The general population seems to finally be embracing strength training—and even if you’re not interested in bodybuilding, there are a few strategies used in the bodybuilding world that the average strength-trainer might want to consider in order to get more bang for their workout buck. Here, I’ll break down four methods worth trying.
In the bodybuilding world, we talk a lot about “intensification methods,” which involve any training strategy designed to push a muscle past failure. Though you can’t do them all the time since they can cause damage to the muscle tissue and impact your ability to lift in your next workout, they’re a great way to increase the number of stimulating reps you perform in a training session. The intended result: You get more muscle-building benefits from your workouts.
I think of these intensification methods as a way to spice things up. For example, you might perform them on the last set of every exercise in a workout—or just in the last few exercises of a workout. Stick to one method for a week straight, then wait at least a week or two before incorporating another one. The key is to use them to add variation to your routine, which means you have to use them more sparingly.
Since no one other than bodybuilders truly cares about maximizing muscle growth, there’s not a ton of research on these tactics—but that doesn’t mean they can’t boost your workouts.
4 Intensification Methods All Strength-Trainers Should Try
Of all the strategies bodybuilders use to mix up their workouts and keep the results coming, here are four I recommend for anyone who lifts.
1. Drop Sets
Before doing a drop set, perform your usual sets and reps (usually 10 to 12) for a given exercise. Then, immediately strip an even amount of weight off each side of the bar or machine (or grab a lighter dumbbell), and do another set for as many reps as you can.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can repeat the weight drop and perform another drop set, but I don’t see the need to do more than two or three total.
I also recommend doing drop sets on machine or isolation exercises, as it can be tough to do them with compound barbell movements. Not only do compound barbell drop sets require you have a spotter and another helper to pull the weight off the bar, but these exercises can also be dangerous if performed to failure multiple times. (Trust me, I’ve dropped a 250-pound bar on myself after doing bench drop sets to failure without a spotter. I don’t recommend it.)
The Science on Drop Sets
Studies show that adding drop sets to your training as a way to mix things up can boost muscle growth. One particular study found that adding drop sets during the last four weeks of a 10-week program resulted in greater growth than continuing as usual.
It’s important to understand that while drop sets can be useful, you have to use them in the right way to get the most bang for your buck. If you do them every workout all the time, they are no longer novel enough to make a difference.
2. Rest-Pause Sets
In a rest-pause set, you stick with the same weight throughout but take small 10- to 20-second breaks to get more reps in. Say you start with a weight you can lift for 10 reps. You’ll perform your 10 reps, rest for 10 to 20 seconds, and then try to squeeze out a few more. You can probably repeat this two or three times, but by the last time, you’ll be lucky to get one rep in.
I like rest-pause sets for compound barbell movements over drop sets, especially when you’re training alone.
Rest-pause sets are also common in powerlifting. In this case, a lifter starts with a weight they can lift for two or three reps. They’ll perform a single rep, rest for 15 to 20 seconds, do another single, and repeat for as long as they can. With this method, they can complete anywhere from five to 10 reps at a super-heavy weight within a period of two or three minutes.
The Science on Rest-Pause Sets
Using rest-pause sets has been shown to be more effective for building lower-body muscle compared to normal training. However, upper-body results are similar. This might be due to the fact that the extreme fatigue from rest-pause sets may cause more growth in slow-twitch fibers, which are typically more abundant in the lower body.
Rest-pause sets have also been shown to increase muscle activation throughout a set. This is likely because the increase in fatigue during the set increases the amount of muscle activated to keep performing.
The takeaway here: Performing a handful of rest-pause sets over one traditional lengthy set can get you similar results in less time. This can be a great way to get in a quick workout on a busy day.
3. Cluster Sets
Cluster sets can be performed by using a weight you can lift for 10 to 15 reps and performing five reps every 10 to 15 seconds for three or four minutes total. Basically, you’d pick a weight you can lift for 10 to 15 reps, do five reps, rest for 10 to 15 seconds, do another five reps, rest again, and continue until you hit three or four minutes. The first minute or two will feel pretty easy—but these get brutal quick.
The benefit: You can maximize your muscle recruitment without having to use incredibly heavy weights.
I personally like to do cluster sets with isolation exercises—but if you’re really crazy, you can give them a shot with bigger movements. Just make sure you have a spotter ready for when it starts to feel like a struggle (because it will).
The Science on Cluster Sets
Since these are used differently in bodybuilding than in sports or strength and conditioning research, the science on them is limited.
In sports-specific conditioning, cluster sets are done either by performing explosive movements with little rest between sets or similarly to the heavy rest-pause method above.
4. Forced Negatives or Heavy Eccentrics
There are a couple of ways you can do forced negatives or heavy eccentrics, but all of them require a spotter.
The first: by loading 110 to 120 percent of your 1RM (one-rep max) onto a barbell and lowering it as slowly as possible. Then, a spotter will help you return the bar to start. You can do two or three sets max. The concept here is that muscles can produce much more force during the eccentric (or lowering) portion of a lift, but this half of a normal lift rarely gets amply challenged.
The second: by using a machine or dumbbells. Have a partner push or pull on the weight to add extra tension as you lower it. This creates extra resistance for your muscles to overcome during that eccentric phase. This approach is fun with preacher curls and Hammer Strength machines—and creates some healthy competition between you and your training buddies.
While adding extra tension to the range of motion that rarely gets challenged during strength training doesn’t necessarily create fatigue, it forces the muscle to produce a ton of force for an extended period, which is a great way to stimulate new muscle growth.
The Science On Forced Negatives
There’s actually a ton of research on heavy negatives and muscle growth, but I won’t get too into it here (I wrote an entire article on it).
That said, it’s important to know that most studies that claim eccentrics to be better for growth than normal reps use more weight in the eccentric reps. Therefore, if you want to get the most out of eccentrics during training, you have to use more than 100 percent of your concentric 1RM to properly overload the eccentric.
The Bottom Line
Intensification methods can be a great way to push your muscles past failure and add variation to your training. Just remember to use these methods as a tool, rather than a law. Constantly doing them every single workout will diminish their effectiveness and will more than likely lead to injury.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.