For those of you out there that have been training for more than a couple of years, I'd like you to take a little trip down memory lane with me... Remember back in the beginning, when you first started training, when new muscle and more power came almost every week? When the main goal at every training session was simply to add more weight to the bar and get it from point A to B in any way possible. When every night you would hop on the scale after the last meal of the night (of course when you would be at your heaviest for the day) and be thrilled to see that you weighed a lb more than the night before. When all you had to do to gain muscle was to eat more, train more, sleep more, and abracadabra, alacazam, presto...there was more, of YOU!
Ahhh, those were good times, weren't they? But as all intermediate to advanced bodybuilders know...all good things come to an end. After about the first year of training, gains begin to slow down, weights don't climb quite as easily, and the scale doesn't budge like it once did. Despite your best efforts in the gym, pounding away on the same exercises for the same range of reps on the same days, nothing seems to be happening anymore. What's the deal?
The fist thing you must understand is that muscles are not just a lumps of tissue. Muscles are extremely complex structures, that like onions, have many layers that need to be peeled before reaching the core. So, without turning this into a class in anatomy and physiology, let's just take a quick and basic look inside these molehills we all wish to turn into mountains...our muscles.
Muscle is composed of bundles of muscle fibers also known as myofibers. Each fiber contains myofibrils, which themselves are composed of small bundles of myofilaments. The myofilaments are made up of two proteins, known as actin and myosin, and are the elements of muscle that actually shorten upon contraction.. The actin and myosin function within the sarcomere to produce these contractions. The sarcomere is the smallest functional unit within muscle.
In general there are three distinct fiber types found in skeletal muscle. These three include: Type I, also known as slow-twitch or red fibers; Type IIA, and IIB, also known collectively as fast-twitch or white fibers. Type I are the slowest, smallest, and have the highest level of endurance of all the fibers. They are most active in slow movements and long-term aerobic activities, and take a long time to fatigue. Next come the Type IIA and the Type IIB fibers, which are the fastest, largest, and least endurance oriented in the group. They are most active in short-term quick-burst or power activities. They are powered entirely through the anaerobic (without oxygen) system, and contract nearly twice as fast as slow twitch fibers, but fatigue much more rapidly. It is important to remember, however, that within our muscles there also lies "intermediate" fiber types that show both high oxidative and fast-twitch characteristics.
As you contract a muscle, each fiber type is recruited in a specific order. The smallest (lowest threshold) fibers, the Type I, are recruited first. As the speed or force of contraction is increased, you will sequentially recruit the intermediate fibers, and then the Type IIA and IIB muscle fibers. However, to recruit the Type IIB fibers it may take over 90% of a maximal contraction!
All people are born with these muscle fiber types. Most muscles contain almost an even split of these basic slow (Type I) and fast (Type II) fibers, with of course intermediate fibers that lie along the continuum between them. There is of course some genetic variation between different muscles, and from individual to individual. Some people are "born" to run marathons (slow-twitch dominant), while others are born to run sprints (fast-twitch dominant...and very lucky if they want to be a bodybuilder).
Although it is the Type II fibers that have the greatest potential for hypertrophy, in order to obtain maximal muscle size, it is imperative that we regularly train ALL of our muscle fibers. Why limit ourselves to only maximizing the potential of a portion of our fibers? Doesn't it make sense that in order to come as close as possible to our genetic limits that we strive to "get at" every last fiber in each of our muscles? Of course! In addition, muscles also become larger due to other adaptations to training aside from actual fiber hypertrophy. Enhanced muscle size also occurs by way of increases in mitochondrial enzymes, increases in stored ATP and phosphocreatine, increases in stored glycogen and triglyceride, and also from the laying down of additional capillary beds.
So now the question is... "How do we go about successfully working all of our muscle fibers as well as stimulating all of the other pathways associated with maximum muscle hypertrophy?" The answer can be summed up in one simple word...VARIATION! After you have laid a foundation in your first couple of years of lifting weights, it is time to start to vary your training. Too many misguided trainees use the same exercises, in the same order, with the same rep tempo, rest between sets, training techniques, and rep ranges...day after day...week after week...and month after month! You must understand that the human body is an incredibly adaptable machine and thus will quickly cease to respond to stimuli that it is exposed to time and again. Do you know what one of the biggest roadblocks to progress, in anything that we do, is? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result! That's just plain craziness!
Now that I (hopefully) have you convinced that variation is your friend, your question to me probably is, "Ok hotshot...sounds good, but how do I go about this?" The answer lies in something called P/RR/S, which is short for POWER, REP RANGE, SHOCK. "Cool name...but what the heck is it?" Another fine question! It is a method of cycling workouts that I developed after lifting weights for more than a dozen years, utilizing every training technique and program I had ever seen, or read about, along the way.
In those 12+ years of training I had gone from a 125 lb weakling, who could barely bench press the 45 lb bar, to a 225 lb title winning bodybuilder that could bench press 400+ lbs...all without the aid of drugs. However, although I had done nicely, adding about 100 lbs to my frame, I still wanted more, but was not getting it. I had hit a wall and could not climb over it, or go around it. This forced me to examine everything I was doing in order to come up with a new plan of attack. I felt my diet and supplementation were solid, so I began focusing more on my training. Over the course of several months I slowly developed a program that had me gaining again, and before I knew it, I was up to 250 lbs, and feeling stronger than ever!
The reason I named this program POWER, REP RANGE, SHOCK will be apparent in just a moment, but I must tell you that I can honestly say that I have seen more consistent progress using this system than on another other I have ever tried. I have used P/RR/S for four straight years now and I am continually getting bigger and better. Of course, the system has continued to metamorphosize along the way as I continually tweak it in order to make it even more efficient at stimulating hypertrophy. In fact, I have developed several "hybrid" P/RR/S programs to fit the unique needs of different trainees, based on goals and level of experience. But I am getting ahead of myself. What I would like to present to you at this time is the basic P/RR/S plan, so that you can get an idea what this is all about.
So, ready to grow? Read on...
Week 1: POWER
The goal during POWER week is to make a direct attack on the Type II A and II B muscle fibers, with an emphasis on the II B's. These are the higher threshold fibers and the way we get at them is with heavy weights. The goal for this week is to utilize weights that allow for 4-6 reps to failure. The way in which you perform your reps is of great importance during POWER week. I have found that an eccentric (negative) contraction of about 4 seconds followed immediately by an explosive concentric (positive) contraction works best at nailing those fast-twitch fibers.
Remember...even though you will be attempting to explode with the weight during the positive portion of the rep, it will not move very quickly at all due to the heavy load you are lifting. Rest between sets is also very important. Since you want to be able to lift as heavy as possible during POWER week, you will be resting about 4-5 minutes between sets in order to fully regenerate ATP and creatine phosphate stores in the muscle cells. As far as the exercises go, choose those that are basic or compound in nature. These include movements like bench presses, squats, deadlifts, military presses and bent rows. POWER week workouts will not impart a tremendous pump, but rather will make your muscles feel as if they've been smashed with a wrecking ball.
- Rep Goal: 4-6
- Rest Between Sets: 4-5 minutes
- Lifting Tempo: 4/0/X
- Exercises: Mostly Compound
Here is an example of a typical POWER workout for chest:
- Bench Press: 4 x 4-6
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 x 4-6
- Weighted Dips: 2-3 x 4-6
Week 2: REP RANGE
As I mentioned earlier there are several fiber types that lie along the continuum between Type I and Type II muscle fibers. The goal of REP RANGE week is to show these "intermediary" fibers no mercy! We will accomplish this by using three distinct rep ranges (hence the name of this week) for three separate exercises for each body part. The first exercise will be to failure in the 7-9 rep range. The second will be to failure in the 10-12 rep range. The final exercise will be to failure in the 13-15 rep range.
In order to make the stimulus this week even more unique from the POWER week, you will also change your rep tempo. Both the eccentric and concentric portion of each rep should take 2 seconds to complete, while the mid-point of the movement (isometric contraction) should be held for one full second. Additionally, if you happen to be using a movement that contains a strong "peak contraction effect", such as leg extensions, you are also encouraged to hold this portion of the rep for one full second before you begin the eccentric portion of the rep.
The exercises used this week should be both compound and isolation in nature, with free weights, machines and cables all being fair game. One particularly effective approach is to choose a free weight compound movement for the 7-9 rep range; a free weight isolation movement for the 10-12 rep range; and a machine or cable movement for the 13-15 rep range. Of course, you are encouraged to experiment a bit to get an idea of what feels most effective to you. Rest between sets during REP RANGE week will be 2-3 minutes. You can expect a tremendous pump from REP RANGE week workouts, and some deep muscle soreness in the days that follow...but we love that kind of pain, don't we!
- Rep Goal: 7-9, 10-12, 13-15
- Rest Between Sets: 2-3 minutes
- Lifting Tempo: 2/1/2/1***
- Exercises: Compound, Isolation, Machine or Cable
***1 second hold at peak for certain exercises
Here is an example for a typical REP RANGE workout for shoulders:
- Military Press: 4 x 7-9
- Seated Side Lateral: 3 x 10-12
- Reverse Pec Deck Flye: 2 x 13-15
Week 3: SHOCK
In my opinion, SHOCK week is the most intense and excruciating portion of this routine. It will without a doubt test your ability to withstand pain, fend off nausea, and fight back the tears! SHOCK week separates the men from the boys, the freaks from the fakes! The goal during this week is complete and utter annihilation of every fiber, from slow-twitch, right on down to the fast-twitch Type II A's; to force your body to release natural GH like water from a collapsed damn; and to literally "force" your muscles to grow in a "do or die" like fashion!
Each grueling session during shock week contains 2 different types of supersets and a punishing dropset for each major bodypart. The first superset will be performed in what is known as "pre-exhaust" fashion. This means that an isolation movement will be performed first, with a compound movement immediately after. The second superset will be what as known as "post-activation", made famous by Ironman contributing author Michael Gundill. In post-activation supersets, it is the compound movement that proceeds the isolation movement. Each of these supersets provides a unique stimulus for both your muscles and nervous system. Once you have completed your supersets it is time for a dropset, which will complete the torture that you will impart on your muscles during SHOCK week.
Reps for each exercise will be in the range of 8-10, and the tempo will become more rhythmic in nature. An eccentric contraction of just one second will be followed immediately by a concentric contraction of the same speed. There will be no resting (as long as you can handle it) at the top or bottom, as each rep should be performed in a "piston-like" fashion. Rest between sets should be long enough to allow you to catch your breath fully, as well as to prepare your mind for the next onslaught. Your individual level of cardiovascular conditioning, as well as your constitution, will determine the length of your rest. Free weights, cables, and machines are all utilized during SHOCK week. My warning to you is that you better be prepared when you enter the gym on SHOCK week, because every workout will leave you breathing with the intensity of a steam engine and a burn that will reach your very core! Fun!
- Rep Goal: 8-10 (dropset is 8-10, drop, 6-)
- Rest Between Sets: Cardiovascular and Mental Recovery
- Lifting Tempo: 1/0/1
- Exercises: Compound, Isolation, Machine or Cable
Here is a typical SHOCK workout for triceps:
- Superset: Rope Pressdown/Lying Extension: 2 x 8-10 each
- Superset: CG Bench Press/Underhand Grip Pressdown: 2 x 8-10 each
- Dropset: Single Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension: 1 x 8-10, drop, 6-8
After you have completed the 3 week POWER, REP RANGE, SHOCK cycle, return to the beginning and repeat. With each cycle do your best to increase the weights you lift and/or the reps you achieve. After three full cycles I recommend that you take off one full week from the gym before returning to the program. After your break, you might want to switch up some or all of the exercises that you used in the cycle proceeding.
I would like to mention that the P/RR/S program that I presented in this article is not meant for beginners (although in a future article I will explain how those with less experience can begin to employ my system, as well as how more advanced lifters can work with an even more intense version). You can begin to use the program as presented here, after about two solid years in the gym.
So, if you have been training for some time, are stuck in a rut, or are looking to take your physique to the next level, POWER, REP RANGE, SHOCK training may just be your first class ticket to "FREAKVILLE!" Enjoy the ride my friends.
**Ironman magazine 2006