strength

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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For Men and Women Only: Top 11 Mistakes That Limit Strength Gains

Clearly, this means you.

Top 11 mistakes that limit strength gains:

1. Poor exercise selection

Curls and bench all the time. Awesome, right? No. Not right. The most fruitful, productive work that can be undertaken in a gym is applying barbells and, on occasion, dumbbells to full-body compound motions. But.. but… but nothing. That’s it. I say it all over this blog–that means all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, row variations and press variations (like bench and overhead). A little assistance work is ok (like biceps curls and triceps extensions), but that’s all. The compound lifts recruit more muscle fiber and hammer the central nervous system like nothing else.

2. Not putting in enough effort

I heard Terry Crews say something very silly on the Ellen show a couple of days ago (he’s the large, very well-muscled guy on Brooklyn 99 and in some Old Spice commercials). He said that just getting to the gym is more important than what you do at the gym. I laughed heartily at that one. If he actually practiced and/ or believed that, I guarantee you he’d have arms and legs like hairs and an eight pack of snowballs. Effort is one of the most important factors that separates the gainers from non-gainers. Man or woman, you need to summon the will of the ox when you’re pulling or pushing the bar. Total focus. Every rep is a mountain. Every set is a mountain range. The goal is to climb it all. You’ve got to hit the muscles hard to grow, to get ripped and stay ripped. But remember, that works out to literally 20 or 25 minutes of focused work during the session and you’re done; you can rest for the remaining 1,400-odd minutes of the day.

3. Not tracking progress

If you don’t know what you lifted the last time you performed a Bulgarian split squat, you won’t know what you’re supposed to lift this time. If you don’t know how many reps you completed last time, you’ve got nothing to shoot for this time. A lifting journal is one of the few physical things that can drastically increase the success potential of a weight training program. Want to get even more out of your journal? Take a few seconds to note how you feel after completing an exercise. It’s totally subjective, but over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge.

4. Poor lift sequencing

This is so important and so outrageously overlooked at both the intra and inter-session scales. Let’s first look at the intra-workout sequence (the lifts you do during a single training session).

Intra-session lift sequencing

I pay attention to the habits/ routines of the strongest people in the gym (men and women) as well as the weakest. The weakest almost always focus on small muscle groups from the start of their workouts to the end. Performing biceps curls, leg extensions, triceps kickbacks, crunches, shoulder raises, calf raises, shrugs, wrist rolls, pec flyes etc etc etc is virtually never a good idea, ever (ever ever) period, but it’s an even worse idea to do them at the beginning of a training session. Even if you’re sticking to mainly the correct handful of compound lifts referred to in point #1 above and just do a little bit of assistance work, if you do the assistance work first (i.e. hit a small muscle group like just the deltoids or biceps or triceps or whatever), you’re gonna screw yourself. Say you hit your biceps hard with barbell curls as your first lift. Then you move on to bent over supine barbell rows (that’s where your palms face away from you). Although it’s a ridiculously efficient back-building lift, how the heck are you going to hit all those muscles as hard as you can (rhomboids, lats, traps, posterior deltoids and erectors to name a few) if your biceps are fatigued? You’ve sabotaged the lift because the biceps also play a major role in pulling the bar. And if you can’t pull the bar… well… duh.

Inter-session lift sequencing

This is another big one. Let’s say you lift Mon, Tues, Wed. Monday is an upper body pulling day, Tuesday is a lower body day, and Wednesday is an upper body pushing day. Let’s also say you’re using all the right compound barbell lifts (Refer to #1. Yes, again.). Let’s say on Monday you do some heavy-ass barbell rows. Even better–Pendlay rows (that’s where your upper body is near parallel with the ground as you’re executing the lift). Not only does this lift hit the upper back nice and juicily, but it’s also heavily engaging the erectors (lower back), glutes and hamstrings, which are all contracting hard isometrically to stabilize and balance your body. Great. The next day is lower body day and you’ve got a whole melange of delicious squats to eat (like maybe front, back, and hack squats). Oooh baby! Just typing that gets me hot. But uh oh. Something’s wrong. You feel like the 250 lbs on your back is 500 pounds. You can’t move the damn weight. What’s going on? A messed up inter-session sequence is what’s wrong. All the prime movers required for those huge squats are tired from your rows the day before. Solution? Flip your push day and pull day so that you’re pulling the day after lower body, rather than before. Now it’s true that your Pendlay rows might suffer a little because you smashed your lower back, glutes and hams the day before with your squat salad, but not all pulling exercises require those muscles the same way squats do. Get what I’m saying? If not, please ask in the comments.

5. Poor form

Poor form can either be the result of the weight being too heavy for your current state of development/ restedness, or it can be the result of laziness. Either way, poor form means that the target muscle groups are not being optimally positioned for the lift to create the appropriate fatigue.

6. Prioritizing the weight moved over strength gains (i.e. not mastering a weight)

This point will be the subject of a more detailed post in the near future, but main idea is that focus should be placed on moving the weight the right way and not just moving weight because you can move it. I can move a bar loaded with 350 lbs, but the quality of the movement would suck. If it’s too heavy, form suffers and the crap described in #5 above happens.

7. Not having a plan

This one goes back to the point (#2) about tracking progress and keeping a journal. Efficiency in the gym boils down to knowing exactly which lifts you will perform, how they will be sequenced, how many sets and reps you’re aiming for, and the loads you’ll be using. This should all be determined before you set foot in the gym for the session.

8. Failing to repeat the same lift with heavier weights

How do professionals — professionals in anything — become professional? For one, they’ve repeated the thing they’re professionals in a sh*tload of times until it becomes second nature. If your goal is to get strong, and keep getting stronger, you have to get better and better at lifting weights. The only way to do that is to lift weights. If you want to develop huge overall full-body strength, you do the deadlift over and over and over adding weight over time. You do front squats. Back squats. Hack squats. Bench presses. Rows. Chinups. Dips. There’s no secret. There’s no glamour. There’s no TreadClimber, P90X, Insanity, CrossFit, Bowflex or whatever other flavor of the month might come along. Get under the damn bar. Move it well. Repeat. It’s the same exact recipe for men and women.

9. Failing to get adequate rest

There are many levels of rest. Without proper rest between sets, you limit your capacity to lift as much as possible and more completely fatigue the muscle. Without adequately resting muscle groups between sessions, you limit your body’s capacity to repair the damage you did, and its ability to adapt to the additional stress with additional muscle (a.k.a. hypertrophy).

10. Failing to eat enough carbohydrates

Carb fear kills strength. I literally need to focus on eating carbohydrates to maintain what I have, let alone to continue to make gains. Think what you want, but I’m telling you that white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (yucca), plantains, parsnips and winter squash (all kinds) are the best natural, unrefined sources of carbs. I will not argue with anyone. It’s just the way it is. Refined carbs, including grains are suboptimal. Natural foods are absolutely the best because they’re full of the micronutrients your body craves in a form that is simple for your body to understand. The vitamin B6 added to your Lucky Charms doesn’t count.

11. Having too many goals or not knowing what the goals are

Big, big, big one here. Is your goal to run a marathon, or to get strong and ripped? Is it to do some disastrous bullsh*t CrossFit metabolic training, or is it to keep getting stronger and stronger methodically?

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.