Popular strength training and resistance exercise is packed with examples of “advanced training techniques”. This is largely due to performance variations of exercises being limited only by imagination. It is however reasonable to query whether or not these techniques stimulate any more in the way of positive physical results beyond normal resistance training.
By normal resistance training, I mean exercise that incorporates appropriate movements taken to momentary muscular failure (MMF).
As for a definition of MMF, I like the combination of these two:
…when trainees reach the point where despite attempting to do so they cannot complete the concentric portion of their current repetition without deviation from the prescribed form of the exercise1.
…the inability to perform any more concentric contractions, without significant change to posture or repetition duration, against a given resistance2.
Are better results possible?
Although going to MMF is certainly a challenge, mentally as well as physically, especially when done in a technically proficient manner, it is not usually considered an advanced training technique itself. Perhaps it should be.
Research comparing single sets of an exercise taken to MMF versus advanced techniques such as pre-exhaustion3, rest-pause4 and breakdown (drop) sets5 show no greater benefit. Improved results have however been shown when comparing rest-pause technique against sets not taken to MMF.
If you are not taking your exercises to MMF as described above (or within a hair’s breadth), then you will possibly get better results from adding certain advanced techniques to your exercises.
I do go to MMF, do I need to use advanced techniques?
Other circumstances in which the use of an appropriate advanced training technique can be beneficial:
- When you unexpectedly terminate a set short of your goal time under load (TUL), performing fewer reps than desirable.
- When performing an exercise with an obvious sticking point or using a machine with more friction than ideal.
- To help a client get closer to MMF
- For a change of pace, a slightly different physiological experience.
- To enhance psychological engagement in exercise.
Here are three practically useful advanced training techniques that can be used in the circumstances mentioned above.
Rest Pause Technique
There are multiple versions or interpretations of the rest pause technique, what follows is my favored version.
Perform a set of the exercise as per usual to MMF or as close as possible then safely de-load. Rest for 5-20 seconds (I usually go with ~10 seconds of rest), then perform another single repetition. You can repeat the cycle for up to 3 total extra repetitions.
Note that the rest period is intended to be long enough to allow you to just be able to complete the following repetition. If you use a ~10 second rest and you are unable to complete the repetition, then it is highly likely you genuinely got to MMF in your initial set and there is no need to continue with any rest pause reps.
Drop Set/ Breakdown Technique
Perform the exercise as normal to MMF or as close as possible, then safely de-load. Immediately reduce the load by 10-25% and directly recommence performance of the exercise. It is usually the case that you will to be able to perform between 1-4 additional consecutive repetitions with the lightened load before terminating the drop set.
Note that drop sets performed in this manner are most effective on equipment where the load can be changed quickly, and it is ideal though not essential if someone else is present to change the load for you.
Rep Assist/ Forced Rep technique
As your client or training partner appears to begin stalling at concentric MMF you assist them by manually applying the minimal amount of force required to the machine movement arm to keep the load moving. If you do this well the person exercising should barely be aware of your help, feeling as though they are continuing to perform the exercise as alone.
Once the exerciser has got through the sticking point or is reaching the end of the concentric stroke then you safely reduce your assistive force back to zero and allow them to perform the eccentric stroke entirely under their own steam.
One assisted rep is enough under most circumstances, two such repetitions would typically be reserved only for movements with a noticeable sticking point and machines with a lacking strength curve or obvious friction.
If you do use this technique make sure that your partner or client doesn’t come to rely on it, easing off prematurely and expecting you to do more of the exercise for them.
I have trained clients who have acted as though they are at MMF, I then put my hand on the movement arm as if to provide rep-assistance, and the client was able keep the load moving before I actually gave any assistance. It appears that those who are not yet good at going to MMF can be influenced into taking themselves closer to fatigue with the mere hint of help. This “mental rep assist” can be more valuable than a physical one.
Advanced techniques misnomer
When we hear the term advanced many of us think of leading athletes performing esoteric exercise techniques that we implicitly believe guarantee’s them improved results. It can be tempting to assume that these techniques are going to be exercise magic bullets for us. Just as it is human to want to run before you can jump, or desire to learn black belt techniques when you are wearing yellow, the very term advanced techniques is seductive.
Techniques other than regular straight sets are however best thought of as advanced only in so much as they are different from the norm. It is not that they are the preserve of advanced exercisers so much as they are best reserved for specific circumstances.
By liberating the term advanced techniques from any unnecessary hype and understanding the reasons we may choose to use them we are left with strategies that can effectively alter or enhance the exercise stimulus.
1 Steele J Ph.D, Fisher J MSca, Giessing J Ph.D, Gentil P Ph.D Clarity in Reporting Terminology and Definitions of Set End Points in Resistance Training. Muscle & Nerve 56(3) January 2017 DOI: 10.1002/mus.25557
2 Fisher J, Steele J, Bruce-Low S, Smith D. Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations. Medicina Sportiva 2011
3 Fisher J, Carlson L, Steele J, Smith D. The effects of pre-exhaustion, exercise order, and rest intervals in a full-body resistance training intervention August 2015Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism 39(11):1-6 DOI10.1139/apnm-2014-0162
4 Giessing J, Fisher J, Steele J, Eichmann B, et al The effects of low volume resistance training with and without advanced techniques in trained participants October 2014 The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 56(3)
5 Fisher J, Carlson L, Steele J. The effects of breakdown set resistance training on muscular performance and body composition in young males and females October 2015 The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 30(5) DOI10.1519/JSC.0000000000001222