This page is a quick look at some of the training protocols used within the fitness industry to achieve goals and make gains. I use a mix of these in my own training and within the programmes I write for people. It therefore seemed sensible to provide a brief explanation of each.
Pros: saves time, as you can get more work done in your session as exercises are performed back to back. More calories will be burned in the session as the intensity is raised (usually) compared to single set exercises.
Cons: can lead to overtraining if same muscle group is performed as a superset too often. It can mean the primary (ie/first set) is focussed on more as you are too tired during the second set. Depends on individuals conditioning
Tips: If exercising the same muscle group or compound then isolation, perform the more difficult/heavier exercise first.
Pros: as with supersets, trisets save you time, as you can get more work done in your session as exercises are performed back to back. If performing a split where one muscle or two muscle groups are exercised per day, trisets allow more calories to be burned despite training relatively small muscles. They also allow a large amount of volume and a real overload on one muscle to promote growth compared to single set exercises.
Cons: as with supersets, trisets can lead to overtraining if same muscle group is trained that intensely too often. It is important to watch form throughout the exercises to ensure the last set does not suffer considerably due to fatigue from the first two.
Tips: As with supersets, it’s best to perform the more difficult/heavier exercises first down to the lightest last. Do not perform too often, as they are high volume, so can lead to overtraining.
Pros: as with supersets & trisets, giant sets save you time and allow more work done in your session as exercises are performed back to back. Even better than that, they are incredibly intense so allow a lot of calories to be burned. Furthermore, giantsets mean a huge amount of volume can be put through one muscle group and a real overload on that muscle, including hitting it from almost every angle, to really promote growth compared to single set exercises.
Cons: as with supersets and trisets, but even more prolifically, giantsets can lead to overtraining if same muscle group is trained that intensely too often. It is important to ensure the correct order of exercises and correct selection of weight compared to performing the exercises separately. A considerable drop in weight from single set versions of the exercises will be needed for sets 4 and 5.
Tips: As with supersets and trisets, perform heaviest to lightest exercises and do not overuse giantsets or overtraining will occur.
Pros: as with supersets complexes allow more work done in your session as exercises are performed back to back and the body fatigues far quicker. Even better than that, complexes (if performed correctly) are incredibly intense so allow a lot of calories to be burned.
Cons: complexes should complement your training, not be all you do. The rise in complex driven fitness styles like CrossFit have seen people only relying on this type of training, yet like supersets, trisets and giant sets, they are intense, and if overdone can lead to overtraining. Also, watch out for only exercising favourite muscles which are favoured in certain complexes. The body must be exercised as a whole and equally for true fitness and aesthetics.
Tips: Complexes, or circuits as we always called them in the Marines are very addictive, especially if racing against previous bests. Remember that to surpass a previous score, it is often best to break the complex down into separate elements and train them for strength and technique, then string the complex back together to better a previous attempt.
Pros: dropsets allow work beyond failure, which research suggests leads to better gains in definition and size. Dropsets allow the muscle to be worked far more than normal after rest would normally be taken. They are therefore great for overcoming a plateau in training.
Cons: dropsets are very intense so can lead to overtraining type niggles like tendonitis. They should therefore be performed with decent rests days in between and not too frequently on the same muscle groups.
Tips: the right amount of weight to drop is crucial, too little and you cannot perform many more reps due to fatigue already felt. Too much and you cannot fatigue again quickly. Research and experience has shown that 20-30% drop allows 8-12 reps to be hit on each dropset. A spotter is obviously needed when using drop sets on bench press, DB press, shoulder press and a multitude of other exercises as fatigue is being aimed for, so weights need controlling at this point.
Pros: it allows a continuation beyond failure, like dropsets, but with the same weight. This not only stimulates the muscles to change in size and shape, but because the set means taking a weight you normally lift 10 times, and lifting it for a further 6 – 10 reps, big strength and endurance gains are also seen. It is also highly intense so a good calorie burner and endorphin releasing workout.
Cons: like dropsets, this protocol is tough on the body. Overtraining is a real possibility especially with tough gripping exercises like deadlifts and pull-ups where the smaller tendons are really stressed to allow the bigger muscles to keep working.
Tips: Some people advise stopping just shy of failure in the first set to ensure that in the second and third set after the rest-pauses you can perform some reps. This is all down to how heavy your first set is. The bottom line is to work as hard as possible in set 2 and 3 after the pauses despite the weight staying the same. A spotter is a good idea for rest-pause protocols as going to failure has inherent risks involved!
Pros: eccentric/negative sets are a real shock to the system, especially if performed with a weight that is too heavy to lift normally. The DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) felt after a full negative session are something to be experienced, as it is the negative part of the exercise that DOMS occur on. This means, negatives are very effective at causing growth in size and strength in the muscles, hence the greatness of DOMS felt,
Cons: a negative session causes a lot of muscle soreness and therefore a lot of “damage” to the muscles. This is no bad thing, as they will repair back bigger and stronger. However, they do require a good rest and recovery period to allow them to do this, not to mention good nutrition. So, do not use negatives if you are someone who will not feed and refuel properly for the following 2-3days or someone who isn’t in a position to rest said muscle group for a few days.
Tips: use a spotter to allow you to perform the exercise correctly and use a weight you can’t lift concentrically, or at least can’t lift it many times. Ensure you lower the weight over a 4 – 5 second time frame and that the spotter is watching so if you muscles give way (which at some point they will) they can help you lift the weight to the rack/floor.
Pros: growth hormone has been shown to be increased taking training past failure with forced reps. As an anabolic hormone, GH not only plays a role in bone and muscle growth, but also in fat burning meaning forced reps helps lower bodyfat. Like rest-pause and drop sets, continuing on past failure is so beneficial for stimulating muscle strength and size gains.
Cons: Unless you have a good gym partner or know the people at your gym, forced reps aren’t really an option. Without a good spotter who cares and knows what he/she is doing, it’s not a good training protocol. Save it for when you are training with a good mate or coach and ensure you make the most of it, as like the other intense training protocols here, it should be accompanied by a rest period for that muscle group on that type of training.
Tips: pick the right weight that you are likely to fail on at around 8-10reps, then force out another 2-4reps only. If the starting weight is too light or too heavy it won’t work and your spotter won’t thank you for it. Equally, make sure the spotter doesn’t do too much, they need to just give you enough to get the weight moving each time, but also be there to help you take the weight down in a controlled manner when you can’t do anymore.
Pros: I am personally not a big fan of partials, and would usually favour rest-pause or drops sets. However, partials are another method used to take the muscle group beyond fatigue and in this case, without taking a est to pause or change weights and if you aren’t lucky enough to have a spotter. As with the other methods mentioned, taking the muscle beyond failure is very beneficial in terms of stimulating growth and change in terms of size and strength.
Cons: Performing any exercise without full range of movement is a bad habit to get into. I hate seeing people in the gym with weights too heavy for themselves performing “half reps”. It is not a good style of training if it will become your norm, so ensure you see it for what it is: something to do at the end of a set to take the muscle beyond failure.
Tips: Perform your sets as normal to start with performing all reps strictly until you literally cannot perform the same rep, you fail. Now continue, moving the weight as far as you can within the ROM for another 4-6 reps