When you reach a roadblock, you have three choices: Retreat, ram stubbornly into the barrier, or take a detour and continue forward. The typical choice for those who reach a bodybuilding roadblock -- a plateau where gains come slowly or not at all -- is to keep doing the same routine the same way (the equivalent of ramming stubbornly into a barrier), and thus they remain stuck at an impasse. If the same thing hasn't worked for the past two months, there's no reason to think it will work any better over the next two. If anything, it will disappoint even more, as your muscles become further accustomed to the routine. You could always choose to retreat -- give up bodybuilding and transfer your energy into Civil War reenactments or topiary gardening -- but you didn't turn to this page only to give up on your dream.
The correct choice is the third. When you reach a bodybuilding roadblock, you have to find an alternate route in order to move forward again. The most common bodybuilding roadblock comes about when your muscles grow overly accustomed to your training, and the best detours infuse your workouts with intensity and the shock of the unexpected. We've compiled the 10 best intensifiers -- proven methods for recharging your progress -- and, this month, we'll analyze five. Any of these methods can lead you past the impasse and get you moving forward again toward your goal.
1. SUPERSETS This technique consists of one set of one exercise followed immediately by a second set of a different exercise. The two exercises can be for different bodyparts or the same bodypart, but it is generally most effective to choose a duo of superset lifts for antagonistic muscles, such as biceps and triceps, chest and back or quadriceps and hamstrings. For example, instead of doing nine sets for triceps followed by nine sets for biceps, do nine biceps and triceps supersets. The accompanying chart, "Super Arms," is a sample superset arm workout.
Master trainer Charles Glass believes in supersetting bis and tris. The synergistic effect of stretching and contracting opposing muscles in alternating sets is an effective pumping and growing strategy. You can also utilize supersets on a more limited basis, combining two exercises for the same muscle to up the intensity in an otherwise stale workout.
2. DESCENDING SETS Descending sets (a.k.a. drop sets) are used to extend a set beyond full-rep failure. Once you reach failure, lighten the weight (or grab a lighter weight) and continue. Proceed for two to five drops, always making certain you reach failure before lightening the load. Jay Cutler, for one, puts at least one descending set in nearly every workout.
It's especially easy to perform descending sets when doing pin-loaded machine lifts, such as triceps pressdowns. You simply pull the pin out and move it up to a lighter weight. An efficient method for a dumbbell lift such as side laterals is to go down the rack, using progressively lighter pairs. Descending sets should be incorporated on a limited basis, generally for no more than one lift per bodypart. It's wise to do a descending set last, as it will exhaust your strength and energy reserves.
3. HIGH REPS Reducing the weight and dramatically increasing repetitions is another intensifying technique that is best used sparingly; over time, workouts consisting of nothing but high-rep sets are liable to make you look more like Chris Rock than Chris Cormier. Heavy weights and low to moderate reps (six to 10) remain the best long-term strategy for size gains. The occasional high-rep set, however, is an excellent tool for jump-starting a stalled routine and turning up the heat on lukewarm muscles.
If you believe a workout has not gone as well as planned, try finishing it off with a pump-up set of 15-25 reps to flush the area with nourishing blood. Similarly, some trainers like to follow a pyramid of lifts with a pump-up set. In such a case, you may go 10 reps for the first set, eight reps for the second, six for the third, four for the fourth, and then do 20 for a final set with a light weight. On occasion, try doing a set of very high reps (30-100), especially for calves or forearms -- two areas that frequently respond well to high volume. One technique is to time sets for calves, pumping out very high reps for one or two minutes to flush your lower legs with blood.
4. PRIORITIZATION In order to focus on a weak bodypart or a weak section of a bodypart, train it first in a workout with more volume. Let's say, for example, you have a subpar upper chest. Prioritize this area by performing incline presses and incline flyes and only a minimum amount of work for the rest of your chest. You can also prioritize a weak exercise. For example, if you want to boost your squat, make this the primary exercise of your thigh routine by doing it first (or after warm-up sets of leg extensions) and with more sets than other lifts, perhaps pyramiding up to a maximum-weight low-rep set.
Prioritization allows you to focus more on your weakest area(s) when your strength and energy are greatest. You can also use it in conjunction with other intensifiers, such as descending sets. The key is to be honest in self-assessing your flaws, or have someone with a trained eye do it for you, and target no more than one weakness per workout. Prioritization can be used over a long period of time, if necessary, as weak areas are sometimes persistent laggers.
5. 10 x 10 The technique of training a bodypart with 10 sets of 10 reps of one exercise is a throwback to yesteryear that is so foreign to most modern bodybuilders that it's almost guaranteed to catch your physique by surprise. Your muscles become conditioned to the number of exercises and sets you do in a workout, and when you hit a roadblock, you need to break the pattern to keep them guessing and growing. Ten sets of 10 is a paradigm shift. Here's how it works. Instead of your typical biceps routine of three sets each of three exercises, for example, try 10 sets of 10 reps of barbell curls, pushing each set to failure.
This technique tends to be more effective for smaller bodyparts, as opposed to the back (which is made up of many muscles) or the deltoids (which consists of three heads). If necessary, however, you can add supplemental lifts. For example, if you've reached a plateau in shoulder size and strength, start your workout with 10 x 10 of military presses, and add three sets of side laterals and rear laterals. Utilize 10 x 10 sparingly, as it can easily lead to overtraining, but as a change of pace, it can bring a spark to a dull routine by proving that adage: Everything old is new again.
Next month: We up the intensity further with five advanced techniques for overcoming training plateaus.