Everybody knows and loves straight sets and traditional ways to organise training, but there are ways to make training more challenging, time efficient or both. Most of these techniqes are known as intensity-techniques, which is really a misnomer as training intensiveness (effort) is increased and not intensity (resistance). What are those techniques, do they really offer any benefit and who should implement them? Let’s take a look!
You go all out on a set, then your partner (or a mechanism) starts helping you to squeeze out more reps, e.g. 100×12 (failure), partner starts helping, 100×4, rest.
As you can imagine, this is a very intense way of training. If your partner is good at it, he will help only as little as possible, just to make sure the bar is moving up. This makes every concentric as hard as possible and every eccentric “overloaded” as you normally wouldn’t be able to move the weight into the starting position. A lot of neuromuscular fatigue is the result.
This imposes a serious risk of overtraining, making forced reps suitable for (very) low training frequencies and only for a limited amount of sets. You also have to make sure to have a training buddy at hand that knows what he is doing. Also exercise selection needs to make sure that the chosen exercise is save when going way beyond failure. Isolation exercises and machines are probably best.
These considerations make forced reps suitable for experienced individuals who don’t have much time to train and who are not afraid of very intensive workouts.
Stripping off weight as soon as you hit failure and then continuing the set, possibly several times, repeatedly going to failure again, e.g. 120×8, 90×8, 60×9, 30×14, rest, repeat.
Hitting failure multiple times in one set rapidly increases metabolic stress, fatigue and muscle damage, demanding more recovery time. High cardiorespiratory demands should be considered when selecting proper exercises for this technique. Isolation and machines are best used with drop-sets, especially because the weight drop is easy to implement with them, even more if you are using stack-loaded machines. Drop-sets are relatively safe to perform if you program wisely and focus on keeping exercise execution on point.
Again, this technique is appropriate for individuals with little time to train and who like working out hard. I personally like them a lot as a “finisher” for isolation like curls or leg extensions, as drop-sets make for a good pump. And everybody likes a good pump.
After taking a set close to failure, the weight is reduced on subsequent sets, but unlike drop sets, there is a normal rest interval between sets. The reps of subsequent sets should be higher than the reps of the first set for it to be a true reverse pyramid, e.g. 120 kg x 8, rest, 95 kg x 10, rest, 75 kg x 12.
Reverse pyramiding is a hybrid between straight sets and drop sets. This allows for more total work (weight x reps) done per workout, which also tends to increase fatigue. As you change the weight every set, this technique isn’t good at improving exercise technique, since technique changes significantly with weight used.
On the other hand this technique allows injury prone individuals to get at least some heavy work in and then switching to lighter loads. This is probably the “softest” intensity technique, as you are not forced to make the sets as hard as possible. Therefore it may be used for a wide variety of exercises, especially compound movements.
Taking a set to failure, then resting for a short period, going to failure again, resting again, going to failure again, possibly repeating this sequence two or more times. E.g. 120×12, take a few deep breaths, x6, take a few deep breaths, x3, full rest, repeat with next set.
As with drop-sets, going to failure multiple times per set ramps up fatigue quickly, increasing recovery demands significantly. Similar concerns for exercise selection and execution also apply to rest-pause as the only destinction to drop-sets is the constant load.
Rest-pause training can be applied to improve the feeling of a target muscle and I have had good results with rest-pause training and latissimus-feeling. If you apply rest-pause training regularly, make sure you keep set volume relatively low. Otherwise cycle it in if you wish to intensify a certain period in a mesocycle. This training technique is very demanding, so use it wisely.
Borge Fagerli is the creator of myo-reps and provides us with a good definition:
“After warm ups and a few minutes of rest, unrack the chosen load and do reps until you hit the failure point (leaving one rep in the tank can be a good idea). This is the ‘activation set’. Re-rack the weight, count three to five deep breaths, unrack, and do a set of three to five reps. (That’s about a quarter of your first set. For example, complete five reps when you did 20 reps on the first set.) Now re-rack, rest, and repeat until you hit another failure point. This is the autoregulation aspect. On some days and on some exercises, you may only get something like 20 + 5 + 4 reps, but on other days/exercises, you may get 20 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 (or more). The point is to achieve high muscle fiber activation on the activation set and extend this effect by balancing on the verge of fatigue to perform more “effective” reps, taking advantage of all the hypertrophic signaling effects of occlusion training.”
As you can see, this is a form of autoregulative training that tries to squeeze out the most benefits of high-rep training. High-rep training makes it necessary to go close to failure, but traditional sets have the disadvantage that you have to perform many “junk-reps” before you reach high muscle activation, which is time consuming, boring and painful.
This method is easy on the joints (low weights are used), but obviously not useful for strength improvement. It is also not very easy to understand, so many beginners have a hard time of implementing it properly. Exercise selection has to be thoughtful, as this style of training makes it necessary to savely perform multiple pauses. Cardiorespiratory demands are also very high, so most compound movements are out of question. Machines and isolation exercises are adequate most of the time.
This is the use of intra-set rest periods, i.e. resting in between every rep or every ‘cluster’ of reps instead of only in between sets (inter-set). E.g. 120×1, rest 5 seconds, 120×1, rest 5 seconds, 120×1, rest 5 seconds, 120×1, rest 5 minutes, repeat with next cluster-set.
Cluster-sets minimize metabolic stress and therefore allow technique to be on point for every repetition. As you have to re-rack for every repetition, it also allows for greater practice of the setup of a lift, again improving technique. Cluster-sets are therfore especially useful for relatively heavy work that benefits from better technique. The powerlifts or other big compound movement that are easy to load heavy, are proper choices for cluster-sets. When choosing exercises for cluster-sets, keep in mind that they have to be easy to rack and re-rack. Go for machines and lifts that have an easy set-up.
At first glance cluster-sets seem a little out of place in an article on intensity techniques, as they don’t allow you to train “harder”. But the short break inbetween reps allows you to get more volume done as with straight sets. Per session volume is a main contributor of fatigue, making cluster-sets more difficult to recover.
Performing two or more exercises back to back that target the same muscle, e.g. one set bench-press, minimal rest, one set dips, minimal rest, one set chest flyes, rest 3 minutes, repeat with next gian-set.
Usually a giant-set begins with compound movements and transitions to isolation exercises to really hit a muscle, possible from different angles, making sure every muscle fibre gets exhausted. As you can imagine, this usually creates a good pump, giving a nice feedback (and feeling). This potentially allows for a better mind-muscle-connection, helping with technique and making sure a (stubborn) muscle really gets hit hard.
Fatigue can become a problem when multiple giant-sets are performed, massively cutting total work volume, especially when all the sets are performed to failure (which they usually are). Make wise use of giant-sets, especially to target and focus on stubborn muscle groups.
Performing an isolation exercise before a compound exercise for the same muscle group; often a strict isolation exercise before a less-strict compound movement, e.g. leg extensions, minimal rest, back squats, 5 minutes rest, next set of pre-exhaustion.
Pre-exhaustion is similar to giant-sets as both focus on a given muscle. Contrary to giant-sets, you perform isolation before compound movements. Improved feeling and pump should help with proper exercise technique, mind-muscle-connection and making sure the target muscle is the limiting factor of the compound movement.
This technique is often used by more experienced lifters to make the compound movement harder so less total weight has to be used, sparing joints or other structures that are prone to injury (like the lower back during back squats). Logically this makes pre-exhaustion a no-go for strength training goals.
To sum it up
While there is research on intensity techniques, results are often conflicting or neutral. It is difficult to measure a slow progress like muscle growth during a 12 week study, so it is questionable how important those results are for us in practice.
Intensity techniques aren’t the magic potion like they are often marketed, but they can help with mind-muscle-connection, may help to break through training plateus, are often more time-efficient than straight sets, and bring a little bit of variety to keep training interesting.
On the other hand, not all intensity techniques are suited for every exercise, safety is often a concern, as is proper technique. All intensity techniques tax recovery systems quite heavily, so they have to be programmed accordingly.
If you have any questions, don’t be shy, contact me, I am always happy to help. Until then, train hard and eat well!