The way you go about trying to stress your muscles within your routines is the method you use. Different methods allow you to stress the muscles in different ways.
Any method can be effective for stimulating muscle growth as long as the overall weight training program utilizes progressive overload.
Single-set routines and multiple-set workout routines are the basic weight training methods.
Pyramid sets, supersets, breathing sets and the rest of the bodybuilding techniques discussed on this page, as well as the countless others that exist, are attempts to improve on the basics. They are intensity builders designed to get the attention of your muscles. All will do this to some degree of effectiveness.
You don’t however want to get trapped into thinking you always have to take a complicated approach to your training. In the end, the body is impressed with progressive overload and intensity, not gimmicks.
While they can be effective, it is not always necessary or smart to have intensity builders in your workout routines. Remind yourself that sometimes less is more and sometimes a simple single or multiple-set routine is where you will get results.
Different Methods For Different Muscles
Not all muscle groups will have the same reaction to all your tactics. Heavy sets may be the most effective at building the pectorals but may not have the same effect on your calves. Generally, people react better to higher reps and lighter weights when it comes to the calves.
The main reasons for this are in the fiber compositions of the various muscle groups (more about fiber composition and muscle building). Muscle groups composed mainly of slow twitch fibers can be more receptive to light sets while groups containing a majority of fast twitch fibers can be stressed better with heavy sets.
Because we are all made up differently, the only way to find out what works best for you is to try different things.
Likely, you will not find just one way that spurs growth for you, but several. And when you do find a method that really makes your calves or your biceps grow, realize that it will have a limited shelf life.
To continue getting results you will have to keep subjecting the body and its muscles to new stresses and force it to adapt by making you stronger. See the Changes for Weight Training Routines page for more information.
For some people, the biceps, calves, abs and hams are muscle groups that will respond to methods that go against the common logic of working heavy for the greatest growth.
If you are having trouble with these groups or any other groups, try new tactics. Solidly designed workout routines may have you pyramiding your bench press, supersetting your biceps curls and doing breathing sets for your squats (see samples of incorporating different methods into the same routine on the Sample Bodybuilding Routines Page).
These routines call for one set per exercise. They represent an excellent bodybuilding workout for the beginner to get going in weight training. Studies have shown that, at least initially, single-set workout routines are just as effective as multiple-set routines for gaining mass.
Just because they are great for beginners, doesn’t mean a more experienced lifter can’t benefit from training with single sets from time to time. They are great to use without splits (working all muscle groups in each workout) because they allow you to hit more muscles with a greater variety of weight training exercises while keeping the workout quick and effective.
As I hope you can guess, multiple-set routines call for multiple sets of each exercise with each set having approximately the same number of reps in it (straight sets).
Generally, for the purposes of gaining muscle, it is best to lift medium or light with multiple-set routines. These workout routines with lighter weights may not be where you see the most gains in strength but they work to keep the body guessing and add definition to the muscles.
The general number of sets per exercise is three, with reps of 8-15 in each set. Three is a good number, but don’t be scared to design and follow a workout that has a higher number of sets on occasion.
Studies have shown that as much as 85% of the benefit derived from the exercise will be accomplished with the first set, but it has been my experience that the other 15% is very important.
Pyramid routines use sets at different levels (different reps) of the same weight training exercise to form a pyramid. For example, you start with a set of a lighter weight at 12 reps, then a medium weight for 8 reps, then lift a heavy weight at the top of the pyramid for 4 reps. Then you work back down the other side of the pyramid with a another medium set and then finishing with a set with at a lighter weight.
Pyramid routines are extremely effective for building muscle and perhaps the most widely used workout routines for this purpose. I am of the opinion that these routines should be the focus of weight training programs designed to gain muscle mass.
Full pyramid workout routines aren’t necessarily the most attractive to the weight gainer because they require a lot of time and therefore limit the number of weight training exercises that can be completed in a routine. In practice, most lifters use a forward pyramid or a reverse pyramid routine. The forward pyramid routine starts with lighter weight and then finish at the top with heavier weight. The reverse pyramid starts at the top with heavier weight and works downward to lighter weight.
By allowing you to train at different levels these routines really stress the muscles well.
Supersets are doing two exercises back to back without any rest. They can be the basis for a workout routine, doing two exercises for every set you do (i.e. doing squats and then immediately following it with leg extensions, doing stiff-leg deadlifts and then leg curls) but often they are used as additions to other workout methods.
Supersets are effective because they allow you to better exhaust your muscles and do so quickly. They can be done with exercises that target the same muscles (biceps curls and hammer curls), opposite or antagonistic muscles (leg extensions and leg curls), or with muscles that have nothing to do with each other (staggered sets).
These sets call for you to pause at the top of an exercise and breath. Typically you take three deep breaths and then perform another rep. These deep breath rests allow you to perform more reps with more weight than you would otherwise be able to do with the traditional approach.
This weight training method is typically used with the 20-rep-squat routine. For these workout routines, you would take a weight that you could handle squatting for ten reps the normal way and then, using a breathing set, force yourself to push out 20 reps. This is a grueling experience (or will be if done correctly) but has proven very effective.
The theory behind this method is that the effect of holding the weight for the entire time this set will take you (4 minutes or so), in addition to the squat itself, will have a great effect on your central nervous system and help create muscle growth throughout the body – Never underestimate the power of squats not only for what they can do for your legs, but what they can do to spur growth throughout your entire body.
Cumulative Fatigue Training
This is a form of volume training with a twist. In traditional volume training you generally work to fatigue on every set. For example, you would do three sets of ten and at the end of each set you would not be able to do another quality rep. With cumulative fatigue training workout routines, you would attempt to only go to failure on the final set of a given exercise.
For example, if you do a cumulative fatigue routine that calls for 5 sets of 5 reps (5×5), you would only reach failure on the fifth rep of the fifth set. After your first four sets you would be able to do more reps if asked, but you aren’t and so you don’t.
It bears repeating, strength is not the only determinate of muscle size. The higher reps of increased volume training can increase blood supply and create other effects which will increase muscle size.
Cumulative fatigue training seems particularly suited to the needs of those seeking to add muscle weight for the above reason, for the fact that it offers a great change of pace from other muscle mass routine methods and makes the muscles more receptive to follow-up training with heavier weights.
In these workout routines you generally perform quicker reps with shorter rest intervals. Reps are typically 2/0/1 or 1/0/1 and rest intervals between sets one minute. Because of the high volume, fewer exercises are included in the workouts. Emphasis should be placed on compound exercises. Common set-rep schemes are 5×5, 6×6 and 10×10.
Even More Workout Routine Methods
- High-Low Routines – These workout routines have you do a weight lifting exercise at a very heavy weight and then one at very light weight. For example, you do bench presses at a heavy weight for five reps and then follow that with a set at a light weight for 15 reps, theoretically giving you the best of both worlds.
- Tri-sets – These routines are essentially supersets plus one. You work each muscle group with three exercises performed consecutively.
- Burn-Out Sets – Where supersets have you doing two exercises back-to back, burn-out sets are simply dropping the weight and doing the same bodybuilding exercise until you are completely fatigued.
- Negative Reps – In these workout routines you only perform the eccentric part of the exercises. A partner does all or most of the concentric part and then you concentrate all your energy on lowering the weight.
- Forced Negative Reps – Like in the negative reps, except here you may do more of the concentric portion of the exercise only to have your partner add resistance to the eccentric part (i.e. pressing down as you lower the weight in a bench press).
- Multi-Exercise Sets – This is similar to single-set workout routines in that you work each muscle group with just one set of several different weight lifting exercises.
- Diminishing Sets – The concept of these workout routines is that you aim for a number of total reps to do regardless of sets and then up the weight when can successfully complete the task within the desired set range. For example, you set the goal of being able to do 12 reps of a certain weight within 3 sets. You then do 12 reps of that exercise using as many sets as it takes and when you can do the 12 reps in just 3 sets, you up the weight for your next workout.
- Upside Down Pyramid Routine – For this you simply start out at a heavy weight, work down to a light weight and then work back up to a heavy weight.
Still Hungry For More Ways To Attack Your Muscles?
Two methods that present a more radical approach are slow lifting and static contraction training. In slow lifting you are performing your reps at an extremely slow tempo (one rep can take more than 10 seconds). In static contraction training you are forgetting about the rep altogether and just holding the weight at certain points for set time periods.
To learn more about these methods, check the article: Slow Lifting and Static Contraction Training.