Here's what you need to know...
- Any one of these program upgrades will significantly improve the results you're getting from a workout.
- Think you're focused and working hard now? Try ladders, time limits, the 25 method, or rest/pause squats. You may have to redefine hard work!
Get better results from your workouts. All you have to do is choose one or more of these "hacks" and implement them into your plan. Let's do it.
1 – "Personal Challenge" Method
This concept can assume many different forms, but the underlying idea remains the same: you up the intensity by taking away a familiar comfort while you lift. This could mean anything from less rest between sets, fewer warm-up sets, not wearing a belt, using more range of motion than usual, not using chalk, or training in silence (or alone).
Challenge sets make you more versatile and psychologically strong. There's no particular advantage to utilizing this method in any type of structured or chronic way. Instead, simply decide to go without one of your habitual creature comforts for the duration of an exercise or a workout.
When you do, recognize that you might need to reduce your weights at first. For example, if you always use a belt, don't expect that you can suddenly lift the same weights without one. That's okay. Over time, your beltless weights will increase, and when they do, your belted lifts will increase as well.
2 – Compensatory Acceleration Training
One of my earliest mentors was powerlifting legend Fred "Dr. Squat" Hatfield, the first man to squat 1000 pounds in official competition. Fred has always been far ahead of the curve. In fact, he was one of the very first to question the value of things like low-fat diets and aerobic exercise way back in the 80's.
One of Fred's greatest contributions is a training method he called Compensatory Acceleration Training, or CAT for short. When left to our own resources, most of us lift any given weight with the least amount of effort possible. This tendency is completely natural, and it's not a sign of laziness either. But what Hatfield pointed out is that the more tension you place on a muscle, the more muscle fibers become activated, which of course leads to improved results. By "coasting" through the easy part of a lift, we unnecessarily rob ourselves of adaptive stress.
A better approach is to use maximum effort all the way through the exercise's range of motion. In other words, you're compensating for the tension-reducing effect of improved leverage by accelerating through that particular segment of the lift. In short, lift the weight (the concentric portion) very quickly.
The only caveat to CAT is that you'll need to back off on the speed a bit before lockout to prevent excessive joint stress and also to prevent the bar from flying off your back in the case of a squat.
This minor concern is easily solved through the use of chains and/or bands that serve to dampen bar speed toward the end of each rep while still allowing you to use maximal acceleration through the entire range of motion.
3 – Ladders
I don't know the early origins of this fantastic technique, but I do know that kettlebell pioneer Pavel Tsatsouline deserves credit for popularizing it. Best used for hypertrophy training, ladders are the best way I know of to rack up a lot of volume quickly.
Here's how it works. You'll use a load between 75-85% of your current maximum and start off with one rep. On set two, you do two reps. Set three, three reps. And so on and so forth, until you reach a number that's 1-2 reps shy of failure. That's one ladder. Depending on your objectives, time constraints, etc., you can perform between 1-3 ladders, but expect a drop off of about one "rung" (or set) per ladder.
The volume really accumulates like crazy using this method. Check it out:
- Set 1: 1 rep
- Set 2: 2 reps
- Set 3: 3 reps
- Set 4: 4 reps
- Set 5: 5 reps
In five quick, easy sets, you've already done 15 total reps. Add a sixth set and you're up to 21. Even better, you won't need dedicated warm-up sets since the first low-rep sets serve that purpose. Ladders work particularly well on bodyweight drills such as chins and dips but also work great on almost any barbell lift.
4 – Rest/Pause
Sometimes a method will escape your attention because it's so simple. The rest/pause method is just such a case. You perform more reps than you'd ordinarily be capable of by taking small (3-10 second) intra-repetition recoveries, as dictated by accumulating fatigue.
The most common agent in rest/pause training is the squat, and in fact, Super Squats author Randall Strossen popularized this method through his 20-rep squat program. In Super Squats, Strossen instructs trainees to perform 20 reps with their 10-rep max weight. How is this possible, you wonder? Through rest/pausing. You simply pause with the bar still on your back and take a few breaths between reps.
Now, I've always been skeptical about hitting 20 reps with a true 10RM. After all, technically, if you do it for 20 reps, it's now your 20RM, right? But at the very least, it will significantly increase the number of reps you can perform with any given weight. And that, my friends, means better and faster gains.
5 – "Same But Different"
Specificity is necessary but also problematic. Not enough and you don't make progress. Too much and you'll fall prey to stagnation and overuse injuries. Fortunately, there's an easy solution.
Let's say that you're focusing on your squat, and you're on a program that has you squatting three times a week – the rationale being that high squat frequency will translate to quicker gains. While I agree with this, I'd use at least three different types of squats instead of the same squat every workout.
And by "different," I don't necessarily mean radically different. For example, I'd use different types of bars and/or bar positions. Currently I rotate between low-bar squats performed on a cambered bar and high and low-bar squats both performed with a standard barbell. These three different types of squats all contribute to leg strength and hypertrophy, but the small variations in each reduce the possibility of overuse injuries. They also make me less inclined to stray from my training program since each squat day I have something a little different on the menu.
This approach can take many different forms. You can use different grip or stance widths, different implements, different ranges of motion, or different tempos. The potential list is almost endless, but the central idea is that you change something about the movement without changing the fundamental essence of that movement. When you do, the advantages increase and the disadvantages decrease. It's nothing but win!
6 – All-Out Last Set
Question: If it's your last set, why stop short of failure? This is the simplest idea on my list, but one of the most effective. I've often advised against training to failure, but the exceptions are if it's your only set or it's your last set. In both cases, you might as well go balls-out. Doing so not only provides a superior training stimulus, it also bolsters confidence for future workouts.
If you're currently using 5 sets of 5 on your bench press, on your last set, if possible, attempt more than 5 reps. Training to failure does escalate fatigue that could hamper your performance on subsequent sets, but in this case, there are no subsequent sets, so why hold back? No matter what training program you're using, don't leave anything on the platform on your final set.
7 – Time Limits
There are a number of ways to implement this simple hack, but no matter how you do it, the result will be better progress in less time.
You can establish a time limit for the entire workout or simply for one or more exercises within a workout. I love using what I call "timed singles" on things like power cleans and deadlifts. Once you've completed your warm-up sets, perform 10 singles "on the minute" with approximately 85-90% of your current max.
Doing so focuses your mind and often improves performance. It also, in the words of Mark Rippetoe, "un-mind fucks" you about a given weight. After all, if you can do it for 10 singles in 10 minutes, how hard can it really be?
As an additional tweak, I'll often try to do my 10 singles in less than 10 minutes just to give myself a head start and also boost my confidence for future workouts.
The first time you try this method you'll also notice that you don't have enough time to procrastinate, dream up reasons to quit, or focus excessively on any fatigue you might be experiencing. One minute is just enough time to take a sip of your workout drink, straighten your bar, chalk up, take a deep breath, and go. If you're time-starved, lazy, and/or easily distracted, time limits will be your new best friend.
8 – Compulsory And Optional Exercises
When I write programs for remote clients, I almost always distinguish between compulsory and optional exercises. The compulsory movements deliver the most bang for the buck, and even if my client never does the optional drills, not much will be lost.
When you look at any intelligently-designed workout, you can safely assume that the earlier an exercise appears, the more important it is. To implement this idea, simply draw a horizontal line underneath the first two to three exercises. Everything above the line gets done; everything else is designated as "maybe".
In my experience, once you're warmed up and have completed the compulsories, you'll likely complete the optional drills as well. But again, if you don't, that's fine. The whole idea here is stress-reduction. By reducing the stress of anticipating a long list of exercises, you'll be much more likely to start. And by starting, you'll be much more likely to finish.
9 – The 25 Method
I've been aware of this and similar methods for a long time now, but Chad Waterbury has popularized it in recent years. The concept is simple but powerful: you complete 25 reps with a given weight, any way you wish.
This could mean anything from 5 x 5 to 10-8-7, 7-6-5-4-3 – whatever you like. There are a few guidelines regarding initial load selection as well as progression strategies, so let's look at those now.
Initial load selection: Waterbury advises an initial load that permits at least 6 reps for the first set. I'd further add that a load that permits more than 10 reps on the first set is probably too light, although as you'll see in a moment, even if you make that error, the progression strategy will fix it over time.
And speaking of progression, there are at least two possible options. Waterbury suggests increasing the load by 2-3% when the number of reps performed on the first set can be increased by 2 or more. For example, if, during a given workout, you bench press 205 for 5 x 5, any subsequent workout where you can bench 7 or more reps on the first set (regardless of what happens on subsequent sets) calls for a load increase on the next session.
Another progression strategy I like is to increase the load when you're able to reduce the total number of sets it takes to get your 25 reps. In other words, let's say your last military press workout was 145 for 6-6-5-4-4. If, during your next workout, you can get your 25 reps in 4 sets or fewer, you've earned a load increase the next time you press.
There are a number of reasons I like this method. First, it put the focus on production, not on how the production occurs.
Second, it requires that you earn your load increases rather than taking them arbitrarily. This enforces discipline and maturity, traits that most of us seem to lose the moment we enter the gym.
Third, regardless of which progression strategy you use with this method, you'll be forced to use the same load at least twice before you increase it. In other words, you must demonstrate increased proficiency with a given load before graduating to a more difficult challenge.