“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” –Albert Einstein
This is the first thing you should think of when you hit a plateau. What can I change in my program to keep improving? Your body will stagnate as fast as you let it. It’s important to constantly implement change and variables, to keep your body guessing. You can change your workout split, sets, reps, weight, and muscle group combinations, but that will not always work for long. The number one way to break a plateau is implement more tension!
What is tension? Why is it important? Tension is the mother of muscle growth pure and simple. The first step from becoming the average gym guy to becoming more is realizing weight is a number, but tension is how you grow. Tension is the muscle being under strain and staying semi-contracted during exercise. If it was easy, everyone would do it. You have to endure muscle tension and endure some level of pain to truly push your limits to become extraordinary. The bottom line is using heavy weight without correct tension is useless. You must learn to listen to your body, and feel your muscle contracting. Then with the maximal weight you can use correct tension to multiply your gains!
Time Under Tension (TUT)
Time under tension is the first step to breaking down the wall in your mind that tells you, you have to lift heavy to grow. Trust me, when you cut your weight in half and you move it slower you will FEEL me. Ben Pak-Man Pakulski was the first on the scene when it comes to TUT. He designed a program where you perform all sets with a 4 second negative and 1 second positive. This allows you to completely keep all the tension on the target muscle group without using all the surrounding muscles, and just moving a weight from point A to point B. This 4 second negative can be extremely painful especially when you combine it with drop-sets. TUT is a great way to bring up weak body parts, and I highly recommend everyone try it, and keep it a part of your routine long-term.
Drops sets are a great way to prolong a set and increase the overall tension. This can be done like so. Perform a set of Incline Db Press for 12 reps, then immediately drop the weight and grab a weight that is 30-35% lighter and perform as many reps as you can till failure. The science behind this proves that after your first set you might have reached a short period of muscle failure but that is only failure at that weight. By decreasing the weight and performing another set you recruit more muscle fibers which leads to more muscle growth. This can be done multiple times or just once to get desired results and fatigue. I recommend you do no more than 1-2 drop sets per workout if you’re a beginner and 3-4 if you’re more advanced.
Super-sets are similar to drop sets, but you will be doing 2 exercises. When doing a super-set you will perform one exercise till fatigue, break for no more than 20 seconds, and then perform the second exercise till complete exhaustion. This is not only good for muscle growth, but increases your heart rate, metabolism, and fat burning as well. Super-sets can be used for one body part such as biceps, doing a barbell curl super-set with a db hammer curl, or opposing muscle groups as well. For example by doing a flat bench press super-set with db rows, or barbell curls super-set with bench dips. I often super-set biceps and triceps to produce a faster workout, burn more calories, and get a better overall muscle pump, which leads to more growth.
Rest Pause might be the best tension variable to break through a plateau. Rest pause is done by completing a set till near exhaustion, taking a short break, such 10 seconds, and then continuing with that same weight for more reps. This can be done 2-3 times till you get your desired overall reps with said weight or till you just can’t move the weight another inch. This technique is great for size and strength. Unlike a drop set which you use lighter weights, in rest pause you are forced to continue with the same heavy workload and deep fiber attacking tension. I like to use this method in my first exercise of a workout after a good stretching warm-up and multiple warm-up sets.
Ascending & Descending Sets
Ascending and descending sets are a great way to produce maximal stimulation and blood flow. An ascending set is where you perform a certain amount of reps, for these purposes, we will use 8. After 8 reps you pause and you or your training partners add additional weight. This can be done as many times as desired. A descending set is exactly the same, but in a reverse fashion. I like to use this tension multiplying technique for my legs. I will do a full leg workout and before I do my finishing exercise I will do these on leg press. This will cap off a great leg workout and make it out of this world. Get ready for the pump!
Giant sets are not for the weak or the weary! These giant sets are generally 5-10 exercises of the same body part done back to back with very short rest breaks in between. For example, for shoulders you could do a giant set of: dumbbell side raise, dumbbell side raise partials, dumbbell Arnold press, dumbbell shoulder press, dumbbell front raise, incline rear delt side raises, rear delt pec-dec, and upright rows. All of these exercises should be done with weights you can do for 10 reps not more. When you’re done your shoulders will be of FIRE!! But if you’re strong enough to get through 3 rounds of this, you are guaranteed to add some size and definition to those massive shoulders!
Isotension is a new technique I just recently started playing with more and more. The more I use it the more I like it. This new technique combines painful isometric contractions with a workload. This can be done on almost any exercise. All you need is mind over matter. Isotension is done by lifting a weight 1/3 to ½ of the way up and holding for 60-90 seconds. Try this on the lying leg curl after you've finished your working sets. It will give you that extra thickness and definition you've been looking for. Another great exercise to do this on is bicep curls. Just be careful and listen to your body, when you’re done your done. This should only be done with 1/2 to 2/3 of your normal workload.