up. You do them at the end of your usual set when you’d ordinarily be too tired to do any additional full reps. “Burns allow you to go beyond what would normally do and place a little bit more overload on the muscles,” says John Amberge, a personal trainer at the Sports Training Institute in New York. “Recruiting even a little more muscle into the exercise can make a noticeable difference for the next time you lift.”
Here’s how to do it: Let’s say you’ve bench-pressed a weight 10 times, and you can’t do even one more time. Instead of simply letting the weight down and moving on the next exercise, slowly lower it just a few inches. Then raise it back up to the fully extended position. Often you can squeeze out two or three additional half-reps before your muscles are completely fatigued.
The 21 system. The goal here is to combine three sets of even reps into one intense set of 21. But the secret isn’t in the number; it’s in how you weight from the starting position to the halfway-up position. For instance, with a barbell curl you would bring the bar up from the point where the bar is touching your tighs to about the point where your forearms are parallel to the floor. Then you’d lower it again. For the next seven repetitions, begin at the midpoint and lift the weight to the top of the movement and back. The final seven repetitions are full exercises–you take the weight all the way up and down.
Some caveats: The 21 method is very tiring and can lead to overtraining. Use it for only one exercise per workout, and vary the muscles you target with it from day to day. We recommend you use resistance machines rather than free weights until you get the hang of the movements.
Warm Up, Wear Out, Cool Down
Pressed for time? One set of exercises using the following technique can have the same benefit as three to four regular sets. In one quick series you can get your muscles warm, do your exercise and cool down, says Michael Yessis, Ph.D., noted exercise physiologist and president of Sports Training, Inc., in Escondido, California.
The pyramid system. Again, using the curl as an example, stand at a dumbbell rack and pick up a pair of light weights–say, maybe half of what you’d normally lift for 10 repetitions. Curl them five times. Then replace them and, after a short pause, go to the next heaviest dumbbells, doing five more repetitions. Continue on up the rack until you reach a weight that’s too heavy to curl five times. Then begin working your way back down through the weights until the lightest pair of dumbbells becomes a chore. (You’ll know you’re doing it right if, by the end of the exercise, you look a little silly straining to lift the tiniest weight you can find.)
This principal is not, by the way, limited to use with dumbbells. You can also do pyramid sets if you have access to a resistance machine with weight plates or if you have a barbell that can easily loaded and unloaded. As a safety precaution, and to save time, always have teo spotters assist you in loading and unloading the weight plates throughout the exercise.
Combine Two Exercises in a Single Set
The more work you give a muscle to do, the faster it responds. These techniques tell your body you’re serious about gaining strength.
Supersets. The idea here is to work a muscle group more intensely by challenging it with two different exercises performed in succession. The first exercise exhausts your muscles. Then the next one places a new demand on them, forcing a little extra work.
On the next page is a sample superset workout. For each muscle group, there are two exercises. Do 8 to 12 repetitions of the first exercise, then, without resting, continue right into the second for another 8 to 12. Allow yourself 60 to 90 seconds of rest after each pair, then complete a second superset. (If you’re not familiar with proper form on the exercises below, ask a trainer at your local gym for help.)
Chest: Bench press with dumbbell fly
Upper back: Lat pulldown with chinup
Lower back: On-floor row with back extension
Biceps: Barbell curl with preacher curl
Triceps: Pressdown or bar dip with triceps kickback
Shoulders: Dumbbell press with lateral raise
Abdominals: Crunch with bent-knee situp
Legs: Squat with leg extension
Push-pull supersets. A great alternative to the above techniques is the push-pull superset. Instead of approaching the same muscle from two angles, this method works opposing muscles in harmony–exercising, for example, for chest muscles, which push your arms away from your body, and the back muscles, which pull them toward you. This technique has an injury-prevention benefit: “When you work opposing muscle groups in succession, you’re stretching one group while working the other, which can help prevent excessive stress and strain of the muscle,” says Jeff Zwiefel, M.A., director of the National Exercise for Life Institute in Minnesota. Do the following the same way you do standard supersets:
Bench press (chest) with bent-over row (back)
Dumbbell press (chest) with one-arm row (back)
Dumbbell fly (chest) with bent-over reverse fly (back)
Military press (shoulders) with lat pulldown (back)
Leg extension (quadriceps) with leg curl (hamstrings)
Triceps pushdown (triceps) with biceps curl (biceps)
Crunch (abdominals) with back extension (lower back)
Pre-exhaust system. Often when we train, large muscle groups get shortchanged because the smaller muscles that are involved in the movement wear out too soon. The pre-exhaust system isolates the targeted muscle group, then works the supporting muscles. After you finish your set of dumbbell flies, for example, you would go to the bench press. The bench press hits the chest again after it has been somewhat fatigued by the dumbbell fly.
Again, as with supersets, do one set of an exercise in the left-hand column below before proceeding straight into a set of an exercise on the right. (Choose only one pair of exercises per muscle group, please.) Two to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each double exercise should give you all the work you need.
Go Slow for Fast Gains
A weight lifter typically spends about two seconds lifting a weight and four seconds lowering it. But the newest research indicates that faster results can come from slower action.
Super slow. The super-slow method consists of spending 10 seconds raising the weight and four lowering it, and its proponents say you’ll employ more muscle fibers more vigorously than if you hurry through an exercise. “It’s the most efficient, effective and safest way to build strength,” says Ken Hutchins, a former consultant for Nautilus and author of Super Slow: The Ultimate Exercise Protocol. In fact, a study done last summer by the YMCA showed that men who spent a full 10 seconds lifting the weight and half that time lowering it increased strength 50 percent faster than those following the more conventional practice.
To get this technique right, Hutchins recommends doing just one set of four to eight reps. Use a weight light enough to allow you to complete eight reps at 10 seconds up, four seconds down before failing. (For most people, that’s 70 percent of what you’d normally lift eight times.) A few food exercises that lend themselves to slow weight training include the leg press, leg curl, leg extension, bench press, seated row, shoulder press, biceps curl and triceps pushdown.
WHICHEVER OF THE ABOVE METHODS YOU adopt, remember to change your routine every five weeks to reap maximum muscle gains. If you don’t, it takes just a few workouts for your muscles to adapt. Then, no matter how many weight plates you slap on the barbell, no matter how many sets you force yourself to complete, you won’t be getting stronger. The lesson is that you don’t necessarily have to work harder to make muscles grow. But you do have to work smarter. Just add a little variation and your body’s back in overdrive again.
“There is no such thing as the best workout,” says Yessis, “only the best workout for a particular period of time or objective.” Half of the challenge, and half the fun, is discovering what works best for you.