by Vince DelMonte Iron Magazine
This post is the second in a series introducing you to under-utilized, advanced training techniques. As I explained in my last post on constant tension timed sets, the key to steady growth without plateaus is to force your neuromuscular system to adapt to a continuously changing set of stimuli.
These training techniques that I’m talking about this month are not unheard of and were not created by me, but they’re generally only used and understood by more advanced bodybuilders and their coaches. These are all techniques that Ryan and I only use with our personal one-on-one clients, because they do require precision, oversight and careful monitoring in order to work safely and reap the best results.
This post, I want to talk to you about an incredibly effective technique for targeting functional hypertrophy: hypertrophy cluster sets. You may have also heard this technique referred to as rest-pause training.
What are Hypertrophy Cluster Sets?
leg-raisesHypertrophy cluster sets are a technique that uses very short, inter-set rest periods to enable you to stimulate recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers before you fatigue the muscle. Those rest periods enable you to do more reps than you ordinarily would and to stimulate the Type 2 muscle fibers, which usually are not recruited until after the Type 1 muscle fibers have been fatigued.
Let me give you a quick understanding of what I mean by this.
Type 1 muscle fibers are engineered for endurance. They are responsible for a low amount of strength and power, but they’re main task is getting you through the long haul, so they’re slow to fatigue. Type 2 muscle fibers are mainly for strength and power. They’re to give you that burst of explosive power that you need to get through the task when your Type 1 fibers begin to fail.
Using a standard protocol of 8-10 reps at a load of 70-80% of your one rep max, only the slow twitch (or Type 1) muscle fibers are recruited. It’s only after these muscle fibers reach fatigue that your brain signals the Type 2 fibers to kick in and help. Unfortunately, with this standard training method, you stop lifting when that point of fatigue is reached.
Functional hypertrophy training using cluster sets allows you to recruit Type 2 fibers earlier and do more reps than you would with a standard protocol of 8-12 reps, rest, 8-12 reps and so on.
Why is this important?
Each muscle fiber has two parts: the sarcoplasm and the sarcomere. When you’re working only the Type 1 muscle fibers, you experience sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the amount of fluid and non-contractile proteins in the muscle fibers. It doesn’t do much for strength, but it makes you look good because it pumps up the muscles.
On the other hand, when you’re recruiting Type 2 muscle fibers, you get sarcomere hypertrophy, which is also called functional hypertrophy. It’s called functional hypertrophy because it increases the function of the muscle, but also increases the efficiency of neuromuscular signaling, making it faster and easier for your brain to recruit these fibers next time. Sarcomere or functional hypertrophy increases the contractual proteins in the muscle and the actual number of sarcomeres in the muscle fiber. This means greater strength, greater power and greater size.
The standard protocol of set/rest/set lacks the intensity needed to recruit those Type 2 fibers and stimulate functional hypertrophy. In order to get that intensity level, you need to be able to do more reps, which means you have to stimulate recruitment of Type 2 fibers before you’ve fatigued the Type 1 fibers. This is where the inter-set rest periods come in.
How It’s Done
cable-rowFor this example of functional hypertrophy clusters, you would select your 7-8-rep max to begin. A typical workout of 5 sets of 4+4+4 with 3-minute rest periods might go like this: you do four reps, rest for 10 seconds, do four more, rest for 10 seconds, do four more rest for 3-minutes and then do your remaining sets. If you can complete all three mini-sets with the prescribed reps, increase the weight 10% and start over. As the loads becoming more challenging a typical workout might look like four reps, rest 10 seconds, 3 reps, rest 10 seconds and then 2-3 reps and then rest 3-minutes. As you become stronger, you’ll be able to achieve 4+4+4, which is a total of 12 reps with a load originally your 7-8 rep max. Can you say, Awesome-Sauce! This is sufficient volume and intensity to move you into functional or sarcomere hypertrophy.
Functional hypertrophy clusters are not appropriate for every exercise. They’re best done with barbells so that you can rack the weight during your rest period and they work best with large, compound movements. They’re also too high an intensity level for long-range work. They should be done for a couple of weeks prior to a scheduled deloading phase to keep you from frying your neurological system.
However, when utilized properly and done correctly, hypertrophy cluster sets will not only get you serious results as far as size, but improve the efficiency of your neuromuscular communication, making it easier to continue this level of growth every time you use this method.
I do need to stress again, though, that this type of training is not for beginning bodybuilders. This is for guys who are at an intermediate level, who have been training regularly, with regular progression, for at least a year or two. This is why Ryan and I generally only employ this technique with our one-on-one clients, who have made an investment in their training because they’re serious about what they’re doing and ready to take their training to the next level and we can carefully prescribe the correct amount of load and volume based on their previous experiences.
What to Do Next
If you genuinely feel that you’re ready to take on this kind of high-intensity protocol, then talk to your coach or trainer about doing functional hypertrophy clusters. I strongly advise that you do this only if your coach is familiar with this method and has used it with other clients.
If you don’t have a coach or trainer, then I would strongly urge you to either wait on trying this training method or take a look at our personal, one-on-one training program.
I sincerely don’t advise incorporating functional hypertrophy clusters on your own and our one-on-one coaching is an affordable investment that will give you the knowledge and supervision you need for this and many other advanced training techniques that guarantee incredible results without having to deal with plateaus.
Constant Tension Timed Sets 1
If there’s one thing that I’ve stressed with readers and clients more than any other, it’s this: you absolutely must work with and around your body’s adaptation process if you want to continue seeing results. Plateaus happen when you continue doing the same thing beyond the point at which your body has adapted to it.
If you’re stuck in a plateau or are hitting them more regularly than you think you should, it’s almost certainly because you’re relying on the same training techniques you have been doing for months or even years. There’s nothing wrong with these training techniques, but simply switching back and forth between the “main” training techniques, such as full body/split routines or high rep/low weight and low rep/heavy weight training will eventually slow your progress.
The Key to Changing Results is Changing Your Stimulus
The key to constant growth is constant stimulus. When you place a new or more intense demand on your muscles, it stimulates the body to what it needs to do to adapt to that demand. In other words, you put your body at a disadvantage and disadvantage creates change and adaptation, which result in positive training effects.
The body responds to a variety of stimuli, such as load, volume, intensity, metabolic stress and time under tension. If you want to change your results, you need to change your stimulus.
This is why I’m devoting this month’s blog posts to advanced training techniques that you may not know much about or even have heard much about. Each of them provides a different stimulus or set of stimuli, prompting your body to work harder to adapt.
These techniques aren’t necessarily advanced because they’re so difficult or complicated, but because they’re so under-utilized. Generally, you only see advanced athletes using these techniques because they’ve gotten to the point where their bodies adapt too quickly to the “usual” methods.
In this first post, I want to talk to you about an incredibly effective and easy to incorporate training technique called constant tension timed sets (CTTS). This is one of the best training techniques you can use to spur hypertrophy without having to invent a whole new wheel. In other words, you’re not doing new exercises; you’re just doing them in a new way.
What are Constant Tension Timed Sets?
Time under tension is one of the stimuli that we use in our workouts and most guys already know that it’s only during time under tension that your muscle is actually working. To most people, that means more equals better, more reps or more weight, but that is not the case.
The fact is, you’re working toward different goals depending on how much time your muscle spends under tension. This is why high rep/low weight and low rep/high weight training is used at different times, depending on whether you’re going for endurance, strength or size. It’s because your time under tension stimulates different types of progress.
Studies have shown that TUT (time under tension) for one set that lasts 10 seconds or less is best for strength and explosiveness. TUT that lasts between 10-20 seconds is best for functional hypertrophy (the growth of your muscle fibers). TUT of 20-40 seconds results in a combination of functional and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (growth of the rest of the muscle’s components). TUT of 40-60 seconds stimulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy alone and TUT of 60 seconds or more targets muscular endurance.
With constant tension timed sets, you focus on the actual total amount of time under tension for your set, rather than the number of reps. There are some really important reasons why this is done.
Why Constant Tension Timed Sets are so Effective
There’s nothing wrong with counting reps and sets. However, it’s not a completely accurate gauge of your progress or a very targeted approach on its own.
The reason for this is that when a program or coach tells you that your target is 8-12 reps, it’s with the assumption of a 4-second movement. That’s including the top and bottom of the movement, during which there actually is no tension at all. This makes that target of 8-12 reps a little less specific than it sounds. If you’re doing 5-second reps or 3-second reps, your time under tension will be every different.
Based on the stats I just gave you for TUT, one guy could be doing 10 reps and stimulating functional hypertrophy, while another guy can be using the same weight and doing the same 10 reps, but stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In other words, the number of reps you’re doing may not be a good way of assessing what goals you’re working toward. Total time under tension is a much more accurate means of targeting a specific result.
With constant tension timed sets, there is no locking out at the top or bottom of the movement – it is constant tension and this has a benefit beyond accuracy; it builds up a lot of metabolic by-products, such as lactic acid, which are essential for myofibrillar cellular swelling and satellite cell signaling. These in turn stimulate protein synthesis and the release of more testosterone and growth hormone.
How to Do It
It’s not at all hard or inconvenient to work CTTS into your training. You can use the same movement that you’re already using if you like. The difference is that you’ll be counting your time under tension for each set, rather than your reps.
I want to point out here that you don’t want to adjust your weight either up or down. Start with what you’re lifting now. What this means is that you may find you’re doing more or less reps (you won’t be able to help counting) than you were doing with traditional sets. That’s fine. Your goal is to hit the right time under tension for hypertrophy. What I suggest is to go for somewhere between 20-40 seconds, to hit that mixed hypertrophy target. If that means you’re doing faster reps that’s perfectly alright – you’ll be getting a greater mechanical workload.
There are a couple of other things that you need to know about incorporating CTTS:
1.) You need to make sure that you’re not locking in at the top or the bottom of the rep, because that means releasing the tension. Basically, leave out the top 1/2% and the bottom 1/2% of the range of motion, so that constant tension is maintained.
2.) You will need to be able to watch a clock that has a second hand or have a stopwatch or watch within your field of vision while you’re working out. You can count off your time (one one-thousand, two one-thousand and so on) but some guys find that takes their focus off of their pace and form, so try to have a clock or watch handy. You also might find it advantageous to have a workout partner when doing CTTS so that you can time each other.
3.) Start off with 40 seconds per set and add 5 seconds per week until you’re up to 65 seconds per set and then come back down to 40 seconds and start with at least 5% heavier. Don’t do CTTS for longer than 6-weeks because it’s extremely high amount of volume and you’ll burn yourself out. Next month I’ll teach how to perform Functional Hypertrophy Clusters, a perfect program to transition to after Constant Tension Timed Sets. Look forward to it!
What to Do Next
Having a partner or coach is an excellent idea when you’re starting out with this technique. This is especially true if you can find someone who has experience with CTTS and can help you gauge your progress and results and make adjustments as you need them.
If you don’t know someone with the right experience, you might want to check out our one-on-one coaching program. CTTS is one of many advanced techniques that we use only with our personal clients. In fact, we use dozens of different training techniques, alternating stimuli to maximize results and blast past plateaus. The program is incredibly effective but extremely affordable, so if you really want to move your training to the next level, I strongly suggest that you check it out.
Training Techniques to Destroy Plateaus – Isometronics
This month I’ve been sharing with you some of the best but little-known advanced techniques that can net you enormous rewards in growth and strength. These are not techniques that you’ll see very much of in the neighborhood gym, unless you luck into watching someone who’s working with an intelligent bodybuilding or strength coach.
In our personal one-on-one coaching program, we use these advanced techniques to give our clients incredible results. These guys are able to realize serious gains in the shortest time span, much faster than they expected, and with no plateaus. The reason they’re able to get these results is variation. As I explained in my posts on constant tension timed sets and functional hypertrophy clusters, the key to blasting plateaus is to present new stimuli to your body on a regular basis. Once you’re past the beginner stages of bodybuilding, those stimuli can’t come from the standard three or four techniques that you have been using. They simply lack the needed intensity. This is why we use as many as three dozen different advanced techniques with our clients, changing them up as needed.
In this post, I want to introduce you to an advanced bodybuilding technique that’s been a game-changer for many of the most well-known and respected bodybuilders out there.
It’s called isometronics, but you may have also heard it referred to as static contraction training or auxotonics.
What is Isometronics?
Isometronic training combines the principles of isometric and isotonic exercises to reap the benefits of both. It is a very high-intensity workout, but the rewards are huge. In isometronic training, you use heavy loads (often heavier loads than you’ve been lifting) on a power rack, but in a very specific way.
Isometronics is used with movements that require either pressing or curling. For instance, you can do it with barbell squats, bench presses, barbell curls, incline presses and so on.
With an isometronic movement, you place two pins in the rack, anywhere from 4-6 inches apart, which limits the distance of the movement and your range of motion to the top one-third or so of the exercise. Then you basically pre-fatigue the muscle by doing several (usually six if you normally do eight reps) of these partial reps and then doing an isometronic lift. To do this, you stop at the top of the movement and press as hard as possible, as though you were trying to push through the pins, for around 6-10 seconds. After lowering the weight and resting for a very short period, you try to do one more regular rep. For many guys, that last partial rep is a no-go. You then rest again and go on to do two more sets.
Why is Isometronics Training So Effective?
Isometronics training gets massive results in both hypertrophy and strength gains because it prompts so many different responses from your muscles, your hormones and your central nervous system.
First, your muscles are able to exert 10-15% more force during an isometric contraction (pressing the bar at the end of the movement) than they are during the concentric movement. Exerting that force, though, adds tremendous intensity to the set. Because of the pre-fatigue reps followed by the isometric rep, you’re able to achieve maximal intramuscular tension; far more than you can with a regular movement.
That intensity has a number of positive benefits. First, you’ll be recruiting more of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which stimulates myofibrillar growth. In most protocols, it’s difficult to work past the point where you’ve fatigued the slow-twitch fibers so that you can stimulate the fast-twitch fibers. But because you’re pre-fatiguing the muscle and then exerting a tremendous amount of force for one rep and then asking the muscle to do one more rep, your CNS sends in every gun it has. Myofibrillar hypertrophy means growth in both size and strength.
That stimulation of the central nervous system sets off a really important cycle. It prompts more efficient neuromuscular communication, which just means that your muscle fibers get messages from your brain much more quickly. Every time you do the workout, that communication (and the responding muscle fiber recruitment) gets better and better. You’re able to increase reps and/or load every three or four workouts, as opposed to every three or four weeks.
Another very important response to this training is hormonal. Because isometronic training is so incredibly demanding, it stimulates your body to release more IGF-1 than it would with your normal workouts. IGF-1 (insulinlike growth factor) stimulates the satellite cells in your muscle fibers, which are basically the concrete your body uses to repair and build new muscle.
How to Do It
I’ve already given you an example of how a set looks when you’re doing isometronic training. But there are a few other guidelines regarding isometronics and they’re important ones.
Isometronics are extremely taxing to the central nervous system. If you try isometronics, you’ll probably find yourself shaking like crazy after doing three sets of an exercise. This is because your central nervous system is completely shocked. That’s a good thing, for all the reasons I just explained, but it can be overdone very quickly.
Isometronic training is not for beginning bodybuilders and it is not a protocol for training five or six days a week.
For most of our personal clients, we usually suggest isometronic training for every other workout. By this I mean, every other biceps workout or every other chest workout and so on. Not every other full-body workout or even every other upper-body or lower-body workout. The last thing you want to do is fry your central nervous system by doing isometronics with every body part in a given workout. In any event, the supporting muscles wouldn’t be up to it.
Because of the huge demand on your central nervous system, you also need to cycle this type of workout very carefully. How often you need to cycle it out will depend on your fitness level, your workout and your CNS.
What to Do Next
If you have a personal coach or a very experienced mentor who’s familiar with isometronics, then by all means talk to him about incorporating this intense workout into your regimen. But because you can very quickly overdue it and wipe out your CNS, I strongly urge you to work with someone who knows what they’re doing when it comes to isometronics.