Intensity Techniques to Make You Hurt
Working out is supposed to be fun, not just productive. One of the ways to make it more fun (in a sadistic sort of way) is to make it harder – which in turn likely makes it more productive.
This article covers 6 effective intensity techniques. You've likely heard of them all before, but the key to getting the most out of these techniques is applying them intelligently. Here's how:
Defined as performing one set of an exercise followed by a set of another exercise, with minimal to no rest in between.
Some experts break things down further and suggest that supersets specifically refer to pairing opposite or unrelated muscle groups, while training the same muscle group in that fashion is called a compound set. Which operational definition you prefer is up to you.
Supersets are great time savers and as such are favored by personal trainers. They work particularly well if training alone. They can be used to raise your heart rate and improve conditioning because you get less rest time.
They also work well when training for size. You can work on weak points by supersetting exercises that improve that weak point (for example, performing a set of ab wheel rollouts in between sets of bench press).
When you superset antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups you get a nice pump in that area, and when you superset the same muscle group you can really trash it (performing more than two exercises in a row for the same muscle group is often called a giant set).
Supersets generally lead to incomplete recovery as instead of sitting and resting between sets, you're actively doing something, so they're not ideal when training for maximal strength.
However, if you superset something that has no negative impact on the subsequent set for the main exercise (supersetting bench presses and calf raises, for example), then this negative effect is minimized. However, supersets still might take away from the mental focus required to perform key "big" exercises.
- EZ Bar Curls with Skullcrushers (opposing muscles)
- DB Incline Press with DB Row (opposing muscles)
- Bench Press with Ab Crunches (unrelated muscles)
- Pull-ups with Calf Raises (unrelated muscles)
- EZ Bar Curls with DB Hammer Curls (same muscles, compound set)
- Bench Press with DB Press (same muscles, compound set)
- Squats, Leg Press, and Leg Extension performed in a row (same muscles, giant set)
- EZ Bar Curls, DB Curls, and Cable Curls performed in a row (same muscles, giant set)
Performing an isolation exercise before a compound exercise for the same muscle group; often a strict isolation exercise before a less-strict compound movement.
This is the opposite of how traditional exercise programs are set up – it's called pre-exhaustion because you're exhausting a specific muscle before you train it in the more traditional sense.
Pre-exhaustion has many benefits and can be used by a variety of lifters, though typically by bodybuilders as a size technique. By pre-exhausting a specific muscle, say the quads for instance, it forces the tired muscle to work even harder in the ensuing compound exercise, intensifying the training stimulus.
It's also a helpful tool for teaching lifters to feel the muscle working and as such can be good for beginners and advanced trainees alike to develop the mind-muscle connection.
Pre-exhaustion is also good if you have access to limited equipment. For example, if the biggest dumbbells you have are 70 pounds and you can easily press them, first performing flys with the 70's would make the ensuing presses much more challenging.
As the name implies, if you train hard on the first exercise you're going to be noticeably fatigued for the second, which is typically the exercise that offers the most bang for your buck.
For example, if a lifter can usually bench 250 pounds for 10 reps but pre-exhausts their pecs by first performing 3 tough sets of flys, they now might only be able to do 225 for 10. That's 25 pounds less than what their triceps, shoulders, and bones/ligaments/tendons in their upper body are used to lifting – so in essence they're undertraining those areas.
As such, it's a rarely used method when training for strength because the weight used in the main exercise is less than optimal.
Sample Pre-Exhaustion Pairings
- Flys before bench presses (isolation before compound)
- Pullover machine before lat pulldowns (isolation before compound)
- Leg extension before squats (isolation before compound)
- Seated incline dumbbell curls before standing EZ Bar curls (more isolation versus less isolation)
- Triceps pushdowns before skullcrushers (more isolation versus less isolation)
- Crunches before sit-ups (more isolation versus less isolation)
A cluster set is a group of single repetitions performed in a row with a short rest period between reps. For example, a bench press cluster set of 5 reps would involve benching 300 for 1 rep, resting briefly, benching 300 again for 1 rep, resting, etc., until 5 total reps have been completed.
The rest period varies; generally it's between 10 seconds to about a minute in length, with 15-30 seconds being the most common. Any rest of over 1 minute qualifies as individual sets of singles with limited rest, not a cluster set.
Most cluster sets are used with reasonably heavy weight – 85-95% of the 1RM – and for 6-20 total reps per set depending on the goal. It's important to note that during the break the lifter completely rests – with bench press and squat clusters you re-rack the bar, on pull-ups you just stand on the ground – the lifter isn't supporting the bar or weight during the rest period.
The main benefit of cluster sets is that they're easier than a normal set. If a lifter can bench 300 pounds for reps as a standard set, that same lifter might well be able to lift 300 pounds for 10 reps (or more) cluster-style. This allows us to "cheat" and get more reps in at a scheduled weight.
Strength enthusiasts know that the core of strength training revolves around getting in good quality reps at 85% or more of the 1RM. Clusters allow you to do so very effectively, so they're a great tool when training for maximal strength. Clusters can also help build work capacity at a specific intensity range.
Most of the negatives with clusters come from either not understanding their purpose or improper programming. If you use too light of a weight – for example, 75% of the 1RM combined with reasonable rest periods (30 seconds) – this will feel very easy to the lifter and the cluster set could continue almost indefinitely. On the other hand, go too heavy and the lifter may not be able to get enough reps to be beneficial.
Because there's a break after every rep and thus not constant tension on the muscle, it's mainly a strength technique and not as suited for size. The set itself can also take a long time (a set of 10 reps with 30 seconds break is at least 5 minutes long) and if you work out in a group it can make warming up and completing the workout in a timely manner a challenge.
Sample Cluster Sets
- Bench Press: 335 x 10 reps with 30 seconds rest
- Squat: 255 pounds x 10 reps with 30 seconds rest
- Bench Press: 330 pounds x 10 reps with 10 seconds rest
- Pull-ups: with 45 pounds attached x 10 reps with 20 seconds rest
- Deadlift: 405 pounds x 10 reps with 20 seconds rest
4. High Intensity Training
Often abbreviated as HIT, this involves performing just one all-out work set until failure, per exercise. Some choose to train this way all the time but it also makes for a good intensity technique in more traditional training programs. You can use this on just one exercise, or for every exercise, however you wish.
You still perform warm-up sets – generally 2-4 warm-ups for the first exercise of a muscle group and then 1-2 warm-up sets for subsequent exercises for the same muscle group – but when it's go time you complete just one intense set, usually consisting of 6-20 reps, for that exercise and move on. The set is usually taken to failure and beyond, meaning 1-2 forced reps (reps with assistance) are often applied. HIT is mainly a size-building technique.
There are plenty of benefits to training with HIT style. If you need to save time (maybe you're in a rush, only have 30 minutes, are on vacation, whatever), performing only 1 work set per exercise will cut your normal training time usually in half.
It helps lifters go hard because they aren't holding anything back. If you know you have to complete 5 sets of 5 reps, you'll typically (if not subconsciously) keep enough in reserve to finish your sets. On the flip side, if you're completing just one set, you know your results will suck if you sandbag that set.
HIT is generally used when training for size but it can be used when training for strength as well. It tends to work best with the bigger compound exercises and with lifters that are intermediate level or beyond.
There are negatives to consider when employing the HIT style. Training to failure can increase the chance of injury to the lifter and it certainly requires a good spotter, which isn't always easy to find. Performed on a continual basis this work can be draining (mentally and physically), which is why I prefer to use it as an intensity technique.
Training to failure can also "teach" the lifter to lift with poor form, so make sure form doesn't break down during those last 2 or 3 reps, especially on the big lifts.
It also doesn't work as well for little exercises or smaller muscle groups – one set of concentration curls or crunches aren't enough of a stimulus. It also doesn't work well with newbies that lack the neuromuscular coordination to really blast the target area with just one set.
Finally, it doesn't promote work capacity and neuromuscular coordination because of the lack of practice or time under the bar.
Sample HIT Sets
- Bench press: 275 pounds until failure plus 1-2 forced reps
- Leg Press: 630 pounds until failure plus 2 negatives
- Cable Crossover: 35 pounds until failure plus 5 partial reps
5. Drop Sets
A drop set is performing a set at a certain weight and then immediately decreasing (dropping) the weight before continuing with the exercise. This is sometimes called a strip set because you're stripping the weight off the bar.
A lifter isn't limited to only dropping the weight once – he can perform double drops, triple drops, or quadruple drops and beyond.
The lifter should attempt to minimize the rest period while the weight is being changed; ideally the rest is just long enough to change the weight and nothing more. Lifters will often arrange the weights on the bar to be conducive to quick changes.
Lifters should decrease the weight anywhere from 5-40% of the original load, with 10-20% being the most common. If the weight is changed very minimally, the lifter will not be able to perform any additional reps. If it's too much of a drop, then the subsequent set will feel too easy.
When a muscle gets tired at the end of the set it's no longer able to lift the same weight, but it's still able to lift something. By decreasing the weight additional reps can be completed, meaning more motor units recruited and fatigued.
Drop sets are typically a size technique, however, they can be used to build strength and muscular endurance as well.
There are two keys to making drop sets work. The first is that you must go hard on the first set – if you drop the weight before you're fatigued then you've made an easy set even easier, which offers little benefit.
The second key is that you must know your goal and use the correct number of reps – for strength stick in the 1-6 rep range per set; for size 6-15 reps; and for endurance 8 reps or more (with likely a greater number of drops in a set).
Drop sets significantly increase workload so they might make one sore and could lead to overtraining if used too regularly. They're also exhausting – performance on follow-up sets can be significantly compromised. Because of this many lifters will perform 2-3 regular sets and then perform a drop set as the last set for an exercise or muscle group.
Drop sets can also be annoying to do solo – you need a spot and have to change the weights yourself. And if the first set isn't taken to near failure, then the whole drop set is less effective.
Sample Drop Sets
- Bench press: 250 pounds x 8 reps, 210 x 8 (single drop)
- Leg Press: 540 pounds x 8 reps, 450 x 8, 360 x 8 (double drop)
- EZ Curl: 100 pounds x 10 reps, 90 x 4, 80 x 5, 70 x 6, 60 x 10 (quadruple drop)
- Leg Extension: 250 pounds x 10 reps, 245 x ? – Not a big enough decrease in weight
- Bench Press: 315 pounds x 8, 135 x ? – Too large of a decrease in weight.
6. Reverse Sets and Reps
This is a simple method that can certainly change how the workout feels. With this plan, instead of performing the traditional 3 sets of 8 reps or 2 sets of 12, those numbers are reversed – you perform 8 sets of 3 reps or 12 sets of 2.
The volume (total number of reps) stays the same but since the number of reps per set has decreased, the weight used can (and should) be increased, thereby increasing the total work completed – usually a good thing. This is primarily a strength technique that can also be used to build size and work capacity.
This is a nice change for people that don't lift heavy very often or for muscles/exercises where the lifter rarely goes heavy. For example, if you always use light weight and higher reps when training triceps, this change will cause you to go heavier on the same exercise, which might be a good shock for the body.
This can also help build confidence in the lifter, and when one returns to the original program the original weight now feels pretty light.
The two main drawbacks of this program are that it's time consuming and not well suited for all exercises. Performing a high number of sets takes time due to the rest involved, and some find it boring to do the same thing repeatedly.
Furthermore, some exercises, namely smaller, more isolated exercises, aren't as suited for low reps. Performing 12 sets of 2 reps of triceps kickbacks may not do a whole lot, although at least the weight would be heavier for those 2 reps.
Sample Reverse Sets
- Lat Pulldowns: 80 pounds for 8 sets of 3 reps instead of 60 pounds for 3 sets of 8
- DB Row: 110 pounds for 6 sets of 2 reps instead of 80 pounds for 2 sets of 6
- DB Curl: 50 pounds for 10 sets of 3 reps instead of 30 pounds for 3 sets of 10
Getting the most out of the above techniques doesn't require using them all at once, or using any one of them each time you work out, but instead strategically applying them. For example, you might have a shock day once a month (or a shock week every 2 months) where you throw in some or all of these techniques. You can also just use them with every exercise in the workout for a finite period, or just bang away with a select few.
It's really up to you. Have fun with it, work hard, set PR's, and see if progress doesn't keep coming your way.
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Tim Henriques is the Director of the National Personal Training Institute of VA. He's competed in strongman, arm wrestling, and powerlifting, where he holds the state record for the deadlift of 700 pounds at 198.