No matter how consistently you train, you’ll likely reach a point where gains in strength and muscle size slow down or stop. That’s when you know you’ve reached a plateau. In fact, training TOO consistently is often what causes strength gains to slow.
How does this happen? You get into a rut where you do the same exercises in the same order with the same weight too often. Even if you are using progressive overload and changing the volume, resistance, repetitions, or some other variable in your routine, you may still reach a point where your muscles need a new stress to grow. That’s where more advanced training techniques are helpful because they allow you to work your muscles past momentary failure. So, add one of these advanced techniques to your training regimen and you’ll again start to see the gains you’re looking for.
Drop sets are a convenient way to force your muscles to work a little longer even after they’ve reached failure. How do you do them? First, complete a standard set to momentary muscle failure. Once you can’t complete another rep, grab a weight that’s 25% lighter and do additional reps until you can’t complete another. Then, drop the weight again and repeat. Do this for 3 or 4 sets total. According to the American Council on Exercise, drop sets elicits metabolic and mechanical fatigue that spurs muscle growth. The best time to do drop sets is at the end of a workout. Due to the intense nature of this advanced technique, give that muscle group you worked in this manner an extra rest day or two afterward.
Performing partial reps is another way to push the muscle a little harder than it’s accustomed to. The approach is simple. Do a set until you can’t complete another full rep. Then, rather than dropping the weight, do another rep using partial range-of-motion. For example, if you can’t complete another bicep curl, curl the weights halfway up to around waist level. You can approach a partial from either the top or bottom of the movement. Either way, you’re placing additional stress on a muscle that’s already fatigued – and this can fuel growth.
Partials work best for isolation exercises, like biceps curls, triceps kickbacks, leg extensions etc, as opposed to compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts. Partial reps are effective even as a standalone technique. In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that participants who did partial bench press for 10 weeks gained as much strength as those who did full reps. Another study published in the same journal highlighted the effectiveness of partial squats for building lower body strength. At the very least, partials are another way to shake up your routine.
Rest and Pause Reps
Rest and pause is another approach that can spark new muscle growth and strength gains. How to do them? Perform a set until you can’t complete another rep. Then, rather than resting, pause for 15 seconds and repeat the exercise again. Complete 3 or 4 sets in this manner, decreasing the weight if necessary, to thoroughly exhaust the muscle. Choose a weight for the first set that’s around 80% of your one rep max. Why is it effective? During the brief rest period, your muscles replenish phosphocreatine, its short-term energy source, so you can keep going.
For forced reps, you need a spotter. With this technique, a spotter helps you complete reps once you reach a sticking point and can’t move the weight. This allows you to complete more reps. If you don’t have a spotter, you can assist yourself when doing unilateral exercises. For example, when your arm fatigues while doing a unilateral biceps curl, use your other arm to assist you.
This method has a few drawbacks relative to the other advanced training techniques. For one, you need a spotter. Plus, at least one study suggests that forced reps are not particularly effective for building additional strength. However, bodybuilders still swear by them. The technique dates back to the 1950s and was the brainchild of a bodybuilder, Marvin Eder. He reportedly used it to gain significant strength and muscle size. Another drawback is that training in this manner can lead to excessive fatigue and overtraining. Still, it’s not unreasonable to add forced reps if you’ve reached a plateau and need to place a new stimulus on your muscles.
Yet another popular approach is to train past failure with negatives. As with forced reps, you’ll need a spotter. For negatives, you first complete a set to failure. Rather than dropping the weight and resting, you have the spotter lift the weight through the positive or concentric part of the movement. Then you, without assistance, lower the weight (eccentric portion) on your own. Negatives are most effective when you complete 2 or 3 reps using this technique and use a 3-5 second tempo on the negative.
As with partial reps, you can be your own spotter by doing unilateral exercises. This technique is effective because your muscles are exposed to more stress during the eccentric portion of the movement. This stress stimulates the release of growth factors that aid in size and strength development. Plus, during the eccentric portion of a rep, you recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers and that adds up to growth!
The Bottom Line
Pushing past failure during some sessions can help you break through a plateau. That’s because training like this leads to lactic acid build-up and creates metabolic stress that stimulates growth. Arnold Schwarzenegger was fond of pointing out that muscles grow due to the stress of the last few reps.
With these techniques, you force the muscle to work longer than they’re accustomed to. The key is to use past-failure training judiciously. It’s not something you want to do every time you train and the muscle group you work definitely needs at least 48-hours rest after such an intense approach. However, it can provide the extra stimulus your muscles need to grow in size and become stronger.
American Council on Exercise. “How to Use Drop Sets to Improve Muscle Definition”
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: November 2014 – Volume 28 – Issue 11 – p 3024–3032. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000465.
Sports Med. 2013 Mar;43(3):179-94.
J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Aug;21(3):841-7.