I’ve been training for more than 20 years, and I’m pretty sure I’ve tried it all: high-volume body-part splits; high-intensity, low-volume splits; high-frequency training; low-frequency training; even total-body training.
If I were forced to pick just one style of workouts to do for the rest of my life … well, I’d be pissed! But once I got over it, I’d pick high-intensity, low-volume training with a body-part split. Nothing I’ve tried produces dense, granite-like muscle tissue quite like this system.
I can’t recall even a single training cycle in which I did this type of workout and didn’t make incredible progress. In fact, the primary reason I deviate from it at all is boredom.
On the one hand, saying that you get bored with a program in which you get stronger with each and every workout is about as weird as complaining about the monotony of sleeping with Playboy centerfields night after night, when there are so many less-attractive women you could be seducing.
But on the other hand, the fact you do get sick of these workouts is a pretty good sign that you need to use high-intensity splits in short, strategic increments. A little goes a long way. Your body makes progress, but your brain knows when you’ve had enough.
Let me show you how you can take advantage of high-intensity workouts to make huge gains in size and strength.
What to Expect
As with just about anything else in life that offers big rewards, high-intensity splits have plenty of risks and potential drawbacks.
First, as I noted, is the boredom, or mental fatigue, or whatever you want to call it. Most of us are used to leaving the gym feeling wiped out. With high-intensity splits, you always leave the gym feeling like you could do more.
But more is not better. In fact, it’s worse. (If you don’t believe me, just lie out in the sun from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. without sunscreen. Same idea.) You’ll get the best results when you resist the urge to throw in another exercise or do “just one more set.”
But there’s an easy way to get around this problem: When the urge to try something new becomes overwhelming, despite the success of the low-volume program, follow your instincts and move on to something different.
Second, high-intensity training can be tough on your joints. But it doesn’t have to be.
For maximum safety, not to mention effectiveness, you want to lower the weights in a slow and controlled manner on every rep. Make a slow and smooth transition to the concentric part of the lift, and accelerate as quickly as possible to activate the maximum number of motor units.
By controlling the negative and changing directions slowly, you’ll limit the stress on your connective tissues. When you follow with a fast and powerful lift, you’ll get maximum stimulation of the muscles you’re targeting.
Third, you just can’t do this workout without mental toughness. You have to approach it the way a fighter goes after his opponent. No, the weights won’t fight back, but you have to realize you’re up against a formidable enemy: your last workout. You have to do whatever it takes, each workout, to top whatever you did the last time you trained these muscles with these exercises.
Finally, you have to overcome your aversion to keeping a training log, and recording every rep of every set. If the goal is to top your previous performance, you have to know what that involves.
Look at it this way: You wouldn’t enter an archery competition and try to shoot blindfolded. (And if you would, you should at least give everyone fair warning so they can hide behind something an arrow can’t penetrate.) But chances are you’ve trained for years without ever writing anything down. That’s okay for some types of programs, where the goal is a subjective feeling of muscle exhaustion. It’s not okay for high-intensity split routines.
There’s nothing subjective about your goals in this program. Every time you walk into the gym, you’re there to beat your performance in your last workout. You have to improve, even if it’s just going up by five pounds or adding one rep.
Without a logbook, you’re just pissing in the wind.
Hard, Harder, Hardest
In the workouts that follow, I employ most of these intensity-boosting techniques:
Straight Sets to Failure
One of the most basic ways to boost intensity is to train to concentric failure. In other words, continue each set until you can no longer apply enough force to move the weight.
This is harder than most people train, but I don’t think it’s so taxing that you’ll overtrain your muscles if you do more than one set. You can do two sets of an exercise, and occasionally even three sets.
The phrase “rest-pause” is used in different ways in different contexts. The basic idea is that you extend a set by pausing between reps to allow your muscles to recover. Trainers have come up with multiple ways to use the technique.
I use a triple rest-pause set no more than once per exercise. It works like this: You take a set to concentric failure, re-rack the weight, rest 20 to 30 seconds, and do another set to failure. Then you re-rack the weight again, rest, and do a final set to failure.
You can use the triple rest-pause set with almost any exercise. The only exceptions are compound, low-back-intensive lifts like squats and deadlifts. Fatigue may cause you to use bad form, which could be dangerous.
One triple rest-pause set per exercise is plenty.
Upon completion of your last rep in a set, hold the weight in the contracted position for a long as possible. It’s safe, effective, and gives your sleepy motor units one hell of a wake-up call!
Iso-holds work best on exercises where there’s tension in the contracted position. It’s really hard to keep yourself at the top of a pull-up, for example, which is why it’s a great exercise for iso-holds. But on other exercises, like presses and curls, you can hold the weight for a long time in the top position. So if you were to try iso-holds with those, you’d want to lower the weight a bit to increase the tension.
Use it judiciously. If you’re doing multiple sets of an exercise, use an iso-hold for the final rep of the final set.
These are similar in nature (and in the amount of trauma they induce) to isometric holds. When you get to the end of a set and can’t complete another full rep, you do a few partial reps to take your muscles to complete exhaustion.
Some of the best exercises for partial reps are calf raises and machine pullovers. With a good spotter, though, you can do partials with just about any exercise. You just have to get to the easiest part of the range of motion and avoid the hardest part. So on a bench press, for example, the spotter would help you get the load off your chest after you’ve hit concentric failure. Then you’d do partials in those last few inches before lockout.
As with isometric holds, don’t do more than one set of partials on any given exercise.
I’m not a huge fan of forced reps – in which your training partner or spotter helps you complete the concentric portion of a few reps at the end of a set — simply because they’re too easy to abuse, and they make you reliant on someone else to up the intensity of your workout.
If you want an example of how bastardized this technique has become, just go to any public gym (or “family fitness center”) at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday and watch what goes on at the bench press stations. Count how many times someone says “all you!” when it’s really about 50-50.
But just because the knuckleheads misuse it doesn’t mean it isn’t a great tool for boosting intensity … as long as it’s used sparingly. A couple of forced reps on one set of one exercise per workout go a long way.
I didn’t include them in these workouts, but they can be a legitimate tool, if used wisely and sparingly.
When you slowly lower a weight that’s heavier than anything you could move concentrically, you’ll induce more microtrauma within your muscles than you can with any other training technique. It’s like dynamite. Blow up the stuff you’re trying to blow up, and it’s a great tool. But the potential for collateral damage is huge.
I prefer to use a less traumatic version of negative reps. Instead of starting with a weight you can’t lift concentrically, I like to use a weight you can lift multiple times, and only use a slow negative after you’ve hit concentric failure. Since the weight you’re lowering is lower than your one-rep max in that exercise, you avoid annihilating a muscle to the point that it’s FUBAR.
Another variation I avoid is “forced negatives,” in which a spotter helps you perform more than one negative rep after you’ve hit concentric failure with that weight. One negative rep, following your final concentric rep, is plenty.
But there is a safe way to make that single negative rep even tougher: Do an iso-hold after your final full-range-of-motion rep, and then do the negative. Don’t do this on an exercise in which your knees, shoulders, or lower back would be traumatized. But on lat pulldowns or chest-supported rows, it’s dynamite – a great tool if you know what you’re doing with it.
Making It Work
Volume and intensity have to be inversely proportional; otherwise, your gains will be as stagnant as pond water.
But what about frequency? With lower volume, you should be able to train each muscle group more often, right? The answer is … it depends. As a general rule, I suggest training each body part once every four to seven days. But when you use the intensity-boosting techniques I just described, and which are included in the program I’m about to show you, once every five to seven days is plenty.
The best advice I can offer: Err on the side of recuperating too much, rather than too little.
I like to finish a workout with one set of 15 to 20 reps. Then, as hyperanemic supercompensation (aka the pump) occurs, stretch the muscle for as long as you can stand it. This pump/stretch technique helps expand the fascia around the muscle, giving you a larger muscle belly over time. It also reduces hypertonic adhesions (aka muscle fibers getting stuck to each other), which decrease performance.
The following workouts are an example of how you can use a variety of high-intensity techniques to train your back.
Back Workout 1
|A||Rack deadlift||2||4-6||Straight sets to concentric failure|
|B||Chest-supported row (overhand grip)||2||4-6||After concentric failure on second set, do an isometric hold and a negative rep|
|C||Low-cable row (neutral grip)||1||6-8||Triple rest-pause set *|
|D||Machine pullover||1||15-20||After concentric failure, do as many partial reps as you can|
Back Workout 2
|A||Pull-up||1||6-8||Triple rest-pause set, finishing with an isometric hold and negative rep *|
|B||Barbell bent-over row (underhand grip)||2||4-6||Straight sets to concentric failure|
|C||Lat pulldown (underhand grip)||1||6-8||Triple rest-pause set, finishing with an isometric hold and negative rep *|
|D||Chest-supported reverse flye (lie face-down on an incline bench set to a 30-degree angle)||1||15-20||After concentric failure, do as many partial reps as you can|
* Choose a weight that you think you can lift 6 to 8 times before you hit concentric failure. Set it down, rest 20 to 30 seconds, then lift again to concentric failure (probably 3 to 4 reps). Set it down again, rest 20 to 30 seconds, and lift one more time to concentric failure (probably just 1 or 2 reps). In Workout 2, you’ll add an iso-hold to the final rep of the final set, followed by a negative, lowering your body or the weight as slowly as possible.
You may want to do one or two warm-up sets for several of the exercises, especially the first exercise of each workout, and any exercise in which you’re doing straight sets to failure.
Train your back once every five to seven days. Do Workout 1 the first time, then Workout 2 the next week, and rotate until you decide to change programs.
Control the weight on each and every rep – high-intensity training doesn’t work if you let the weight control you.
Although the sample workouts are for your back, you can use this template to train any body part, as long as you pay attention to my precautions and use these high-reward, high-risk, high-intensity techniques with all the respect they deserve.
Finally, and perhaps most important, remember this:
The shorter the workout, the more focus you need. Train like your life depends on it, and don’t allow any distractions. Wear headphones and a hat pulled down low, and don’t make eye contact with anyone, for any reason.
This is the one time in your life where it helps to look like a complete psycho. The more social distance you create, the bigger your muscles will get.