We all remember our truly great workouts, those particularly stimulating, growth-producing sessions where everything seems to fall into place. Where the coveted muscle pump quickly appears, rendering our muscles full and hard, tighter than ever. Our training weights feel lighter than usual and new personal bests are duly documented; we are seemingly at our strongest and most vigorous. We are in complete control from the first rep to the last.
Unfortunately, not all workouts are perfect. Despite heavy hitting servings of the best pre-workout supplements on the market, enough carbs to procure the greatest of pumps, and a rested, focused mind, we may not experience the succession of skin-bursting bouts with the iron we had hoped for. Though our training may be productive and our training goals are routinely met, we would all love to relive those mythical workouts we remember, and the great results they produced.
To Failure and Beyond
A major objective of any serious trainee is to take their muscles to complete failure on all working sets. However, there are those truly committed warriors who prefer to take their working sets not only to failure, but beyond. By pushing our muscles past the point of no return, to where not an ounce of further effort may be expended, and uncharted levels of growth can occur, we condition ourselves to become mentally and physically stronger – we can no longer settle for anything less than the most fully intense training sessions. To achieve this, we start adding finishing moves to our routines.
A finisher is a high-intensity movement designed to fully tax our weary muscles to promote maximum muscle fiber recruitment and maximum muscle micro trauma.
Due to an over accumulation of lactic acid and a high degree of training induced muscle soreness our muscles will inevitably refuse to budge upon reaching a certain number of reps. Attempting to go any further at this point may promote injury, and, at the very least, destroy our training form. In an attempt to offset a lessening of muscle tension and the possibility of injury (joint/soft tissue damage) through excessive momentum we are forced to terminate our set. But there is still room to move – we’re not done yet. Bodybuilding pioneers Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates knew this best; like other mortals, they too were forced to stop curling, pressing, pulling, squatting and lifting at a certain point. But unlike many others, they used a variety of methods to extend their sets without having to sacrifice form and function.
This is the key to maximizing our muscle growth: to go further using good form and untested muscle fibers.
Note: for safety reasons, have a partner supervise all of the finishers listed below.
Finisher #1: Rest/Pause
A classic finisher which can be used to extend the duration of any movement, to force any remaining targeted muscle fibers to work harder to assist their fallen comrades, rest/pause will have you crossing the pain barrier to fully exhaust all fibers under tension.
To perform: at the end of a set taken to complete failure (upon achieving a final negative rep, or at the point where the muscles are in a fully lengthened state), rest for 2-3 seconds before powering the weight up with strict technique for another rep (3-4 reps may be completed in this fashion, or until the completion of further reps is impossible).
Finisher #2: Negatives
An excellent way to maximally force our muscle fibers to achieve the greatest degree of trauma to promote the rebuilding of larger, stronger muscles, negatives emphasize the eccentric (or stretching) phase of a repetition. Because they comprise an entire rep in their own right and are responsible for creating more muscular overload than probably any other training modality, negatives must be prioritized to ensure optimal growth. Since positives are easier to control and because negatives may promote a lessening of muscle tension due to the stability required to lower the weight into place, negatives are seldom employed properly for all sets, unless they are performed in isolation.
To perform: upon reaching failure on a conventional positive/negative set protocol, hold weight in an extended (or contracted) position, and, with the assistance of a training partner, slowly lower the weight into a deep negative (after which your partner will help you lift weight back to the starting position). Again lower the weight, with your partner helping on the positive. Repeat 3-4 times to fully exhaust all muscle fibers.
Note: negatives are especially effective when training chest and shoulders.
Finisher #3: Triple Drop Set
A major contributor to maximum muscular overload is the time under tension (TUT) we subject our muscles to. Though seldom achieved, optimal TUT is one variable we should include at least 80% of the time. As a finisher, try performing the final set of an exercise with a triple drop set, aiming for failure at 8 reps in each drop, combing for a total of 24 repetitions.
Optimal TUT for building strength is roughly 20 seconds, while optimal TUT for building mass is between 40 and 60 seconds.
As an example, when performing cable pushdowns, start at the heaviest weight where you can complete 8 reps, then drop by 10 – 20 lbs (depending on your starting weight) and then again by 10 – 20 lbs. This will significantly increase your total TUT to really shock your muscles into super-compensating via enhanced overload and subsequent adaptation.
Finisher #4: 21’s
To be used sparingly due to the focus needed for their proper execution, 21’s enable us to isolate the different ranges of a repetition to emphasize the lengthening and contracting motions. During the late stages of a workout the individual parts of a rep may be neglected as momentum begins impede, thus diminishing the range of motion and full muscle fiber recruitment.
To be used on many exercises, but particularly effective when working arms, 21’s are an excellent way to vary three different ranges of motion at one time to more thoroughly stimulate our muscle fibers and to flush them with blood to increase their growth potential.
The three parts of a 21 set are: the lower ROM (Range of Motion), or stretching phase, the upper ROM, or contracting phase, and the full ROM, where both positive and negative ranges are completed.
To perform: lift weight to mid-range before returning to starting point for seven reps, then, from mid-range, lift weight to upper-range (or to full contraction) for a further seven reps. Finally lower weight to a complete stretch and complete a final seven full-range reps.
Finisher #5: 100 Rep Set
While common hypertrophy rep ranges of 8-12 will build more muscle over the long term, what our muscles may need in order to become fuller, better-performing and more vascular is some shock treatment in the form of ultra high rep sets. Though reps in the range of 20-25 may occasionally be used to build muscle endurance, increase muscle glycogen reserves within a specific muscle, and improve a lagging body part, 100 rep sets will provide a serious challenge to fast-track all of the above while also developing our mental strength and staying power.
When attempting to complete 100 reps as a final set finisher, it is paramount, as it is for all methods discussed in this article, to fully concentrate on all reps; do not falter in your focus at any point as in doing so you may not only invite injury but also compromise training form and intensity levels. Normal 100 rep sets protocols require one weight to be lifted with uniformity of cadence for all 100 reps.
To perform: pick a weight that will allow you think you can complete 100 times. If you begin to fail around the 70-80 rep mark, then, continuing to use perfect training form, either rest pause the weight to achieve all 100 reps or drop down to a lighter weight and continue to completion.
Capping Off a Great Workout
Straight sets, heavy weights and high intensity (the three mainstays of a great training system) are all that is necessary to achieve a killer pump and consistent muscle growth. However, after a year or two our muscles have adapted to the incessant demands we place upon them; they become hardened to the training process. To spark further progress we need to give them more – enter the finishing movements outlined above. The simple addition of 1-2 of these for 1-2 key exercises, or expressly to correct a weak muscle group, every other workout, may be just what you need to revitalize your training experience and recommence the growth process.