By Lee Boyce, CPT
Lee Boyce is an internationally published strength coach, fitness writer, speaker and college professor based in Toronto, ON, and the owner of Lee Boyce Training. His expertise has led him to write for many of the largest publications in the world and give lectures around North America. He's also featured on television and other media as a fitness expert for national telecasts. In university, Boyce ran varsity track and field as a sprinter and long jumper.
When the name of the game is packing on size, in most cases, you need to do more than the generic '3 sets of 10’ if you want to see real gains. Chances are, if you're on this website, you're pretty serious about your weight training and have gotten past the learning curve phases of how to perform a basic lift with safe technique. It's going to take a little bit of a deeper dive if you're going to want to add to your initial gains - and extended are the right place to look.
First, let's review a little science with a few points:
#1: The muscles of the body are comprised of 2 fiber types
This may be something you already knew, but in simplest terms, your physique is comprised of both fast and slow twitch fibers. Plenty of research you'll see (and common sense you may use) will lead you to prioritize training the fast twitch fibers through explosive work and heavy lifting. And that's all fine and good, but it doesn't mean the slow twitch muscle fibers deserve to be neglected. Here's why.
The body's system for immediate energy comes from ATP. That's the fuel source that your fast twitch, strongest muscle fibers thrive on. The thing is, that source runs out after only about 15 seconds worth of work. In gym time, that's good for a set of 8 or so reps. Many people retire after this point without giving the slow twitch muscle fibers a chance to try their hand at moving the load - even if they have to reduce it by a small percentage due to fatigue.
The reasons training systems like 10x10 and 8x8 were such effective staples for bodybuilding is because they broke past those time and rep restrictions, and zeroed in on low recovery time for only partial ATP restoration while increasing time under tension for plenty of volume. You should do the same.
#2: Certain muscles of the body are geared towards endurance training
Plain and simple - we don't have the same muscle fiber distribution in each and every muscle of the body. If we look at our bodies objectively and logically, we can safely assume that certain regions are geared toward endurance while others may have faster fatiguing properties geared toward strength and short, intense bouts. Postural muscles of the back, for example, are expected to erect the spine for long periods of time at once, so it makes sense that they'd respond quite well to high-rep training using long or extended sets. Skiers, speedskaters, and cyclists at the elite level generally have noticeably large quadriceps, and the thing that's common about all of their sports is the gruelling periods of time spent under tension when they do what they do best.
All of this suggests that training muscles for a measure of endurance can be just as effective for building muscle when done in the right doses - maybe even more.
Extended Sets: The Rationale
This article isn't intending to find a long-winded way of saying to simply lower the weight and add more reps. A few sentences or a paragraph could have covered that. In truth, the focus should be geared towards finding the best of both worlds; taking advantage of heavier loads, while making fatigue the deciding factor as to when to halt the set.
In other words, how do we get more reps out of each moderately heavy set? And when we lift light, how do we manipulate our fatigue to make that light weight feel heavy? Let's look at 3 ways.
Example A - Make Light weight feel heavy: Classic Drop Sets
Using dumbbells or barbells in classic movements like bench presses, curls, skull crushers, or any cable exercise creates a great platform to do drop sets. Setting the load at your 6-8 rep max and performing 5 reps, then immediately dropping that weight by 25%, and performing 7 reps, following it up with a final drop and performing 9 reps is a sure-fire way to get your heart rate working overtime, while exposing your body to a tonne of time under tension. The best part: By the final third of your set, you'll be lifting half of what you started with - and it'll feel just as challenging as the reps in the opening third. Focusing on this method for 3-4 rounds to begin or end your isolation workout will yield results that I don't even have to sell.
Example B - Lift heavy, for more reps: Ladder Sets
Ladder set training can prove to be a worthy alternative for drop sets if drop sets aren't really your thing, or you've used them to exhaustion. Using your 12 rep max in an exercise, perform 2 reps. Rest for 10 to 15 seconds, and then immediately perform 3 more reps. Rest for 10 to 15 seconds, and then perform 5 reps. Rest once more for 10 to 15 seconds, then perform 10 reps.
The fact that you're using the same weight through the entire set eliminates any doubt as to whether you're still using an intensity that will promote hypertrophy benefits. The fast twitch fibers get a chance to do a bit more work because their energy source (ATP) gets a partial recovery, thanks to the short mid-set breaks. By the end of the ladder set, you'll have essentially performed 20 reps with your 10 to 12 rep max.
This is also an awesome psychological test. Like breathing squats, you have a finite target number to reach that marks a complete set, not just 'muscular failure'. With each break period, you know that you have to perform more reps than you just did, though you're under more fatigue than you were when you started.
This is a way to learn to pull deep and get out a few grinders, and you'll leave the gym feeling accomplished. This rep scheme works best with the big movements like the bench press, standing press, pull-ups, weighted dips, and squats, but you can incorporate them into smaller isolation movements like leg extensions, curls, and seated dumbbell presses.
Example C - Own the weight you lift: 1.5 reps
For big lifts like squats and bench presses, the 1.5 rep method is a tool that can double the workload per rep on a target muscle. Each half rep disallows the synergistic muscles from completely contributing, which doubles up on the main muscles' stimulation for each rep.
Focusing on pausing at the midway mark is key while applying control to the rest of the movement. That means a very slow eccentric (lowering) phase. Focus on sets of 6-8 reps, with a 3 to 4 second eccentric and a 1-second pause. For reference and clarity, I do THREE reps in the video. Use 60-70% of your typical 6-8RM.
That's All She Wrote
The idea of extending your sets for more growth and development includes but is not confined to the methods above. If you really think about how much time the average person actually spends lifting during a 60-minute workout, you'll be surprised to realize that most workouts truly occupy no more than 20 minutes. Changing that ratio to include more work to less rest is a good method to apply when smartly engineered. If you want muscles to grow, sometimes it takes a slight push out of the comfort zone. Making all of the above changes will probably have your body thanking you for a long time after the fact.
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