Let's say I buy a book that's 250 pages long. Instead of reading the whole thing, I read just the first 25 pages, but I read them 10 times. I tell you that because I've read 250 pages, it's the equivalent of reading the entire book.

You'd say I was full of something unsanitary, wouldn't you? I've quoted you numbers, but those numbers just happen to be meaningless.

Now let's say a lifter goes to the gym and does three sets of 10 reps of dumbbell bench presses with 30 pounds. According to some training literature I've read in the past few years, you can do the math and say that this guy has lifted 900 pounds – 30 reps times 30 pounds.

For that number to be meaningful, you have to assume that it's the same thing as, say, doing three sets of six reps with 50 pounds. It's only 18 reps, but it still adds up to 900 pounds.

My point, of course, is that all these numbers are meaningless. They don't measure the only thing that matters to a bodybuilder: overload. Overload is the adaptive stress of the body as a whole, the driving force of musculoskeletal development.

Max Load, Max Results

A little over a year ago, Testosterone Muscle published my article, called Max Load Training in the Real World.

Max-load training, I explained, is not the same as max-weight training. Lifting heavy weights for the sake of lifting them won't get you the results you want. The example I used showed why a set of 10 deadlifts with 225 pounds would potentially trigger a bigger adaptive response than would five reps with 325 pounds.

Assuming that all 10 reps are performed explosively, and assuming that 10 reps is the most that lifter could do with that weight, they'd generate far more power demand than would sets using heavier weights for fewer reps. Sure, there'd still be an adaptive response with 325 pounds, but it wouldn't be as powerful. I know that goes against the conventional wisdom these days, but if muscular development is the goal, slaving to lift more weight misses the point.

There will always be a ceiling affect to strength because of neural adaptations over time. If that ceiling didn't exist, the biggest bodybuilders would be benching 1,000 pounds by now. In fact, most professional bodybuilders use lighter weights in specific lifts as their careers advance. But they get more out of the exercises because of the intensity of their effort.

When I talk about explosiveness, I don't mean using leverage or throwing the weights around. The goal is to lift explosively but maintain control of the weight at all times. Lower the weight with even more concentrated control. The key is to develop an "explosiveness mentality," a combination of mental focus and physical force production. How much weight you use is secondary to the quality of your focus and performance.

Pump Action

That said, you can't build an entire bodybuilding program around explosive repetitions. You also need to employ continuous tension, more commonly known as pumping repetitions. Pumping means no stopping at the top or bottom of a rep. Your mind has to be focused on maintaining a continuous tension on your muscles, which means a purposeful control during eccentric and concentric contractions.

That's very different from the way most people train.

Let's say you send someone to the gym with instructions to do 15 reps per set. Most of the time, that person will pause at the bottom of each rep – you see this especially with exercises like barbell curls and seated lateral raises – which means the set is really one repetition completed 15 different times.

That same set performed with a pumping cadence would be something else entirely. Once you take out the pauses, it's really one continuous repetition, rather than 15.

Putting It All Together

Here's how you employ the two cadences in a workout. As I promised in the "Max Load" article a year ago, I'll use delt training as my example. My assumption is that you're currently doing a body-part split, and training shoulders once each week. I've provided four workouts (used successfully by a national-champion bodybuilder I trained recently), which should be done in sequence. That's a month's worth of delt training for most of you. Repeat the sequence three times, for a total of 12 weeks' worth of shoulder workouts.

You'll do the first two exercises of each workout explosively. Go for maximum contraction speed; how fast the load actually moves is less important. Your target area – in this case, your deltoids – should be exhausted after the first two movements, particularly the higher-threshold motor units.

At that point, you'll shift to the pumping cadence, emphasizing continuous tension for the remaining exercises.

On each exercise you want to select a weight that allows you to reach relative failure within the range of reps specified. "Relative" failure means you can't complete another rep. It's different from "absolute" failure, in which the muscle can no longer contract. You achieve absolute failure using techniques like forced reps and heavy negatives, which I don't recommend. They fatigue not only the muscles, but the body as well, and I don't think they work for physique enhancement.

Always warm up before starting the first exercise.

Workout 1

  1. Smith machine or machine shoulder press to front: 3 x 8-10
  2. Alternating front raise: 4 x 10-12 (each side)
  3. Machine rear-delt fly: 4 x 15-20
  4. Seated lateral raise: 4 x 12-15
  5. One-arm cable bent-over lateral raise: 3 x 12-15 (each side)
  6. Dumbbell alternating upright row: 3 x 15 (each side)

Workout 2

  1. Two-arm cable bent-over lateral raise: 2 x 8-10, 2 x 10-12, 2 x 12-15
  2. Seated lateral raise: 4 x 10-12
  3. Machine shoulder press: 4 x 10-12
  4. Alternating front raise: 3 x 10-12 (each side)
  5. Machine rear-delt fly: 3 x 12-15
  6. One-arm cable lateral raise: 3 x 10-12 (each side)

Workout 3

  1. Seated lateral raise: 5 x 8-12
  2. Overhead cable rear-delt fly: 4 x 15
  3. Alternating front raise: 4 x 10-12 (each side)
  4. One-arm cable lateral raise: 3 x 12-15 (each side)
  5. Dumbbell alternating upright row: 3 x 12-15 (each side)
  6. Machine shoulder press: 3 x 12-15

Workout 4

  1. Two-arm cable bent-over lateral raise: 5 x 10-15
  2. Seated lateral raise: 4 x 12-15
  3. Machine rear-delt fly: 4 x 15-20
  4. Seated alternating front raise: 4 x 10-12 (each side)
  5. Dumbbell upright row: 3 x 12-15
  6. Two-arm cable front raise: 3 x 12-15

Final Thoughts

Before you go out and try these workouts, it's important to say a few words about context. The context here is traditional body-part training. What you do in the previous and subsequent workouts will affect your results.

A good workout is more than a collection of exercises. The sequence matters, as does the rotation of exercises from one workout to the next, with the shift in cadence from explosive to continuous tension, or from continuous to explosive. I've also manipulated the rep schemes and the angle of stress on the targeted muscles.

The key is to make sure your body keeps adapting, rather than allowing it to adapt and stay adapted.

Scott Abel

The author, circa 2004