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Old 10-16-2009, 11:50 PM   #13
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The Best of Both Worlds

Part I

This is part I of a two part series. Although both parts will benefit all trainees, part I is geared to the HIT trainee, part II is directed at the trainee who prefers a multiple set approach.

Why not be open-minded and use whatever sensible training approach gets you results?

What I’m referring to is the ‘close-minded’ approach that many trainees adopt toward their training because of a bias towards one training methodology or another. The general methods (there are too many sub-factions to mention) I’m referring to in this piece are multiple sets of an exercise performed just shy of failure verses performing one set to failure. There seems to be a never-ending battle between the two. Which one produces fewer injuries? Which one produces fastest results? Which one works?!!!

You know what? Both work. Yep, that’s what I said; BOTH WORK. And both work well. Now, don’t go off calling me a hypocrite. As long-time readers of my material know, I favor a multiple set approach as a long-term training methodology (even when I use what would be called ‘training to failure); and this has not changed. But I am not close-minded to the fact that training for one set to ‘true’ failure (many trainees fake it) does work – and can work very well. I’ve used that training approach a number of times throughout my training journey – now at 32 years, and on many trainees that I’ve coached (now at 21 years). I know both methods are valid “tools” that can be used dependant on the trainees goals, emotional make-up, and most importantly their lifestyle limitations. What I mean by this is that even if you have a program on paper that is the fastest way to achieve your goals, if it doesn’t pass the “reality test” – it won’t produce diddly. The “reality test” is that the program must “fit” into a trainees’ lifestyle, AND fit their “training” personality. As far as lifestyle goes, who do you know (that has a ‘real’ life) that has all the time in the world to just train and eat and recover? Hardly anyone! Almost everyone has academic requirements, job/career requirements, family requirements, or a combination of two if not all three. So, again, no matter how good a program might be on paper, in reality if the trainee can’t meet the programs’ time or recovery obligations – without sacrificing other important obligations in life -- then it isn’t going to work very well, if it’ll work at all.

Have you ever heard a strength coach talk about designing a program based on a trainees personality? It should be considered just as one must consider a trainees physical genetic makeup; a squat to parallel fits one trainees specific physical makeup, another trainee may have to cut their depth two inches above parallel because their physical makeup (length of bones, ability of the hips to rotate, etc) won’t allow it. Considering personality, some trainees just feel that they have to workout to their absolute limits at all times; they’re motivated by a ‘feeling’ of training as hard as possible. Other trainees are motivated by accomplishing a prescribed ‘quantitative’ goal. Of course there are many trainees that are in-between or are a combination of both. My point is that you have to find and then utilize what ‘pushes your buttons’ – and everyone is different.

Ok, what does this have to do with multiple set and HIT training? The combination can lead to tremendous gains because it optimizes the performance of the nervous system and endocrine system. It will make your training very time and recovery efficient. It all starts with keeping an open mind.

HITer’s: Utilizing Multiple ‘Non-failure’ sets to get more ‘Total reps’ out of your ‘To Failure’ set(s).

If you have been training to failure long enough, and have paid attention to what happens, you’ll notice a trend; you’ll get to a certain rep count with a specific weight and it becomes all but impossible to get another rep. For instance, you’ll be rolling using 225 pounds on the bench for several weeks able to complete an additional rep over the previous weeks’ rep mark, when all of a sudden you just can’t get beyond the 8th rep (for example). Every week you lower the bar to attempt rep 9, and you can’t get the bar off of your chest. So, you promise to re-double your efforts (“I must not be trying hard enough”) at the next workout, again only to fail to get the 9th rep. The next week has you doing everything short of voodoo and you still can’t get the 9th rep. As a dedicated HITer, you are certain that you’re simply not trying hard enough. So, next week you go to church, call your mother, make a donation to your favorite charity (you donate to Cyberpump – again), re-read several Ken Leister articles, drink 3 cups of coffee and you still can’t make the 9th rep. Now you really get thinking. “What gives? Maybe I really don’t know how to train hard. Maybe I need therapy?”

No you don’t need therapy! And I’m confident you know how to train ‘hard’. But success in this game isn’t just about training ‘hard’ it’s about training hard in combination with training ‘smarter’ (no, I’m not calling HITer’s dumb). “Smarter” is getting an education (or if you already have the knowledge – become open-minded and willing to try it) in how your body works so that you can maximize all of your bodies’ abilities. Let me open up the classroom now.

To get those extra reps – and make continual progress - you simply need to utilize your nervous system better; you need to teach your body to recruit more of the muscle fiber that you already possess. Once you do this you’ll get that 9th rep easily; and most likely the next week you’ll get the 10th – then you can add 5% to the bar, start again with 235 pounds (probably making 6 or 7 reps) and go after that 10-rep goal again. Here’s how to do it sticking with the bench press example above.

Your previous workout looked like this:

Bench press

w. (Warm-up) 145lb. x 5

w. 185 x 3

w. 205 x 1 (rest 2 minutes)

1. 225 x 8 (went to failure – couldn’t get rep 9 – same as last 4 weeks! This sucks!)

Here’s what will work:

Bench press

w. 145 x 5

w. 185 x 3

w. 225 x 1

1. 250 x 1 (rest one minute)

2. 250 x 1 (rest 2 to 3 minutes)

3. 225 x 9 (or 10!) to-failure

Then at the next workout:

Bench press

w. 145 x 5

w. 185 x 3

w. 225 x 1

1. 251 x 1 (rest 1 minute)

2. 251 x 1 (rest 2 to 3 minutes)

3. 225 x 10 (you’ll make 10 reps for sure) to-failure.

Next workout:

Bench press

w. same as above

1. 252 x 1

2. 252 x 1

3. 235 x 6 to-failure

Continue to add one pound to sets 1 and 2. Keep pushing the 3rd set to failure until you make 10 reps again. When you get the 10 reps add 5% to the total weight you used on that 3rd set and start over again. The 5% addition will knock your rep total back down to 6 or 7 reps. Keep battling this weight till you get 10 reps again.

As an alternative you could go to a different rep range (i.e. 4 to 8) for the 3rd ‘to failure’ set. If you decide to change the rep range for that 3rd set, keep the first two ‘recruitment’ sets going; keep adding one pound per week. On ‘bigger’ exercises such as squats and bent-leg deadlifts you should add 2 pounds per week. You’ll be able to sustain this progression for 30 weeks, maybe longer, if you are eating and recovering properly.

Here’s another option if you just can’t bear doing two ‘non-failure’ sets, and it will produce similar results:

Bench press

w. 145 x 5

w. 185 x 3

w. 225 x 1

1. 250 x 2 (rest two to three minutes)

2. 225 x 9 (or 10!) to failure

This approach eliminates one recruitment set which saves a little time, but performing two reps instead of one will create more fatigue which could affect the total number of reps you’ll be able to achieve on the ‘to failure’ set.

Here’s why it Works

The first two sets teach your body how to recruit; how to use, more of the muscle fiber that you already have. To compare this to an automobile engine, it’s like you have a V8 (8 cylinders) engine but only have it ‘wired’ (spark plugs and spark plug wires) to 6 of those cylinders. The first two sets teach the body to add more ‘wires and spark plugs’ (neurological connections) to the other cylinders (fibers) so that you’ll get full power out of the V8 (your muscles). When you become ‘wired better’, your muscular system becomes more efficient and this is felt immediately when you decrease the weight to perform the 3rd set to failure. The body is more efficient during the first few reps of that 3rd set, using more fibers than it actually needs – so it lifts the weight easily with less buildup of the biochemical by-products of energy production (namely lactic acid) that eventually shut-down the set. So, instead of shutting down at rep 8, you easily (well you still have to work at it) get at least an extra rep right away. And this effect isn’t short lived for one workout, it keeps working week after week - it actually gets better as your body ‘learns’ how to activate more and more muscle fiber.

The ‘numbers’ that I’ve used in this example haven’t been pulled out of thin air. The first two recruitment sets are based on what the trainee could perform for one rep – which was determined based on the trainee performing 225 pounds for 8 reps. The 225 x 8 equates to a 280 pound maximal single repetition. The 250 pounds that is used for the first two sets represents 90% of that predicted maximum. Using 90% of a max is a great way to improve recruitment. By slowly Micro-loading (adding 1 pound) each week to these two sets you will continually improve your bodies’ ability to recruit more muscle fiber. But, a word of warning: DO NOT PERFORM MORE THAN ONE OR TWO REPS – EVEN THOUGH YOU COULD PROBABLY PERFORM THREE REPS – DURING THE RECRUITMENT SETS. If you violate this, you’ll be creating fatigue products within the muscle and it will detract from maximizing the number of reps you could complete during the set performed to failure. Remember, you are using these sets to improve your body neurologically, not to ‘break down’ tissue or to directly create morphological (muscle mass) changes. Some trainees may get this benefit though - of added muscle mass - while only performing one rep; it just depends on the trainees’ muscle fiber composition.

Putting it All Together

Okay, here’s how it could look applied to a complete workout. Warm-up sets are not listed.

Workout A

Sit-ups (130 max)

1. 117lbs x 1

2. 117lbs x 1

3. 105 x max reps to failure (MR)

Squat (400 max)

1. 360 x 1

2. 360 x 1

3. 320 x MR

Bench press (280 max)

1. 250 x 1

2. 250 x 1

3. 225 x MR

Dumbbell Rowing (140 max)

1. 125 x 1

2. 125 x 1

3. 112 x MR

Standing Calf Raise (500 max)

1. 450 x 1

2. 450 x 1

3. 400 x MR

Finish with grip work

For a second workout during the week I would suggest something like the following:

Workout B


Deadlifts (conventional style, sumo, Trap bar)

Military press

Barbell curl

Close-grip bench press

Finish with back extensions

Understand that you don’t need to perform a true one rep max test to determine your starting weights for the recruitment sets (the first two sets as listed above). Although this is a very good idea (Arthur Jones even suggested this in an article to determine your best ‘working rep range’) and I highly recommend it if you have the experience to do it properly, or you can simply use 10 to 15% more weight than you had been using on your ‘to failure’ set. The 10 to 15% applies as long as you ‘failed’ somewhere between 6 and 12 reps. If you are training ‘to failure’ within a higher rep range; between 12 to 20 reps for instance, you may need to use a weight that is 20 to 30% heavier for the recruitment sets.

Don’t feel that you have to perform ‘neurological recruitment sets’ for every exercise like the program I’ve listed above. You can use them for one exercise or two and perform the rest of the workout in your normal fashion. Or if you are skeptical, just do it for one exercise till it proves itself to you.

Open your mind to new ‘sensible’ ideas – give them a good try and see if it works for you. I’m confident that if you try what I have mentioned you’ll never go back to performing your ‘to failure’ sets without a heavier recruitment set first – it just feels that good – and it delivers results.

Destroy That Which Destroys You

"Let bravery be thy choice, but not bravado."

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