Here's what you need to know...
- Studies have shown that the use of finisher sets leads to dramatic fat loss without losing any muscle.
- One study found that people who did high intensity interval training lost 9 times as much fat as a group that did traditional endurance training.
- Another study found that subjects using a high-intensity lifting program burned 450% more calories than those using a standard program.
- Ways to extend the final set and burn fat include rest-pause training, cluster sets, back-off sets, drop sets, and 50-rep sets.
Crushing the final set of an exercise can make or break your workout.
These last sets, or "finisher sets," have always been a staple in bodybuilding because they allow you to get in more reps than a traditional straight set. Plus they leave you feeling good about a job well done.
Studies demonstrate that this technique (and others) also lead to dramatic fat loss with full muscle retention.
One study compared the effect of 20 weeks of HIIT (high intensity interval training) with 20 weeks of ET (endurance training) on young adults. Incredibly, the HIIT group lost 9 times as much fat as the ET group.
Another study compared a traditional weight-training program with a higher intensity resistance-training (HIRT) program. The traditional program consisted of 8 exercises each for 4 sets of 8-12 reps, the last one taken to failure.
The HIRT program consisted of 3 exercises for 3 sets of 6 reps, while an additional set was performed in a rest-pause fashion.
The traditional program took 62 minutes to complete and the total session volume was around 17,000 pounds. However, the HIRT group finished their workout in 32 minutes, lifted only 8,500 pounds, but had a post-caloric burn the next day that was 450% greater than the traditional lifting group.
What these two studies confirm, gloriously, is that taking your last sets to failure through the use of finishers results in dramatic fat loss. And it can be done without necessarily adding more work, just by optimizing your final sets.
Here are some ways to extend that final set and burn off pounds of fat in the process.
This is the technique that was used in the HIRT study and one that receives its fair share of attention in bodybuilding due to the ability to get more reps out of your last set with the same weight.
How to do it: Go to technical failure on your last set, where you can't get any more reps without your form breaking down.
Take a 15-second break or 10 breaths. Then pick the weight up again and go to technical failure.
Put it down and take another 15-second break, followed by the final set.
If you hit 10 reps on your regular set, try to hit 5 on the first rest-pause and 3 on the second rest-pause set. Rest-pause sets are best used on assistance lifts and not main lifts because your form can degrade on bigger exercises like squats and deadlifts.
2. Cluster Sets
Cluster sets are similar to rest-pause sets but the reps and rest periods are predetermined.
How to do it: On the last set of your main lift, instead of doing 10 reps, you'll do as many sets of 3 reps as you can do, taking 20 seconds of rest between each "set" of 3 reps.
Resting for 15-20 seconds between sets allows your muscles to regenerate a small amount of phosphocreatine and continue lifting.
This system is great for the main barbell exercise in your workout because it never pushes you to complete failure but still allows you to use a heavier weight.
So, if you can lift 200 pounds for 10 reps (2000 pounds total), you can likely use 225 for 4 "sets" of 3 (for a total of 2700 pounds) and you'll have increased your overall volume on your main exercise by more than 25%.
If you're doing cluster sets on your main exercise, keep the reps at 2-3 per cluster. If you're doing an assistance exercise, you can start higher at 5 reps per cluster.
For an ultimately painful muscle building experience, set a timer for 5 minutes and do clusters the entire time, dropping the reps as necessary as fatigue accumulates.
3. Back-Off Sets
Back-off sets can be done for either main or assistance exercises and are a great way of grooving solid technique while also pushing your muscular and cardio system to the limit.
How to do it: Immediately after you finish your final set of an exercise, strip off 30-50% of the weight and then do as many reps with that weight as you can, aiming for 15-25.
Since you should already be slightly tired from your previous sets, you won't be able to get as many reps with that weight as you would if you were fresh, so in some ways this functions as almost a pre-exhaust technique.
This technique can be applied to almost any exercise with good results because you'll be using less weight and the muscles are already tired so it won't be as taxing on your nervous system as a rest-pause set or a drop set.
4. Drop Sets
A staple of bodybuilders, the drop set has retained its popularity over the years because of the massive amount of muscular trauma it can induce in a short amount of time.
A drop set is done by repping out on your last work set before reducing the weight by about 25% and repping out again. This process can be repeated as many times as you'd like, but for best results I like to use 3 drops.
One of the limiting factors of a drop set is changing the weights quickly, so unless you have two buddies who don't mind loading and unloading plates for you, drop sets are best done on selectorized machines.
Of course, you can always do solo drop sets on a leg press machine if you just get up quickly and remove the necessary weights. It's tougher, but it has the added benefit of taxing you even further.
How to do it: Start with a weight that you used for your work sets and get as many reps as possible before reaching technical failure. You should keep 1 rep "in the tank" in order to get the most out of this technique. Immediately after finishing, drop the weight 20-25% and rep out again.
Three drops is ideal, with the final set taken to total failure with a weight that should be 50% of the starting weight.
5. 50-Rep Challenge Sets
This was also a staple of old-time bodybuilders but it's rarely seen any more, possibly because it's pretty tough.
How to do it: Simply reduce the weight of your last work set by about 30 to 40% – a percentage that would allow you to get about 20 to 25 reps. Upon completion of the 20th or 25th rep, take a 15-second break. Continue gutting out a few more reps to failure and then take another rest-pause of 15 seconds.
Continue in this way until you hit a total of 50 reps. Your rep patterns might end up looking like this: 20,10, 8, 6, 3, and 3 = 50.
- Tremblay A et al. Impact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism. Metabolism. 1994 Jul;43(7):814-8. PubMed.
- Paoli A et al. High-Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT) influences resting energy expenditure and respiratory ratio in non-dieting individuals. J Transl Med. 2012 Nov 24;10:237. PubMed.