lifting weights

Using Rest-Pause Training for Awesome Gains

A few months back, I started my own little investigation of the most effective training modalities for hypertrophy. But instead of my usual poring over sport science journals, I went about it from a different, more common-sense angle. I decided to develop a list of truly natural bodybuilders and physique athletes (not on roids), then watch how they train on YouTube. What was pretty obvious was that there were commonalities between all of them: 1) they trained with heavy loads generally between 70% and 90% of their one-rep maxes, and 2) their training sessions looked really dense (meaning that they were doing a lot of work in a short time) and intense (meaning that they were creating significant fatigue in the target muscles).

But how were they creating that intensity, that deep, acute fatigue? After watching way too many videos of sweaty, sometimes shirtless men, I found that many of them weren’t strictly adhering to the standard straight sets and reps prescriptions we’re so familiar with, e.g. “four sets of eight reps”, or “five sets of five reps.” Instead, they were oftentimes conducting some form of rest-pause training. You might be familiar with some well-known set strategies like drop sets, giant sets and cluster sets, which I’d classify as species of the genus that is rest-pause. Anyway, a couple of months ago after some experimentation and trial and error, I began rest-pause training in earnest and it’s literally changed my entire approach to lifting.

So what the fug is rest-pause?

Rest-Pause-Training
It’s just what it sounds like: pausing for a short time between reps or groups of reps and then continuing with more reps. In my definition, rest-pause (RP) refers to a family of lifting methods, each of which can vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of any training session. It’s a philosophy that recognizes that no human is a lifting machine and acknowledges the natural variations in performance levels from day to day. At the same time, RP enables a person to lift more total weight in the same period of time with the same, or even less fatigue than would be experienced under a more standard set/ rep routine. RP enables you to lift to your maximum capacity at any given moment in time. RP training is dynamic, flexible, fun, challenging and really, really effective for developing size, which has a direct effect on total strength potential.

My specific take on rest-pause training is that it’s comprised of four distinct methods, which lend themselves well to various types of periodization schemes. They can all be used in the same session, in different sessions in the same week, each for a week or several weeks at a time.

1. Rest-Pause Set Method

Perform a predetermined number of sets and complete as many reps per set as possible just short of form failure.

What this might look like in practice:
Complete as many reps as possible in six sets using 80% of 1-rep max:
7 reps, rest 30 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
5 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 30 seconds
3 reps, stop

How to progress: aim for more reps with the same load in the same number of sets next time, or increase the load by 5% and aim to complete the same number of reps.

A great variation on this is to perform, say, the first three sets with 30-second rests, then rest for 90 seconds, then perform the second set of three sets.

2. Rest-Pause Total Rep Method

Perform a predetermined number of reps without regard for sets. The rep method can be further broken into static rest periods and autoregulated rest periods.

Static rest periods:
Perform as many reps as possible just short of form failure, then rest for a predetermined period of time. Do another set and rest for the same amount of time. Continue until all reps are complete.

Target reps = 50
75% of 1-rep max:
10 reps, rest 20 seconds
9 reps, rest 20 seconds
8 reps, rest 20 seconds
6 reps, rest 20 seconds
5 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
2 reps, stop

Auto-regulated rest periods:
Perform as many reps as possible just short of form failure and rest until you feel ready to complete more reps. Continue this way until you hit your target reps.
What this might look like in practice:
Target reps = 40
75% of 1 rep max:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds
8 reps, rest 17 seconds
7 reps, rest 20 seconds
5 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 18 seconds
3 reps, rest 22 seconds
3 reps

3. Rest-Pause Rep and Set Method

This one comes in a couple of flavors.

The first is the classic cluster set, which I’ve found is exceptionally effective for getting more volume out of very heavy loads with a bias toward strength rather than hypertrophy (equal to or greater than 85% of 1RM) in the same amount of time as straight sets would allow. Like straight sets, each set in a cluster set is comprised of a certain number of reps. But instead of performing, say, five straight reps at a given weight and then resting for two or three minutes before beginning the next set, cluster sets enable more reps to be performed in the same set under the same load by breaking the set up into mini sets with short breaks in between.

What this might look like in practice:
6 cluster sets of 6 reps:
Set 1: 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 90 seconds
Set 2: 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 90 seconds
etc…

The weight is re-racked for every rest period to allow the muscles to recover some. This is so effective for strength training because unlike hypertrophy-specific training that seeks to fatigue all fibers over the course of several sets, strength training is used to improve the body’s ability to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible at the same time. To train this response, as many fibers as possible need to be kept fresh to improve the potential to activate all of them simultaneously. You end up extracting

The other flavor requires performing a predefined number of reps within a predefined number of sets.

What this might look like in practice:
Complete 50 reps within eight sets.

How to progress: When you can complete 50 reps in less than eight sets, increase the next session’s load. If you can’t complete 50 reps in eight sets, repeat same weight next session.

4. Rest-Pause Time method

Complete as many quality reps as possible in a predefined time period. Rest is autoregulated. Basically rest when you need to.

What this might look like in practice:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds
7 reps, rest 10 seconds
3 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 45 seconds
6 reps, rest 15 seconds
5 reps, rest 60 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 15 seconds
1 rep, rest 10 seconds
1 rep, rest 10 seconds
etc…

How to progress: in the next session, complete more reps with the same load or the same number of reps with 5% more weight.

Some caveats about rest-pause training

Rest-pause is probably best used by intermediate and advanced lifters who clearly understand their bodies, the difference between good and bad form, and the difference between form failure and prime mover failure.

Rest-pause is taxing. Because it increases work density, it’s easy for overtraining to become a problem if specific limits aren’t set. Using rest-pause, my workouts last 45 minutes and I’m out of the gym. As most frequent lifters know, the hardest part isn’t getting to the gym–it’s having the mental resolve to LEAVE the gym and have faith that your body will respond. Even though rest-pause is acutely demanding, just like any other workout, you shouldn’t be dragging and chronically fatigued after completing an RP workout.

Progressive overload is still (and always) critical for making gains. For RP, progressive overload can take on many forms, including decreasing the time in which a given number of reps are performed, increasing the load, or increasing the number of reps performed under the same load. But only one of these forms of overload should be applied to any given lift on any given training session.

In the coming days, I’ll post my current rest-pause routine, which has allowed me to pack on around five pounds of muscle in only two months. I’m now a full 10 lbs heavier than I was in that shot in the sidebar.

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The Six Best Grain-Free Carbohydrate Sources for Lifting Energy

Like grains? So do I, but I don’t eat them because I believe they’re objectively not great for optimal health and just feeling good. I’ve experienced a host of positive changes in my body since I stopped eating them more than a year ago (except for the odd bowl of oats and an occasional helping of white rice). But if you’re lifting heavy and you’re thinking about dropping or heavily limiting grains, where are you gonna get those carbs? I’ll tell you where.

The holy quintet. Clockwise from top: kabocha squash, cassava, sweet potato, white potato, yellow plantain.

The holy sextet. Clockwise from top: kabocha squash, cassava, sweet potato, white potato, yellow plantain. Yam not pictured.

1. Cassava a.k.a. yucca a.k.a. manioc.

With a whopping 38g carbs per 100g serving, cassava is the king of natural, unprocessed, unrefined carb sources. It’s packed full of starches that go to replenishing muscle glycogen, and contains very little sugar. I personally love its dryish texture. Make sure to peel it, cut into large chunks, then boil it until fork tender. Cooking is very important because it contains cyanide-containing compounds that are destroyed in the process. I like to boil mine in salted water, drain and just eat like that, or dip in mayo mixed with sriracha, fresh lime juice, cumin and chili powder.

2. White potato

The classic. A 100g serving contains around 31g carbs, almost 85% of which is starch and the rest of which is fiber and a little sugar. I’m about easy, so I just wash it with soap (organic potatoes are better), pierce with a knife, microwave on high for 3-4 mins and eat out of hand like an apple.

3. Yam (not in photo)

Don’t get it twisted: yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing; yams contain more starch and virtually no sugar. At 27g carbs per 100g, yams get you those killer carbs you need to replenish after a session of big, heavy compound lifts. Pierce with knife a few times and microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.

4. Plantain

I prefer yellow ones, but they do contain more sugar and less starch than the less ripe green version. Yellows contain around 30g carbs per 100g, about half of which is sugar (I don’t pay much attention to sugar content if the food is whole and completely natural without any refinement. Processed sugar and sugar naturally occurring in whole foods affect me in two totally different ways). They have an earthy-sweet-tart flavor that’s totally unique to them. Plantains must be cooked (unless completely black). The easiest way is to trim the ends off, pierce through the skin a few times with a knife, wrap in a damp paper towel, and microwave on high for three minutes. Once cooked, remove peel. I like to slice into 1/2″ discs, toss with butter and sprinkle with a little salt. It’s my favorite snack right before bed.

5. Sweet potato

The dessert tuber. 100g of sweet potato has around 21g carbs, only around 35% of which is starch, with another 30% as sugar and a decent hit of fiber. While it’s not as effective for glycogen restoration as king cassava or the white potato, it’s great for fat loss, because it makes you full with a relatively light weight to calorie load. Pierce with a knife, microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.

6. Winter squash (butternut and kabocha)

Ok, you’ll have to eat a lot of kabocha to get a lot of carbs, but that’s only because it isn’t a calorie-dense food. Virtually all of the calories it does have come from carbs. It’s about a 50-50 split between starch and sugar, but you can eat an absolute sh*tload of it without breaking 200 calories. It’s another great fat loss option because it’s so filling, nutrient dense, and calorie poor, and lets you get some carbs in. My favorite way to prepare is to cut in half (need large sharp knife and strong arm), gut seeds, peel, cut into ~1-inch cubes, toss in coconut oil, kosher salt and cinnamon and roast at 400 degrees until tender (around 35-40 mins). The texture is soft/ fluffy/ pillowy and the taste is sweet.

Butternut squash is another winner–higher in calories than kabocha and packing three times the carbs with less sugar, it’s a very good non-grain carb option (10g carbs per 100g serving, two of which come from sugar). Same preparation as kabocha.

Ripped Rule: Get Off the Ego Crack and Stop Using a Spotter, Damn It.

This morning at the gym a nice guy came over, unsolicited, to spot my back squat today. I like this guy, but he actually grasped my lats and assisted me through the lift. I didn’t ask for it, and I definitely didn’t want it. I kept grunting “NO SPOT” and “NO HELP” because those were the only words I could squeeze out as I was fighting the weight. He kept “helping” even though I was asking him not to. I was so frustrated after the lift. With a spotter, you never know how much you’ve lifted. And when you’re operating on the razor’s edge of your limits, and when you have very specific goals with small tolerances, even an assist that reduces the weight by a mere one percent can nullify the lift from a progress perspective.

There’s a difference between a lifting partner who’s there to help motivate you, and one who’s there to spot you. Motivating relationship? Good. Spotting relationship? Bad. Spotting is the worst thing that’s happened to personal relationships in the gym. Spotting is like crack: once you get a taste, you’re hooked. Maybe it’s more like meth. If you can’t get through the movement on your own, either the weight is too damn heavy or you’ve gone one rep too far. “But my spotter helps me through my sticking point.” Every single lift has a sticking point i.e. where the muscle is at the greatest mechanical disadvantage relative to the weight. If you can’t get through it by yourself, you’ll stay weak there. “But my spotter helps stabilize my arms while I grind through an incline dumbbell press.” Come on. That’s caca. If the lifter can’t stabilize the dumbbells, it’s too much weight. The whole purpose of using dumbbells is to hammer all those stabilizers. “But my spotter is there for safety.” That’s the only potentially logical use of a spotter, but only for certain lifts. You definitely don’t want to get caught under a heavy bench/ incline/ decline barbell press. But even then, your spotter shouldn’t be altering the load whatsoever. The spotter is there to save your rib cage and/ or trachea should you have to bail. Other than that, there are virtually no lifts that a spotter can add safety to.

Moral of the story: do you, (but without a spotter).

How To Lift With a Shoulder Injury (Can You Lift With a Shoulder Injury?)

Disclaimer: I am [was] a certified personal trainer, have been lifting on and off for more than 20 years, and consider exercise physiology and nutrition my favorite hobbies. I am not a doctor or a physical therapist. Take this advice at your own risk. Shoulder injuries are NOT to be taken lightly.

What qualifies me to provide any advice at all?

I’ve sustained several shoulder injuries since the age of 16. Some were the result of physical contact in sport, others were sustained during weight training. The most serious injury was to my right shoulder when I separated it while sparring in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu eight years ago. It was a grade II separation, with a noticeable displacement of my right clavicle that persists today (and forever). It took six months to get back into the weight room. Over the course of recovering from each injury, I learned new things about the types of work that helped and hurt progress (hint: improving shoulder stability is key). I’m currently working around a mild AC joint sprain in my left shoulder.

A quick shoulder anatomy primer

A common misconception exists that the shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint like the hip, but it’s far from it. In the hip, the socket that the femur sits in is much deeper than the socket in which the humerus sits, which is really more like a golf tee. So the shoulder is less a joint than it is a gruesome junction of connective tissue and muscle that works in a complex balancing act to “strap” the humerus, scapula and clavicle together. The trade-off for the tremendous range of motion in the shoulder is the lack of stability relative to other “real” joints like the knee and elbow. There are many types of shoulder injuries–some involve tendons, others involve ligaments, still others involve muscle. An injury can potentially involve a combination of all three.

Lifting with a shoulder injury

My first rule of safe lifting is this: if the lift hurts, stop immediately. It might be on the first rep of the first set, it might be in the third set. Whenever it is, put the weight down and assess. Run-of-the-mill muscle soreness is very different than joint pain or muscle strain. To get a better sense of where the problem lies, I deload the lift and slowly perform the same movement until I feel the pain again. I mentally note where in the plane of motion the pain begins and where it ends. That is the danger zone. I then either: 1) temporarily select lifts that don’t operate in the danger zone, or 2) continue to operate in the danger zone if deloading the offending lift(s), increasing the rep range, and focusing like a laser on maintaining form and tension is an option. I’ll speak specifically to my current injury to explain these two options more completely.

1) Temporarily select lifts that don’t operate in the danger zone
I originally strained my left shoulder several months ago. Overhead motion–both pressing and pulling–in addition to abduction along the frontal plane (raising arms to the side) causes discomfort. Does this sound like you? Even at a lighter weight and higher rep range, the fixed lat pull causes discomfort, so I’m avoiding it altogether until my shoulder tells me it’s ok. But since I still need to hit the lats and rhomboids, I’ve switched to performing other lifts [and more of them] that incorporate low and flat rowing (dumbbell and cable varieties).

2) Continue to operate in the danger zone if deloading the offending lift(s), increasing the rep range, and focusing like a laser on maintaining form and tension is an option
The majority of lifting-induced shoulder injury (as opposed to impact-related) is the result of a weakness in one or more of the many small muscles that stabilize the shoulder through its range of motion. They’re not as strong as they should be in relation to the big prime movers involved in the exercise. The prime mover engaged in the incline bench press (i.e. the target of the exercise) is the clavicular head of the pectoral muscle (a.k.a. the upper pec), while other big muscles and muscle groups, including the triceps, anterior deltoids, lats and traps are also heavily engaged for both movement and stabilization. At the same time, the little stabilizers that keep the shoulder together are also firing away.

But what tends to happen as the weights get heavier and the small stabilizers fatigue is that the large stabilizers begin to take on more of the small stabilizers’ burden, leading to a reduction in overall stability at the joint. A symptom of this is that proper form begins to break down as the lifter starts to “muscle through” the motion, subconsciously trying to shift work off of those small muscles. That shift puts the small stabilizers at risk of strain.

While pressing motions, like the incline bench (bar and dumbbell versions) currently disturb my shoulder at higher loads, at a lighter load they don’t. Accordingly, the lighter load can be used to more specifically train those weaker muscles while still effectively stimulating the prime mover. An important thing to note here is that by lighter load I don’t mean a light weight. I mean something along the lines of 60% of a one-rep max, or, alternatively, around 75% of the weight used for an eight-rep set taken to near failure. But since I also want the same quality of prime mover activation and stimulation as the heavier weight would have provided, I have to do two more [really important] things: increase the rep range and move more slowly. Until my shoulder is healed, my target range is 10-12 reps. Under normal circumstances, you establish your target range first and then set the weight so that failure or near-failure is occurring in that range. But since my shoulder injury is limiting the weight I feel comfortable with, the weight is already established. I also know I don’t want to get above 12 reps. But since I can pretty easily push out more than a dozen reps at this weight at my normal tempo (even with the injury), I have to reduce the tempo and alter the range of motion so that I’m approaching failure in the 10-12 rep range. This means keeping as much tension on the muscle as possible through all phases of the motion while maintaining perfect, totally rigid form by: not locking out at the top of the press, lowering slowly (as long as a three-count), pausing just before the bottom of the motion (not resting or bouncing the bar and the bottom of it), and contracting forcefully on the way back up.

Patience

Again, shoulder injuries are nothing to screw with, and will chow down on a big ego in the blink of an eye if you don’t give them complete respect. If your shoulder injury is agreeable to the course of action I describe above, take it slow and easy. You can still hammer your muscles this way. When confident, you can slightly bump up the weight while continuing to maintain perfect form. But remember, if you experience pain at any time, you have to stop. It’s not worth prolonging the healing process. Of course, the best idea is to go see a doctor if you don’t notice improvement over time.

Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part II — Lifting More = Bad

Do not lift more weights, do more exercises, do more sets, or spend more time lifting

Lots of people think that getting ripped means doing lots of reps for lots of sets of lots of exercises. High reps for definition, right? That line of thinking seems common sense, but is totally wrong. Definition is the result of low body fat and a base of solid muscle. During a cut, the goal is to force the body to retain muscle and burn fat. I explained in yesterday’s post in this series that heavy weightlifting forces the body to switch its fuel source from muscle to fat when in a caloric deficit; it’s a new stimulus telling it to spare muscle because it’s critically needed for something. The most effective way to stimulate a muscle is to fully fatigue its fast twitch fibers, which are heavily recruited during acutely intense activities (like sprinting and heavy weight lifting), as opposed to slow-twitch fibers, which are recruited more heavily during endurance activities (marathon running, biking, tennis, walking, brushing teeth, etc). To make it simple, the heavier the weight, the more quickly all fibers of the muscle become fatigued assuming that proper form and loading is used. The general guideline for the big compound lifts is that the weight should be heavy enough that you can push out between five and eight repetitions per set with proper rest intervals (anywhere between 90 seconds and five minutes between sets depending on the lift). Generally, I find that lifting elicits the best gains when I’m struggling on my last repetition of each set somewhere in that range. But in a caloric deficit you have less energy to lift and your body’s capacity to heal itself is reduced, so something has to give. The smartest thing to do is to reduce lifting volume. When I’m cutting, I reduce sets down to just three per exercise for a total of only 12-15 sets. To some people, that might sound like not much, but it’s absolutely plenty for retaining muscle. Novices/ untrained individuals/ people coming off a layoff will usually even gain muscle while while cutting using very heavy weights and fewer sets. There is, of course, a caveat: every single set really has to count toward creating as much fatigue (trauma) in the muscle as possible. This means lifting hard and smart. Hard means that near maximum effort is put into every rep with great form. Smart means that you only use the big compound lifts (all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, all types of barbell presses-bench and overhead, all types of barbell and cable pulls, but no bullsh*t isolation moves) and you stop the exercise after three sets even if you’re feeling like you can go for more. The problem with going for more is that you can end up creating more trauma to the muscle–normally a good thing when in an energy surplus–than the body can handle and repair when in a caloric deficit. So you end up breaking your muscles down at a greater rate than that at which they’re being repaired, and that means muscle loss. Clearly, that’s antithetical to our goals.

To summarize yesterday’s Part I post and this current post, to get ripped, eliminate structured cardio from your exercise diet and perform a limited number of sets (like three) of a limited number of COMPOUND lifts (like five max) using a weight you cant push for more than eight reps with great form. Part III coming soon (it has something to do with carbs).

Want to Stop Being Fat? Want to Get Ripped? I have the secrets.

Secret 1: Stop eating.
Secret 2: Start walking.
Secret 3: Lift really heavy weights.

Six small meals a day is highly overrated. 2,500 calories in two hours right before bed is highly underrated.

The day I realized that the common wisdom of “six small meals a day” was keeping me from dropping below 10% body fat was the day I began an intermittent fasting routine. Lots of small meals keeps your insulin levels nice and your tummy steadily grumbling for more food. Since I started fasting nearly five months ago, I haven’t looked back. Now I fast for 21 hours straight every single day, and it’s easy. I swear. I’m not a freak of nature. I’m not a wizard. I’m not a wombat. I’ve never been leaner, never been stronger, and I’m still dropping fat AND gaining strength even in my current sub-7% state (albeit slowly) at a caloric deficit. If you search my blog for posts on intermittent fasting, you’ll find an explanation somewhere.

And I'm bloated in this photo from red wine and ice cream!

And I’m bloated in this photo from red wine and ice cream!

Walking is the king, queen and royal baby of “cardio”, hands down

Because it’s freaking easy and it can be done anywhere. I wrote a post on walking a couple of weeks back–you should be able to find via search. Look at my beautiful and indispensable best friend, my FitBit One in the photo below. I’ve topped 18,500 steps today, and the day’s not over yet. That’s almost nine miles worth of steps. I work a full time job, have a wife and young son, and do all the cooking. Next time you think you don’t have time to exercise, think of this post and feel your legs begin to itch.

I credit 63% of my ripped-ted-ness to this little, beautiful device.

I credit 63% of my ripped-ted-ness to this little, beautiful device.

Master your hormones. Lift heavy.

Lifting very heavy barbells using compound movements in a fasted state is my holy grail of hormone control–more specifically, very naturally forcing my pituitary gland to pump lots of fat melting, muscle growth-signaling growth hormone into my bloodstream until the moment when I drive my blood sugar levels through the roof at the end of the day with lots of good food, spiking insulin and directing all those nutrients into my muscles and liver that had been depleted of glycogen from the prior 21 hours of fasting. I know I’m not explaining much here, but if you’re interested, lots more on this can be found on the pages of rippedforever.com.