lifting

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).

Best Ways To Stay Weak

Like many working people with families who frequent the gym, I have limited time for it. So I make damned sure that my top priority is to use the time I have there as efficiently as possible. I spend no more that one hour at the gym on any given day (on weekdays, that’s even pushing it a little). With less than an hour a day, six days per week, getting into amazing shape is easy. Here are the things I never do because they help weakness grow.

1. Engage in structured cardio
As a former cardio addict, this idea and especially the practice was tough to get used to. But once I did it, everything began to make sense and my body composition started to change like magic. After years and years of exercise and doing the wrong things, I now know what’s right. I believe that structured cardio is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive for losing fat. It made me hungry and it also made me weak. It did absolutely nothing for my strength and size and zilch for functional ability. Replacing structured cardio with heavy weight lifting was one of the most productive things I’ve ever done in my life. I very strongly believe that cutting calories from the diet is far more effective than cardio for dropping fat. Don’t get me wrong–I’m still a proponent of activity, and I always make sure to get 10,000 steps per day (according to the FitBit in my pocket). That’s around 500 calories worth of stepping spread over the day during the process of living and working. I almost always go out for a walk mid-day. I take the stairs up eight flights to my office, I bike to and from work. That’s plenty. The body can only divert so much energy to repairing itself; I’d rather that energy go into lifting and fixing the damage I do to my muscles during my lifting sessions (getting stronger and bigger) than be wasted just for the sake of it. Here’s an analogy: an hour on the elliptical is like dumping a gallon of kerosene onto the street and igniting it, while an hour of heavy lifting is like using that same gallon of kerosene to heat water that spins a steam turbine that powers a machine that builds muscles (I think the analogy fell apart at the end there). This is no knock on people training for sports and marathons and the like–it’s a statement that [in my opinion] for the average person like me, doing cardio to get a cut/ toned/ strong body is fantastically unproductive and a waste of precious time.
2. Engage in bullshit lifts
Compound lifts are where it’s at. All forms of barbell squatting (back, front, Bulgarian split, hack), all forms of deadlifts (American, Romanian, stiff-legged), good mornings, barbell (and a little dumbbell) pressing (i.e. flat & incline bench, overhead), and big pulls (Pendlay rows, t-Bar rows, dumbbell rows, weighted pullups, cable rows [alternatively, deadlifts can fit in here as well]). That’s it. They get more of the muscles and joints working in the way they’re supposed to move and contract in relation to one another than any other crap lifts. Isolation lifts are for champion bodybuilders who are already extremely low on body fat (like 4%) and are looking to extract supernatural definition from very specific muscles. My only exception to the rule is six to ten WEEKLY sets of assistance work for the triceps and six to eight WEEKLY sets of assistance biceps work. Zero direct abdominal work because none of the muscles that are part of the abdominal/ core complex are meant to contract eccentrically as their primary function, which is what happens during a crunch or sit-up or whatever other useless “exercise” is touted as being a great ab stimulator. If you don’t believe me, look at my abs on the home page. I haven’t performed a single direct repetition for my abs in years, yet I still have a strong, defined core. It’s simply a combination of low body fat % and performing the big lifts. They all require very powerful isometric core contraction, which is exactly how our abdominal muscles are built to work.
3. Lose focus
I do my best before each set to focus on making it an all-out animalistic effort with the knowledge that the second it’s over I can completely relax for a couple of minutes. That’s the reward. I think about it this way: an hour-long lifting session probably boils down to around 20 or 25 minutes of very intense effort and that I won’t have to generate even 10% of that effort for any of the remaining 1,415 minutes [of the day] outside of those 25 minutes.
4. Rush lifts
I mentioned earlier that my lifting sessions last an hour. Sometimes a lift might be so taxing that I need extra time to recover between sets. That’s fine. That’s good. It means the set was tough and my body will respond by adapting to it providing I give it the rest it’s asking for. Inevitably, as a result, there are some sessions during which I realize I’m running out of time to complete all sets of all lifts that I set out to take on. The constant is that I must be out of the gym on time. The variable is how I choose to use my remaining time. I could do one of two things: 1) rush to complete the remaining sets, or 2) continue to take my time, but not complete the remaining sets. I choose #2 every time. Rushing and lifting stand in diametric opposition to one another. I’d rather eat a pint of ice cream before rushing a lift. Ice cream feels better going down. If I have six minutes left in the gym and I still have, say, four sets of a lift to complete, I’ll simply continue on my pace, putting every ounce of effort I have into the sets I’m able to complete in that time and forget about any sets I might have missed. Intensity is way more important than getting everything done.
5. Ignore the importance of tracking progress
Could there be a correlation between the number of people who lift without recording their progress and the number of people who make little progress? I think so. Journals are good. When my goal isn’t losing fat, I aim to improve every lift every session. If it means one more rep at the same weight or the same number of reps at a greater weight, or the same number of reps at the same weight but at a faster pace, it’s all good to me. That virtually impossible to track without a journal.

My Approach to Lifting

I’ve received a couple of inquiries over the past few days about why my lifting routine is so complicated and if it can be simplified. While I very honestly don’t think it’s complicated, one of this blog’s goals is to demonstrate just how easy getting ripped and staying ripped can be. To that, I do agree that it can be further simplified; truth be told, I generally do use the simpler version of the Ripped Forever Method during most sessions.

Two main principles

1. Lift very heavy barbells with great focus using basic compound motions and aim to improve (add reps or weight) each session.
2. Do not spend more than one hour in the gym.
Plus this:
3. Walk. A lot.

Lifting using the RF RPT Swing method

RPT is an acronym for reverse pyramid training. It’s not a new idea, and it’s not my idea, but I use it heavily (no pun) and tailor it to my own needs (which might be the only unique part). It’s simple: lift the heaviest load the smallest number of times on the first set and progress to lifting the lightest load the largest number of times on the last set.

I always perform three main lifts (Stronglifts style) followed by two to three “accessory” lifts. The accessories are also almost exclusively performed with a barbell or, less frequently, with dumbbells. Never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever machines.

Day A main lifts:
Barbell back squat
Push press
Deadlift

Day B main lifts:
Barbell front squat
Flat bench press
Pendlay row

Day A (this was my exact main lift session from Friday 7/25):

Barbell back squat:
Warmup (this goes quickly): naked bar x 10 | 95 x 7 | 135 x 5 | 185 x 3 | 205 x 1
Working sets: 235 x 2 | 225 x 3 | 210 x 4 | 195 x 6 | 185 x 8 | 185 x 8

Push press:
Warmup: naked bar x 8 | 95 x 4 | 115 x 3
Working sets: 140 x 3 | 135 x 3 | 125 x 4 | 115 x 5 | 95 x 7

Deadlift:
Warmup: 135 x 4 | 185 x 3 | 225 x 2 | 250 x 1
Working sets: 270 x 2 | 250 x 4 | 225 x 6

Day A accessory lifts:
Dead dumbbell swing press (I think I invented this): 80 x 10 per side (that’s it)
Supine (palms up) T-bar row: 90 x 7 | 90 x 7 | 90 x 7
High cable row (literally the only exception to the machine rule): 120 x 8 | 120 x 8 | 120 x 8

More on the accessory lifts

After the main lifts, I perform 2-3 accessory lifts, usually for three sets performed using a “freestyle” modality. Here’s an example of some of the options:

  • I might do 3 sets of speed dips, pumping out as many reps as possible in 20 second sets.
  • I might do 3 sets of 5 reps each of heavy weighted dips
  • I might do 3 sets of 8 reps of moderately-weighted chinups
  • I might do 3 sets of 8-10 reps of a decline or incline bench press
  • I might do 3 sets of 6-8 reps of good mornings
  • I might do 1 set of 5 reps on each side of my body of a heavy dumbbell suitcase deadlift
  • I might do 1 set of 10 reps on each side of my body of a dead swing press with a dumbbell
  • I might do 3 sets of 8-10 reps of a T-bar row
  • I might do 3 sets of 8-10 reps of a high cable row (one of the only times I use a machine)
  • I might do three sets of 12-14 bodyweight pullups

This method has been extremely effective for me because it address both physical AND mental obstacles. The goal is dynamic. Regarding the RPT portion, set two is different than set one, set three is different than two, etc. After grinding out a seemingly insurmountable and endless set of three heavy squats, I am elated in knowing that I will not have to do that again today (or tomorrow or the next day for that matter). I particularly enjoy using this method because it hybridizes strength and hypertrophy lifting modalities. Very heavy weights and low reps stimulate brute strength development (think powerlifters and strongmen/ women), while lighter loads and higher reps stimulate sarcoplasmic development a.k.a. hypertrophy (think bodybuilder).  What’s particularly beautiful to me about the “swing” method is that the next time I perform these same exercises, I might shift the entire rep range up and load range down. So instead of:

235 x 2 | 225 x 3 | 210 x 4 | 195 x 6 | 185 x 8 | 185 x 8

…I might opt for something like:

210 x 4 | 195 x 6 | 185 x 8 | 175 x 10 | 155 x 12

Crazier still (it’s not really crazy) is going for something like:

235 x 2 | 225 x 3 | 185 x 8 | 175 x 10

See what I did there? There’s a big load and rep gap between sets 2 and 3.

The goal is to always add more weight or an extra rep to the analogous set performed during the same exercise last time around. It’s so flexible and freaking wonderful. Please do let me know if you have any questions.

Ripped Recipe: Watermelon or Fruit Punch BCAA Citrus-Mintade Ginger Fizz

A few fresh ingredients take BCAAs in a new direction.

A few fresh ingredients take BCAAs in a new direction.

This recipe is a departure from my standard of not including chemicals in my food; it’s a necessary evil though. Because I fast for what’s recently turned into 21 hours per day, I require some form of nutrition that favors maintainance of an anabolic state while remaining as close to fasted as possible. For this reason, I take BCAAs (branch chain amino acids). They’re completely synthetic and contain artificial flavors and Sucralose. I take anywhere from zero to 30 grams per day. Because they’re unnatural and expensive, I wouldn’t recommend BCAAs to anyone unless they’re lifting heavy in a fasted state and want to maintain a near-fast for several hours after lifting. They’re totally unnecessary otherwise. I’ve already written more than I like to for a recipe post.

Now doesn't this look refreshing? Non-fasters might enjoy as well.

Now doesn’t this look refreshing? Non-fasters might enjoy as well.

Ingredients
1-2 scoops watermelon or fruit punch BCAA powder (I prefer Modern BCAA +)
juice of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1/2 lime
flavored seltzer of your choice (I prefer Polar brand)
several leaves fresh mint
1-2 thin slices of fresh ginger

Preparation
Add lemon juice, lime juice, mint leaves, and ginger to small vessel and muddle well with the back of a spoon. More muddled = more fresh flavor.

Add BCAA powder to 1-2 oz water in bottle or shaker and shake hard until dissolved.

Combine citrus-mint-ginger solution with BCAA solution over ice in large glass, add flavored seltzer to desired dilution and stir gently.