If you’re struggling to build muscle, the best way to spark growth is by using a few techniques that go beyond counting sets and reps. You grow muscle in 3 different ways (tension, stress, and damage), so it’s best to manipulate variables that increase any of those factors -- or all of them. Some of the best techniques are supersets, drop sets, wave training, partial reps, and the pre-exhaustion technique.
When it comes to building muscle, opinions will always differ on the "best" way to design a program. That's because the science of muscle building continues to evolve. The more we learn, the more we discover that individual factors can profoundly influence how many reps, sets, and days per week you should train to achieve your goals.
But, just because researchers are still asking questions doesn’t mean you have a shortage of established techniques that can help you build muscle. On the diet side, everything starts with protein.
On the exercise side, that's where things become a little more complicated. So we interviewed some of the leading fitness experts -- including Ladder founder Arnold Schwarzenegger -- to learn the proven methods they use to spark new muscle growth.
Build Muscle with Drop Sets
A drop set is a method that helps you do more reps within one “set.” With this technique, you'll pick a weight, do the prescribed number of reps, and then immediately grab a lighter weight, try to perform the same amount of reps, and continue the process. One set might consist of 4-6 sets. That results in a lot of added volume, which is why it can be so effective at building muscle. And if that’s not enough to convince you, some guy named Schwarzenegger swears by its effectiveness.
The legendary bodybuilder used mega-drop sets that he used to quickly and efficiently challenge his body. The idea is simple and an instant way to shock your system and pack on muscle.
Here was Arnold’s approach in his bodybuilding days, with the dumbbell overhead press as an example:
- Use 100-pound dumbbells for six reps
- Immediately grab 90-pound dumbbells and do another six reps.
- Complete this pattern—without rest—until he reached 40 pounds
“By the time you’re on the lower weights, the burning is so intense that 40 pounds would feel like 110,” says Schwarzenegger.
When you try drop sets, you'll likely be surprised by how hard the sets become even when using less weight. It's just another example of how you don’t always need to use heavy loads to see results and have an incredible workout.
“Even if you started with 15 pounds and worked down to 5, it’s a great way to work your muscles quickly and always keep them guessing,” says Schwarzenegger.
Work Opposite Muscles
A superset is two exercises performed in succession without rest. For many people, this means pairing any exercises, but there are an art and a science to supersets. The type superset with the most scientific support is when you challenge opposing body parts within a superset (this is called agonist/antagonist training). Examples include training your back on one exercise and then training your chest on the next exercise. Or, you could work your quads and then your hamstrings, or your biceps followed by triceps.
Pairing sets like this can increase muscle force output (strength) via a phenomenon called "reciprocal inhibition.” That is, you’re almost magically stronger on the second paired set, which means you can push at a higher intensity and lift more weight for more reps.
“Reciprocal supersets increase training density, allowing you to pack more volume into less time. This not only makes your workout more efficient, but it also means you’re increasing training volume within a given session, which can enhance muscle development,” explains Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, an assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY.
Set up superset stations so you can move quickly between exercises. Perform one set of the first exercise and then go directly to the second movement. Rest for approximately 30 seconds, and then perform two additional supersets.
Add Strength with Wave Training
You build muscle in 3 different ways: muscle tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. For most people, the easiest way to accomplish these goals is to perform more reps or sets. But your body is good at adapting, so -- at some point -- adding more volume (reps x sets) won’t make a significant difference.
That’s when adding more weight comes into play. But gaining strength isn’t always an easy task.
Enter wave training, or -- as scientists would call it -- “post-activation potentiation.”
The technique involves alternating sets of low-rep training with sets of higher reps, says strength coach Tony Gentilcore.
The low-rep set (with a heavy weight) helps recruit more muscle fibers. Then, when you shift to the higher rep exercise, you can lift more weight.
For example: After a proper warmup, perform 1-rep of squats at 225 pounds. Rest 2 to 3 minutes, and then lift 185 pounds for five reps. The 185 pounds should feel lighter because the previous heavy set (at 225 pounds) activates more of your motor units (the trigger in your body that causes your muscle fibers to fire), which allows you to move more weight, says Gentilcore.
From there, you can then do another set at 225 or maybe even 230, rest another 2 to 3 minutes, and then try to do a set of 5 reps with 190 pounds. As you can see, your goal is to increase weight with each set.
But remember—don’t get caught up on the weights. The goal is to progress at your own pace, and you’ll experience real strength improvements that will lead to faster results.
Upgrade Weaknesses with Partial Reps
Bad form is a good way to get injured or see limited results. But, sometimes, what looks like bad form can be an effective strategy to help you prevent plateaus and see more results. For example, partial reps—where you focus on a limited range of motion—can help spark muscle building.
Partial reps are the science of strengthening the “weak point” in an exercise. You can find these with almost any movement.
For squats, it’s usually when your upper legs are parallel (or lower), and you need to stand back up. On the bench press, this is typically the point where the bar is about 3 to 6 inches above your chest. This sticking points are natural and occur for everyone. Often, it’s the portion of the motion where momentum is removed.
That’s where doing partial reps can help you strengthen the sticking point within a safe training environment. It works because partial reps allow you to use a heavier weight than usual because you have to move the weight a shorter distance. This helps you to “feel” what it’s like to handle heavier loads, says Smith.
The key is finding effective ways to shorten the range of motion. On squats, this might mean setting pins within a rack that “catch” the bar when you lower, or squatting down to a box or bench.
On the bench press, you can perform board presses or pin presses. For board presses, you place different size wooden boards on your chest, which limits your range of motion. It's safest to perform these techniques with a partner.
Don’t exercise with anyone? Then do pin presses in a power rack. Set pins to the area of your sticking point (say 6 inches above your chest), and perform reps where you are only pressing out at the top of the exercise. Or, you can also try floor presses, where you lay on the floor and press with a limited range of motion.
It might seem like cheating, but when you return to the full range of motion, you’ll discover that your weak point is now stronger, and you can begin making progress again.
How to Upgrade Your Workout
All of these techniques can help you build new muscle. However, don't try all of them at the same time. If you did all of these in the same workout, you might see fewer results because you’ll push too hard and not allow your body to recover and grow.
If you want to try these strategies, start with one or two of the muscle building techniques for 4 to 6 weeks. Then, after you see progress, switch to another method to keep the results coming.