Written by Tim Rigby
With the hope of gyms being open again and people intending to flock back to make up for lost training time, you may have noticed that conventional workouts with straight sets are becoming less popular. Why? Because specialty techniques work. What do we mean by specialty techniques? These are performance variations to either the resistance used, number of reps performed, execution methodology and sometimes even rest periods. You’re probably aware that such training protocols exist, but possibly have been shy about employing them due to a lack of understanding or a feeling that they’re beyond your scope, but don’t listen to that timid voice in your head that never wanders beyond its safety zone; specialty techniques are not something reserved strictly for competitive fitness athletes or elite trainers. They work effectively at any level. Here’s an overview on some of the most successful techniques you can employ, why they work, and how you can easily perform them:
Premise: Completing reps that you cannot do on your own will further ignite motor unit (MU) stimulation resulting in increased strength and muscle mass.
How to do it: Have a partner stand by as you perform reps of a certain exercise to failure. Using an example such as the bench press, you’ll keep repping until you can’t raise the bar back to the start. Your partner steps in and pulls the weight upward as assistance. Usually, an individual will complete not just one forced rep, but rather a series of three or four to really tax your muscle fibres.
Need to know: A study by Finnish researchers published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine demonstrated that subjects who used a relatively higher level of resistance performing the leg press for 12 reps (with the last few being forced reps) produced a higher level of growth hormone (GH) compared to a separate group of subjects who performed straight reps.
Premise: Upon reaching muscular failure while performing a set, one then lowers the weight in order to be able to continue repping and therefore induce greater stimulation.
How to do it: Let’s say you’re performing the concentration curl, a popular move to train your biceps. After completing a set of say six, eight, ten or twelve reps and hitting failure, you simply replace your working dumbbell with a lighter one (or quickly reduce the weight, if you have only one dumbbell) and continue repping, most often for three to five more reps. You can further leverage the extra stimulation by performing not just one, but your choice of two or three drops before resting.
Need to know: In support of anecdotal logic that drop sets work effectively, a team of scientists from Japan demonstrated that subjects performing a variety of exercises – and using a drop set of 50 percent of the original weight to failure – consistently and reliably secreted more growth hormone and therefore accelerated the rate at which new muscle was developed.
Premise: Performing only the eccentric (negative) portion of reps, using a weight that is heavier than what you’re capable of for a full rep, will really stimulate your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
How to do it: With the assistance of a spotter, you’ll employ a load of more weight than you can actually handle for a full rep. An example of such a move is the seated overhead barbell press. Your spotter will help you unrack the bar, and then it’s up to you to lower it using control. In the bottom position, however, you’ll need your spotter to help you raise the bar back to the top. In this way, you can really fire up power within your muscle fibres.
Need to know: There’s an abundance of scientific literature which clearly reaches the conclusion that supramaximal eccentric reps induce greater muscle growth than the concentric portion; this may come as a surprise, but it’s not difficult to understand when you appreciate that muscles lengthen during the eccentric portion of reps; for you science geeks, this is known as “myofibrillar re-modelling”. Whatever you call it, this specialty technique is a winner.
Premise: Combining “opposite” movements immediately back-to-back has a more positive effect on muscle stimulation in the second movement of the pair.
How to do it: When we say “opposite” movements, we’re referring to agonist and antagonist exercises. The first movement works a certain side of your body and the second movement works the opposite side. Common examples of this include performing a triceps pressdown followed by standing barbell curl or the leg extension followed by the lying hamstring curl. In either case, the use of a spotter is not required, allowing for facility of execution.
Need to know: Laymen can grasp the concept of supersets simply by considering that the first movement “primes” your opposing muscles in the form of a warm-up before attacking them from the other side, but there’s another reason why supersets work: you’re not actually taking a rest period between sets. A scientific study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated that the metabolic effect of “reciprocal supersets” can lay the groundwork for increased fibre stimulation and ultimate muscle hypertrophy.