Advanced resistance training techniques are misunderstood by many. We have all heard of super-sets, but what are they? Why are they useful? And how can we implement them in our training? It can feel daunting to try something new, but as well all know, ourselves and our clients all have different needs and goals, and therefore require slightly different approaches. The key is in knowing what to use, plus how and when to use it. The purpose of this article is to define a handful of advanced lifting techniques and describe the appropriate way to use them, providing some real-world examples along the way.
THE PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF ADVANCED RESISTANCE TRAINING TECHNIQUES.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
As you will read in our learning material, Hans Selye developed the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) theory, which describes the human body’s response to stress. When we discuss GAS, we are primarily interested in physical stress caused by exercise. When we train, we disturb our body’s homeostasis; in simpler terms, we fatigue our system by burning fuel products like stored muscle glycogen, glucose, etc. We break down our muscles by consistently shortening and lengthening them while performing an exercise, we challenge our body neuro-muscularly, and we fatigue this system. Following training, the body is in a catabolic state. We then need to enter a recovery period where various methods - from stretching to nutritional-based interventions, like protein ingestion - help repair our muscles, replenish our glycogen stores, and ultimately prepare our body for our next training session.
As GAS illustrates, we all have a baseline. We disturb this baseline when we train, as described above. If the training stimulus is high enough, and rest/recovery is adequate, we will adapt and become more muscular, fitter etc. If the training stimulus isn't high enough, regardless of how good our recovery is we won't initiate the desired physiological responses needed to adapt to the training stimulus. If we train too hard, for too long, or too frequently, without adequate rest and recovery, then over time, our body will enter into a phase of exhaustion. This is referred to as non-functional overreaching, over-training, under-recovering; it is effectively physical burn-out, resulting in illness and injury if left unaddressed.
It is crucial that when we train - especially when we train others - that we are mindful of the stimulus we are trying to provide through training, and the adaptations we are seeking to experience. If training isn't adequate, then we will not adapt. Sometimes we can adapt, but experience a plateau that we struggle to overcome. To keep moving forward once we have plateaued or avoid plateauing altogether, we need to utilise the principle of progressive overload carefully.
Manipulating countless training programme design variables will help us achieve progressive overload in the long-run. We can gradually alter training volume (sets and reps) and training intensity (amount of weight lifted). Additionally, we can play around with rest period duration (shorter or longer rest), training tempo (longer eccentric phases, pauses, slower, more explosive), and exercise selection (changing exercises, or performing variations). We can alter the training script, moving from whole-body training to a more defined training split, e.g. upper and lower training days. Other training-related changes that can impact adaptation are simple alterations to the same exercise. For example, we can perform the bench press or the bent-over row differently by altering our body position to target different muscle fibres (incline bench, Pendley row); we can change our grip (supinated, neutral, pronated); we can use other equipment (barbells, dumbbells, power bags, kettlebells) – the possibilities are endless.
I like to achieve progressive overload, whether the aspects mentioned above are altered or not, by carefully using set-schematics. I define set-schematics as advanced resistance training techniques that deviate from the standard straight sets methodology (e.g. three consecutive sets of 10 reps). These advanced techniques can be used to incite more fatigue, add time under tension, apply more rest, apply less rest, add more significant challenges to the body (adding constraints – dynamic correspondence theory), improve the quality of a rep, maintain velocity or strength (removing fatigue from factoring in during a set), or simply to help us as trainers fit more mechanical training content into a session for time-poor clients. I will outline a few of my personal favourite set-schematics in subsequent sections of this article.
As mentioned above, a set-schematic or advanced training technique is a deviation from the traditional straight-set training methodology. I will describe some of these deviations below.
A super-set is a pairing of two exercises which are completed one after the other, before rest. The purpose is two-fold and depends on the exercises paired. Firstly, you could incite more fatigue, increasing a muscle group’s time under tension by pairing two similar exercises together. You could do this by pairing a dumbbell chest press and a dumbbell chest fly – both will work the chest musculature. Secondly, you could train agonist and antagonist muscle groups together, training two muscle groups in a shorter space of time: completing six sets in the time it would usually take to complete three. Super-sets are a terrific option for time-poor clients who still wish to get in a full workout. For trainers, this is a technique you can use to achieve progressive overload, and keep clients happy by meeting their time requirements.
- Giant sets.
A giant set is another technique, very similar to a super-set. It is a technique in vogue in athletic, high-performance training environments due to the time constraints imposed on athletes and coaches. Giant sets have been utilised to successfully develop athletic qualities in clients with only 45-60 minutes available. This technique involves grouping three or more exercises together, one after another, before the rest is applied.
I have programmed a lot using giant sets, and recommend pairing agonist and antagonist muscle groups together; e.g. begin with chest press and row (working chest and back), then making the third or fourth exercise in the set legs, core or some form of prehab exercises that are relevant to the client. See an example below.
Giant Set 1 – perform three giant sets, 1-minute rest in between sets.
Bench Press x 8 reps @ 80% RM
Bent Over Row x 8 reps @ 80% RM
Banded Protraction Hugs x 15 reps
Plank x 30 seconds
- Ascending and Descending Pyramids
Pyramids are one of the most straightforward set-schematics to implement. There are a couple of ways we can do this, either in descending or ascending order. A descending pyramid is a technique where the client reduces the number of reps, or the amount of weight lifted for a constant rep range, with each set. An ascending pyramid is the opposite, where the client performs more reps, or lifts heavier weight than the previous set, and follows this pattern for all prescribed sets (see examples below).
- A descending pyramid
Back Squat: 3 sets total – 1 set of 12, 1 set of 10, 1 set of 8 @ 50 kgs.
Back Squat: 3 sets of 10 – 50 kgs, 45 kgs, 40 kgs.
- An ascending pyramid
Back Squat: 3 sets total – 1 set of 8, 1 set of 10, 1 set of 12 @ 50 kgs.
Back Squat: 3 sets of 8 – 50 kgs, 55 kgs, 60 kgs.
Either pyramid scheme is acceptable to use, and because each set changes slightly, it keeps the body guessing and helps us achieve progressive overload that way. If you alter the weight lifted each week, a general rule of thumb would be to increase in 2.5-kilogram increments. So, if one week the weights are 50 kgs, 55 kgs and 60 kgs, the max weight could rise to 62.5 kgs, you can alter all other weights accordingly as well – 52.5 kgs, 57.5 kgs etc.
A drop set is another way we can prolong a set to challenge the muscles for longer. The idea is to pick a weight and perform until failure, working at maximal capacity. Once you have failed at that weight, remove some weight plates and immediately start lifting again, performing as many reps as possible. You will typically lift in this fashion until you are lifting just the bar, or the lightest weight in your set (if using dumbbells). The lightest weight will feel heavy as your limbs become like jelly. It is an extremely physically taxing set-schematic, but it can increase muscle size and improve muscular endurance.
See an example below.
Bench Press (Drop-Set)
60 kgs (AMRAP), 50 kgs (AMRAP), 40 kgs (AMRAP), 30 kgs (AMRAP), 20 kgs (AMRAP) then rest before attempting it again.
Negatives are a form of eccentric overload training. You create a negative set by manipulating the exercise's tempo, increasing the time to complete the activity's eccentric (lowering) portion. You should do so with the help of a spotter. We are 20-60% stronger eccentrically than we are concentrically, so we can pick a weight that is a little heavier than usual and have our spotter help us with the concentric phase before we perform the eccentric phase on our own.
As the name implies, a pause-rep is a technique where we pause our movement during activity. For example, you might pause at the bottom of a squat, or half-way up on a bicep curl. The length of the pause is up to you, but the purpose of the pause is to dissipate the stretch-shortening cycle's contribution and increase the time under tension. Doing so will help challenge our muscles’ contractile components (Actin and Myosin) because the stretch-shortening cycle won't be contributing to the concentric portion of the lift. I'd recommend 2 or 3 seconds as an excellent place to start.
A set involving a brief (10 – 30 second) inter-set rest period is a cluster set. It can help to maintain rep quality by maintaining power output, limiting the expected gradual decline in movement velocity towards the end of a set. It can also help us carefully alter the volume and training intensity, allowing us to maintain the desired intensity for a volume of reps that might usually fatigue us quickly. You can stick to the same weight throughout your sets with some inter-set rest, or you can perform clusters while slightly altering the weight lifted – similar to a drop-set in that regard. The difference is the inter-set rest periods before lifting again, which remove fatigue instead of chasing fatigue (remember that drop-sets are taken to failure – AMRAP; cluster sets are not).
General adaptation syndrome describes our acute and chronic responses to stress. Training is a stressor that we apply to our bodies, or our client's bodies, in the hope of initiating a response that can lead to long-lasting positive change. One way we can ensure adaptation, especially if a plateau occurs, is to incorporate advanced resistance training techniques like set-schematics to achieve progressive overload. These can help us to shock the body by varying the training stimulus, strategically alter volume and intensity, and programme appropriately for time-poor clients. The key to their application is to keep ourselves and our clients progressing in a gradual, consistent manner.
Nick Parke, the Senior Tutor at Fit Futures Academy.