I've been in the iron game for about 15 years, and I've learned a few things about building muscle.

By researching all of the training theories and techniques, and by trying them out first on myself, then on my clients, I've gotten a real sense of what works and what doesn't.

Some techniques and strategies (such as working out twice a day six days a week), while effective, aren't very user-friendly. Other strategies just plain suck.

And then there are those strategies that are both effective and user friendly. These are what I call the battle-tested strategies for size and strength, and I'll present five of them in this article.

The Machine Gun Method (10-set protocol)

This method goes by many names and variations: Charles Poliquin called his variation German Volume Training, while Vince Gironda referred to it as 10x10, 8x8 and 15x4. And followers of Pavel Tsatsouline know it simply as "The Bear."

The strategy works like this: choose one exercise (only one) for each of the muscle groups you want to train and perform many, many, many sets of it. You would perform anywhere from 8 to 20 sets of the same exercise, although 10 sets total is typically chosen as the target (hence the name).

This is high volume training at its best. Think of this method like a machine gun: the first few rounds may maim your target, but the next 10 to 15 will obliterate it. Even if you don't feel your muscles within the first few sets, then you'll definitely feel it within the next ten.

Two things to keep in mind about this protocol. First, you're more likely to overtrain on high volume (many sets of many reps) as opposed to high intensity (heavy weight). So use heavy weight and low reps (3 to 6) for the Machine Gun Method. If you use higher reps (ten or more), then the total volume will be too high and you'll overtrain.

Second, you should employ the machine gun method on only a handful of body parts at a time. If you tried to do 10 to 20 sets for every muscle, then you'd overtrain from the sheer volume imposed on your nervous system. Instead, employ the "Shotgun Method" of choosing exercises:

Arnold often employed the Shotgun Method.

The Shotgun Method

No, I'm not a gun nut, but I do love the firearm analogies. In this method, you choose exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck: the fewest number of exercises that'll stimulate the most amount of muscle.

We're not talking about bench presses or leg presses, where only half of your body is involved. We're talking about total body exercises like the Olympic lifts (clean and press, the snatch, etc.), deadlifts and squats. These are exercises that induce a huge dump of Testosterone in your body.

The power clean: more bang for your buck.

Once you've chosen two or three "shotgun" movements, you'll blast away at them with multiple sets of heavy weight, using the Machine Gun Method. Then you'll follow up with a few sets of "troubleshooting" movements. These are exercises that you choose to address any lagging muscle groups.

The beauty of this strategy is that whenever you employ the shotgun movements, you create an anabolic response in your body that might last a week. Within this week you can follow-up with exercises to take advantage of that pulse of Testosterone and develop any muscles you feel need some extra attention.

Here's what a Shotgun Method program looks like:

Workout #1: Shotgun

Clean and press (back, traps, triceps, biceps and deltoids)
8 sets of 3-5 reps
90-second intervals

Pull-ups (back, biceps, forearms, and deltoids)
8 sets of 3-5 reps
90-second intervals

Deadlifts (quadriceps, hamstrings, back, traps, forearms)
8 sets of 3-5 reps
90-second intervals

The deadlift: magnum of excercises.

Workout #2: Troubleshooting

Seated calf raises
3 sets of 10-12 reps
1-minute intervals

Leg extensions
3 sets of 10-12 reps
1-minute intervals

Leg curls
3 sets of 6-8 reps
1-minute intervals

20-degree dumbbell press
3 sets of 6-8 reps
1-minute intervals

Seated cable rows
3 sets of 6-8 reps
1-minute intervals

Dumbbell laterals
3 sets of 10-12 reps
1-minute intervals

Incline curls
3 sets of 6-8 reps
1-minute intervals

Lying dumbbell extensions
3 sets of 6-8 reps
1-minute intervals

The Heavy/Light Method

This is a solid strategy to follow in your quest for size and strength. It's simple but complete, versatile and effective. The heavy/light strategy goes like this: perform heavy sets to develop strength and muscular density, then perform light pumping sets to increase blood flow and capillary development. Hence, you develop both sarcomere and scarcoplasmic hypertrophy in your muscles.

The heavy/light method can be performed in many ways:

Consecutive Sets of Heavy/Light

In this variation, you perform a series of heavy sets for a body part, and then follow them up with a series of light sets for the same body part. For example:

Sets 1-4: 4-6 reps

Sets 5-7: 10-12 reps

You can use the same exercise for both rep ranges or two different exercises.

The Heavy/Light Compound Set

In this variation, you perform a set of low reps and heavy weight for a body part, then immediately perform a set of higher reps with lighter weight with a different exercise targeting the same body part. An example of this would be 6-8 reps for the bench press followed by 10-12 reps of pushups.

Cross Wiring

This is where you intersperse light sets with heavy sets, using the same exercise (also known as wave loading or series training) or with different exercises for the same body part. Typically, in cross wiring two exercises, you alternate between a compound movement and an isolation movement:

1A: Barbell Military Press
3-5 reps
90-second intervals

1B: Dumbbell laterals
12-15 reps
90-second intervals

Repeat three more times

Set Extenders

Set extenders are techniques that allow you to go beyond a normal set for a given muscle group. Techniques like rest-pause, compound sets, tri-sets, and descending sets are all set extenders. The reason these techniques work so well is that they allow you to serve two masters: volume and intensity.

Say you perform 4 to 6 reps at a given weight. The intensity (weight) is high, but the volume (reps) is low. If you performed 10 to 12 reps, then the volume would be high, but intensity would be low.

With set extenders, however, you increase both volume and intensity. When you can increase both volume and intensity, then you increase muscular hypertrophy.

Let's take tri-sets, for example. Suppose you can do pull-ups, but you can only perform 4-6 reps. You can extend the set for your back by doing a tri-set such as this:

Pull-ups (4-6 reps)

Lat bar cable rows (6-8 reps)

Wide grip deadlifts (4-6 reps)

Instead of just doing a set of 4 to 6 reps, you've now done a triset of 14-20 reps for the back. This is a great way to add extra exercises without overextending the length of your workout.

Other set extenders to consider:


This is an excellent technique for those who are fast-twitch monsters. If you respond best to heavy weight, then this technique will help you fully develop your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Simply do as many reps as you can with a given weight and put the weight down. Rest 10 seconds and resume the set. Rep out and repeat once more.

Descending sets

Whereas rest-pause works best for fast-twitch muscles, descending sets work best for slow-twitch muscles, such as the lateral head of the deltoids and calves. This technique also works best in a commercial gym, where you can easily implement it on a dumbbell rack or a cable machine.

Compound sets

This is when you perform two exercises in a row for one body part (which is different from a superset, where you alternate between sets of two body parts). Compound sets can be implemented in two ways:

The Post-Exhaust Compound Set - You've no doubt heard of the pre-exhaust method. The post-exhaust compound set is the exact opposite. Post-exhaust requires that you perform a multi-joint movement for a body part followed by a single-joint movement for that same body part. An example of this would be a pull-up followed by stiff-arm pulldowns.

The Heavy/Light Compound Set - As I mentioned earlier, this is where you perform low reps with heavy weight for one exercise, then immediately perform higher reps with a lighter weight of another exercise. The heavy/light method can be combined with the post-exhaust method: front squats (4-6 reps) followed immediately by leg extensions (10-12 reps).

Back Cycling: Controlled Overtraining

"Back cycling" is a training strategy where you purposely overtrain yourself for a short period of time and then pull back to allow your body to overcompensate with muscular growth. Bodybuilders had played around with the concept since the early days, but no one had promoted it as a training strategy until Leo Costa and Russ Horine promoted it in the late 1980's and 1990's.

Back cycling is not the same as "muscle confusion," which is simply a haphazard changing of routines without rhyme or reason. Back cycling is best described as "controlled overtraining."

You purposely increase the densityof training for a short period of time, anywhere from three days to three weeks. In other words, you do more work per unit of time. This means increased sets, reps, and exercises per workout, but the workout length will remain the same: 45-60 minutes. To pack in more sets, reps and exercises within this brief time frame, you must employ shorter rest periods and possibly use set extenders as well. Think of it as putting your body into overdrive.

You can't stay in overdrive forever, of course. If you go beyond three weeks, you'll surely overtrain. This is when you have to pull back or "back cycle." Rather than focus on training density, you'll decompress the volume and focus on training intensity. This means heavier weight, lower reps, higher rest periods and fewer sets and exercises.

Here's a back cycling routine using both the classic 10x10 and 5x5 methods:

Week 1-3 (Density)

10 sets of 10 reps with 1 minute rest periods

One exercise per muscle group

8 muscle groups (Chest, Back, Deltoids, Biceps, Triceps, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves)

Week 4-6 (Decompression)

5 sets of 5 reps with 3 minute rest periods

One exercise per muscle group

5 muscle groups (Chest, Back, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves)

If you look closely, the 10x10 method has greater training density than the 5x5 method. You're doing four times as much volume per muscle group with shorter rest periods:

10x10=100 reps vs. 5x5=25 reps

The 5x5 method, however, has greater intensity, since you're focusing on heavier weight with fewer exercises. Despite the greater intensity, you're pulling back from training density by employing longer rest periods (3 minutes).

"Plan Your Workout. Work Out to Your Plan."

Now that I've shown you some battle proven strategies for size and strength, go out there and kick some ass in the gym. Train smart and stay safe.