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Overload Techniques For Bodybuilders

In order to continually break through training plateaus and keep the body guessing, the training stimulus needs to be varied. Intensity, in relation to strength training, is generally expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max. However, intensity can also be thought of as how hard you feel yourself trying. Various overload techniques exist that can be employed to increase the intensity of your workouts. Before we look at some of the more common overload techniques, it is important to have an understanding of progressive overload, which states that in order to facilitate continued improvements; the body must be subject to greater demands than it has been previously exposed to. Increasing intensity in the early stages of training is relatively easy. You can increase your training volume, the amount of weight you lift and decrease your rest periods. However, once you’ve been training for a while and your body has adapted, it can be increasingly difficult to shock the body with the stimuli required to spark new growth. This is where employing various overload techniques is particularly useful. This article will identify and discuss some of the more popularised techniques, although many more exist.

Forced Reps

Is where your training partner provides just enough assistance to enable you to get past a sticking point during your repetitions. This system can overload the body very easily as you are being pushed past concentric failure. It generally requires in order to be employed effectively, that your training partner knows you very well and that you have been training together for some time. Too little assistance is simply too taxing on the body and too much defeats the purpose.

Partial Reps

Are best employed at the end of a set when you can no longer perform full range of motion reps. Partials are great for squeezing out what ever juice may be left in a given muscle. Employing partials ensures that your muscles have been taken to true failure. Additionally, partial reps can be employed in a system known as ‘21s’. With the 21 system, seven half reps are completed (lower half), seven full reps are completed, then a further seven half reps are completed (upper half). Any number of reps can be performed, seven is just a guide. Partials are a good way of improving strength in a particular section throughout the range of movement (rom). For example, if your sticking point in the bench press is the lower two thirds of the movement (i.e. Just above the chest), then partials can be used in this section of the rom to improve your strength.

Negative Repetitions

Are an excellent method for increasing muscular strength and shocking the body. A negative rep is the lowering phase of a repetition and you can generally handle somewhere in the vicinity of 140% of your 1RM. In order to complete the negative reps, select an appropriate load, ensure you have a spotter (or two depending on the exercise) and lower the weight slowly for a count of 3 – 5 seconds. The spotters then raise the bar for you back to the start position. You continue in this fashion until you can no longer control the weight on the lowering phase. This indicates that you have hit negative (eccentric) failure. Be warned, this is an advanced technique and the level of delayed onset muscle soreness typically synonymous with this form of training is severe.

Cheating Reps

Cheating reps are employed at the end of a set once you can no longer maintain strict form. By generating a little momentum and recruiting ‘helper’ muscles, the target muscle is able to perform more work than it would otherwise have been able to. In essence, they are similar to forced reps; however they are performed without the assistance of a training partner.

Pre-Exhaustion Method

Pre-exhaustion training requires you to perform an isolation exercise prior to your compound exercises. An example is leg extensions prior to squats, dumbbell flys prior to bench press or the preacher curl prior to the barbell bicep curl. This method ensures that the target muscle is sufficiently fatigued prior to being recruited with the aid of its helper muscles. An example is the bench press, which recruits the pectorals, deltoids and triceps. Quite often, a particular helper muscle may do much of the work in a compound exercise, robbing the target muscle of stimulation. Conversely, the smaller helper muscles may fatigue before the larger target muscle. Pre exhaustion ensures that the target muscle is already fatigued and therefore should fatigue about the same time as the helper muscles.

Drop Sets or Stripping

Is a devastating way of ensuring all muscle fibres within a muscle have been stimulated. This method is employed as follows: when you have hit muscular failure on a given exercise with a given load, reduce the weight by 10 to 20 percent and again churn out the reps until failure is reached. This is generally repeated three to four times; however, to really turn up the gas, you can continue until you are just using the bar, or the lightest dumbbells. This is known as ‘running the rack’. Drop sets are an extremely intense method and should only be used on the last set of each exercise.

Isolation Training

Isolation training involves choosing isolation exercises for a given muscle group. Examples of isolation exercises are leg extensions for the quadriceps, leg curl for the hamstrings, dumbbell flys for the chest and the stiff-arm pulldown for the lats. Isolation movements, as opposed to compound movements, are generally single joint exercises that isolate the target muscle. This has the benefit of allowing you to focus all of your efforts on that particular muscle, in addition to allowing you to focus on improving any weak body parts you may have. With a compound movement, which is multi-joint, the load is generally shared by two or three muscles.

Super, Tri & Giant Sets

Super-sets can be performed one of two ways: firstly, two exercises for a given muscle can be performed back to back without rest. An example would be squats, followed by leg press for the quads. Conversely, two exercises can be performed in succession for opposing muscles. An example would be the french press for the triceps, followed by a barbell bicep curl. Supersets are a great way for reducing cumulative workout time, increasing intensity and energy expenditure, and facilitating recovery. This is achieved as follows: in the french press and barbell curl example, the triceps (the agonist or prime mover) have already been fatigued during the french press, whilst performing the bicep curl, the triceps (now the antagonist, or opposing muscle), facilitate the movement of the prime mover (the biceps) by actively lengthening and shortening. This has been shown to improve recovery between sets. Additionally, this method ensures mind blowing pumps (also known as transient hypertrophy). Tri-sets are simply three exercises performed back to back without rest for a given muscle, whilst giant-sets are four or more exercises back to back. Tri-sets and giant-sets are also an excellent method for increasing skeletal muscle endurance of short, medium and long duration.

1-10 System

This little ripper will tear you apart. Start by selecting an exercise for a given muscle. Load up your 1RM and perform one rep. Reduce the load just a fraction so as you can just squeeze out two reps straight after. Reduce the load again so this time you can just squeeze out three reps. Repeat successive ‘strips’ until you reach a set in which you can squeeze out 10 reps. The total number of sets performed will be ten. The total reps will be 55 and ensure you rest only long enough between sets to reduce the weight. This system ensures all muscle fibres in a given muscle have been recruited.

The Zane Blitz

This system is great for bringing a lagging body part up to speed. Select a muscle group: on day one, train that muscle with a total of 25 sets (5 exercises for 5 sets works well). On day two, train the same muscle with a total of 15 sets, whilst day three is 10 sets. Day four is a rest day. Day five the lucky muscle receives another 25 sets, whilst day six is a meagre four sets. Rest two days then repeat the format for an additional seven day cycle. This system affords you the flexibility of selecting the same exercises, load and rest periods for each day, or, to really crank up the gas, we suggest manipulating the variables. This will ensure an additional state of shock and that all three fibre types are stimulated.

Rest-Pause

Things may get a little confusing here as there’s a fair bit of number crunching involved, so hang on. This system specifically targets your type IIb fibres, the ones you want for increasing hypertrophy. The original system is as follows: select an exercise for a given muscle, choose a weight which is your 5rm and perform 2 reps. Rest 15 sec, perform another 2 reps, rest 16 sec, 2 reps, rest 17 sec, 2 reps, rest 18 sec, 2 reps, rest 19 sec, 2 reps. You would then rest two minutes and move to the next exercise. This time, you select a weight which is your 6rm. You perform 3 reps, whilst following the same rest pattern as for the first exercise. When you have finished the last lot of three reps, rest two minutes then complete another set in the same format. You now move to the third and final exercise. Select a weight which is your 7rm and perform four reps. Follow the same rest pattern as per the first two exercises and perform a total of three sets, ensuring to rest for two minutes between sets. In total, that’s six sets and 72 reps. The original claim was that this system significantly increased cumulative training volume compared to traditional strength training. The observed flaw was that the authors assumed traditional strength training was performed as follows: 5rm x 5 reps x 1 set, 6rm x 6 reps x 2 sets and 7rm x 7 reps x 3 sets. This equates to a total of six sets and 38 reps. The load for both systems was the same (i.e. 5, 6 & 7rm). It can be seen that the rest-pause system in this example does indeed produce a significantly larger training volume; however, it is misleading as traditional strength training, although using similar loads, generally utilises three to four exercises and four to five sets per exercise. For example, if we assume that five sets of five reps were performed in all three exercises, that would equate to 15 sets and 75 reps. It can be seen that the cumulative difference is negligible (observing that the 75 reps are performed over 15 sets in traditional strength training vs six sets & 72 reps in the original rest-pause system). However, if three sets of 12 reps were performed for each exercise in rest-pause training, that would boost cumulative training volume to nine sets and 108 reps.It can be seen that the revised rest-pause system has a significantly greater training volume. If you crunch the numbers and throw in some actual poundages, you will be pleasantly surprised with how much more you are lifting in a single session. This is the ‘pick of the bunch’ for increasing chronic hypertrophy.

The Final Word on Overload Techniques

Overload techniques, although useful for stimulating new growth and increasing intensity, can very easily lead a natural physique into a state of overtraining. Listen to your body and its responses to these training methods to ensure that overtraining and its deleterious effects do not occur which may affect your training in subsequent sessions. Choose your methods wisely and ensure you adhere to the principle of progressive overload.

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