Everyone at some point or another in their fitness journey has hit a plateau in their workouts. And, in these times, you’re ultimately left with two choices:
- Be content with the progress you’ve made and accept that you’ve reached your full potential (which is highly unlikely),
- Shatter the plateau and unleash those “hidden” gains by shaking up your training with some advanced muscle building techniques.
Seeing as we are always trying to help our transformation challenge contestants push harder to get continually great results, we’re choosing Option #2.
One of the most stubborn muscle groups for individuals is the biceps.
Today, we’re going to show you one of our favorite techniques to shatter plateaus and spark new growth in your arms with the 5-10-20 protocol.
What is the 5-10-20 Protocol?
Essentially, the 5-10-20 protocol looks like this:
- Begin with a heavy, multi-joint exercise that emphasizes the biceps and has you struggling to complete 5 reps.
- Then, immediately perform a moderate-weight, isolation exercise for the biceps that has you struggling to complete 10 reps.
- Finally, grab a resistance band (or light weight) and perform one final isolation exercise for 20 repetitions.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
Sure, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
Let’s now dive deeper into why the 5-10-20 rep scheme is so effective.
The Magic Behind 5-10-20
There are three main mechanisms of hypertrophy:
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Muscle damage
The 5-10-20 protocol addresses each of these in one fell swoop -- giving you a tremendous muscle building stimulus in a rather short amount of time.
Over the course of this tri-set, you’re hitting your muscles with high levels of tension along with a lot of volume, giving you the best of all words!
How 5-10-20 Protocol Works
Above, we gave the simplified version of how the 5-10-20 rep protocol works.
What we didn’t mention is that this technique can really be applied to any muscle group -- chest, back, quads, glutes, calves, etc.
What that means, is that you can take the information contained in this article and translate it to any muscle group that seems to be plateaued!
Now, we’ll explain a little bit more in detail on how to apply this training technique into your workouts.
#1 Heavy Compound Lift
Since the focus of this article is on building bigger, stronger, more defined biceps, we’ll use exercises that involve that particular muscle.
Begin the tri-set by performing a heavy, compound exercise for 5 reps.
On each rep, you will take 4 seconds to lower the weight, and 1 second to raise it. In other words, you’ll use a 4-0-1-0 lifting tempo (4-second eccentric, no pause, 1-second concentric, no pause).
The purpose of the heavy compound is to overload the biceps with high amounts of tension. Since the biceps are a relatively small muscle group, they have a lower capacity for overload compared to the back.
However, since biceps are involved to one degree or another in all compound back exercises, beginning this tri-set with a heavy compound exercise allows for even greater amounts of tension to be placed on the biceps than could be safely accomplished with an isolation exercise.
Our favorite movements for the “heavy hitter” exercise are weighted chin ups or supinated rows.
While these exercises are technically “back” exercises, you can change the focus of the movement by actively squeezing your biceps on each rep and making them the focus of the movement (mind-muscle connection).
After your five heavy reps are complete, rest 10-30 seconds and move onto the second exercise in the 5-10-20 protocol...
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#2 Volume Isolation
Here, you will pick an isolation exercise and use a weight that challenges you to complete 10 reps.
Your lifting tempo on the exercise will be 2-0-1-0, meaning you will lower the weight over a 2-count, and immediately lift it up over a 1-count with no pauses in between at the top or bottom.
Any and all curl variations work here -- dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, EZ-bar, you name it.
Just make sure to use an exercise that has the same grip as what you used on the compound exercise above.
So, if you performed heavy weighted chin ups with a supinated (underhand grip), then you will perform your chosen curl variations with a supinated grip as well.
After performing 10 reps, rest another 10-30 seconds and get ready for the...
#3 High Rep Burnout
By this point, your muscles have been hit with both high amounts of tension and volume. Now it’s time to burn them out and generate tons of metabolic stress with a high-rep burnout.
Machines, cables, and/or resistance bands are ideally suited for the high rep burnout as it allows you to safely hit failure.
Choose a weight that is challenging for 20 reps and rep until you can’t rep anymore. Chances are quite high that the first time trying the 5-10-20 protocol, you won’t be able to get all 20 reps in one shot due to sheer fatigue both locally in the muscle and centrally in the nervous system.
Use rest-pause if needed to complete all 20 reps, and the next workout, aim to complete all 20 reps using less breaks.
As mentioned above, use a grip that matches the one used on previous exercises.
After all three exercises are complete, rest 2-3 minutes and repeat for a total of 2-4 “sets”.
You want to get the most out of your workouts period! If you have low energy or low performance in the gym, then take a pre workout 30 minutes before you start so that you can get the most out of your workout. 1UP Male & Female Pre-workout will not only give you the energy and focus boost that you need, but it will also deliver the most important boost in Performance (extra reps; last few reps is where you make the most progress) and Muscle Pump (su‑cient oxygen and blood flow to the working muscles). A muscle that does not receive adequate oxygen will give in, limiting the intensity of an exercise. Most people look to get energy out of pre-workouts, but what you really need is to make sure you are taking something for Performance and Pump. The harder you can go while in the gym, the more calories you will bu which means better results.
How to Use the 5-10-20 Rep Scheme in Your Training
Due to the highly fatiguing nature of the 5-10-20 protocol, it’s recommended you only do one “set” for each muscle group per workout.
So, if you are training Back and Biceps together, you would perform one trio of exercises for the back 2-4 times and then one trio of exercises for the biceps 2-4 times before calling it quits for the day.
Here’s an example of how to program the 5-10-20 protocol on a chest and back day:
- Flat Barbell Press: 5 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 10 reps
- Cable Crossover: 20 reps
- T-Bar Rows: 5 reps
- Seated Cable Rows: 10 reps
- Straight-Arm Pulldown: 20 reps
Here’s an example of the 5-10-20 protocol in action on arm day:
- Weighted Chin Ups: 5 reps
- Underhand EZ Bar Curl: 10 reps
- Cable Curl with Underhand grip: 20 reps
- Close Grip Press: 5 reps
- Cable Pushdown: 10 reps
- Overhead cable triceps extension: 20 reps
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