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If you’ve been lifting weights for any amount of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard about “advanced” training techniques like drop sets, supersets, forced reps, negatives, and the like.
Years ago, I thought such methods were great ways to boost muscle and strength gain and so used to do quite a bit of them. These days, I do very little because I now know that straight hard sets are the bread and butter of getting big and strong.
That said, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no place for “fancier” stuff, but only if you do it right.
That’s what I invited Dr. Eric Helms back on the show to discuss–which of the common unconventional training methods are worthwhile and which aren’t and how to use the good ones correctly and effectively.
If you’re not familiar with Eric, he’s a natural bodybuilder and powerlifter, coach, researcher, writer, member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, and all-around mensch, and in this interview, he discusses the evidence for and against “advanced” training techniques and explains exactly what to do and what not do in the gym to get the most out of your training.
Oh and if you like what Eric has to say, then you should definitely check out his podcast, The Iron Culture Podcast, as well as his research review Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS) because I think you’ll really appreciate what he and his colleagues are doing. I know I do!
7:26 – How do advanced training techniques fit into our fitness journey?
12:20 – Do you recommend supersets?
21:58 – What do you think of pairing movements that don’t affect each other?
28:39 – What are your thoughts on drop sets?
32:21 – Do you use drop sets in your training?
34:35 – What are your thoughts on forced reps?
40:18 – What are your thoughts on pre exhaustion training?
54:17 – What is MASS?
56:55 – Do you offer a free preview of MASS?
Mentioned on the show:
Mike : [00:00:04] Hey, hey, Mike Matthews here from Legion Athletics and welcome. Welcome to another episode of the Muscle For Life podcast. Now, if you have been lifting weights for any amount of time, you have undoubtedly heard of advanced training techniques. You know, stuff like drop sets, supersets, giant sets, forced reps, negatives, and so forth. And many years ago, I thought that such methods were great ways to boost muscle and strength gain and were essential for intermediate weightlifters.
I thought I was an intermediate weightlifter, I was actually a newbie weightlifter, but I know that. And so I used to do quite a bit of things like drop sets, supersets, giant sets, negatives. And these days I do very little, maybe some supersets here and there, maybe some drop sets here and there. because I now know that straight hard sets are the bread and butter of getting big and strong.
And you don’t need anything else really, to get to where you want to be. That said, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no place for the fancier stuff. There is, but only if you do it correctly. And that’s why I invited Dr. Eric Helms back on the show to discuss which of the common unconventional training methods are worthwhile and which are not and how to use the good ones correctly and effectively.
Now, if you are not familiar with Eric, he is a natural bodybuilder and powerlifter, coach, researcher, writer, member of Legion’s scientific advisory board and all around mench. And in this interview, he discusses the evidence for and against advanced training techniques and explains exactly what to do and what not to do in the gym to get the most out of your training.
Oh, and if you like what Eric has to say in this episode, then you should definitely check out his podcast, The Stronger by Science podcast, as well as his research review, Monthly Applications in Strength Sport or MASS, because I think you will really appreciate what he and his colleagues are doing. I know I do.
Mike: [00:04:20] Dr. Helms is back.
Eric: [00:04:22] It’s good to be back, man. How you doing, Mike?
Mike: [00:04:24] I’m good. I’m good. Can’t complain, just busy. Trying to get ahead on work because I go out of town in a couple of weeks. I’m gonna go to Italy with my family for a couple of weeks and I could do some work while I’m there, but I’m not going to have my setup.
Eric: [00:04:39] And why would you do that to yourself? Italy is amazing. I just had the pleasure of being there not too long ago after my competition in April, it’s so cool. Yeah.
Mike: [00:04:48] Yeah. I’ve been to Rome. That’s actually where I proposed to my wife, was in Rome, but we didn’t go anywhere else. So this time we’re gonna fly into Genoa, I guess is how you pronounce it, and then stay in Portofino for a few days, and then go to Venice for a few days, and then go to Florence for a few days, and then back to Portofino for like a day or two and then leave.
Eric: [00:05:11] Florence, it was incredible. That was probably the highlight of the trip where we had it. It was really, really cool. So you’re going to a great time, man.
Mike: [00:05:17] Yeah, yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been wanting to go to Florence for some time just because that was the heart of the Renaissance. There’s so much to see there. Just all the standard touristy stuff is basically what I want to do.
Eric: [00:05:28] Yeah, and it’s worth it. It’s well worth it. There’s so much history to kind of stand in the midst of.
Mike: [00:05:35] Well, that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about getting jacked, as usual.
Eric: [00:05:40] Mmhmm, try to look like some of those statues in Florence. That’s what we’re here for. There’s your transition.
Mike: [00:05:46] [Laughing] You’re a smart man. You’re a smart man. That’s you right now. We were just talking, just before he got on, you are in super shredded mode right now. Anybody who wants to “myer”, as the kids say, go check out Eric’s Instagram.
Eric: [00:06:01] [Laughing] Yeah, middle of the contest, prep season, see if my brain still works. So good stuff.
Mike: [00:06:07] If I heard you were eating a snack just before, maybe that’s enough to, like, carry you through the next forty-five minutes.
Eric: [00:06:13] Yeah, but no longer than that. Forty-six minutes all of a sudden I’ll be unable to interpret research. So be wary. It’s downhill from there.
Mike: [00:06:20] Just Netflix comes on. You can’t stop your hands.
Eric: [00:06:24] Exactly. [Laughing]
Mike: [00:06:26] So today the discussion is going to be about advanced training techniques, I guess you could say, or intensity techniques. Stuff like supersets, drop sets, forced reps, pre-exhaustion. You recently covered this in MASS and I really like your take on these things. Because back when I first got into weight lifting, these are the kind of things that you find in bodybuilding magazines and are often recommended because they sound fancy, and if the magazines told you like, “oh, you’re new to weightlifting?
Yeah, just, you know, squat, deadlift, bench, and overhead press for the first year or so and then we’ll talk about the rest after that.” Probably wouldn’t sell as well. So instead the workouts are to try to sell you on the innovative breakthrough training methods. I did a lot of this stuff back when I first started training, but I don’t think I got too much out of it, honestly. I guess I was consistent so I got something out of my first few years, but not very much. So …
Eric: [00:07:25] Yeah, I tend to agree, man.
Mike: [00:07:26] I want to hear your thoughts on: where do these things fit into, I’d say more just like, our fitness journey. Right? From the first couple years and then into the intermediate phase and beyond.
Eric: [00:07:37] You know, I was like you. I think that the magazine culture that we came up in, prior to the current social media boom, that kind of dictates the way information is parsed in the fitness industry, means that they’ve got to have some new article that’s not new at all every time a magazine comes out. And there was 20 of them. You had Head Mac International, Muscular Development, Flex, etcetera, Men’s Fitness, and then a ton of, kind of, lower-tier ones that were all trying to produce the same content.
And they got, many times contracts with, you know, IFBB pros and bodybuilders and fitness models and it’s like, “hey, tell us your workout.” And these guys are like, “look, it’s the same thing it always has been.” They’re like, “our and our editor will take care of it. Maybe we’ll talk about …” Seems like they’re throwing a dart at the dartboard, “bicep training for advanced offseason gains,” or something like that.
And so invariably you have to get this recycling a different standard training if you were to be honest about it. So what I think comes out of it is they have to sexify it. The use of supersets, drop sets, forced reps, rest pause, all of these things were cycled in and out at that time just to keep it fresh.
Mike: [00:08:48] Pre exhaustion. I remember when that was a thing. When I was working with a trainer years ago and he was all about pre-exhaustion and he had a lot of buzzwords to explain why that was.
Eric: [00:08:57] Yeah. And interesting enough, there has been some research on that and it doesn’t do exactly what it was originally proposed to do. And, you know, Dorian Yates was a user of that and also forced reps. And at least he was actually doing those things. It wasn’t just like random IFBB pro and then we said he does superstates, you know? I think placing these techniques with the word “advanced” or with “special”, I actually don’t agree, I don’t think these are advanced techniques.
I think they are interesting strategies that may allow you to be time-efficient or in some cases potentially enhance performance. But in other cases it actually degrade it. And I think that’s an important thing to point out too, is we have to think about rather than how these have been positioned by magazines, but what do they logically do? Logic is one thing, but the next step, and we’ve now actually got a fair amount of research on these, is what happens when we actually test in a lab setting?
An applied lab setting? And we’re still far behind the amount of time that’s been spent using these. I was recently reading a book by David Draper and he was talking about using antagonist paired sets backs in the mid-60s. Him and Arnold really liked to structure their training, so they would do a push and then pull back to back and they found it was time efficient.
Mike: [00:10:14] I remember Arnold’s chest and back workout was like the – I remember that from Arnold’s book back in the day.
Eric: [00:10:19] Yeah. And we’ll get into it. But there’s actually some of those things that they kind of intuitively landed on do make sense. And then some of the things that have been more kind of just pushed because magazines got to put something out every month, perhaps don’t make quite as much sense. So I think overall, if I was going to the big high-level summary, it’s: each one of these techniques has potential to be positive or negative, depending on how it’s used and the logic you put into it and the context.
You know, sometimes I mean, everyone relates this, you go to the gym on, let’s say, a Friday or Saturday at your normal time in your head, it’s normal and you forget, “oh, shit, this is the day the gym closes an hour early. I only have 30 minutes left when I thought I had an hour and 30,” and you scramble to figure out what to do. And maybe you’re doing something suboptimal, but you get in all your sets in those 30 minutes when otherwise you probably wouldn’t have.
And this is why it’s, you know, research can only tell you so much like, there’s a lot of research showing that short rest intervals are inferior to longer rest intervals for hypertrophy and strength. But in the real world, if told you, “Hey, we’ll take two people and they can do as many sets as they can in an hour and one guy or one person in this example goes, “okay,” and the other person goes, “okay,” and one person just is not in good a shape and takes longer rest.
And the other person takes shorter rest and does more total sets. Even if they’re a little more fatigued, they’re going to get more growth because they’re going to get more volume. Even if per unit, it’s a lower efficiency. That’s not the way research is done. You know, we match the volume, we equate it, and then that’s when those longer rest periods start to make more sense. And that’s kind of the same thing.
Any time one of these advanced techniques is basically manipulating what you’re doing during a rest period, it can increase fatigue and there are ways to increase fatigue, which might be worse, better, or just kind of similar to if you had rested too short. Probably, Mike, we can talk a lot more high level about this, if you want, or we can get into the weeds on a specific study. How do you want to kind of run with this?
Mike: [00:12:20] Do you want to just start with maybe just talking about each of these techniques? So, like, we could start with supersets. That’s probably the most common one, at least the one that I’m most commonly asked about. Because in my books for men and women, which is how a lot of people find me and my training recommendations, I don’t recommend supersets. I don’t say don’t do supersets, they’re just not in the program. And so people often reach out to me like, “hey, I see all these people in the gym doing supersets. And I read about them and I hear about them. Why do you not have me do supersets?”
Eric: [00:12:51] So, yeah, let’s define our terms first. So supersets are basically when you do two exercises back-to-back without rest. And depending on how you think of them or where you read about them, you might get to rest after each pair or you just keep going until you finish all your sets. Traditionally, I think, you know, you do one set of one, one side of the other, rest, and then repeat.
And while there’s not a ton of research on supersets, the research that is out there shows you can have vastly different effects, depending on what two things you’re supersetting. So if you’re supersetting two exercises for the same muscle group, let’s say dumbbell shoulder press and a front raise, this seems to be a largely negative effect, at least for acute performance, which we would think if you extrapolate it out to actual longitudinal hypertrophy, would probably be worse.
And this kind of basically comes down to the idea that while fatigue is part of creating a stimulus for hypertrophy, the actual performance of being able to generate more tension is the main principle. So if we get fatigue, that helps us generate more tension or that is a result of generating more tension, largely good. However, if we place fatigue kind of in the order of operations as being more important than generating tension and the muscle, then we’re kind of putting the cart before the horse.
Mike: [00:14:11] So that could be similar to doing that, where you’re super supersetting to front delt exercises. Let’s say a primarily front delt could be similar to just maybe only working in the 30 plus rep range or something or 20 plus rep range.
Eric: [00:14:24] Yeah, I mean, if you get really, really high rep, you do start to run into issues. Especially if you’re doing heavy compound, I guess it wouldn’t be heavy, but compound full-body lifts that would generate so much cardiometabolic fatigue that it actually is going to make, say the RDL’s you to have those squats, difficult. So there’s a number of parallels you can think of where, yeah, we think fatigue is good. “I want to create fatigue and that’s how I train muscles and then they’ll grow.” But we want the right kind of fatigue.
We want, you know, the fatigue that comes from creating tension, stimulating and fatiguing muscle fibers versus global fatigue, cardiometabolic fatigue, or generating so much local fatigue that it actually creates a feedback loop and generates central fatigue, which we can talk about and inhibits your ability to actually recruit fibers. Let’s say you did have front raises and a shoulder press to do on that day, but you also had – let’s say you’re doing like shoulder and leg day or something like that.
If you were to do squats and then, you know, take a break, do your shoulder press, take a break, do leg extensions and then do front raises, your delts would have recovered somewhat from the acute stress of those shoulder presses. You’d probably look for more reps with heavier load. And this is an example of how you can do more total work, you can probably create more tension.
And this seems to be reflected in the research that when you train a muscle group and then basically keep training it, it’s the same thing as not taking a rest interval. So if you’re doing shoulder press and you go right to front raises, this parallels the same research we see where people don’t take enough rest and the performance goes down and subsequently you’d expect long term outcomes be worse.
Mike: [00:15:57] And it would also be similar to just doing, let’s say, it’s two sets of 10. Right? In both of these exercises. It’s similar as if that was the regular way you trained, was you always did a superset of two exercises in a row for every muscle group that you did, that you worked on. It would be similar to just training and a higher rep range, as if you were doing one set of 20 plus reps or whatever. Which we know it would just not be optimal. It would not be an optimal way to train, right?
Eric: [00:16:25] Yeah, exactly. There’s a certain point where we’re doing a certain amount of high reps. Especially if we’re talking about like, these isolation movements. Typically, they’re going to be doing high reps anyway. So it’d be like a set of 40. And that’s exactly right. We start to see if you’re using loads that could do that many reps with, it’s typically below the threshold for what’s optimal.
Like, you can go pretty light and get effective stimulus, you can be doing, I’d say your probably 40 percent of one RM is kind of the bottom zone. If you’re actually going to failure, you’re probably going to still produce equal hypertrophy compared to another set at a higher load. But at a certain point, like if you’re doing two 20 reps supersets, yeah, that’s probably not optimal. And that’s a great way of looking at it, Mike.
And basically what you did is you reverse-engineered it and you ask people to think about this logically. Instead of saying, “hey, IFBB pro said supersets are good.” You said, “hold on, wait a minute. My interior delt is basically just doing 40 reps in a row here and is that optimal? What do I know? Does that make sense? Would I do that if it was just to shoulder press?” Probably not. And then and that’s exactly what the research tends to show.
As the performance goes down when you pair the same muscle group with another access for the same muscle group and do no rest. Interestingly enough, there are intelligent ways to do supersets though. This is what’s called an antagonist paired set. So an agonist in muscle physiology is a muscle that is producing the main movement and its antagonist produces the opposite movement. So, for example, your quad versus your hamstring. One does knee flexion, one does knee extension. They oppose one another. So in an antagonist paired set, that might be when you’re doing a superset of, let’s say, leg extension and then leg curls.
Interestingly enough, the research on this largely actually shows improved performance and at worst the same kind of performance compared to traditional training. Meaning that if I was to do a set of, let’s say, 15 leg extensions and I rested 30 to 60 seconds, which is a key point I’ll talk about in a second, and then I would over and I did a set of leg curls rested 30 to 60 seconds, rinse and repeated, kind of going back and forth with opposing muscle groups, this has actually been shown to enhance total volume, which is pretty interesting.
Now, why might that be? Well, for one, you’re simply not training the same muscle group again. And it’s essentially getting rest during that time period where you are training another muscle group, because if it was active, it would be in opposition. However, if you think about it, when you look at someone doing a leg and a leg curl, if you couldn’t see the exertion, if you look at the first few reps and if you couldn’t see where the pad was, whether it was on the back or the front of their ankle, it just looks like their leg going into extension and deflection.
So both muscle groups, whether they’re the active component working during each exercise, are getting moved through a passive range of motion when they’re not. So it’s essentially helping to clear out some of that metabolic waste, we think from the previous set, on enhancing recovery during that time period, maybe even priming it and getting some coactivation, things like that.
So we don’t know the exact mechanism by which it does enhance performance, but it’s been shown both in bench press and bench pull. So basically at barbell row that’s supported compared to a bench press and at leg extensions and leg curls that when you pair back to back exercises that are opposing one another in that manner with a little bit arrest in between, you don’t need much, even just a minute or two or 30 seconds on isolation movement, that can actually enhance performance. And that’s called the antagonist paired set. And like I said, that’s been intuitively used by bodybuilders since the 60s, like Dave Draper, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mike: [00:19:57] I mean, that’s something I’ve done for years now before understanding it the way that you just explained it. For my arms, for example, it seemed that I didn’t really lose much by doing if I’m going to do some arms training, do a set of biceps, rest, most would be a minute, I think usually I was like 30 or 45 seconds, do a set for triceps. I did it just to save time, really.
Eric: [00:20:19] Absolutely. And I think that’s the main benefit or potential benefit of supersets is in the real world where sometimes we kind of look at people and go, “how did they develop such a good physique, but there’s sort of evidence-based? I’m seeing all these supersets and drop sets, etcetera.” And it’s like, well, people have a certain amount of time to train.
And while they may be making the efficiency of each one of those sets a little less because, you know, it’s doing a continuous set of 40 or etcetera, compared to the person who’s maybe read a textbook and they’re going, “right, I care about strength and size, I’m going to rest five minutes between each set and I’m going to focus on the big compound lifts.” They might be able to get through three times as much volume per muscle group, even if that volume is inefficient and they’re gonna be able to grow more.
So it’s kind of like, “all right, well, what’s the best of both worlds?” And something like antagonist paired sets are a really good idea. That’s a way that I’ve programmed, if you read, you know, the Muscle and Strength Pyramids, I recommend doing a chest and back, and then arms back to back, and then leg extensions back to back. So if it’s an upper-body movement pairing your pushes and pulls set to set, and then like you said, if it’s isolation arm work or isolation leg work, same exact thing, and that’s a pretty efficient way to capitalize on time while not compromising performance.
Mike: [00:21:31] Yeah. Or get a bit more volume in with the time that you have. I was just gonna add on exercise selection. You have said isolation exercise and it’s probably worth highlighting that point. Right? Because I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t want to superset, let’s say, a heavy set of squats with something that is not an antagonist paired. There is no – obviously the squat works so many muscles, but let’s say go back to back, and I’ve tried this before, doing legs and shoulders, I used to do that.
I just found that the squats, because the squats were generally heavier, I’m working no higher than 10 reps often it was somewhere around probably six reps and getting close to technical failure within one or two reps. I was just kind of gassed and I just wanted to – I felt like I needed a few minutes of rest just to be able to give my next set of squats everything that I could do to maintain the weight and the performance as opposed to, okay, go from the squat into something that, sure has nothing to do with legs. My legs technically are arresting, you know, go do some side raises even. What are your thoughts on that?
Eric: [00:22:40] Yeah, Mike, that exactly mirrors some of the little bit of research that’s been done on this. So after some of the antagonist paired set research came out right around 2010 or so, that’s when there was kind of a boom of it. There was a study, I believe done. It might have been squats and bench press, or just squats and bench, or squats, and bench pull. I can’t quite remember the study, but it was one of those three designs and that’s exactly what they found, was that even though the “prime movers” in the upper body exercises that were paired with the squats should have been rested and weren’t being trained in each movement.
There was actually a decrement performance, very slightly on the number of reps they could perform during squats. And that’s because these big lift compound movements, even when a muscle isn’t being trained directly, it might be trained asymmetrically. And more importantly, if you do a hard set of squats close to technical failure like that, it’s a full-body exercise from a cardiometabolic standpoint, and you just might be too gassed.
And that’s exactly what they found. So there are certain movements I just don’t think are well suited to this. I think, you know, a bench press and a bench pull is probably as much of a compound as I would do it with. I mean, you’re lying on a bench, either face down or face up, and it’s only upper body. So it’s not that hard, even though it is a compound movement.
Mike: [00:23:55] Or maybe a seated overhead press. Standing is a little bit more difficult.
Eric: [00:23:58] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I think most upper body movements you’d probably be fine with. The ones I wouldn’t recommend combining with would be things like a deadlift, or an RDL, or any squat variation. Probably not even a leg press if you’re going pretty hard because you can push yourself harder on those. So maybe, I think it depends on the person likely. But I think that’s a really good point, is that it’s not just about pairing movements that shouldn’t affect one another, although that is a big part of it.
If you want to get some of that “little bit of magic” that is in the APT, the antagonist paired sets, it is about actually pairing antagonists, which therefore prevents you from doing something that trains the full body. You know, even asymmetrically. So like a deadlift, a squat, you know, lunges, RDL, those are all movements that you probably want to do on your own, and if you’re a powerlifter, I would probably even tell you to do bench press on its own because you’re in that arch position, you’ve got leg drive and it’s an important lift, you don’t risk it.
But yeah, if you’re a bodybuilder, I think pairing benches with rows, you know, overhead press with lat pulldowns, curls with tricep pushdowns, leg extensions with leg curls. And I do think you could do some things like, if you wanted to do squats and then catchphrases, I think that’s probably fine. If you wanted to do something like, let’s say, an RDL and a lateral raise, I think that’s probably fine.
But you want to pick that other exercise that really is quite not fatiguing and then loosen up on your rest interval. You know? You may even find that you have to rest long enough while doing that. That doesn’t really give you a time advantage. Is it even worth it? So I think you have to consider that kind of on a case by case basis.
Mike: [00:25:40] Yeah. You know, something else that I have liked to superset into my workouts really, again, just to save time is if I’m doing any sort of ab training, leg raises, or maybe cable crunches or planks, rollouts, or whatever. And what I do not like to do, though, and I’ve tried it before, it sounded like a bad idea, but I was just curious, was trying to superset any sort of core work into heavier squats and deadlifts in particular.
And of course, it makes sense why that’s not a good idea because exercises already put a lot of strain on your core. And those are some of the muscles that you do want to have rested and recovered. And so going from a heavy set of squats to having a fatigued core now to like doing a core exercise and then maybe resting 30 seconds or so, max 60 seconds back into the squats, it didn’t work well.
So just for anybody out there wondering “what about ab work?” I do think, and Eric can give his thoughts on this as well, of course, but I do think ab work or core work is a good candidate for supersetting, but I just wouldn’t recommend messing with the heavy squats and deadlifts. Just really take your rest.
Eric: [00:26:50] Yeah, I agree. It’s one of those times it pays to be a student of your sport or your practice. You know, just to have a basic understanding of what’s involved where and don’t think of exercises for muscle groups. Like squats aren’t for quads. Squats are squats. They train a lot of your body and, you know, if you want to do sets of knee-ups in between sets of bench, you know, while you’re already there and just kind of sit up and do them, that’s great, because you don’t need your core stabilization while you’re lying down.
But yeah, pairing up core training, even though the core is only trained isometrically through squats and deadlifts, that’s an important isometric function to keep you upright, you know you don’t have a spine on the front or your body. So the importance of keeping that fresh and being able to maintain rigidity press that against your belt if you’re wearing one, or just against your TVA, if you’re not, stay stable definitely.
Just gotta think about any time you’re doing paired sets is, the exercise I do paired with the other shouldn’t be fatigued or fatiguing for the other muscle groups trained and vice versa. And ideally just stick with the antagonist paired sets and you’ll know that you’ll be safe.
Mike: [00:29:30] Let’s move on to drop sets.
Eric: [00:29:32] Yes. So drop sets and rest pauses have been researched only a little more recently and they’ve actually got some promising studies behind them. Doing drops sets where, for example, you’ll do a certain load and then once you’ve hit failure, you then drop the load and then extend the set. The way they’ve been done in the research has been so that the reps aren’t super crazy high to the point where it may be suboptimal. But you start with a reasonably heavy load and you do a couple drops. And this has actually been shown to be as effective as straight sets of similar numbers.
You know, three straight sets versus one heavy set and three drops or something like that. Now, that’s great because it does save you time. It even saves a little bit of volume and joint stress. You don’t have to use as heavy a load and the total reps are typically similar or less in a drop set versus the straight set. And this is essentially coming down to what is an “effective rep”.
So once you’ve done one set to failure, you’re going to maintain that high level of motor unit activation, and even though you’re using a lower load or even doing fewer reps, it’s going to be basically producing high tension from the word “go” as soon as you pick up those slightly lighter dumbbells. Now, the problem, though, is that progressive overload is still the primary variable we need to ensure that we get any fitness adaptation over time.
So if you’re going to be comparing, you don’t want to be comparing apples to oranges in your logbook overtime to ensure progress. So if you’ve been doing, let’s say, straight sets on curls and all of a sudden you go to drop sets, you don’t really want to try to compare those two. You just want to sign either drop sets or rest-pause, which we’ll talk about in a second, to that movement and then try to just add a few more reps here and there.
You know, increase the load on your drops and the top set and just try to make those progressive increases. And we don’t really know, like, what’s the conversion like, how many drops should I do? What’s equivalent to doing three hard sets of bicep curls? Is that one hard set and two drops, or is it three drops, or is it four drops? That we don’t know. We just know in the studies that have been done, kind of what the researchers best guess at what would be equivalent in fact was.
So that’s the main issue. And the same thing is true of rest-pause. Rest pause being instead of going immediately into a lower load, you just maintain the same load, but rest 20 to 30 seconds, and then get a few more reps going to failure, and repeating again, and then doing a number of those rest plus series. And again, it’s like, you know, if you do one set to failure and then you do a few, basically clusters to failure every 30 seconds afterwards until you can only get a rep or two, that should be equivalent to straight sets.
Because again, even though you’re doing fewer total reps, you’re maintaining a high level of motor unit activation. You know that the bar moves slow so you’re putting a high level of tension on the muscle and you’re actually getting less total reps in either less or at the same time, but a similar total stimulus. But again, you really can only compare that to itself and we don’t know how to compare that to straight sets.
As a final note, I would say that these are probably, again, techniques you probably only want to do with isolation movements. Doing drop sets or rest-pause on big compounds, especially like the squats, the deadlifts like we talked about, is going to generate a lot of fatigue. And the times where we consistently see benefits of drop sets and supersets, it’s always being used on isolation movements. And I actually think if you were to do them on big compound lifts, you’d probably see a negative just because you’d be so fatigued from doing that, extending those sets similar to doing very high rep squats or something like that.
Mike: [00:33:11] Yeah, yeah. Do you use drop sets in your training?
Eric: [00:33:13] I use rest-pause a little more. I use drops sometimes and it’s always for kind of my final movement of the day, always an isolation movement. So I’ll use them on – for example, I’ve done them on curls recently. Some preacher curls and hammer curls, I’ve done those recently. Lateral raises, I’ve done those, and calf raises. Those are the candidates that I normally use. Movements where the fatigue lasts barely into the rest period.
And then when I look at my logbook, I’m trying to get a few more reps on my drop or go, “all right, well, I’m not going to do anything lighter than a 15 RM on my first set.” So if I can get more than 15 reps, that’s when I know to increase the load on my first set and subsequently, I’ll make similar proportional drops. So all of my loads are a little higher. So that’s the key point there, I compare apples to apples.
Mike: [00:34:00] Yeah, that makes sense. And you’re doing it just to get a little bit more volume in a little bit less time in a way that’s a little bit easier on your body?
Eric: [00:34:08] Exactly. Yeah. You know, it’s a way to do fewer total reps, less time. And for me, I started doing this in prep actually. And the reason being is that training is a little more mentally fatiguing in prep than other times. Like, I’ve made other cosmetic “changes” that in the offseason, you think wouldn’t matter. Like I’ve swapped out front squats for a plate-loaded hack squat, just because keeping my front rack position seems harder when I’m a little more burnt out from dieting.
And you know, there’s probably a little less stabilization. But those kinds of cosmetic changes allow me to keep my training intensity high when my fatigue levels from outside of the gym, you know, being lethargic, having low calories, etcetera, are problematic. And sometimes, man, I just want to get out of the gym and, you know, go home and eat dinner.
And I’m like, “all right, well, I can finish my curls in seven minutes if I take my standard two-minute rest interval ish, or I can finish them in a minute if I just do a series of drop sets and rest-pause.” And I think that’s one reason to do it. I know James Krieger, who is someone who has experimented with some of these techniques, he does them just to reduce the total volume because he tends to get tendinitis and I think that’s also very valid, so yeah.
Mike: [00:35:21] Makes sense. I think we should move on to the next one, which would be forced reps? That’s something also that I think is fairly common, I get asked about it at least.
Eric: [00:35:31] Yeah. Yeah. Forced reps, also popularized by Dorian Yates, kind of along with that pre-exhaust. These are essentially when you can’t train without a spotter, you know. Or maybe if you’re doing a unilateral movement you can spot yourself. And this is where you might take your eight rep max, but do 10 reps because your spotter helped you in the last two.
Now, there is not a lot of research, there is some, and for the most part, it shows that it’s equal to normal training, but it might produce a little more fatigue, which makes sense. Not great longitudinal research, so we can’t say if it enhances strength or hypertrophy. But I will say that I’m not a fan of forced reps because I think it’s very difficult to apply a consistent stimulus from a spotter, so you don’t know how much help you’re getting.
And I also think it doesn’t typically ingrain good form or good habits. I think it’s really important, especially in the novice stages of a lifter, to be able to be confident and know where their true failure is so they can do things like stop a little bit short, be safe without a spotter, but also not be sandbagging without a spotter. And then, you know, like who is it? The same gym partner every time, is it a random person? How do you know whether you are actually there or not, etc.
And then you’re enhancing muscle damage a fair bit and fatigue and I don’t know that you’re getting a payoff from it. How much different is your rep at eight or nine or 10 RPE versus the two reps pass that you did in terms of the tension stimulus? It is more volume, but is the volume that much more effective per rep when you’re going past failure, that it’s worth the additional fatigue? And my hunch is, no, we don’t have research on that quite yet. But yeah, for the most part, it seems to be relatively equivalent, at least from the minimal data we have as far as traditional training.
Mike: [00:37:20] Makes sense. I’m not sure if you actually covered this in the article in MASS, but what about negatives? Did you cover negatives?
Eric: [00:37:29] No. I mean, that isn’t in that article. But there’s actually a fair amount of research looking at what’s called accentuated eccentrics where, you know, you’ve done all the concentric work you can and then you’re going to continue and get a spot on the concentric so you can do more lowering of the weight. For someone who’s trying to figure out what I’m talking about, if you think of this in your head, basically let’s say you’re doing bench and you’re only getting a spot on the concentric and then you do the heavy eccentric part until you can no longer control the eccentric.
Cool thing is that we’re 20 to 40 percent stronger eccentrically, meaning we can lower more load than we can lift. As a clear example of this, people don’t miss squats on the way down, they miss on the way up. They can lower in the hole and then they’re not going to stand up, right? And we’ve all seen those gym fail videos where someone takes a load on the way down and we know they’re not going to stand back up with it, but we get that anticipation.
Mike: [00:38:23] Six seconds on the way down, legs shaking.
Eric: [00:38:27] Yep. No way they’re coming back and they don’t. So imagine, though, if you could hit a magic button and you had, you know, plate releases or a hydraulic pump that would actually help you on the way back up. And there’s actually in some high-performance strength conditioning settings, they have constructed such devices. We actually have one that High-Performance Sport New Zealand here uses in our sports performance center.
It’s a Smith machine that gives hydraulic assistance on the way back up. So, for example, I played with this. I’ve sat in the hole with 250 kilos on my back, which is a solid 30 kilos more than my max at the time, and then on the way up, I’m doing one 120, you know, and it feels really cool. And, you know, if you speculate, you would think this would allow you to exert yourself more because you’re not stopping at the point of concentric fatigue, but of concentric and eccentric fatigue.
And this research is still in its infancy and there is overall mixed data that if I was to kind of take a bird’s eye view, we don’t know enough about hypertrophy and the strength response is inconsistent, but probably neutral. So I think it’s a case where we need to see a specific application of it and wait for more research to come out.
Mike: [00:39:41] Interesting. I had no idea that a contraption like that exists. That’s creative. That’s clever.
Eric: [00:39:47] And there’s easier ways to do it. I think it’s worth experimenting with. This actually would be an advanced technique, in my opinion. Some of the ways to do it that are a lot easier and don’t require, you know, fancy technology like that, or a really, really nice spotter on squats, would be two up one down leg press. So, for example, you do the concentric with both legs and then you lower the load back into place with one leg and you bring your second leg back end for each concentric rep.
Because you’re so much stronger eccentrically than the load you can handle for, let’s say, you know, a 10 RM on concentric, double leg leg-press, you can lower with a single leg to the point until you’re actually hitting fatigue. But it’s not something I actively recommend just because we just don’t know enough about it at this stage.
Mike: [00:40:30] And I’m sure it would result in a lot more muscle damage. Right? So you’d be probably quite sore. It would require more, in the way of recovery. Right?
Eric: [00:40:38] At least initially. You can definitely expect if you’re enhancing the total eccentric load beyond what you’re used to, because if you’re used to training to the point where you’ve only taken the eccentric brunt necessary to go near concentric failure, then, yeah, it’s going to be substantially more time spent doing the eccentric and because you’re going closer to eccentric failure, those reps are going to slow down more and more. So, yeah, it ends up creating substantially more muscle damage initially, and of course, you will adapt if you do a full mesocycle of including this in your training.
Mike: [00:41:07] Yep, yep. Pre exhaustion, let’s talk about that next.
Eric: [00:41:11] Yeah, pre-exhaustion is an interesting one. So if you look at some of the popular bodybuilding magazines and what it was postulated that pre-exhaustion would do. They would be like, “Hey, if you do a set of leg extensions and then you go into squats, it’s going to prime your quads and they’re gonna get really, really trained. And it’s going to basically be a way of putting more emphasis on the pre-exhausted muscle because they’re tired and now they have to work even harder.” And that’s not a completely illogical statement.
But we’ve seen actually time and time again now with multiple studies and the research that what actually happens is the other muscle groups in a compound movement have to come into play more. So there was a study showing, actually, this was recently reviewed in MASS were at least in the first experimental session doing triceps before, I believe, the incline bench enhanced the activation of the sternal head of the pectoralis major.
Because supposedly, you’d think, if you were to speculate, triceps can’t help as much, the pecs gotta turn on more. And they’ve shown similar things in other studies in the past. So pre-exhaust is interesting. I don’t know how well we can predict how well it’s going to play out, but if you have a dominant muscle group in exercise, there is a theoretical rationale for doing some isolation work on it and trying to get more shifted to the other muscle groups.
With that said, I don’t know how much of a fan I am with trying to kind of manipulate training like that, especially through compound movements. I think it’s important just to take these compound lifts and treat them like they are, become a master of the lifts, perform them with solid form, and let them develop you the way they do in kind of the natural way you’re built anthropometrically, with your limb lengths in your biomechanics.
And then if you find that results in certain muscles not being as well developed esthetically, then you can just do more volume on other exercises. You know, like adding in some leg press if your quads aren’t developed well from squats or if you find deadlifts are great for building your lumbar and your glutes, but your hamstrings aren’t doing too well, hey, throw in some RDL’s or some leg curls rather than trying to pre-exhaust your hamstrings before doing a deadlift. I’d be worried about that from a safety standpoint in the long term.
Mike: [00:43:21] Yeah. Yeah. And I think that is a key point. There is no reason especially for – and I include myself in that, most of the people listening and me as well, there’s just no reason for us to need to stray far from the fundamentals really, for what we’re trying to achieve. And to be specific with that is, if you’re someone who, let’s say you’re a guy and you’re new to weightlifting and you want to have a great physique, that means you’re gonna have to gain somewhere around 35, maybe 40 pounds of muscle in the right places.
If you’re a woman and you want to have that kind of lean, defined, toned kind of athletic physique, maybe it’s 20-ish pounds, 15 to 20 in the right places with body fat in maybe the 20 percent range. And for guys, maybe somewhere between 10 to 15 percent. Like, that’s it, most people are going to be very happy with that. And to get there, you don’t need to do any of the things that we’ve been talking about.
And then once you’re there and you go, “okay, what’s next for me?” If you want to keep going, in terms of achieving your genetic potential for strength and muscle gain, you still probably don’t need to – you can still get there without doing any of the stuff that you’ve been telling us about in this podcast – would you agree with that? You could get there just by applying the fundamentals like you just said.
To speak personally, after maybe four or five years of good proper training, after maybe six or seven years of kind of wonky training, I noticed that I had gained a lot of muscle and I looked better for sure. But my lats were just lacking. I had a strong back, it was kind of strange. But my lats to me, it just looked a little bit disproportionate.
And so I just did some standing pushdowns and just added some extra volume for, I don’t know, a year or so specifically targeting the lats and what, you know, my lats improved, so that we know works. There’s no way it won’t work. Now, what if I would’ve tried to do some pre-exhaustion with my deadlifts or my other pulling? Would that have worked? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.
Eric: [00:45:27] Maybe you would hurt your back, you know. [Laughing] But I totally echo you. The idea that the basics are kind of ho-hum, whatever, that’s what everyone has to do when they start, but then it gets fun later. I think that totally doesn’t match up with some of the most successful coaches across a full spectrum of sport, strength, conditioning, bodybuilding, and powerlifting. It’s that these coaches realize that these fundamental, “basic exercises” for the most part in a basic strategy, produces the most efficient bang for your buck results.
So what do they do with their programming, even at the highest level? They find a way to emphasize it even more. Because we often forget when we look at these sexy new ideas or techniques in nutrition or training, that there’s an opportunity cost. That if you’re spending all this time focusing on these shiny objects, that takes away from your time that you could be spending rigorously and effectively applying the fundamentals.
Now, that’s a principle-based statement, which means that’s how you should think about it as a coach, as someone who is thinking about a broad spectrum of people from a theoretical basis, if I’m going to write my book or if you’re going to write a book, we’re going to emphasize that. But individual solutions and that’s exactly what an advanced athlete is defined by.
The need for individual specific case-by-case solutions is going to dictate things like, “yeah, of course, we’re going to spend 80, 90 percent of our time doing presses, pulls, squats, pulldowns, chinning, rose dips, etcetera. But, hey, damn it, my lats aren’t very well developed.” But that’s a Mike Matthews specific situation. And you found a Mike Matthew-specific solution.
Ironically, that’s actually also an Eric Helms specific problem and solution that I found. Right around 2007, this is the point I developed enough of a physique where I actually got on stage for the first time, certainly not a high-level bodybuilder, I was a novice bodybuilder, I didn’t do very well. But I was the strongest guy in the gym kind of thing and had a physique worthy of the stage, at least the natural stage.
And I had a T-taper, you know, I had great rear delts, good mid-back development, but pretty poor lat development as well, and I also needed to specifically target my lats and get a better mind-muscle connection and make sure that I could actually put tension into that muscle group. And that took some years of training and experimenting for sure. So that’s kind of the key here is that everyone should be rigorously applying the fundamentals, but then at a certain point, you may need specific solutions to a specific problem.
Mike: [00:48:03] Yeah, you know, that makes me think of, I think it was elite swimmers, it was just anecdotal, but it’s you had these elite swimmers that they had to be in the pool hours and hours day. And so you have all these different types of exercises or drills that they’re doing but really the point was – and this also reminds me of cycling as well, wherein the end we’re talking about work capacity.
We’re talking about whoever can crush themselves with the most volume and recover from it is ultimately probably going to perform the best and the fancy drills, and games, and things that coaches have come up with were mostly just to keep the swimmers and cyclists from burning out psychologically. Just getting so sick of doing the exact same things for hours and hours and hours.
But in the end, if that were not a factor, if someone somehow could just do the same boring shit day in, day out for months and years on end and just keep going and still be able to push themselves, they wouldn’t need much in the way of “fancy programming”, so to speak.
Eric: [00:49:11] And also, I think you’re right, but it’s also important to realize that elite sport and fitness are very different animals, you know?
Mike: [00:49:18] For sure. I know weightlifting is different, it just makes me think of that. I do think that there’s a parallel there.
Eric: [00:49:25] Yeah. And what I was saying is that elite sport and fitness are different animals in that, the availability bias that coaches pay attention to is, “yeah, I’ve got you in here Monday through Saturday training for three hours in the pool. But then I’ve got a specific issue, you know, you’ve got a small injury,” or, “we can’t get around this one problem,” or, “you consistently balk at this point and I need to find a specific solution for that individual problem.”
And then when I solve it, all of a sudden now we can actually move forward. We had a little block and now I’m thinking about,”oh, that was the solution.” So it’s important for these elite sport coaches to have a big tool belt so they can fix problems when they come up. But they kind of forget that 90 percent of the time I’ve got these people swimming if they’re swimmers and cycling if they’re cyclists, and they focus on the 10 percent because that was a difference in their day-to-day routine.
Also, it’s important to remember that in elite sport the difference between the first fastest person in the world and the tenth fastest, basically doesn’t matter outside of the context of them actually running a 100-meter sprint. Like, to any other metric in the world, the difference between the two is almost nothing. And if you take the fastest man in the world on a bad day and compare him to the 10th fastest man in the world on a good day, they might actually swap.
You know, there are times when you’re saying Bolt is running over 10 second 100 meters as he’s warming up for the year and peaking. So I think we forget that we get these snapshots and just how small the differences are between, you know, high-level athletes so that those marginal differences that only makeup point one percent of their training actually make a difference if they do.
So that’s another one of those things that we forget is we get so focused on, “oh, what did X, Y, Z athlete do to win the Olympics,” or, “this power meter, that, or whatever.” It’s like, well, you’re forgetting that there are already totaling 850 kilos at 105-kilo bodyweight, which is incredible. And what they did to go from 850 to 80 over a three-year span might have been what they did, but the whole point is, is they’re the only people in the world at all totaling over 800. So it’s kind of like we forget how far the fundamentals take you.
Mike: [00:51:31] Yeah. Yeah. Good point. Are there any other – those are all the ones that I had on my list. Are there any others that you think we should touch on?
Eric: [00:51:40] No. Those are the big ones, man. The cool study by Wallace that came out just this year, where basically they compared all of these together. The main take home, what they found was that in terms of looking at EMG, acute muscle swelling, which gets you an idea of how much metabolic work a muscle is doing and how much blood flow it gets, and then the total volume performed that forced reps, traditional sets, pre-exhaust were all about the same and only one that seemed to have less EMG activation and less total volume were those supersets.
And that’s probably some combination of just fatigue, getting less total rest, and perhaps even some central fatigue that was mediated by just doing incline back to back with bench with no rest. So, yeah, it kind of just supports everything we’ve talked about in all the disparate literature that we connected in our anecdotal experiences and says, yeah, one thing we know for sure is you probably shouldn’t do superstates for the same muscle group back to back, especially with compounds.
Mike: [00:52:36] Yep. Yep. And I guess then to just quickly summarize then just for people if they’re not sure in terms of practical takeaways. So there’s the supersetting, which is pairing the antagonist muscles, useful. Don’t mess with your compounds, but you can do it with arms, you can mix shoulders in with some isolation work, maybe on your legs after your squats or after your leg press. That’s useful.
You have dropped sets and rest-pause sets, which are also useful for squeezing in some extra volume. Eric, you said you like to do them toward the end of your workouts where it’s maybe for your shoulders or your arms. Right? And it gets you out of the gym faster, a little bit easier on your body, but that’s not something, again, that it wouldn’t make sense, right, if someone is like, “cool, so I got bench press, first exercise of the day, let’s do a bunch of drop sets.” From a program perspective that probably wouldn’t make much sense, right?
Eric: [00:53:30] Unless that’s all you were doing, yeah. So to summarize basically folks, you probably don’t want to take the same muscle group and train it back to back with multiple exercises. In general, if you’re gonna do a superset, you want to do an antagonist paired set. So pairing upper body, pushing with the body and pulling or isolation movements for the biceps and triceps or quads and hamstrings.
And then you can do paired sets that aren’t antagonists, but like Mike said, you want to make sure it’s probably something that’s not too fatiguing for your second movement and probably not with a big compound and lower body lift that has that total cardiometabolic cost. So keep your squats and your deadlifts on their own. But if you want to do some knee-ups while you’re benching, feel free.
If you want to do standing overhead press and calf raises, you’re probably fine. And then as far as the other stuff out there, a rest-pause and drop sets can be effective, just make sure you’re comparing like to like, apples to apples. And then for as what we know right now, while you can get that pre-activation to do something predictable, which is make sure the muscle that you’ve pre-exhausted, or it’s not really pre-activation is pre-exhaust, to have less contribution from the compound, you can do that, but I don’t know that that’s needed nor a good idea.
And then we need more research on accentuated eccentrics and force reps before we can really say a whole lot. But those I would classify as advanced techniques that are probably going to increase muscle damage, are probably a little riskier in the gym, and require special equipment or a spotter and someone you really trust to do them safely.
Mike: [00:55:03] Perfect. It’s great, as always, to talk with you, Eric. Thanks for taking the time. Before we wrap up here, let’s tell everybody about MASS it’s awesome and everybody should know about it. And anybody who is still listening and liked this conversation will definitely like MASS.
Eric: [00:55:21] I hope so. Yeah, and the cool thing is – so MASS is Monthly Applications in Strength Sport. That’s me, Dr. Mike Zourdos, and Greg Nuckols, basically doing this sort of thing on a monthly basis. So we release seven written articles and then Mike and myself do one video each month on a broader topic that we cover. Each one of the written articles on a specific study.
And then if you’re not a huge fan of reading, like if you’ve been engaged during this podcast and you like it, we do like 15 to 20-minute versions of these for each one of those written articles. So we do the audio roundtables, kind of give you at the takeaway of each main study and application. So you can watch videos, you can listen to round tables, you can read we’ve got all three “modes” depending on what your learning style is. And yeah, we’d love to have you there. We’ve got a lot of cool content and a back catalog that everyone gets access to that goes all the way back to early 2017.
Mike: [00:56:14] Yeah. And where can people find it?
Eric: [00:56:16] Strongerbyscience.com/mass.
Mike: [00:56:20] Awesome. And just to add my endorsement, which is going to be in the intro as well, but again, I’ve said this many times, but their research – there are a few research reviews out there, but MASS is by far my favorite. I think you guys do a really good job finding interesting research and then explaining it in relatively simple terms that someone like me, who’s not a scientist, can easily understand and follow along with.
And then also, I think you do a great job just connecting the information dots and referencing other research and painting a bigger picture and placing research into context so you really feel like you’re getting more out of the study review than just what that study would offer you if you reviewed it yourself. So if I were to go read one of those papers, I would get less out of it than reading it along with your take or Mike’s take or Greg’s take. So that’s something I also really enjoy, I find I always make a lot of highlights in every volume.
Eric: [00:57:25] I’m honored to hear that.
Mike: [00:57:26] Yeah, I really like what guys are doing and there’s a lot of work that goes into that. I appreciate it, you guys are doing it right.
Eric: [00:57:32] Thanks, dude. Yeah, that’s our whole goal, if the MASS article doesn’t result in some kind of change in your understanding or practice, we always have practical applications in there, then we haven’t done our job.
Mike: [00:57:42] Yeah. Yeah. So, again, everybody listening, are you guys offering any sort of free preview, free issue or something that people can check out?
Eric: [00:57:51] Absolutely. We have a Best of MASS issue that we update each year. So we’ve got The Best of MASS right now that has stuff going all the way from some of our late 2018 articles and I think maybe a few early 2019, all the way to 2017, so that’s definitely something you can get access to. For those who follow me on Instagram, I’ve got a link on my bio links. But if you just type in Google “Best of MASS issue”, that’ll come up as well. I think we have it linked on our main sales page.
Mike: [00:58:17] Awesome. So yeah, strongerbyscience.com/mass. Check it out and hopefully, the free preview is prominently displayed there. If it’s not, you actually may want to just make that clear because you’ll get a lot of people. You know, the proof is in the pudding. If they can just check it out, it really sells itself, so …
Eric: [00:58:33] Absolutely.
Mike: [00:58:34] All right. Well, thanks, Eric. Again, I always enjoy talking with you, I appreciate you taking the time, and I look forward to the next one.
Eric: [00:58:40] My pleasure, man. Thanks for having me on.