– What is your opinion on intensity techniques? Supersets, drop sets, rest pause etc. Are they effective techniques for maximising hypertrophy or should people stick largely to conventional lifting?
This is a great question and one that doesn’t really have a black and white answer. As with most things in this sport it is going to depend on the individual and where they’re currently at with their training.
For those who are unaware of what these techniques exactly are here is a quick how to:
– Supersets: Performing 2 exercises back to back with minimal to no rest in between. It is often done with a compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise done for the same muscle group (i.e. bench press supersetted with pec-deck), however the traditional method of supersetting involved combining antagonistic muscle groups such as back and chest.
– Drop sets: Drop sets are often performed as a way to extend a set past failure by reducing the load at set increments once failure is hit and continuing on until the desired amount of ‘drops’ has been achieved.
– Rest pause: Similar to drop sets, the rest pause technique involves taking the set past failure by allowing mild recuperation between reps. It is often done by completing however many reps the athlete can with a given weight and then having a brief break (usually around 5-10 seconds) and continuing on with the same weight.
My personal opinion on these techniques for hypertrophy is that they should be used less often than what is often seen. I believe they do have their place, however structuring a routine around such techniques may actually be counter-intuitive.
Will they work? Sure. But there are often more effective and longer term ways of achieving hypertrophy.
To give an example of where I could see these techniques becoming a detriment is when an athlete sets out to train X muscle group with the sole objective of ‘burning’ the muscle. Lets say it’s chest day and our athlete starts on BB bench and decides to superset it with some kind of fly movement. After the first set of doing this (taking the set well past failure mind you), it’s often noted that the weights used on the following sets will be significantly lower, and there is a very good reason for this. Depending upon the rep range and exercise selection (namely compounds vs isolation), your body will call it’s central nervous system into play at varying levels. If we’re looking at something like the bench press where your body requires a significant amount of neural control and coupling that with heavy weights plus a set taken past the point of concentric failure, your CNS will start to regress to the point where it just cannot maintain that neural drive or output.
A large part of strength training is neural adaptation. That is your body basically ‘learns’ how to do a movement in a specific way and how to recruit the motor units necessary to perform the task. By using these techniques on neutrally demanding exercises you can stress your CNS to point of overtraining it where it will not be able to recover from the exercise bout and progression will eventually stall out and cease (Note: I said overtraining the CNS, not the muscle).
The question was specifically on hypertrophy so ill touch on that quickly. The benefit to these techniques is that they can create a large amount of metabolic damage and as research has shown performing sets in the 8-12 rep range does seem to be the sweet-spot for increasing cross-sectional area. The inclusion of these tools can often mean due to the metabolic damage caused that growth factors responsible for hypertrophy may be elevated and transient hypertrophy may provide the ‘machinery’ needed to sustain future bouts. So although it may seem as though im taking a somewhat negative view on these techniques, I do feel they have their place.
My view on the subject of intensity techniques is that they are not ‘needed’, but can be a tool used for certain circumstances. I believe the vast majority of your strength and muscle gains are going come from progressive overload with the main movements and stopping a rep or two shy of failure on most exercises (particularly on the lower end of the rep spectrum) will be of more benefit and in fact it has been shown that a set done at 80-85% 1RM yet shy of failure can recruit all motor units into the movement.
So where can these techniques be used? Really I would leave these techniques solely to the advanced trainees (such as yourself, Evan) and periodised intelligently.
I myself am quite fond of what is called ‘myo-reps’. In essence myo-reps are a technique similar to rest pause. You choose a weight where you can perform around 10-12 reps and stop just shy of failure, you then take about 10 seconds rest one you reach that point and continue on in bursts of 2-4 reps until you can no longer continue. The idea behind this technique is that on your ‘activation set’ (the initial set taken close to failure) you are recruiting enough motor units to the point where the movement becomes more muscle than neural and then on the following sets your aim is to maintain that activation.
This technique can be effective in that it won’t place an overly demand workout on your CNS, however it does allow you to get a significant amount of workload on the muscle in a short period of time. Again I would limit this technique to the middle/end of your workout and keep it to movements which don’t require too much coordination.
To sum up:
– Using too many of these techniques can greatly reduce total output and volume.
– Training to or past failure too often can lead to an inability of your CNS to keep up and eventually you will regress.
– Lifting a weight at approximately 80-85% 1RM yet stopped shy of failure by 1-2 reps can effectively incorporate all motor units into the movement.
– The techniques are better left to advanced trainees and are not recommended for beginners and intermediates.
– They can be used effectively, however must be properly periodised and structured into a training cycle.
I wanted to be involved in this response, not because I disagree with any of the points Joey has made, but because I believe there are several aspects that fact neglects to address when dealing with real world application of these intensity techniques. I’m a huge fan of every single one of them and use them a lot with clients and personally. Sometimes the reasoning for implementing them actually goes beyond their outright effect on muscular Hypertrophy. You’re probably thinking why the hell anything else would matter? And rightly so, if your goal is purely to build muscle.
Before I elaborate I’d like to delve into some background regarding my reasoning for originally becoming involved with the sport of bodybuilding. Of course everyone likes to look good and no doubt that is a brilliant outcome associated with the sport but almost the entire appeal for me was the mental/mindset and goal setting aspects that are so intricately weaved through every moment as a competitive bodybuilder. Nothing is better than setting goals that others deem impossible and giving everything you’ve got day in and day out to reach that pinnacle. I truly believe it is the mindset that separates a successful competitor from the average or below.
These intensity techniques when applied effectively can not only contribute to increased hypertrophy but play a crucial part in the mental development of a competitor. I’ve seen guys who are ridiculously strong and powerful who been reduced almost to tears during intensity driven sessions (when these techniques are applied effectively). Shortly followed by them stating “that was the hardest session I’ve ever done”.
These techniques don’t have to be setup to take you to failure or any impairment of your CNS. There are significant mental barriers one must cross during drop sets, super sets, rest pause etc. It’s about silencing that voice in your head saying “stop, that’s enough”. Mind to muscle connection and form must be maintained as pain goes beyond your tolerance. This is not easy to do.
Many competitors reading this will understand immediately where I’m coming from, but If you cannot relate to what I am suggesting I will put out a challenge to you – select a weight that you normally lift for 10 reps, let’s make it leg extension. Now the requirement is to lift/move this weight for 70 seconds in total. If you cannot take 70 sec (7 sec per rep) to move this weight and/or you reach 10 too early drop the weight on the machine by 1 increment and continue to perform repetitions until the time is up. Then analyse the difference in mindset simply performing a set of 10 vs. a drop set totalling 70 seconds.
Creating new limits/mental barriers and pushing beyond them is an vital exercise in itself and using these techniques can serve this purpose without performing 1 – 4RM’s which are taxing on the mind but even more so on the body and CNS.
Let’s also keep in mind that yes there is a direct relationship between the cross sectional area of the muscle and increased load, however in terms of a sweet spot or desired rep range of say 8 – 12 – this only exists when the movement is performed correctly. For example some one that picks up 50kg dumbbells and performs 10 reps in 20 seconds will not achieve the same level of hypertrophy as someone who picks up 50kg dumbbells performs 6 reps then picks up 30kg dumbbells and performs another 8 -10 taking a total of 50 seconds. The first person may be stronger, but won’t necessarily end up bigger. Muscles cannot count their change in size and strength is simply an adaptive response to the training stimulus. Time under tension is far more critical than X number of repetitions. So yes these techniques have their place with regard to hypertrophy but not to be used excessively. Overall load is still important as strength increases will result in the ability to move increased load for effective (hypertrophy) TUT. Therefore it really comes down to effective programming in order to get the most out of any techniques.
- Incorporate these intensity techniques not only for the physical results but also for the enhancements in mindset and determination to reach goals (especially as a competitor).
- There are crucial factors to consider when programming for these techniques as they can have a negative impact on your CNS if not set up correctly (which can lead to more harm than good).
- Intensity techniques can allow for more effective TUT and can greatly improve results when used correctly.
- As Joey said these techniques are best used by competitors or advanced trainers.
- Any intensity technique should never be the replacement for standard progressive overload, but simply an addition via effective programming.