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Fast Lane to Muscle Gains: 7 Proven Intensity Techniques


Looking to green light more mass and strength? Don't waste another second: Try one (or more) of these seven proven ways to amp up the intensity and get more out of your very next workout.

In a way, your muscles are like a high-performance sports car. Sure, you can tool along at 45 miles per hour, revving the engine at the stoplights just to hear the commanding purr and draw the attention of the less fortunate in their compacts and minivans around you. But there's only one way to discover what your coup' can really do -- put the pedal to the floor with nothing but a clear straightaway ahead. As the wind slips past the auto's sleek lines, the RPM and speedometer gauges rise, and the horsepower gallops to life, you find out exactly what you've got under the hood.

Similarly, you can continually and faithfully proceed through your current workouts, pushing yourself hard but without ever truly testing your limits and seeing just how much strength, stamina and will you possess. Isn't it time to find out what you've got?

The following intensity techniques can help you soup up your current training regimen, leaving your muscles with no choice but to adapt to the high-octane overload by packing on size. If you're ready for a bold new way to get from point A to B in the gym, hit the gas -- it's time to shift your growth into high gear.

1) Drop Sets
A basic yet thoroughly effective intensity technique, a drop set involves doing a standard set to failure, then immediately dropping the weight about 20% and repping again to failure. Although extremely simple to do with a machine -- just reset the pin in the weight stack -- drop sets can be performed with dumbbells and barbells, especially the pre-set bars in the latter case. With dumbbells you can also do what's called "running the rack," which is essentially an extended drop set. For instance, say you're doing lateral raises: Depending on your level of strength, you could start with a set of 40 pounders and perhaps get 11 reps before failing, then drop down to 35s and go to failure again, then 30s, then 25s. By the end, you'll have brought your muscles to failure within one set four times. You don't want to overuse this technique (which is the case with any intensity technique mentioned in this article, as overdoing any of them can quickly lead to overtraining) but on one or two exercises within a workout, drops can help ensure you're taxing your muscles and prompting them to adapt and grow in response to handle such larger loads in the future.

Exercise Sets Reps
Seated Barbell Press 5 15 (warm-up), 12, 10, 8, 4-6
Cable Upright Row 3 12, 10, 8-10 per drop*
One-Arm Cable Rear-Delt Raise 3 10
Dumbbell Lateral Raise 2 8-12**
* On the final set, perform one drop, failing within the set twice total.
** Run the rack, as described above, dropping three times within each set.

2) Partial Reps
When you were young, your parents may have told you, "Don't ever do anything halfway." Well, they were wrong. Because, while the advice may be applicable to many other endeavors you undertake, at least sometimes when you're weight training, doing only part of a repetition can help you squeeze some additional benefits out of a set. Partial reps are added at the end of a regular-rep set, just like a drop set. Unlike a drop, instead of lowering the weight when you reach muscle failure, you continue using the same weight but work through a limited range of motion, usually one-half the range and sometimes continuing to one-fourth reps, terminating the set when you can't move the weight at all. You may sometimes hear partials referred to as "pulse" reps.

Exercise Sets Reps
Lying EZ-Bar French Press 4 15 (warm-up), 10, 10, 8
One-Arm Dumbbell Kickback 3 8-12
Rope Pressdown 3 8-12*
* On the final two sets, after going to full-rep failure, continue with partials until total muscle failure.

3) Negatives
Scientific research has proven that you're significantly stronger on the eccentric (i.e. "negative") phase of a repetition versus the concentric (i.e. "positive") portion. In other words, your muscles can handle a higher load as they're lengthening -- such as on the downward phase of a barbell curl or the lowering phase of a bent-over row -- as opposed to shortening or flexing. During a normal free-weight set, of course, you're limited by the amount of weight you can lift concentrically, and thus you can't fully take advantage of this phenomenon. But there is a way to apply it for maximal benefit: By tacking a negative-only set or two to the end of a workout. If you're using the technique for preacher curls, for example, you would load a bar with about 20%-25% more weight than you could handle for your one-rep max. Then you would have a training partner assist in lifting the bar up at the top, he or she would let go as you lower the bar as slowly as you can, taking at least 3-5 seconds to bring it down to the starting position. Continue in this manner, doing as many reps as you can while still remaining in complete control on the descent, ending the set immediately when you can't.

Exercise Sets Reps
Standing Barbell Curl 4 15 (warm-up), 12, 10, 8
Alternating Dumbbell Hammer Curl 3 8-12
EZ-Bar Preacher Curl 3 10, 10, 5-8 (to negative failure)*
* As described above, on the last set, have a partner assist in lifting the bar up through the positive portion of each rep, then lower it slowly, taking at least 3-5 seconds to complete the descent.

4) Rest/Pause
When you're weight training, your muscles regain a certain amount of strength almost immediately once you terminate a set. Normally, you don't take advantage of this bounceback, instead wisely resting 30 seconds to two minutes to fully recover before starting the next set. However, if used judiciously, restarting reps after an extremely short rest and depleting this small reserve of energy can give your muscles an extra push that can result in kick-started growth processes. The technique is called rest/pause, and it works like this: Say you're doing a leg press. First, do full reps to failure, using enough weight to reach that threshold by the 10-to-15 rep mark. Stop and either rack the weight or pause in the legs fully extended position (making sure to NOT lock out your knees) for 10-15 seconds before repping again until failure. You can continue this pattern 2-4 more times, either aiming for a certain number of reps as a total goal (25-30 perhaps) or until you've reached failure and don't feel you can continue the set safely. At the end, you'll have completed more reps with a given weight in a shorter amount of time than had you performed standard sets, making the target muscles work harder -- the essence of high intensity. Another variation of this method involves using a very heavy weight and resting between each and every rep, which could really be a benefit in pushing you past a particular strength plateau on a specific exercise.

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Squat 5 20 (warm-up), 15, 12, 10, 8
Leg Press 1 30*
Leg Extension 3 10-12
Romanian Deadlift 4 10-12
Seated Leg Curl 2 10-12
* Choose a weight you could not normally complete 30 reps with; taking 10-15 second rests within the set as often as necessary, finish 30 reps total.

5) Pre-Exhaustion
The logical way to organize a workout is to do compound exercises first -- those exercises that employ multiple muscle groups, such as a bench press (pectorals and triceps) -- and do isolation exercises later, i.e. those that focus specifically on a target muscle, such as flat-bench dumbbell flyes that would hit your pecs directly. That way, you're doing the heavier, tougher moves when you're stronger and have more energy in the tank. All sounds good, right? Well, for the pre-exhaust technique, you throw that logic out the window -- but for a good reason. You see, sometimes the ancillary "helper" muscles, such as the triceps in the aforementioned bench press, give out before the main mover (the pectorals), causing you to stop a set before the main mover is fully fatigued. But put the isolation move first in your routine, and when it comes time for the compound move, the assistance muscle is still fresh and able to continue on longer, thus pushing the primary muscle to its limit. The downside of using pre-exhaust too often is that you can't lift as much on your compound moves, and for the most part, you want to be able to rep with as much resistance as you can for those for maximum muscle stimulation. However, every once in a while, a pre-exhaust workout is a solid change of pace that provides your body with a different stimulus and impetus to grow.

Exercise Sets Reps
Incline Dumbbell Flye 3 15 (warm-up), 10-12, 8-10
Cable Crossover 2 8-12
Incline Smith-Machine Press 4 8-12
Hammer-Strength Chest Press 3 8-12

6) Century Sets

Completing 100 reps of a given exercise in one set may seem crazy. For the most part, it is. In a traditional 100-rep, or century, set, you'll need to choose a weight small enough to allow you to complete the marathon set, which obviously will be a lot lighter than what you can normally handle. Even if you do a slight alteration of the typical century set, where you choose a weight you can get 60-70 reps with, then use drop sets and rest/pause to finish out the 100, it's still something you don't want to use on any particular body part more than once every 2-3 months. However, having said all that, if you want to test your limits, push yourself further than you ever thought you could, and give a lagging muscle group a serious shock treatment, 100s can work wonders. The key is picking a weight that can really challenge you, and if you've never tried it before, stick to machines versus a free-weight exercise, as your form will be tough to maintain as the reps roll on. Give it your all and finish one, and chances are, you'll want to try it again down the road.

SAMPLE CENTURY WORKOUTS: Shoulders, Chest, Back and Legs
NOTE: The following four samples aren't meant to be performed together -- use any of them to take the place of your normal workout for that body part, then go back to your regular routine the next time it comes around on your split. Don't do a century workout more than once per month for any body part, as when they're done correctly, returning to them too often can lead to overtraining.
Exercise Sets Reps
Seated Machine Press 1 100
Chest Smith-Machine Flat-Bench Press 1 100
Back Hammer-Strength Seated Row Machine 1 100
Legs Horizontal Leg-Press Machine 1 100

7) Supersets, Tri-Sets & Giant Sets

One of the most common intensity techniques are supersets: two exercises done back-to-back with no rest in between. Supersets can be two exercises for the same muscle group paired together, or for opposing muscle groups (i.e. back and chest, biceps and triceps, abdominals and lower back, or quads and hamstrings). But you don't necessarily have to stop there, as you can also perform tri-sets for a body part (three exercises for a particular body part done back-to-back-to-back) or giant sets (four or more exercises done in successive circuit fashion). If you're pressed for time, these techniques can help you get in and out of the gym faster without compromising the intensity of your workout. And even if you've got time to spare, they're a valuable addition to any training plan.

NOTE: Do all these exercises back-to-back, resting only as long as it takes to move to the next machine or exercise. After finishing the straight-arm pulldown, rest for 1-2 minutes. You'll repeat the giant set three times total.
Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Bent-Over Row 3 8-12
Wide-Grip Pulldown to Front 3 8-12
Seated Cable Row 3 8-12
Straight-Arm Pulldown 3 8-12