- Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to How it Works and How to Transform Your Brain
- Training to Develop Synaesthesia for Improved Memory and Maths Ability (Theoretically)
- How to Train Like Bruce Lee for Insane Power and Speed
- A Complete Guide to Transhumanism
- The Surface Pro 3 – Ideal Productivity for Web Entrepreneurs
- Can You Bench Press a Dinosaur??
- The Neuroscience of Genius And Increasing Intelligence
- How Caffeine Affects Neurotransmitters and Profoundly Changes Your Brain
- A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It
- Almost Every Bodyweight Exercise Ever (150+ Moves)
My War-Like Approach to Training for Building Size, Strength and Endurance
When I head to the gym, I have two things on my mind. One is to improve my performance in as many capacities as possible – explosive power, endurance, speed (with some concessions to aesthetics) – and the other is to turn my workouts into an awesome battle against myself. It’s been working exceptionally well for me for years and no matter what type of training I try, this is always what I end up returning to…
Everyone is different and of course everyone will benefit from different types of training. Everything from your metabolism, to your height, to your goals and training philosophy will impact on how you respond to a given training program and it’s crucial to find the approach that works best for you if you’re going to see the results you want.
But that being said, I do feel like my approach is likely to appeal to a lot of people and work well with a lot of different body types.
And for me personally, after over 12 years of working out, this is still by far my favourite way to train. So if you’re interested in knowing what I do when I go to the gym and if, like me, you are interested in building strength, size and endurance all at once, then read on.
Be warned though, this method of training is war.
The Golden Rule: Everything is a Drop Set
My approach to weight training can basically be summed up as such: everything is a drop set.
A drop set, for the uninitiated, means that you are going to perform as many repetitions of an exercise as you can on a certain weight until you reach failure. Instead of stopping at that point though, you’re then going to lower the weight and keep going. This can be done once, twice or multiple times until you’re struggling to curl 5kg in each hand.
There is one big reason that I like this type of training more than any other and that is simply that I can feel that it works better than other methods. When I train to failure and stop, I don’t get as much of a pump, I don’t get as much DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) the next day and I don’t grow as quickly.
Growth happens at the point just past failure. Ask anyone (who is actually strong) and they’ll tell you that this is the case.
And so by turning every exercise into a drop set, I am spending a lot more time in that most effective state and I’m creating the kind of muscle damage and metabolic stress that my muscles need to grow.
Enter Mechanical Drop Sets
So everything is a drop set but that doesn’t mean that I’m forever dropping weights. Dropping weights is time consuming unless you’re on a resistance machine and it’s also not terribly inventive. Sure, sometimes I will do a massive drop set on the bench press, but that’s only part of the story.
Because there is another type of drop set called the ‘mechanical drop set’. And that’s what I find particularly challenging and rewarding. This means you are now going to change exercise or change the way you perform the same exercise. Make sure you are still hitting the same muscles primarily but just swap to another technique.
For example, I might do as many seated bicep curls as possible. That’s a fairly isolated move, so I can only perform a set number of repetitions before tiring out. Then I immediately switch to standing hammer curls. These are slightly easier for me and so I can pump out a few more reps. Then I switch to cheat hammer curls – using momentum in my legs to help my biceps. I’ve already done them with good technique and at this point, it’s about doing whatever I can to get the weight up. Then I might finish off with five pull ups. I might repeat this three times.
Or how about using two sets of dumbbells and performing seated curls, hammer curls, cheat hammer curls and then doing the same thing again with weights 5kg lighter.
Ouch! Give that a go and you should feel it working a lot more effectively than just performing three sets of ten and stopping just before failure…
Here’s one for chest:
- Dumbbell flyes
- Dumbbell presses
- Press ups
- Press ups on your knees
Or how about this for lats?
- Lat pull downs
- Pull ups
- Inverted push ups (using gymnastic rings/TRX)
- Inverted push ups at a higher angle
This is treated as one set – no breaks in between!
This is how I design all my workouts and it’s what I’ve been doing for the last few months at my new gym. I’ve been hitting it hard 5 times a week after a short hiatus and I’ve gained a lot of size and strength in that short amount of time. I’ve also seen it work for a bunch of my friends.
And there’s good reason for this too – which is that it really ticks a lot of boxes at once.
A lot of theory surrounding hypertrophy suggests that you basically have two ways to build muscle: myofibrillar hypotrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypotrophy is muscle damage – this is what happens when you place your muscle under a heavy load, which causes microtears. Those fibers then grow back thicker and stronger when you consume protein and that means you get stronger, with more fiber to exert more power. The best way to train for this kind of hypertrophy is with heavy weights, lower rep ranges and slower negatives. This is closer to the way that powerlifters and performance athletes train. Interestingly, this form of training is also one of the most effective for improving the ‘mind-muscle connection’ and muscle fiber recruitment – because it involves calling upon every last bit of strength.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy meanwhile is what happens when you use lighter weights for heavier reps. This is ‘time under tension’, which causes your blood to get trapped in the muscle (caused by occlusion) and starves it of muscle. That in turn causes the release of several hormones that encourage growth, such as growth hormone, testosterone etc. This appears to increase the amount of sarcoplasm in the muscle cells, which increases their size. This is one of the primary ways that bodybuilders add size and while it doesn’t improve power output for single reps for the same degree, it allows for continuous muscle endurance – which is just as important in many real-world settings.
So what I love about drop sets and mechanical drop sets, is that they allow you to do both. You start with a heavy weight and you create those microtears in the muscle fiber. You then reach the point where you can do no more and you keep trying – keep pushing against that immovable force, strengthening your ability to command your own muscles to work. Then you lower the weight and you keep going. At this point, you’re now starting to build up serious metabolic stress and thereby training the endurance as well.
By the end, you can feel both the microtears and the pump and you’ve had a workout that is twice as effective. You’re also hitting both the fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, while a mechanical drop set has the advantage of letting you train from multiple different angles at once ensuring no angle of the muscle and no supporting muscles are left out of the picture.
And I also think this is a great type of training to suggest to beginners (while toning it down a little) because it has the benefit of using every mode of training and working all types of muscle fiber. Different people respond better to different kinds of training. But with my kind of training, you should always find something that works for you.
And This is to Go Even Further Beyond…
Ultimately, the reason I’m in love with this kind of training so much, is that I’ve been training long enough that I really know when I’m doing good work in the gym. I can feel when I’ve had a good workout and using drop sets allows me to chase after that feeling as quickly as possible.
But I also use a number of other techniques to bring about that sensation and to train the muscles in different ways. For example, as I reach lighter weights, I will often try to reach failure more quickly by using stretches to increase my strength through a broader range of motion and to create more microtears. For example, during dumbbell flyes I’ll often reach my arms out wider to get more of a stretch. When I get to a very light weight, I might go for huge rep-ranges with a lot of speed in what is known as a ‘flush set’. I’ve already discussed that I might use cheats to go past failure and I’m also a huge fan of burns – burns being repetitions that only involve a very small portion of the movement. For example, a burn during press ups might involve simply bobbing up and down just above the ground because you can’t perform even one full rep anymore. As mentioned, I might simply just push with all my might against a weight I can’t move to improve muscle fiber recruitment and to turn it into an overcoming isometric. Or, if I’m on a lighter weight and I want to speed up the sensation of the burn, I might just finish that weight with a yielding isometric (hold the weight in place until I can’t keep it there any longer).
I might also reach failure and then start doing negatives before I switch to the next weight (meaning you lift the weight by cheating somehow and then just lower it at slowly as you can). In this case, the negative is part of the drop set – it’s a change to the approach that I’m using that is designed to allow me to keep going by using the muscle in a different way. I’ll often play with tempo too.
Example Ultra Sets
And I call these Ultra Sets. For biceps then, this may look as follows:
- Seated curls to failure
- Seated curl negatives x 3
- Standing hammer curls to failure
- Cheat hammer curls to failure
- Isometric hold until failure
- Lighter weight bicep curls x 20 (flush set)
- Chin ups to failure
- Negative chin ups (jump up and then lower as slowly as I can)
- Chin up isometric hold
Do three laps of that and then see how your biceps hold up. This sounds like a lot but because you’re going straight from one move to the next without any break, often using the very same weights and without changing position, it’s actually fairly quick.
Here’s one for pecs:
- Bench press
- Dumbbell flyes to failure
- Dumbbell press to failure
- Clapping press pus to failure
- Press up isometric hold
- Press ups to failure
- Press up on the knees to failure
- Squats with lighter weights
- Kettlebell swings to failure
- Bodyweight squat jumps
- Hold squat position to failure
Anyway, that’s how I train. I started this way because it seemed to really work and it was awesome fun. I carried on when I learned the science and found out that it made a lot of sense for building size, strength and power and getting results the fastest. Give it a try and let me know how it works out for you!
Oh and in case anyone is interested, I’m writing an entire book on this subject that will be available in the not-too-distant future and that will likely include guided workout videos, a meal plan and more! But who knows, I might not get around to it for a while…