Here's what you need to know...
• Applying periodization to intensity techniques rather than sets and reps is rarely, if ever, talked about.
• Technique Waving allows you to cycle in the most brutally effective intensity techniques without breaking the body down.
• Technique Waving can be applied to any program, and using these tricks at the right time is what takes a program - and a physique - from good to awesome.
• Use one high-intensity technique set on the last exercise you do for a body part. Any more would be too much.
T Nation readers are familiar with how I crank up the training heat, turning even the most basic exercises into prolonged torture sessions that would make William Wallace scream for mercy. However, don't think that I do this on every set of every workout. And even though I might have dozens of ways to ratchet up intensity, I don't use all of them, all the time.
Instead, I use a system called Technique Waving. This is how I've learned to cycle in the most brutally effective intensity techniques without breaking the body down. It's actually a form of periodization, but rather than periodize sets and reps, we're periodizing intensity techniques. In the past, whenever I added in various high intensity techniques, the body began to adjust. What produced crippling soreness in week one produced just ordinary soreness in week two. If repeated for a third week, the soreness plummeted to "meh."
To mitigate this, I began using high-intensity techniques in two-week waves. I'd incorporate a technique, trash myself, adapt to the technique, and then replace it with something else. The best thing about Technique Waving is that it can be applied to any program out there. Applied correctly, it will make your program more effective. Using these tricks at the right time is what takes a program - and a physique - from good to awesome.
Forced reps have gotten a bit of a bum rap as of late, mainly due to it being a favorite method of the "It's all you, bro", bench press on days that end in "y", crowd. A 19-year-old kid performing 225-pound upright rows while standing over his buddy who's turning purple under the bar is enough to give anyone pause. It also doesn't help that some of the strongest men in the world never train to that level of muscular fatigue, but, used intelligently - and infrequently - forced reps are among the best size-building techniques you can use.
I especially like forced reps with machine-based exercises like the Hammer Strength press. Start by letting your partner reach momentary failure in around 8 reps or so. Then apply just enough force to the handles to allow him to perform the concentric motion, but let him do the eccentric phase unassisted. After a rep or two of this, start assisting on the eccentric as well, keeping the weight from dropping too fast to the starting position.
Partial reps are another beauty that work particularly well with machine exercises. Once you reach concentric failure, perform just the first quarter of the ROM for as many mini-rep "pulses" as possible. Then have a partner assist you into the lockout and perform just the top quarter of the rep. At exhaustion, lower the weight in a final slow, controlled eccentric.
Drop sets have been around since the invention of the dumbbell. The concept is ridiculously simple but effective nonetheless. Train to exhaustion, then immediately reduce the weight to perform more reps. Continue until total failure, or until you crap a kidney. Obviously, dumbbell exercises like lateral raises or biceps curls work exceptionally well with this method, as do exercises using a selectorized pulley such as triceps pressdowns. That said, barbell exercises also work if you have a partner to help you slide off the plates.
How much weight to drop? A good rule of thumb is 20% of your work weight for a given set per drop, so if you're using 200 pounds on an exercise for 8 reps, you'd drop the weight by 40 pounds, or 20 pounds per side. This should allow you to perform another 3-4 reps, depending on the exercise, your training age, and your muscle fiber make-up.
This is a classic movement that's been all but forgotten. I'm bringing them back with a twist Tom Platz taught me. While visiting him, we did iso-holds, but while in the hold position, Tom actually applied additional pressure, making me "tense" the muscle even more. This is probably the most brutal high-intensity technique I use, pain-wise. Certain movements such as hack squats, reverse flyes on peck deck, dumbbell curls, and triceps pushdowns lend themselves quite well to adding pauses at certain points of the range of motion. The length of the pause can vary - a simple 1-2 second pause at the mid-range point is sufficient, but anything up to and including a 10-second hold with extra pressure being added the whole time works really well, too.
Furthermore, you can also add more than one pause. This works well in lifts with a long range of motion. Some coaches will add 2 or 3 pauses for 3-7 seconds each at different points in the eccentric phase of a chin-up or dip.
(The iso-hold starts at 1:11.)
(The iso-hold starts at 0:54.)
Rest/pause sets are a favorite of strength trainers and yours truly. They need little introduction or explanation - you go to momentary failure, set the weight down for a moment to recover slightly, and then perform a few more reps. The key is to limit your rest intervals to approximately 10 seconds - any longer and you'll lose the training effect; any shorter and you won't allow sufficient recovery of creatine phosphate stores.
(the rest pause technique begins at 0:54)
Here's how a typical 12-week phase of cycling different intensity techniques would look:
Week 1 and 2: Emphasis on forced reps (both concentric and eccentric) and partials.
Week 3 and 4: Emphasis on drop sets and iso holds.
Week 5 and 6: Emphasis on rest/pause sets.
Week 7 and 8: Emphasis on forced reps (both concentric and eccentric) and partials.
Week 9 and 10: Emphasis on drop sets and iso holds.
Week 11 and 12: Emphasis on rest/pause sets.
How Often? It's Simple!
I typically employ one high-intensity technique set on the third exercise I do for a body part, because any more would likely be too much. For example, if I'm working chest and I'm doing dumbbell presses, followed by incline barbell presses and then a third exercise, that's where I sneak a high-intensity set in. It'll always be the last set of the exercise.
Bonus: Challenge Sets
I sometimes use challenge sets to occasionally crank up intensity with lifters who either are performing above expectations (and can therefore handle it) or who need a hypertrophic boot in the ass. Challenge Sets are a "favorite" of Dave Tate's, whom I have the pleasure of training with every Saturday. We often do these with chain deadlifts, using a light(er) weight on a bar and seeing how many reps we can do before passing out, which usually happens between 20 and 25 reps. It's NOT something I use regularly and not something that every lifter will respond well to, but those who are hard-wired for high intensity effort typically thrive off of the occasional challenge set.
When you love to train brutally hard as much as I do, it can be tempting to throw everything but the kitchen sink at your muscles to see if you can grow to comic book proportions. Don't do it. Restrain yourself, follow a periodized plan, and when the program says it's time to open up a can of whoop-ass, then remove the safeties and unleash hell.