To get your muscles to grow, or hypertrophy, you must progressively stress the muscles you’re working in a way they’re unaccustomed to. In response to this controlled stress, muscle fibers break down and rebuild in a way that makes them larger and stronger. It’s an ongoing process that can take months before you see the fruits of your efforts. But, don’t let that discourage you. Getting fitter and healthier is an ongoing journey and changing your physique takes time!
When most people begin weight training, they do standard sets of 8 to 10 reps using a resistance of around 60 or 80% of their one-rep max. Using a resistance in this range is enough to hypertrophy the muscle initially, as long as you continue to increase the resistance over time to make the exercise more challenging. The practice of increasing the challenge to your muscles over time is called progressive overload and is a fundamental principle of weight training. Using a lighter weight can also hypertrophy muscles, but you have to go to near failure.
Whichever approach you take muscle growth eventually comes to a standstill or a plateau. You can’t continue to do the standard 8 to 10 reps indefinitely even if you increase the resistance and expect to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Your muscles and nervous system eventually become used to this repetitive pattern and adapt to the point that they stop responding. Your body is quite adept at adapting, so you have to keep challenging it! That’s when you need to pull out all the stops and use advanced weight training techniques to “shock” your muscles into growing. One of these approaches is burnout sets.
What Are Burnout Sets?
Burnout sets are additional repetitions of an exercise you do at the end of a set using a lighter weight. The goal of a burnout set is to fatigue the muscle to the point of exhaustion, or at least, extreme fatigue. Near exhaustion of the muscle is the goals behind burnout sets. Adding additional reps to the end of a set using lighter weight takes an already tired muscle and completely exhausts it.
So, how do you do burnout sets? Let’s say you typically do three sets of biceps curls using a resistance of around 70% of your one-rep max. You would initially perform three sets using your chosen weight, resting 3 or 4 minutes between each set. At the end of the last set, grab a weight 50% lighter than the weight you used to do your reps. Use the lower weight to do as many additional reps as you can. At this point, the muscles, in this case the biceps, should be sapped – and that’s the point. Exhaust the muscle to get it to grow.
Why does using a lighter weight at the end of a set boost muscle hypertrophy? When you lift a heavy weight, you recruit a lot of muscle fibers from the get-go. It takes greater muscle fiber activation to lift a heavy weight. So, you activate a lot of muscle fibers when you do your standard sets using a challenging resistance. Once you finish the sets and pick up a lighter weight to do more reps, any residual, high threshold muscle fibers that didn’t get recruited during your three standard sets will be called into play. These high-recruitment fibers are like extra workers called in when the main workers are too exhausted to finish up the job. Putting these extra workers, or muscle fibers, to work stimulates muscle growth.
Plus, burnout sets boost blood flow to the muscles you’re working. In the process of exhausting the muscle, lactate builds up in the muscle and enters the bloodstream. The build-of lactate is a stimulus for the release of growth hormone, a hormone with anabolic properties. The release of growth hormone also boosts fat burning as well.
Should You Do Them?
Burnout sets is an advanced strategy for building muscle. If you’re a beginner, build up a baseline level of strength before attempting them. If you’re just starting out, it’s best to focus on form while doing standard training – 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps with rest between each set. Once you reach a plateau, add one or more advanced training techniques to your routine to stimulate your muscles in a different way. Burnout sets, by pushing your muscles to work harder at the end of a set, is a challenge your muscles are unaccustomed to.
Burnout sets are just one of the possible advanced training options you can do to create an added challenge to boost muscle hypertrophy. Others include drop sets, partial sets, negatives, rest and pause, slow training, drop sets, giant sets, isometrics, supersets, and more. These techniques work the same way burnout sets do. They challenge your muscles in a different way and fatigue them more than standard training.
Finally, don’t try to do burnout sets for every exercise on a given day. Choose one exercise, for example, biceps curls, and do a burnout set. The next time you train, choose a different muscle and exercise to target with burnout sets. You can overdo advanced training to the point that muscle growth slows as you’re not getting your muscle fibers enough time to rebuild and repair. So, don’t use advanced techniques every time you train your muscles against resistance.
Vary Your Training
To help your muscles hypertrophy without overtraining them, use a variety of approaches. Do some high-resistance, low rep training; low-resistance, high rep training; as well as moderate-resistance sets. Once you’re more advanced, add advanced techniques, such as burnout sets, in moderation. As always, nutrition matters. Make sure you’re eating a whole food diet that contains enough calories and protein. Muscles can’t repair and grow adequately if they don’t have the basic building blocks to do that. Finally, get enough sleep. It’s during deep sleep that your body releases growth hormone. Plus, sleep helps your body avoid a catabolic state. When you’re sleep deprived, you produce more cortisol, a stress hormone that’s also catabolic. Get these factors right and you’ll be on your way to getting the body you’re striving for.
ExRx.net. “Advanced Weight Training Techniques”
Journal of Sports Medicine 2002;36:370-373.
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