Blasting and bombing and blitzing—fighting words like these were splashed across the covers of Joe Weider’s muscle magazines in the ’60s and ’70s. So it’s appropriate that Joe af xed a similarly painful B-word— burns—to a workout principle designed to heat up your training intensity. Burns are shortened reps used to push your sets beyond full-rep failure. They’re an intensifying technique you can do by yourself without pausing to reduce the weight to—as Weider magazines used to shout—blast, bomb, and blitz your muscles into new growth.
There are two types of partial reps. One prescribes that you shorten the range of motion throughout a set to target specific muscles. For example, if you do rack deadlifts, starting each rep with the bar at knee-level, you focus more on your back and traps and less on your legs and hips. The other style is today’s focus. These partials are done only after reaching failure with full reps, and they target the same muscles as the full reps.
They’ve been given a hot name, burns, but few bodybuilders use it. Partial reps or partials remain the term of choice. Burns work best with isolation exercises because the focus remains on one body part during the full reps and subsequent partial reps. They’re especially useful for working biceps, triceps, calves, and (with various types of raises) shoulders.
Let’s break down a set of barbell curls that end with burns. Choose a weight with which you’ll reach strict, full-range failure around 8–10 reps. Do another two or three cheat reps. Then it’s burn time. Do 5–10 quick, short reps. Stay in the middle portion of the curl’s range of motion, avoiding the top and bottom. Maintaining tension without resting is key, so never let your arms straighten. Burns can be done on the final set of an exercise or on all sets.
Here are the pluses of using burns.
- CONVENIENCE: By staying within a shortened range of motion, you’re able to push sets beyond full-range failure without a spotter and without pausing to decrease the weight. Burns are among the easiest ways to increase intensity.
- SAFETY: Because you’re merely shortening reps you’ve already performed, burns are also a low-risk means of breaking the failure barrier. However, burns work best with isolation exercises for smaller body parts. Don’t attempt burns with heavy, free-weight basics like squats and deadlifts. The risk is great and the benefits are small.
There are two potential pitfalls to including burns in your routines.
- INCORRECT TIMING: If you do burns before reaching full-rep failure, they’ll be too easy to perform. Your set may never end. Make certain you begin these partials only when you can’t get another full rep.
- LIMITED EFFECTIVENESS: Burns are not a good option for ballistic exercises (power cleans), most compound lifts (shoulder presses), and some isolation exercises for larger body parts (dumbbell flyes). They work with some exercises for larger body parts, such as cable crossovers for chest and pulldowns for back (a compound lift), but they’re typically most effective when used on isolation exercises for smaller muscles.
Burns increase your time under tension—a measure of how long your muscles work against resistance during a set. Another way to do this is to simply hold the weight in a static position resisting gravity for as long as you can. You can follow a sequence of burns with a final static hold, fighting the urge to lower the weight. You can also work static holds into a sequence of burns. An example of this would be: four burns, one hold, four burns, one hold, four burns, one hold. Both the burns and the holds boost your time under tension, and each serves as a short rest from the other—if only psychologically.