No matter how hard you train, how well you eat, or how much sleep you get, you’re bound to hit a plateau in your muscle and strength-building journey. It’s simple human physiology. We simply can’t continue to do the same thing and get results.
The good news is that there are a number of ways you can increase the challenge on your muscles and at the same time make your workouts more enjoyable (which in and of itself can help you push harder when you show up to the gym!).
Here are 10 of our favorite advanced training techniques to break through a muscle-building rut.
#1 Rest-Pause Training
Rest-pause is one of the best training techniques for those looking to build muscle and/or strength. It’s also a great way to get in a lot of quality training for those who are pressed for time.
Rest-pause training essentially entails condensing your rest periods and instead of performing straight sets with 2-3 minutes rest between sets, you’ll perform “mini-sets” with 15-30 seconds between each mini-set.
Here’s how a rest-pause set would look replacing a traditional 3x10 on the bench press.
- Unrack the bar and perform as many quality reps as possible (leaving 1-2 reps in the tank)
- Rack the bar and rest 15-30 seconds
- Unrack the bar and again perform as many quality reps as possible (leaving 1 rep in the tank)
- Rack the bar and rest 15-30 seconds
- Unrack the bar and perform as many quality reps as possible
#2 Drop Sets
Drop sets are a way to extend the amount of time under tension for your muscles, which ultimately results in more work done.
Let’s say that you’re aiming for 3 sets of 12 repetitions on the cable row and you’ve been stuck there for a while.
After you perform your 3rd set of 12 repetitions, immediately set the handle down, drop the weight by 10-20% and rep out until your form starts to break down.
Drop sets are incredibly fatiguing (as are many of the advanced muscle-building techniques on this list). As such, it’s best to save them for the last set on an exercise. Performing drop sets on every set of every exercise of your workout can induce excessive fatigue both locally in the muscle and on your CNS, which could actually impair your overall workout and lead to overtraining.
#3 Pre-Exhaust Superset
A superset occurs when two exercises are performed back-to-back with limited rest. They are most frequently used with agonist-antagonist muscle groups (e.g chest & back, biceps & triceps, etc.). However, they can also be performed on the same muscle group as in the case of a pre-exhaust or post-exhaust superset.
Pre-exhaust involves performing an isolation exercise for a particular muscle group before doing a compound exercise.
Using pre-exhaust on the quads as an example could entail performing a set of leg extensions and then going immediately into a set of leg presses or hack squats. FYI, if you do choose to perform this particular superset, your legs (and likely lungs) will be on FIRE!
#4 Post-Exhaust Superset
A post-exhaust superset reverses the order of the two exercises in the superset.
So, you would begin with a compound exercise and finish off with an isolation exercise. This can be especially helpful if you have trouble feeling a particular muscle group working on a given exercise.
One such example is the bench press, where quite often individuals feel it in their shoulders and/or triceps more than their chest.
Using a post-exhaust superset where you perform a bench press followed immediately by a cable crossover or chest fly (pec dec) can help really burn out the pecs and hit them with some more direct work if you’re simply not getting the results you want with the bench press alone.
#5 Paused Reps
Most of us perform our reps in a piston-like fashion -- lowering the weight and immediately lifting it only to immediately lower it again. This is certainly fine and works well for building muscle.
But, it’s not the only way to perform a rep.
You see when you immediately go from lifting to lowering to lifting a weight, you take advantage of the stretch reflex of your muscles, which can be beneficial in terms of sports performance, but not necessarily so for pure muscle or strength building.
Pause reps eliminate the stretch reflex and force your muscles to work harder. It also has the added benefit of being kinder to your joints, ligaments, and connective tissue since you’re not “bouncing” the weight.
A pause can be inserted at any point during an exercise and it can last for however long you see fit, but between 1-5 seconds is usually what lifters do. In addition to increasing time under tension and how much work your muscles are doing, pause reps can also help you break through sticking points on certain lifts, such as using paused squats or paused bench presses.
#6 Partial Reps
As much attention as full range of motion gets (and well it should) for building muscle, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be gained from partial reps.
For instance, if you’re struggling with the lockout on a bench press, you can use pin presses to strengthen your triceps (which are primarily responsible for lockout).
Another way to incorporate partial reps is side laterals or rear delt flyers. The hardest part of either of those exercises is when the arms are fully abducted (out to the side of the body). Once you hit failure on the set, you will no longer be able to fully lift your arms out to the side, but that doesn’t mean your muscles are fully exhausted. You are still able to complete a partial rep...it might only be 60-70% of the original range of motion, but your muscles are still under tension...which means they’re still doing work!
#7 Negative Reps
We’ve all been told to stop being “negative” at times, but when it comes to building muscle and getting results, sometimes embracing the “negative” can be helpful.
The “negative” in this case refers to the portion of the rep where a muscle is lengthening (e.g. lowering the dumbbell during a curl).
Our muscles are stronger during the negative or “eccentric” phase of an exercise than during the concentric. What this means is that while we may not be able to lift a weight, you can “resist” it on the way down.
For instance, you may not be able to complete another clean pull up or chin up, but if you step or jump to the top, your muscles have enough strength to control your descent.
Beware that negative training (slow eccentrics) can be very damaging to muscle fibers, creating lots of microtears, which is good for muscle growth (since muscle damage is a key driver of hypertrophy), but it also leads to lots of muscle soreness (DOMS).
As such, be judicious with how frequently you utilize eccentrics during your workouts. As we mentioned above, this is probably best saved for the last set on an exercise. To also help combat DOMS, it’s helpful to consume enough protein and amino acids during the day, which supply the building blocks your body needs to repair and build muscle tissue.
#8 1-½ Reps
Another diabolical way to make your muscles scream for pain (and break through a muscle building rut) is to perform 1-½ reps.
This increases time under tension, training stress, and also helps lighter weights feel heavier (which is good if you have limited equipment access or can’t train with heavier weights).
The execution is fairly straightforward (but don’t mistake that for easy!):
- Lower all the way
- Lift up halfway
- Lower all the way
- Lift all the way up
That’s all one rep.
This protocol is particularly brutal for leg exercises (which already have a large range of motion), such as goblet squats, hack squats, or Bulgarian split squats.
#9 Staggered Sets
Staggered sets are yet another way to help bring up a lagging body part as they help you get in more total training volume throughout the week.
Staggered sets are better suited to smaller muscle groups (calves, rear delts, biceps, triceps) as they are inserted between regular sets of your “heavy hitters.”
Let’s say you want to build up your calves (and who doesn’t?!). Most of us simply tack on a few sets of seated calf raises after our leg workout, at which point we’re already exhausted mentally and physically.
Staggered sets would have you performing a set of calf raises in between your major upper body lifts like bench presses, rows, pull ups, dips, etc.
This way, you’re attacking a lagging muscle group when you’re fresher (at the start of your workout) and saving time by training another muscle group while you’re resting from your heavy compound lift.
Ever get to the end of a training session and feel like your muscles can give just a “little bit more?”
Well, get ready to hammer them with a whole lot more with 100s!
100’s are 100-rep sets that you perform for a muscle group at the end of a workout to burn them out, engorge them with blood, and get a massive pump!
100-rep sets are best used for isolation movements and/or machine exercises where stabilizing muscles aren’t the limiting factor. For instance, you don’t want to perform 100s using deadlifts or back squats.
100 rep sets are great for laterals, bicep curls, tricep push downs, leg extensions or even leg presses!
Pick a weight that you can perform for 20-25 reps and use rest-pause until you complete all 100 reps. If that isn’t enough to shock your muscles into growing bigger or stronger, then it may be time for a deload!
Here are 10 advanced training methods to help break through a muscle building rut.
As we mentioned a few times throughout the article, you shouldn’t (and don’t need to) use all of these techniques within a single workout or an entire mesocycle. Pick one or two that really excite you and try using it on the last set of an exercise.
Remember, these are intense and require you to be on top of your game. For an added boost to really crush your workouts, check out our best-selling men’s and women’s pre workouts, 1UP Pre Men and 1UP Pre Women. And, if you’re looking for a caffeine-free option, don’t miss our top-rated 1UP Stim-Free pre workout, which helps deliver focus, performance, and pumps without the stimulants!