Anyone that starts pursuing training with a major commitment to the iron does so to make progress.
They want to improve and reach that “next level”.
That means eventually they will have to do more than the traditional 3 sets of 10.
Instead of making it easier, iron athletes need to make the sets more challenging.
For those of you that are new to the iron game or simply looking for ideas to step your sets up, here are nine strategies for you to level up.
1. Supersets/Trisets/Giant Sets
For those of you that want to save time and maximize volume, this is the method for you. Supersets call for you to combine two exercises and perform them back-to-back without rest in between the two.
The preferred ways to do this is to combine two exercises for opposing muscle groups, like biceps and triceps, or for the same muscle group if you really want to hit it hard. One example of this is to do seated rows and lat pull downs for back.
Obviously trisets is doing this same method with three movements and giant sets call for four or more in a row. Keep in mind that if your gym is busy it might be tough to do trisets or giant sets since equipment you prefer might be in use.
If you want to do trisets or giant sets, do your best to keep the stations in close proximity or work at least one dumbbell movement into the mix so you can take the dumbbells with you wherever you need them to be.
If power is the name of your game then this method is for you. You can make the most out of each set and push some serious weight for more reps than you’re used to. Here’s how rest-pause training works.
Let’s say you’re benching and you have 275 on the bar. You get it for 5 reps and rack it. Instead of taking your normal rest, count to 10 or maybe 15 seconds, and get right back to work. You might get 2 or 3 more reps before reaching failure again. That doesn’t seem like much but it does add up and you could see improved strength in the long run as a result.
A prolonged version of this is cluster sets. Cluster sets call for a little longer rest period than traditional rest pause. You would rest for 20-30 seconds and then do more reps. Three of these “clusters” would count as one total set. These are great for compound movements like deadlifts or squats.
3. Drop Sets
Let’s say you like volume and want to leave the gym knowing you did a lot of serious work. Drop sets are just what you ordered. With drop sets, you can do more quality reps in a set by decreasing the weight when you reach failure.
So for this example we’ll use lateral raises for shoulders. Let’s do a set with the 25’s. For this example, you reach failure around the 10 rep mark. You can rack them but your set isn’t over. Instead, grab the 20’s and keep going.
For even more intensity you can do a second drop after reaching failure again. I wouldn’t recommend doing more than two drops in a set. Your muscles do need a break and at this point you could be risking injury.
A partial rep isn’t an excuse for you to cut out on form for the sake of doing more. It’s a calculated method to maximize the quality of a set. In other words, you shouldn’t do 10 partial reps and act like you just conquered a monster weight.
If you’re doing a set like triceps pressdowns and don’t think you can do full reps at the end, you can stop short of a full negative and push the weight back down. Keep doing this until you can’t control the weight anymore. Once you reach failure with partial reps, your set is truly over.
5. Paused Reps
There is an old adage that has been shared in gyms for generations. “Control the weight. Don’t let the weight control you.” This is where paused reps can come into play. Those of you that want to get into powerlifting should pay close attention here.
For the classic barbell bench press, you lower the bar to your chest, wait for the bar to completely stop, and then press the weight up to the top. This forces your muscles to re-engage so they work harder than if you were to do the traditional touch-and-go version of the bench. You can use this method for any exercise to make it more challenging.
6. 1.5 Reps
This is one that looks weird if you see someone else do it but understand completely when you try it yourself.
As an example for 1.5 reps, we’ll use the lying leg curl. You would perform a full rep, lower the weight halfway, lift it back up, and then lower the weight all the way back down.
You did a rep and a half rep but count it as one. This is literally a two for the price of one situation. You would get two contractions of the muscle within one rep. So if you do 10 reps like this, the muscle is contracting 20 times.
This is a classic biceps protocol so we’ll explain it with the original exercise. You’ll do barbell curls or an EZ Bar curl if you prefer.
Start by doing 7 half reps from the bottom to the middle. Next do 7 more from the midpoint to the top of the rep. Finally you would do 7 full reps. 7+7+7=21.
This is a favorite of former Mr. Olympia Dexter Jackson but you don’t just have to do with barbell curls. As a matter of fact, an intense way to do this is with leg presses. Find your own preferences and make this method work for you.
8. Cheat Reps
Have you ever seen that one guy doing curls where he swings the weight up and thinks he’s really strong? It turns out he was actually onto something but you shouldn’t do this the way he did.
You shouldn’t use momentum on every rep but if you’re reaching failure at the end you can make this method work to your advantage. Give the weight a little oomph to get it started but once you complete the rep, control it on the way down.
Now if you can’t perform any part of the rep without assistance, you’re done and should end your set.
9. Negatives/Forced Reps
Let’s look at the anatomy of a rep. Even though you want to lift a weight up, this is actually the weakest part of the rep.
The part of the rep that really tears down fibers and can help you get stronger is the negative where you return the weight to the starting position. This is why you should always control the weight instead of letting it go.
The best example I can give you for this is a dumbbell press. Once you reach failure, your partner helps you complete the next rep but you take at least five seconds to lower it to the starting position. Once you reach that point, your partner helps you do another rep. Once you can no longer control the weight on the way back down, you’ve reach failure and maximized your negatives.
I really like doing this with machines because they help you isolate the targeted muscle and are in a fixed path of travel so you can minimize the chances of injury.