Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Are you tired of reading the same old words of advice when it comes to taking your training to the next level? Do you read with hopes of finding something of value that you can apply immediately to your workouts that will produce real results instead of just hyped headlines and empty tips?
Strip sets, rest/pause, forced reps, pre-exhaust and partials all sound great but haven’t you heard that before? Is it time for something a little more “big picture?”
Changing a small aspect of training oftentimes will produce small changes. This is very evident and extremely important when it comes to high-level athletes where a fraction of a second or inch can determine high-level outcomes and not to mention salaries. But for the rest of us who are seeking more muscle with a side order of lean need a larger perspective toward changing our training to get the results we are after.
Changing a major factor in your training, not just, for example, going from 6 reps to 8 reps per set, but something that will shift your entire output in the right direction will have to happen in order for you to reap big reward.
Below are 12 ways to do just that. Some you may know well and already have in place, others may raise an eyebrow or flip a switch. You may find a friendly reminder of something you know you should be doing but aren’t. Whichever it may be, apply some of these to your next workout and truly take your training to the next level.
Power Up #1 - Time your rest periods
Timing, specifically your rest between sets, is one of the most significant but least followed principles of training. Everyone and their cousin knows you should rest anywhere from one to three minutes between sets depending on the exercise, but how many of us really follow this rule? Do you find yourself typing away at your phone or scrolling to find your favorite track?
Technology is great but it has its place. Personally, I enter the gym sans cell phone and I think you should too. Not only will I constantly fear dropping and crushing my phone but I honestly don’t feel the need to text or check it every 10 seconds as it would prevent me from being completely engaged in my workout. It’s a major distraction so ditch it. Do start timing your sets. Wear a watch or check the gym clock between sets if you must. Timing your rest periods will force your head to “stay in the game” and focus on the work at hand.
Instead of looking at failure as the ultimate goal, determine a rep count for a number of sets and achieve that rep count no matter what.
Power Up #2 - Try some explosive exercises
Do you feel stuck performing the same exercises and the same rep ranges at the same speed? It may be time to add in some big guns, namely power moves. Including power into your training will go a very long way in not only the performance of other lifts but will also add a completely new element.
Moves such as cleans, hang cleans, clean and presses, box jumps and kettlebell swings add an overall total body feeling of strength. The ability to generate a great deal of power to rapidly move a massive amount of weight will also give you a great deal of accomplishment. Not necessarily used for fatigue power training’s purpose is to harness and develop strength and explosive power in your muscle fibers. Speed, form and technique are all important factors in a safe lift so be sure to adhere to these protocols.
Power Up #3 - Increase your training frequency
Much like monitoring rest periods, frequency is another factor that can instantly turn your training world upside down in a good way. Most of you out there probably train each body part once per week. Your volume is high (especially for chest and biceps) so you pummel those body parts into the ground. And why not? You have a whole week for those said body parts to get their rest and recover before they are slaughtered again.
I will venture to say that most trainers out there would benefit much more to a higher frequency of training. Think about this: If you train chest once per week, you stimulate growth only 52 times per year hypothetically speaking. If you simply trained chest twice per week, you now stimulate growth 104 times per year. Which training program do you think you will grow more from? Additionally, training so infrequently, for most of us, is like taking one step forward and one step back. The muscle group is stimulated; it rests and recovers then has no incentive to grow larger or stronger with such a long time period between workouts.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you do the exact same amount of volume twice per week. This is how you would break it down: If you currently perform 16 sets for chest once per week, simply split the amount of sets into two workouts of eight sets each per week. Besides, who wants to wait seven days before training that body part again?
Power Up #4 - Add more reps per set
I come across a ton of trainers who can’t get this or that to grow like the rest of their body. Let’s take the infamous story of trying to put muscle on a pair of stubborn legs. Do you often feel like you need to lift heavier and heavier weight in the squat for low reps in order to stimulate growth? Do your back, hips and/or knees disagree with this idea?
To get good at something you need to practice often. For example, let’s take the squat. In order to get good at squatting so you can pack some real muscle on those legs you need to get under the bar… a lot. Sets of five or six reps won’t cut it. For a specific amount of time jack up your reps. Make a new rule of nothing under 10 reps – even better, shoot for 20 reps each set. This brutal challenge will force you to apply the proper amount of stress to your legs without compromising too much from your hips or knees.
Try this technique on other lifts as well – they work well on the big, compound movements. Bench presses, shoulder presses, bent-over rows or whatever you feel like you are in a rut with, a high rep range will shock not only new muscle growth into gear but will also stimulate key hormone surges for a better anabolic reaction and a fired-up metabolism.
When increasing your frequency, if you currently perform 16 sets for chest once per week, simply split the amount of sets into two workouts of eight sets each per week.
Power Up #5 - Get brutal with complexes
Let’s be honest; the traditional nature of bodybuilding-style training is quite boring, especially when you’ve been at it for a while. Do a set, rest, do a set, rest, repeat until all sets are done. No wonder so many people take up running 10Ks. It may be time to break from tradition and add some well-deserved excitement and intensity into your tired training program.
Complexes, also called circuits, can be invaluable tools in your arsenal for more muscle growth. As a type of superset, complexes can take on many shapes and forms. For your purposes of building muscle I am not referring to the Richard Simons circuit of leg kicks and air curls. I am talking about the brutal stuff; push presses combined with decline push-ups and parallel bar dips for example. Or pull-ups combined with kettlebell swings and dumbbell rows. For the lower body an example would be dumbbell step-ups, high rep squats and reverse lunges.
Whatever you decide to do, make it challenging - you will have no choice but to stay engaged, focused and determined to finish strong. Just be prepared to reap big gains not only in muscle mass but also an improved cardiorespiratory response, muscular endurance and a renewed love for training.
Power Up #6 - Minimize moves, maximize focus
How many different types of exercises do you do for each body part? Is it something like four or five for chest, back and legs and maybe three or four for smaller stuff like arms and shoulders? Sometimes too many angles can actually get in the way of progress. As mentioned earlier, it takes a lot of time spent doing something to get good at it. Meaning if you keep chopping up your body parts with countless exercises then not much will change. What happens if it doesn’t work, do you add even more exercises? When does it end?
Try this: Instead of performing multiple angles per body part try picking only one or, at the most two exercises and master them before adding back in anything. I am willing to bet you have some fluff in your workouts you can afford to lose. Are you doing a lot of cable work for arms when you could be doing weighted dips, barbell curls or reverse-grip biceps chin-ups? Could your chest workout have five sets of incline work and five sets of flat bench work? If you truly wanted to get good at pull-ups, could you devote an entire back workout to ten sets of chins or a total of 50 reps?
Fewer angles also translate to a simpler mindset. You will find you aren’t burdened with holding back for your next exercise trying to save your strength. Your train of thought will be much more singular and goal-driven allowing you to apply more intensity and concentration to the task at hand.
Power Up #7 - Go hard after a rep total
With traditional methods training to failure is the norm. Rep out with good form until you can’t go anymore. This is an effective way to train and should be a part of any program, but sometimes you may need a little more incentive – a new perspective.
Let’s take a look at the other side of the coin. Instead of looking at failure as the ultimate goal, determine a rep count for a number of sets and achieve that rep count no matter what. For example, if your goal is to perform five sets of ten of pull-ups get ten reps per set no matter if you have to pause after a few reps, rest a few seconds when your form breaks down or simply try for one rep at a time when you are spent. As long as you get ten reps every set – it doesn’t have to be pretty, just finish. This will shock your system into overdrive and jack up your muscle gains and scorch some fat along the way.
Of course you don’t want to perform every set for every workout this way but this does work well with stubborn body parts and difficult or complex moves. For example, most trainers have difficulty with squats and/or pull-ups. Practicing these moves with lots of sets and reps is a tried and true way of improving not only your strength but also your neural pathways thus improving your technique and that infamous mind-to-muscle connection.
Wear a watch or check the gym clock between sets if you must. Timing your rest periods will force your head to “stay in the game” and focus on the work at hand.
Power Up #8 - Give compound sets a try
Similar to a complex (#5), compound sets will tax your body and your mettle like nothing else. A compound set is simply two sets performed back-to-back for the same body part forcing massive amounts of blood into the muscle and raising anabolic hormones levels resulting in a big boost in gains.
Driving the muscle to work beyond its normal level of failure will deliver a little shock and awe and wake up hard to stimulate areas. Again, this is yet another technique that shouldn’t be abused, but it is one that bears mentioning due to its high level of effectiveness. Just be sure you challenge yourself within reason.
For this technique to work I’m not talking about little grade-school compound sets like cable pressdowns paired with dumbbell kickbacks, I am suggesting big boy moves forcing you to work like you’re a newbie. Combining dumbbell upright rows with clean and presses, box jumps with high rep squats or Wide-grip pull-ups with heavy bent-over barbell rows are just a few examples.
Power Up #9 - Shore up weaknesses with the basics
Another unfortunate practice is the slow slide away from traditional, real-world movements. With a brand new machine being introduced in gyms every week, it’s rare to see someone sticking to the basics and working their butts off to perfect those exercises. Leg presses have replaced squats, machine presses replaced bench presses and smith machine shoulder presses have replaced standing presses.
It is no wonder people have hurt joints and weak supportive areas. By consistently using this machinery, you tend to neglect those all-important auxiliary and ancillary muscles critical for stability and whole-body strength.
Refocusing your efforts toward the basics will shore-up those little weaknesses in your structure and give your overall physique a stronger foundation. The next time you go to the gym do a little house cleaning. Scrap the machines and little details for a while and refocus your efforts toward the big lifts such as bench and shoulder presses, squats, dips, pull-ups, rows, deadlifts and even push-ups.
Power Up #10 - Drop weight, fix form, progress
Why is it that so many individuals tend to want to make their efforts in the gym easier? They do shallow squats, half-rep leg presses and shoulder presses, contortionist bench presses and “upright” bent-over rows all in the name of lifting more weight. What the heck happened?! News flash: the body won’t grow and get stronger if you are constantly trying to make your workouts easier.
Think back to when you first stepped into the gym and the only way to look was up (figuratively). Your enthusiasm to jump in and learn everything about training was at an all-time high. You were a sponge soaking up every bit of knowledge regarding performing the right exercises the right way – with textbook form.
Now, fast forward and imagine your younger self watching your current self train. What do you think the younger you would think? I think I can predict your answer.
Squat deep, and go chin to the bar. If you are rowing, really bend over and row – who cares if you have to lighten up. You can also make other moves even more challenging (read difficult) such as 20-rep squats, bench press pauses, super slow lateral raises and weighted, long-stride walking lunges.
Power Up #11 - Stagger your weak points
Do you often find yourself at the end of your workout tired and spent but still have some weak point training on your to-do list? Be honest, do you just leave for the day promising yourself you will get to it next time? Time is a real factor when it comes to training. No, I’m not talking about rest intervals; I am referring to total time spent in the gym. Most of us only have an hour or less to train and then we need to get on with other responsibilities in life.
Staggered sets are the perfect remedy to create an option to do more work in the same amount of time. Simply put, staggering your training refers to performing an exercise (such as one you may have neglected) in between sets of your regular workout. These extra sets are done during rest intervals so no extra time is needed for your overall gym time.
Some good examples are any ab move, calf training, a shoulder or arm exercise and anything you want to just be better at such as chins, push-ups and dips. You can also include metabolic boosters for fat loss such as kettlebell swings, box jumps and burpees.
Power Up #12 - Cut back and grow
This may seem counterintuitive but cutting back a little (or a lot) on your training and/or intensity may pay big dividends toward muscle growth. Believe it or not some trainers actually train too much with way too much volume. On Mondays (international chest day) you can easily observe chest workouts with upwards of 20, 25 even 30 sets. Additionally, these same chest-pounders include all sorts of intensity techniques such as strip sets, forced reps and super-heavy triples, doubles and singles.
Even though the body can be pushed and pushed hard, the fact is that you will need rest sooner or later. Pulverizing your body with countless sets and high-intensity tricks will drive your recovery ability into the ground with little to nothing to show for it. Muscle can’t be forced to grow; it should be challenged and coaxed gradually adapting to your workouts. Your workouts should be manageable and practical without the high risk of burn-out.
If you are one of the guilty, cut back a little, try some of the techniques listed above and take your gains to a whole new level.
This article is perfect and very well said! Just this past Monday, my trainer finally gave me an outline of a plan on how to build muscle over time. This definitely will help me reach my goals that I've been trying to reach but never had a routine to get me there. I'm sharing this article on FB!
FANTASTIC article! Thank you for the amazing and well thought-out tips - will employ!
Thanks so much, let me know how you do!