The science of building muscle Part 5: Advanced training techniques

September 14, 2020

The Science Of Building Muscle Part 5: Advanced Training Techniques

‘Drop Sets’, ‘Supersets’, ‘Partial Reps’, ‘Rest-Pause’, and ‘Negative Reps’ are all terms you may hear in a gym, but perhaps you’re not sure what they mean. They actually refer to Advanced Resistance Training Techniques.

For many years, strength athletes have been applying a variety of training techniques in a bid to optimise gains in muscle mass. Many of these have been developed by the athletes and coaches themselves, and until recently there was little, if any, evidence to support their use. However, a number of these techniques have now been the subject of scientific investigation. So, in this article we’re going to explain how they are performed and check out what the science says about their effectiveness.

Pre-Exhaustion

Pre-Exhaustion (PE) involves training a muscle with an isolation, or body part, exercise followed immediately by a structural (multi-joint) exercise. For example, performing pec flyes before bench press would be an example of Pre-Exhaustion for the pectoral muscles.

The rationale for this technique is that failure to complete further repetitions during the performance of multi-joint exercises is often due to smaller muscle groups failing prior to the primary targeted muscles reaching their point of fatigue. Performing an isolation exercise first, causes the stronger muscles to be fatigued before the weaker ones fail, allowing greater work to be performed by the targeted muscle, therefore providing greater adaptations in strength and size.

What Does The Science Say?

Ribeiro et al., (1) conducted a review of the current literature on Pre-Exhaustion and concluded that the lack data from longitudinal studies makes it difficult to draw conclusions as to the direct effects of PE on increasing muscle mass. However, they suggest that PE may be a viable strategy to increase muscle mass, as it can help to increase training volume, which has been shown to be a primary driver of muscle growth.

Forced Reps

Forced Repetitions, or Assisted Reps, involve taking an exercise to the point of fatigue and having a spotter provide just enough assistance to allow the completion of 2 to 4 more reps. Generally, assistance is only provided during the concentric phase of the movement (i.e., raising the weight), often to help move past the ‘sticking point’, as it is usually possible to perform the eccentric phase (i.e., lower the weight) without assistance.

It has been theorised that Forced Reps may provide enhanced muscle building stimulus by increasing muscle fibre fatigue and/or metabolic stress.

What Does The Science Say?

Ahtiainen et al. (2) investigated the effects of forced reps on acute levels of the powerful muscle building substance growth hormone (GH) and found that forced reps produced significantly higher levels of GH than standard resistance training.

Drop Sets

Drop sets, also known as Break Down Training or Descending Sets, involve performing a set to temporary fatigue and then immediately reducing the resistance by at least 15-20% to allow a few more repetitions to be performed. This process is typically repeated for 2–5 times.

It is believed that this technique can stimulate muscular growth by inducing greater muscle fatigue. Additionally, the increased time under tension associated with Drop Sets would also heighten metabolic stress, enhancing the muscle building environment within the muscle.

What Does The Science Say?

There is some evidence that drop sets can increase muscle mass. A study Goto et al., (3) showed that the addition of a drop set to a standard strength training protocol resulted in a significant increase in muscle size in comparison to standard strength training.

Compound Training

Compound training involves performing a number of exercises for the same or opposing muscle group without a recovery period between sets.

The most commonly used form of this form of training is Supersets. These can be performed in two ways: Either by performing an exercise for a muscle followed directly by an exercise for its opposing muscle, e.g., a leg extension followed by a leg curl, which is referred to as an antagonist Superset. Alternatively, you may perform both exercises for the same muscle e.g., bench press followed by dumbbell flyes, which is referred to as an agonist Superset.

Tri-Sets require the performance of three exercises without a recovery period. For example, when training the shoulders, you may perform a set of lateral raises, shoulder press and dumbbell bent-over raises consecutively with no recovery between sets.

What Does The Science Say?

Schoenfeld (4) suggests that although Supersets have long been used in bodybuilding routines, a search of the literature failed to reveal any studies directly investigating whether their use facilitates increases in muscular growth. However, it is conceivable that the reduced rest between sets increases muscular fatigue and metabolic stress, which may enhance hypertrophy.

A study by Paz et al., (5) found that Supersets allowed a greater volume of training to be completed in less time in comparison to traditional resistance training, and may induce greater fatigue and thereby provide an enhanced training stimulus to increase muscle mass.

Heavy Negatives

Heavy Negatives involve the performance of eccentric contractions using a load approximately 5% greater than the lifter’s concentric 1RM*. Typically, this requires the assistance of a spotter to help raise the weight concentrically after the lifter performs the eccentric, or lowering, phase of the rep. For example, when performing the bench press, you may lower the bar unassisted and then have a spotter help you to lift the bar back to the starting position.

It has been theorised that as a muscle is not fully fatigued during concentric training, the use of heavy negatives may elicit greater muscle fatigue and therefore provide greater muscle building stimulus (4).

*The term ‘1 RM’ refer to 1 repetition maximum, the amount the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted for 1 repetition. 

What Does The Science Say?

A number of studies have shown that eccentric contractions produce greater gains in muscle mass than concentric and isometric contractions (6,7). Furthermore, Hather et al. (8) showed that eccentric muscle actions are essential for optimising gains in muscle mass in response to resistance training.

A number of explanations have been proposed to account for the effectiveness of eccentric exercise for building muscle. Firstly, it is associated with greater muscle damage, which has been shown to stimulate muscle growth. It has also been shown to produce a preferential recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibres and may elicit recruitment of previously inactive muscle fibres. Finally, eccentric training is associated with an increased metabolic stress, which is also known to be essential for stimulating muscle growth (4).

Rest Pause 

Rest pause typically involves using near maximal resistances for multiple repetitions. Between each repetition the lifter puts the bar down and rests for 10-15 seconds. This is generally repeated 4 or 5 times. An alternative version of rest pause involves performing a standard training set to failure then resting for no more than 5 seconds before attempting 1 or 2 more reps. This process can be repeated a further 1 to 3 times, depending on the resistance and the determination of the lifter.

What Does The Science Say? 

A study by Prestes et al., (9) compared the effects of 6 weeks of Rest-Pause vs. Traditional Multiple-Set Resistance Training (RT) on muscle strength, hypertrophy, localized muscular endurance, and body composition in trained individuals. The participants performed the bench press, leg press and bicep curl exercises. The results showed that Rest-Pause method resulted in similar gains in muscle strength as Traditional Multiple-Set Training, but produced greater gains in localised muscular endurance and hypertrophy of the thigh musculature.

Partial Repetitions 

A Partial Repetition is one that is performed within a restricted range of motion. For example, when performing a Partial Repetition in the bench press, the range of motion would perhaps be from angle of 90 degrees of elbow flexion to full extension.  Typically, Partial Reps are performed for both the concentric and eccentric phase of a movement within a limited range.

Partial Repetition training results in a reduced oxygen content within the active muscle tissue, which has been theorised to enhance muscle growth.

What Does The Science Say?

Goto and colleagues (10) compared the acute response to and long-term effects of partial repetition training with full range of motion exercise of the triceps muscle in young trained men. The results showed the partial repetition training increased the size of the triceps significantly more than the full range of motion exercise.

Newmire and Willoughby (11) suggest that partial range of motion training may be beneficial for local or regional muscular growth, which may benefit bodybuilders by allowing focus to be placed on specific a muscle. This may be beneficial for competitors who wish to give greater attention to underdeveloped areas to create better proportion and symmetry.

Blood Flow Restriction Training

Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFRT), or Vascular Occlusion Training, involves performing a resistance exercise with an inflatable cuff applied to a limb. This results in a partial restriction of arterial blood to the exercising muscle and restricts venous outflow.

It has been suggested that restricting blood flow to and from working muscles can enhance gains in muscle size. A number of theories have been proposed to support this contention. For example, the reduced oxygen content within the muscles has been shown to cause an increased lactate accumulation and reduced acute lactate clearance rate. This may mediate increased cell swelling, which has been shown to increase protein synthesis. Moreover, the rise in lactate may mediate elevations in muscle building hormones such as testosterone (12).

What Does The Science Say?

A study by Takarada et al. (13) compared low-intensity elbow flexion exercise (50% of 1RM) with BFRT, low intensity elbow flexion exercise (50% of 1RM) without BRFT, and high- to medium-intensity elbow flexion exercise without BRFT (80% of 1RM). After 16 weeks, the group that performed low-intensity training with BRFT showed a significantly greater increase in muscle size compared to low-intensity exercise without BRFT. Moreover, the muscle gains achieved were similar to those experienced by the moderate to high-intensity group.

Barbieri and colleagues (14) achieved similar results when they compared the effect of BRFT training for the upper limbs on strength and muscle growth with traditional resistance training. Participants performed 2 workouts per week comprising 3 sets of 15 repetitions (Traditional Reistance Training: 70% to 80% of 1RM; BFRT: 30% load of 1RM) of 2 different exercises (elbow flexion and elbow extension) per session.  The results of the study showed that while maximal strength was greater for both triceps and biceps exercises for Traditional Training compared to BFRT, muscle circumferences was greater for BFRT compared to Traditional Training in the both triceps and biceps.

A major benefit of Blood Flow Restriction Training is that it can provide the muscle building benefits associated with heavy load training while using lighter loads, therefore reducing the risks associated with heavy-load training.

How To Use Advanced Training Techniques

Many Advanced Training Techniques require an individual to work at an extremely high intensity and go beyond the normal point of failure. The science shows us that repeatedly training to muscle failure over time can increase the potential for overtraining and psychological burnout (15) and may lead to reductions in IGF-1 (a powerful muscle building substance) and a blunting of testosterone levels (16). Therefore, great care should be taken when integrating these techniques into a muscle building programme.

Although there appears to be no clear guidance on their use, a general recommendation is that advanced training techniques should be used sparingly and be performed only by experienced participants within a periodised programme, making sure to intersperse periods of unloading to allow sufficient recovery (4).