If you feel like your usual workout isn’t quite cutting it anymore, you don’t have to completely overhaul your fitness routine in order to push your muscles past failure and start seeing results again. There are a number of simple workout methods you can use to level up. These techniques are known as “intensification methods” and include strategies like drop sets, rest-pause sets, cluster sets, and forced negatives. I promise they’ll have the sweat rushing out of your pores.
Though these workout methods can be great ways to increase the amount of stimulating reps you perform, don’t do them all of the time. Using them too often can cause serious muscle damage and impair your ability to lift in your next workout.
Another note to keep in mind: There’s little research on these specific workout methods because, well, no one besides bodybuilders cares about maximizing muscle growth this much, so study funding is hard to come by. I’ve experienced the skin-splitting pumps, though, and so will you.
Use these four workout methods to prevent plateaus—or bust right through them.
Workout Method #1: Drop Sets
Here’s how performing a drop set works: Start with a weight you can lift for 10 to 12 reps. Perform your reps, then immediately strip an even amount of weight off each dumbbell or the machine, then go again for as many reps as possible.
If you’re feeling frisky, you can perform yet another drop set after that, but I don’t see the need to do more than two or three drops total.
I recommend using drop sets with machines or isolation exercises, since they can be tough with compound barbell movements. Not only do you need a spotter to help you quickly strip weight off, but barbell compound movements can also be dangerous if performed to failure multiple times. Trust me, I’ve rolled a 250-pound bar down my torso after doing a bench set to failure without a spotter; I don’t recommend it.
Another approach here: mechanical drop sets. For these, the weight stays the same, but you adjust the mechanical advantage throughout the movement.
Basically, you might start with lying overhead extensions, then switch to skull-crushers, and then switch again to chin-crushers to roast your triceps. Or, you could change your foot position on the leg press, moving from the bottom, to the middle, and to the top of the sled from set to set. This approach is great if you train alone and don’t feel like stripping all kinds of weight between sets.
The Science Behind Drop Sets
A lot of people like to say that there’s no scientific evidence for drop sets, and that can certainly be true. Studies on using drop sets in a longitudinal training program suggest it offers no additional strength or size benefits compared to traditional training. This isn’t surprising, because if you’re constantly doing drop sets, they no longer provide an additional stimulus!
On the other hand, studies show that adding drop sets in the last four weeks of a 10-week program promote greater muscle growth.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that drop sets can be useful. You just have to use them the right way (a.k.a. not all the time) to get the most bang for your buck.
Workout Method #2: Rest-Pause Sets
In a rest-pause set, you stick with the same weight but take small 10- to 20-second breaks to get more reps in.
Say you start at a 10RM weight. Perform your 10 reps, rest for 10 to 20 seconds, and then try to squeeze out a few more reps. You can probably repeat this sequence two or three times. By that last time, though, you’ll be lucky to get one extra rep in after your rest.
Rest-pause sets are also common in powerlifting. In this scenario, a lifter start with a 2- or 3RM weight. They perform a single rep, rest 15-20 seconds, do another single rep, and repeat for as long as possible. This can land you anywhere from five to 10 reps at a super-heavy weight within a period of two or three minutes. That’s density and intensity!
Heavy rest-pauses are ultimately a great way to get more heavy reps in during a workout, so this workout method is always worth a shot as well. I like using this approach for compound barbell movements. You should still have a spotter around, though, because that last set is intense.
The Science Behind Rest-Pause Sets
Using rest-pause sets has been shown to be more effective for building muscle in the lower body compared to normal training. Upper body results, though, seem to be similar between workout methods. This might occur because the extreme fatigue from rest-pause sets causes more growth in slow-twitch fibers, which are more prevalent in the lower body than upper.
Rest-pause sets have also been shown to cause greater muscle activation throughout a set than normal training. This likely occurs because the increase in fatigue during the set increases the amount of muscle activated.
The takeaway here: Instead of a traditional lengthy workout, you can perform a handful of rest-pause sets to save time and get a similar training stimulus. This can be a great way to get in a quick workout—and legit pump—on a busy day.
Workout Method #3: Cluster Sets
Cluster sets can be performed by using a 10 to 15RM weight and performing five reps every 10 to 15 seconds for three or four minutes total. This is another great method for maximizing muscle recruitment without having to use incredibly heavy weight.
You’d start with a weight you can lift for 10 to 15 reps. Perform five reps, rest 10-15 seconds, perform another five reps, rest another 10 to 15 seconds, and repeat until you’ve hit three or four minutes.
Warning: The first minute or two feel pretty easy, but these get brutal quick.
I personally like to do these 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 they get really fun. Again, lower-body exercises will probably benefit most from these.
The Science Behind Cluster Sets
There isn’t much science on cluster sets, since they’re used differently in bodybuilding than in sports or strength and conditioning.
In sports research, they’re typically performed as explosive movements with little rest between sets or like the heavy rest-pause method above.
If you wanted to take more of a sports conditioning approach, you’d do something like a set of two to five reps at 40 to 60 percent of your squat 1RM as explosively as possible. Then you’d rest for 15-30 seconds, and repeat for eight to 12 sets total.
Workout Method #4: Forced Negatives or Heavy Eccentrics
One last way to add some intensification to your training: forced negatives (a.k.a. heavy eccentrics).
Important note: There are a few ways you can do these—but all of them require a spotter. If you don’t have one, tough luck.
The first way to perform these is by loading 110 to 120 percent of your 1RM on a barbell. Then you’ll lower it as slowly as possible. Since a muscle can produce much more force during this (the eccentric) portion of a lift, this half of a normal movement is rarely challenged. Obviously, then you’ll need a spotter to help return the bar to start. You can do sets of two or three reps tops here. Any more than that and you’re just crushing yourself with the weight.
Another way to perform these is by using a machine or dumbbells. Have a partner push or pull the weight down while you lower it to provide extra resistance. This is fun with movements like preacher curls and Hammer Strength machines.
While this tactic doesn’t necessarily force fatigue, it makes the muscle produce a ton of force at really slow contraction velocities, which causes a ton of tension. This can be a great way to stimulate new muscle growth.
The Science Behind Forced Negatives
There’s a ton of research on heavy negatives and muscle growth. We won’t go into too much detail here, but the majority of studies that claim eccentrics using higher weight are better for growth than normal reps. So, if you want to get the most out of eccentrics, you have to use more than 100 percent of your 1RM to properly overload the eccentric for growth.
The Bottom Line
These workout methods can be great ways to push your muscles past failure and add variation to your training. Just remember to use them as occasional tools, rather than law. Using these workout methods every single time will diminish their effectiveness—and will more than likely lead to injury. You’re not meant to train past failure all of the time!
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.
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