Advanced Training Techniques – Part I

Ok so you come into the gym day in day out, you simply show up and kick ass! You trust that what we do has a method behind it. After all, any old gym monkey with half a qualification can simply make a horribly gruelling, sick inducing, burning workout. Hell, if I trusted you to write our plans for next month I’m pretty sure it will be the toughest we’ve ever done. But just because something’s tough doesn’t mean its right or adequate.

When we’re pushing you through an intense workout and its hurting, maybe your lungs are on fire, your legs are burning or your chin just won’t rise over that bar and you want to stop, yet were trying to drag more reps out of you or telling to push a heavier weight / dig deeper, it’s simply because therein lies the key to 95% of the gains you make in the weight room. That key ingredient, the difference why some get it and some don’t, is INTENSITY.


The rest are just details and the details are where we come in. We ensure your intensity is focused along the right path.

“You can run south as fast as humanly possible but if your destination is north, you’re just stupid”

Below are some of the techniques, tactics and downright horrid ways in which we sometimes focus that intensity of yours. Making sure it is in the right direction. And yes, there are reasons behind each technique (there is method in the madness).

Traditional drop sets – are a very simple but intense and tough technique to employ. It really pushes you to your maximum in training and tests your will power as well as your pain threshold. Drops sets allow the trainee to continue a set past muscular failure, meaning maximal recruitment and fatigue of available muscle fibres.

For instance Corey might instruct you to grab a pair of dumbbells you can usually shoulder press for 12 reps, say the 10kg Dumbbells. You’ll blast out those reps until failure sets in and immediately grab a lighter set of dumbbells (queue moaning) approx 25% lighter in this case something like the 7 or 8kg Dumbbells and work until failure hits again! Then with a look of disgust on your face when CJ tells you to man or woman up and grab the next pair of Dumbbells down and continue the onslaught until the fire in your deltoids (shoulders) put an end to the set!

Mechanical drop sets – rather than traditional drop sets where you adjust to an inferior load as in the example above to continue a set, mechanical drop sets incorporate a small change in the way a specific exercise is performed, whilst still allowing you to continue past failure and completing more reps but this time with the same weight. When using a mechanical approach, as you reach muscular failure in a specific movement you slightly alter the mechanics (maybe the angle you are working in) of that exercise to allow more fibre recruitment from lesser fatigued fibres to continue the set.

In terms of the shoulder press, lets say once again you hit failure around 12 reps. Instead of dropping the load, we change the mechanics by employing a small leg drive turning the strict shoulder press into the more dynamic push press to power out more reps as the introduction of the legs gives you a helping hand as your shoulders begin to weaken.

This is very versatile technique and again relies a lot on personal intensity to maintain and push the boundaries.

Cluster reps – Instead of being what I call an “intensity technique” as in the examples above (where the goal is to stay in the zone and requires a lot of mental toughness) cluster reps are more what I call a “performance technique” as the target is high quality reps or what I call “fresh reps”. The goal isn’t to grind through the set, its to dominate each individual rep with a focus on strength and explosiveness. This technique allows the use of high training loads for higher amounts of total reps than would ordinarily be used during a traditional set, by employing small intra-set rest periods during a set to allow part recovery more reps can be performed overall.

During maximal exercise over the 1st 10 – 15 seconds the body utilises what is known as the ATP-PC energy system (we’ll save that for the next article) before fatigue sets in, this energy system requires approximately 3 mins before it has fully recovered hence why Sprinters, Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters and other athletes who rely on absolute maximal efforts don’t train like Crossfitters.

By using a cluster set approach you employ a small intra set rest to gain partial recovery of up-to 70% allowing an athlete to perform more reps with a heavy or near maximal load.

An athlete can use cluster training as a tool for both strength/power or hypertrophy training. As maintaining strength and muscle is of paramount importance while leaning up, it is also a great tool to use while dropping body fat %.

When training for strength I may use a very high % such as 90% of 1rep max. A set would look like this: perform 1 rep, re rack the bar have a short rest of 10-15 seconds and repeat for 5 reps. That is 1 cluster set and would be repeated for say 3-5 sets.

Using this method allows you to perform 1-2 more reps than you may get in a traditional set with 90% of your maximum. The implications with regards to strength are obvious and if you have taken part in any of the Saturday MSMT (Modified Strongman Training) sessions you may recognise this style of training, which has helped many smash their personal bests in lifts like the deadlift, squat and bench press.

Contrast sets – This is another “Performance Technique”. This is a tool I use quite often with some of the athletes I train and with a lot of success. For a general example, it simply incorporates a heavy lift such as the back squat, that we perform heavy and for at most around 10 seconds of work which will recruit/switch on/excite the higher threshold motor units (see image) followed by a similarly explosive movement like sprinting where the effect of the 1st exercise is carried over into the sprints by what is known as *PAP.

With this training method you are getting 2 “contrasting” executions of force. The first lift uses a heavy load and in turn requires high force output to overcome the inertia of the resistance followed by a high speed exercise which also requires high force output, but this time instead of overcoming inertia to move a heavy load, the athletes emphasis is on explosiveness which provides the force. This technique not only improves an athlete’s strength but also the rate at which they can express that strength transferred into speed/power.

* Contrast sets uses a phenomenon referred to as post activation potentiation (PAP) *

PAP occurs after (post) an explosive or heavy movement, where the heavy lift switches on (activates) the motor unit pool (motor units, muscle fibres, and connecting nerve pathways) associated with that movement pattern, thus momentarily increasing your ability to recruit muscle fibres, resulting in a more volatile contraction of the associated muscle groups and an increase in performance.

How is it used in action?

Here’s a set up you might use to improve sprinting speed.

A1 – Squat @ 90% 1RM. Perform 1-3 reps no grinding reps
Rest long enough to recover but short enough to carry the positive effects of the 1st lift into the 2nd.
A2 – sprints (10 – 40 yards)

Watch your sprint speed fly through the roof.

At the heart of all these techniques lies a couple of key factors.

One is mentality – being able to push yourself and dig in deep is possibly the most important factor in all training and maybe more than the actual training. A person who follows the most basic program in the world with all out intensity will out perform and gain far superior results than the one who follows the worlds most scientific protocol, yet trains with the intensity of a sloth smoking drugs.

The other factor is physical and that is strength – they all rely on improving your bodies abilities to perform and creating that stimulus by which the human body is forced to adapt. By striving to increase the amount of reps you can perform, run faster or simply lift more weight, you and your body become stronger. It is the foundation of all facets of training and lies at the heart of nearly all physical improvements.

Here’s why we place so much emphasis on encouraging you to lift more:

• Improve Performance = get stronger
• Get Faster = get stronger
• Increase Muscle = get stronger
• Get Leaner = get stronger
• Get Fitter = get stronger
• Get a date = get stronger
• Get Healthier = get stronger
• Get Shredded =get stronger
• Be Awesome = get stronger

So next time we ask you to dig a little deeper in training and push the pain barrier or lift a little heavier, you might have a better understanding of why. It’s not just because Lee’s had a bad day! Well not always 😉

Author: Dan Thorpe