My Favorite Methods: A Breakdown

Q: What are your absolute favorite training methods?

A: I've given seminars where I presented 37 different training methods, not including loading schemes. My favorite method? The one that gets you to your goal.

The "best" method will vary depending on what you want to achieve. Want strength? Want size? There are different methods for those. Your level of experience will influence which ones will be a good fit.

But if you forced me to choose two methods – one for strength and one for growth – I'd choose these:

1. Favorite Strength-Building Method: Clusters

Cluster training is my go-to method for rapidly increasing strength. It never fails. Clusters consist of rest periods between all the reps in your set. One set becomes a series of single reps with very short rest periods in between.

While you can do clusters with any type of loading and rest intervals, the traditional cluster requires you to use a load of around 90 percent of your 1RM (which is normally your 3RM load) and do four to six reps with that weight.

You'd do so by resting anywhere between 10 to 20 seconds between reps depending on the exercise. A set could look like this:

  • Unrack the bar and do rep one
  • Rack the bar and rest 15 seconds

  • Unrack the bar and do rep two
  • Rack the bar and rest 15 seconds

  • Unrack the bar and do rep three
  • Rack the bar and rest 15 seconds

  • Unrack the bar and do rep four
  • Rack the bar and rest 15 seconds

  • Unrack the bar and do rep five
  • Rack the bar – end of set

Why is it so effective?

There are several factors that can influence strength gains:

  1. You recruit and fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
  2. You develop the capacity to make the fast-twitch fibers "twitch" as fast as possible. This is called a high firing rate.
  3. You build muscle mass.
  4. You desensitize the Golgi tendon organs (GTO).
  5. You become more psychologically comfortable with the lift.

Clusters improve all of those!

You achieve maximum fast-twitch fiber recruitment when the load on the bar is around 80-82 percent of your maximum at that moment. Sure, you can get there by using lighter weights and using fatigue to increase the relative load of the bar. But by using clusters with 88-90 percent of your max, you're recruiting all those fast-twitch fibers from the get-go. As a result, you won't have any reps that simply drain energy.

But it's not enough to recruit the fast-twitch fibers. The real strength gains will come from improving your capacity to use a high firing rate. This is a motor skill. And motor skill acquisition depends not only on the number of reps done with the skill emphasized, but on the ratio of "good" and "bad " reps.

The closer you are to your maximum strength, the higher the firing rate. Firing rate increases the most when you need even more force and you can no longer recruit more fibers. At 90 percent you have a very high firing rate from the start. If you do five cluster reps with 90 percent you'll get five reps with a very high firing rate and no reps with a low firing rate. From a motor learning standpoint, that's golden.

Now compare that to doing 10 reps with 70 percent. Because of fatigue you'll still end up with five to six reps where the fast-twitch fibers are maximally recruited and probably three reps with a high firing rate.

But you also get five reps with a lower firing rate. From a motor-learning perspective, this is vastly inferior. It's like trying to play golf and doing 30 great swings, 20 suboptimal ones, and 50 shitty ones. Chances are you won't improve rapidly.

Clusters are also very good at building muscle. Hypertrophy has a lot to do with the number of maximally-effective reps. A maximally-effective rep is a rep where you're recruiting as many fast-twitch fibers as you can. Since these have the greatest growth potential, it's all about stimulating them as much as possible.

As we just saw, when the load represents 80 percent of the max weight you can lift at that moment, you'll be recruiting the max number of fast-twitch fibers you can recruit.

You can get there by using less weight because each rep fatigues you. As you're fatiguing, your strength will go down (two to four percent per rep) so the weight on the bar is relatively heavier compared to what you can lift.

Here's an example:

Rep Weight on Bar Fatigue Level Relative Weight
1 70% 0% 70%
2 70% 3% 73%
3 70% 6% 76%
4 70% 9% 79%
5 70% 12% 82%
6 70% 15% 85%
7 70% 18% 88%
8 70% 21% 91%
9 70% 24% 94%
10 70% 27% 97%

As you can see, by rep five you'd have maximally-effective reps. That gives you six of them in the set.

Now let's look at a cluster set. Because of the rest period you'll have some recovery, so fatigue is a bit slower.

Rep Weight on Bar Fatigue Level Relative Weight
1 90% 0% 90%
2 90% 1.5% 91.5%
3 90% 3% 93%
4 90% 4.5% 94.5%
5 90% 6% 96%
6 90% 7.5% 97.5%

Clusters allow you to get as many growth-producing reps as you normally would in a higher-rep set, without having to waste energy doing reps that don't contribute to growth.

And because all the reps in a cluster will be above 85 percent of what you can lift at that moment (it'll range from 90 to 100 percent at the beginning of the rep) it means that not only are you recruiting all your recruitable fast-twitch fibers from the start, but each of those reps has a high firing rate.

The better you are at having your fibers twitch fast, the higher the firing rate. This means you'll be able to produce more force.

Developing the capacity to have the fibers fire at a high firing rate is a motor skill. Not only is it about the number of reps with a high firing rate that counts, but the ratio of reps with a high firing rate and reps with a normal one.

In a cluster of six reps, all six reps have a high firing rate. That's awesome for motor learning. In our 70 percent set above, you'll have three reps with a firing rate comparable to what it is during a cluster, and five reps with a low firing rate and two with a moderate one. From a motor learning standpoint, this is vastly inferior to clusters because of the inferior ratio.

But what if we compare a set of five cluster reps and a regular set of five reps?

In the regular set, you also have no wasted reps and you do all the reps with a pretty high firing rate. This is true, and sets of five are awesome for strength and size. But clusters are just a little bit better.

First because of the higher average load. In a cluster you use around 90 percent of your max and with regular sets of five between 80 and 85 percent. While fatigue evens out the relative load at the end of the set, the heavier weight still has a greater mechanical load than the lighter one, which will cause more muscle damage.

In a cluster with 90 percent versus a set of five at 82 percent, you still have three more reps with a very high firing rate (the closer you are to a 100 percent effort, the higher the firing rate). With 82 percent, it'll take you two to three reps to reach a relative load of 90 percent like you have in the cluster.

Finally, during a cluster set, peak power, force, and velocity are better maintained from rep to rep which makes for more quality reps and better motor learning (1).

For all of these reasons, clusters are my favorite strength-building method. It builds as much muscle mass as regular sets of 8 to 12 reps because of the number of maximally effective reps. It trains the nervous system as well as the Max Effort method, maybe even better because of the higher number of reps.

When doing clusters I suggest doing two work sets as each set has the same neurological impact as doing two sets of three reps at 90 percent.

Here's how I'd do a cluster session on an exercise. Note that the percentages are for illustration purposes:

  • Set 1: 50% x 5 reps
  • Rest 90 seconds
  • Set 2: 70% x 5 reps
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Set 3: 80% x 3 reps
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Set 4: 85% x 3 reps
  • Rest 3 minutes
  • Set 5: 90% x 1 rep
  • Rest 3 minutes
  • Set 6: 90% x cluster of 4-6 reps
  • Rest 4 minutes
  • Set 7: 88-92% x cluster of 4-6 reps

In that last set, decrease to 88 percent if you only got four reps on your cluster or had to grind that last rep hard. Stay at 90 percent if you did five or six solid reps and had to grind the last one. Go up to 92 percent if you got six smooth reps.

Christian Thibaudeau

2. Favorite Muscle-Building Method: Rest/Pause

It's one of the simplest intensity techniques there is. You do a certain number of reps to (or close to) failure, then rest for a short period of time (10 to 20 seconds) then resume the set with the same weight, trying to get as many extra reps as you can.

That's the simple form of rest/pause. I wrote a comprehensive article on various rest/pause techniques that you can use.

These certainly have their place. But they're extreme methods that can't be used often or for long. Regular rest/pause sets can be used weekly as long as you stay conservative with the volume.

My intensity recommendation for rest/pause is to start with a weight you can lift for six to eight reps. Rest for 10-20 seconds and get as many extra reps as you can. I recommend keeping one rep in reserve on the first leg of the set and either going to failure (machine or isolation work) or keeping one rep in reserve (big free-weight lifts) on the second leg. This should give you something like six to eight initial reps plus three to five extra reps.

Now, "maximally-effective reps" is a term coined by hypertrophy nerd Chris Beardsley to explain reps where all the fast-twitch fibers that you can recruit are being recruited and stimulated. Since these fibers have the greatest growth potential, these reps will make your muscles grow.

When using an initial rep number of six to eight, likely with a load between 75 and 80 percent, most of your initial reps will be maximally-effective reps. Maybe one to two reps are primer reps, but that's good since they also increase CNS activation and grease the groove for the key reps. All of your rest on the second leg will be maximally-effective reps. In one rest-pause set you'll have mostly maximally effective reps and maybe two low-impact reps.

Two rest/pause sets will have the same impact on muscle growth as four to six regular sets without the drawbacks that could actually limit how much growth you're getting from your workout.

Just like with clusters, you should do two rest/pause sets, maybe even just one. It could look like this:

  • Set 1: 50% for 8 reps
  • Rest 90 seconds
  • Set 2: 65% for 8 reps
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Set 3: 75% for 6 reps
  • Rest 3 minutes
  • Set 4: 80% – rest/pause starting with 6-8 initial reps
  • Rest 3-4 minutes
  • Set 5: 75-82 percent – rest/pause with 6-8 initial reps
Bands

Bands-Only Training?

Q: What do you think of resistance bands as a stand-alone tool? I see more and more devices being marketed as better than weights. Any truth to this?

A: Resistance band training certainly works. And in certain cases, I prefer it over free weights or machines. But generally speaking, free weights and machine exercises are still the gold standard for resistance training.

Let's first look at some of the benefits of resistance band training.

Benefits

  1. Bands are portable. Whenever I travel for seminars, I bring resistance bands with me. If I don't have access to a full gym I can still get my pump on.
  2. They're versatile. You can do plenty of exercises.

(These first two benefits have little, if anything, to do with being effective. But they are benefits, nonetheless.)

  1. Because of the strength curve (low resistance at the beginning, maximum at the end) bands do seem to give a better mind-muscle connection and peak contraction than free-weights. That isn't true of all exercises, but on quite a few – like lateral and front raises, curls, and triceps pressdowns – it is.
  2. Bands don't cause as much muscle damage as free weights and most machines. That's because the resistance decreases when the muscle is stretched. And when the muscle is stretched the most (when you have the highest potential for muscle damage) there's essentially no resistance. No muscle damage means you can recover faster from this type of training and can thus have a higher training frequency.
  3. The psychological stress is much lower. Stretching a resistance band is much less intimidating than putting a bar on your back (at least for beginners).
  4. Bands can cause greater muscle activation. This goes along with point three. One study found that resistance training with a band led to a greater muscle activity than a similar movement done on a machine (2). Why? The constantly varying load during the rep.
  5. The stress on the joints seems to be lower than with free weight or machines.

As you can see, bands can certainly work. However, there are some drawbacks.

Drawbacks

  1. The progression is hard to quantify. With free weights or machines you can add any amount of resistance you want and know exactly how much you added. This makes progression easier. With bands, to increase resistance you can either add bands or use a stronger band.

    Both options represent a large increase in load and that means the new resistance might be too heavy, and the preceding one, too light. You can also stretch the band more by attaching it further away from you. But this makes it very hard to quantify how much resistance you're adding.
  2. If you're a serious lifter, bands can be less motivating.

    "Bro, my bench went from 315 to 355!"
    Versus...
    "Bro, I went from the red to the blue on my band curl!"

    It doesn't have quite the same ring to it. You shouldn't dismiss the importance of motivation in how effective a program will be. For most of us who love the iron, getting stronger and seeing more weight on the bar is one of our main motivators.
  3. There's much less muscle damage. I listed this as a benefit too because it allows you to train a muscle more frequently. But the downside is that it could also make the exercise a bit less effective since muscle damage is a stimulus for growth.
  4. Some movements just aren't a good fit. Doing squats with bands alone is unpractical and uncomfortable. You'd have to either stretch the bands fully to place them on your traps, or you'd need to put the band on the traps while in the low position of a squat. Good luck getting in a biomechanically solid squat position! Effective lower-body training with bands alone is extremely inefficient if you have any decent level of strength. At best, it can be used for very high-rep preventive work.
  5. The strength gained might be hard to transfer to barbell lifting. With bands you have no resistance at the beginning of the movement. With a barbell you'll have to overcome the full weight of the bar at the beginning.

Resistance bands are cool. I like to use them when I want to add frequency to a lagging muscle group without impairing recovery too much.

I found that bands (either the loop bands like the ones by Rogue or EliteFts or the tubing with the handles) work better than free weights for the lateral raise, curl, and the triceps pressdown. In fact, I now do most of my lateral raises with elastic tubings and I get a much better mind-muscle connection and pump. I also like frequent band pull-aparts and leg curls.

However, I wouldn't make band-alone training the cornerstone of a program.

Related:  Questions of Strength 58

Related:  5 Things you Can Train Every Day

References

  1. Latella, C., Teo, WP., Drinkwater, E.J. et al. Sports Med (2019). doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01172-z
  2. Rainoldi et al., Muscle fatigue induced by two different resistances: Elastic tubing versus weight machines Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 21 (2011) 954-959