When it comes to programming, the first thing we have to do is consider the training principles. From there, we decide how we can organize the training variables to optimize the benefits.
Once we have decided on the basic training variables, there are many ways to make our training far more interesting. We call these advanced training techniques and not only will they mix things up, but they can also greatly increase the benefits of your training, helping you to break through barriers and smash plateaus!
Individuality: Everyone responds to training differently. Some need more volume while others need more intensity.
Specificity: Any changes or adaptations the body makes will be specific to the stress or stimuli it is exposed to. This is often described as the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands), which basically states that the body adapts specifically to the stress you put it under. This principle underpins what we are trying to achieve with our training. If we want stronger legs, then we need to impose a stress that will invoke the adaptation of increased leg strength i.e. Squats.
Adaptability: Over time the body becomes accustomed to the stress or stimuli it is exposed to and therefore, improves in a number of ways (specific to the stress). This is obviously a good thing. However, we must also consider the law of accommodation which states that our response to constant stress will decrease over time. Therefore, we need to ensure our training is progressive and doesn’t plateau (cease improving).
Overload: In order to elicit adaptations, the body must be put under additional stress (overloaded).
Progression: The additional stress which we put on our bodies to elicit adaptations need to be progressive and gradually increased over time.
A gradual increase in overload which is programmed according to an individual’s ability level and various other factors is referred to as adaptive stress. Adaptive stress elicits increases in performance without injury or illness.
If the overload is too great and results in regressions in performance and injury, we refer to it al maladaptive stress.
Recovery: The body needs time to repair. We need to overreach where possible to elicit the most results, but if we overreach too far and too often, we will over-train which can result in injuries and illness, etc.
Reversibility: If stressors are taken away or if sufficient recovery isn’t allowed, then performance levels can be lost.
The training principles overload and progression are combined to create the principle of Progressive Overload. This simply means that training needs to get progressively harder. We want to adapt and find things easier, but we also want to keep pushing forward without injury. Therefore, we overload the body with stress to invoke adaptations, but we do this progressively (little by little) to ensure we don’t sustain injuries – progressive overload is fundamental to all training!
TRAINING VARIABLES (FITT)
- Frequency (how often).
- Intensity (how hard).
- Time/volume/Density (how much/how long) – reduced rest periods increase training density.
- Type (exercise selection).
ADVANCED TRAINING TECHNIQUES
- Backdown Sets
- Drop Sets
- Contrast Loading
- Complex Training
- Cluster Sets
- Partial Reps
- Forced Reps
- Pre & Post-Exhaust
Backdown sets are by far my favourite method of strength training and is an optimal way to include both heavy loads and high volume on the same movement.
A backdown set is the term used for sets performed at a lighter weight after the initial sets at a heavier weight are completed.
For example, perform 3×3 at 90% (3 minutes rest between sets), followed by 3×8 at 70% (1-2 minutes rest between sets).
Although the previous heavy sets cause fatigue, they also potentiate the neuromuscular system (prime it). Therefore, the moderate loads used for the backdown sets often feel much lighter than they would if heavier loads were not lifted prior – this is referred to as PAP (Post-Activation Potentiation).
Backdown sets are a great way to add volume, work to a full range of motion (ROM) and practice technique.
When lifting weights, intent is absolutely key and is the first step in maximizing your training.
When it comes to the development of strength and power, we want to lift hard and fast, capitalizing on both mind-muscle connection (consciously thinking about the muscle being worked) and compensatory acceleration (lifting as hard and as fast as you can through the full range of motion).
However, one way to dramatically increase the intensity of a set is by slowing down the tempo, which refers to the speed of the lift – slowing down the tempo is ideal for building muscle and laying a solid foundation (keeping the soft tissues in good health).
When writing the desired tempo for the lift, we can use 4 numbers. It is important that we remember that some lifts start with an eccentric phase (squat) while others start with a concentric phase (deadlift). However, in both circumstances, the first number is the first movement.
For example, during a squat we may write 41X2, which means 4 seconds down, 1-second pause at the bottom, the “X” means lift as fast as possible, 2 seconds at the top to reset.
For the deadlift, we could write X132, which means fast as you can up, 1-second pause at the top, 3 seconds down and 2 seconds at the bottom to reset.
We can vary tempo, for example performing 2 fast reps followed by 1 slow rep for 12 reps or the super slow technique where there is a 10-second eccentric phase followed by a 10-second concentric phase – brutal!
Supersets involve 2 exercises back to back, while a tri-set involves 3 back to back and a giant-set involves 4 or more back to back (often described as 3 or more) – once you get past 4 or more exercises, you are essentially getting into the realms of circuit training.
Variations of supersets include:
- Standard Superset: This involves 2 exercises back to back that use the same muscle groups. For example, the bench press followed by dumbbell fly’s.
- Opposing Superset: This involves 2 exercises back to back that are opposing muscle groups. Therefore, this is often referred to as a push-pull superset. For example, the bench press followed by bent over rows.
- Lower-Upper Superset: This involves 2 exercises back to back. One of which targets the lower body, while the other targets the upper body.
- In-Set Superset: This involves performing a different exercise during the eccentric phase as the concentric phase. For example, a dumbbell press during the concentric phase, followed by a dumbbell fly during the eccentric phase (the eccentric phase is far stronger than the concentric phase).
A drop set involves performing an exercise at a specific weight to failure or near failure before dropping down the weight and performing reps to failure or near failure again.
Mechanical drop sets involve performing a certain amount of reps (often to failure), before regressing the exercise to an easier version.
For example, performing 10 full push up before performing 10 kneeling push ups or incline push ups.
A triple mechanical drop set involves doing this 3 times. A great example of this is going from performing the decline bench press, followed by the flat bench press and finally the incline bench press (decline is the easiest version and the incline is the hardest version).
Contrast loading involves alternating between a heavy and lighter weight on the same exercise. This is like wave loading. However, rather than using a variety of different weights, 1 heavier load and 1 lighter load is selected for the given sets.
Contrast loading can be performed in a number of ways:
- Different Weight / Same Reps: 90% of 1RM for 2 reps, followed by 75% for 2 reps (when the reps are not increased, more emphasis is placed on rate of force development – compensatory acceleration).
- Different Weight / Different Reps: 90% of 1RM for 2 reps, followed by 75% for 6 reps.
The contrast sets can be performed back to back or with a rest between then.
Complex Training involves performing a strength exercise with heavy loads (85%+), followed by an explosive plyometric or ballistic exercise performed with bodyweight or low loads (working a similar movement/muscle groups). For example, a 3 back squats at 85% followed by 5 box jumps.
Complex training and other methods like it capitalise on Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP), which refers to the increase of strength in nerve pathways that have been used previously. Which in layman’s terms, means that the associated muscles are primed and working at full capacity.
We can use PAP to capitalise on an increase in neuromuscular efficiency – lighter loads often feel abnormally light after working with heavier loads and we can use this to generate more power.
Rather than performing 4 sets of 6 reps with 3 minutes rest between the sets, the lifter may perform 4 sets of 3×2 reps with 10-30 seconds rest between the clusters but 3 minutes rest between the 4 main sets – this is written 4x(3×2).
For example, the lifter would take the barbell off the rack and perform 2 reps, take a 20-second rest, perform 2 reps, take a 20-second rest, perform 2 reps and then rest for 3 minutes before the next cluster set.
Cluster sets allow the lifter to maximize the weight being lifted for a given set range. For example, a lifter might perform 4×6 at 75% of their 1RM, or 4x(3×2) at 85% of their 1RM.
An ascending pyramid is where you perform a light weight for high reps before increasing the weight and reducing the reps. For example, 12 reps at 60%, 10 reps at 70%, 8 reps at 75%, 6 reps at 80%, 4 reps at 85%, 2 reps at 90%.
A descending pyramid is the same in reverse where you start heavy with low reps and descend to a lighter weight with higher reps.
A lifter may choose to perform an ascending pyramid and progress to descend back down it to absolutely burn the muscles out.
Other methods that use a pyramid style:
- Stripping: Stripping is just like a descending pyramid, but is specific to the barbell. It is usually performed with a barbell and 2 spotters. The lifter reps to failure before the spotters strip a plate and the lifter reps to failure again. This can be done numerous times.
- Along the Rack: Along the rack or clearing the rack is just like an ascending or descending pyramid, but is specific to a dumbbell rack. This technique involves performing a number of reps on the heaviest or lightest dumbbell, before doing the same for all the dumbbells on the rack.
- Ladders: These are similar to ascending or descending pyramids and can involve the weight or reps of an exercise progressively going up or down.
A partial rep is an exercise performed through a reduced range of motion. For Example, a quarter squat.
This method allows the lifter to work on and potentially overload a specific point of the lift, which can help to greatly improve the entire lift.
Working a muscle through a full ROM requires more effort and maintains/develops mobility, helping to keep the tissues in good health. Therefore, our general training tends to involve working through a full ROM, while maintaining optimal form and accommodating for any injuries.
However, working through a joint’s full ROM is not always specific to the task at hand. For example, it is very rare in sports for athletes to be in a below-parallel squat (thighs in relation to the floor). Therefore, an athlete may benefit from working from a higher squat position, while concentrating of rate of force development (RFD) – the speed at which they are producing the force.
Burns involve performing both full reps and partial reps within a set or finishing with partial reps as a mechanical drop set – rather than making it easier by dropping the weight, it is made easier by reducing the biomechanical stress.
- Mixed Set: The lifter performs a mix of full and partial reps through a variety of ROMs.
- Partial Drop Set: The lifter performs 10 full reps before performing 5 more half reps.
PAUSES / ISOMETRICS
Isometrics (contraction with no change in muscle length) involve holding a position or pausing at a specific point of the lift for a period before finishing the lift. This is often done at the bottom of a lift or at a common sticking point – 2-8 second holds.
Pauses can also be specifically programmed to occur during the concentric (upwards) or eccentric (downwards) phase of a lift.
Pausing as the muscles are lengthening under tension (eccentric phase), is very stressful on the muscle fibres and therefore, great for maximizing muscle trauma. The eccentric phase is much stronger than the concentric phase and therefore, more weight can be used.
Pausing during the concentric phase takes away the momentum that has been generated and therefore, makes the lift much harder to complete. It requires the lifter to be very stable and forces them to maximize the rate of force development – intent is key!
Isometric contractions can also be performed against a solid structure. For example, a deadlift could be pulled up to just above the knees, where it meets a spotter bar/pin on the rack. From there, the lifter pulls the barbell hard into the spotter bars rather than just holding it in place.
With the right equipment, the same technique can also be applied to squat and press variations, or a partner can press on the barbell to apply resistance and give the lifter something to contract against (the partner much ensure the resistance is balanced).
Pulses involve performing full range of motion reps with pulses (small bounces), usually at the bottom of the movement. These pulses can also be performed on their own. However, this is often better described as Oscillatory training.
Pulses are commonly performed for a single bounce at the bottom of the movement. However, they can also be performed at the middle of the movement or even at the top (double lockout). To perform a pulse at the top, the lifter completes the concentric phase (lockouts) before pulsing back down and locking out a second time.
Ultimately, a pulse can be added to any point of the lift and just like pauses, adding them during the concentric or eccentric phase will create different stressors.
Adding a pulse at the bottom of a lift emphasizes the stretch shortening cycle/stretch reflex (rebounding from the bottom). Whereas adding in pulses during the concentric phase requires far more stability and control.
Negatives involve performing a slow eccentric phase.
The eccentric phase is far stronger than the concentric phase and therefore, a lifter can drastically slow down the eccentric phase to increase the intensity, before completing the concentric phase at a manageable tempo.
Negatives are often performed at a weight that is much greater than the lifter is able to lift through the concentric phase. Therefore, a partner can help out, or lift the weight entirely through the concentric phase.
Another variation is to have the lifter perform the concentric phase and then a partner can push down on the barbell to increase the intensity of the eccentric phase.
The eccentric phase creates huge stress on the muscles (lengthening under tension) and therefore, is great for eliciting adaptations. However, it can also create a lot of fatigue and muscle soreness.
Once the lifter reaches a sticking point (weight stops moving) a partner applies just enough force to allow the lifter to get through the sticking point and carry on, allowing them to work beyond failure.
This technique can be performed individually on squats if using a safety squat bar (SSB). This is referred to as a Hatfield Squat (Named after Dr. Frederick Hatfield). During the Hatfield squat, you can place your hands on the rack to help pull you through the sticking point. This is possible because the SSB will sit comfortably on your shoulders without having to be held.
PRE & POST EXHAUST
Pre-Exhaust training involves exhausting a muscle with an isolation (single-joint) exercise before working the same muscle during a compound (multi-joint) exercise. For example, performing a hamstring curl before performing a back squat.
Post-Exhaust training involves exhausting a muscle with an isolation exercise after working the same muscle with a compound movement. For example, performing a back squat followed by hamstring curls.
A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR
Thanks for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it.
What is your favourite advanced training technique?
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