Strength training is a science. Whether you’re a powerlifter, weightlifter, or just want to get generally strong, you likely follow a program that is neatly and coherently designed to produce predictable results.
For bodybuilders, the path is not as clearly marked. While there are reliable ways to grow new muscle, at one point or another you’ll have to put away the Excel sheet and get your hands dirty the old fashioned way.
That’s where intensity techniques come in. Five sets of five are all well and good, but what if they’re not good enough? If you want to make the most gains you possibly can, you’ll have to take yourself to failure — and beyond.
Here are eight different ways to turn the temperature up in the gym when you need to bring the heat.
Bodybuilding Intensity Techniques
- Drop Sets
- Cluster Sets
- Forced Reps
- Accommodating Resistance
- Blood Flow Restriction
There are many ways to combine two separate movements into one “giant” exercise — the superset is merely the default method you’ll most commonly see. To perform a superset, simply pair two exercises together and perform them back to back, resting only as long as it physically takes you to transition between the movements themselves.
How to Use Supersets for Bodybuilding
If muscle growth is your goal, you can use supersets as a means of both cranking up your workout intensity and shaving down on the amount of time you spend in the gym. Most bodybuilders implement supersets in two distinct ways.
The first technique pairs up two movements that work opposing muscle groups, such as a triceps pressdown and a barbell curl. While one muscle works, the other rests, allowing you to conveniently squeeze in a lot of work in a short amount of time.
On the other hand, you can pair two movements that work the same (or similar) muscle groups to double down on fatigue. Think performing a set of dumbbell bench presses followed swiftly by a lighter set of flyes — both work your pecs, but through different avenues of movement as your chest performs both shoulder flexion and adduction of the upper arm.
Best Supersets for Bodybuilding
- Biceps Curl + Triceps Pressdown
- Leg Extension + Leg Curl
- Romanian Deadlift + Goblet Squat
- Shoulder Press + Lateral Raise
- Push-Up + Face Pull
- Bench Press + Flye
Note: All of the exercise prescriptions herein are suggestions. With some creativity, you can apply intensity techniques to many more movements than what are listed here.
Contrary to its name, drop sets aren’t all about dropping weights. Drop sets extend your ability to perform additional reps long after you’ve hit a wall at whatever weight you’re using.
The premise is simple — perform (almost) any exercise to near-failure with a given weight and, instead of exiting the set, proceed to bang out more reps with a lighter weight right after. You’ll find that you’re not quite at the brink of exhaustion and can even “drop” your set multiple times until you’re working with very light weights that, nonetheless, feel extremely heavy.
How to Use Drop Sets for Bodybuilding
While you can technically perform drop sets with any exercise under the sun, you should be cognizant of practicality. It’s much easier to replace your dumbbells of choice while drop-setting on lateral raises than it would be to change out the weights on an exercise like the hip thrust, for instance. With that in mind, cable movements and machine work are your best friend when it comes to drop sets.
Drop sets, therefore, are a fantastic way to finish off the tail end of your workout and help you leave the gym with the confidence that you’ve taken things to the limit during your session.
Best Exercises for Drop Sets
- Lateral Raise
- Cable Crunch
- Leg Extension
- Leg Curl
- Dumbbell Curl
- Walking Lunge
Cluster sets and rest-pause training go hand in hand. The traditional doctrine of set execution in the gym involves continuously performing reps one after the other until you’re too tired to go on.
While you may be able to, say, bang out 10 sequential reps of curls before hitting failure, with cluster sets, you can push things a whole lot further. As your muscles contract and fatigue, you rapidly produce waste products such as lactate.
However, this muscular “waste” dissipates as quickly as it accumulates. By taking a few brief (think five to 10 seconds) breaks over the course of a single set, you can push through your fatigue threshold and pack in more volume without having to stop the set or reduce the weight you’re using.
How to Use Cluster Sets for Bodybuilding
Since cluster sets are among one the more painful intensity techniques in bodybuilding, you should be tactful about how you use them. Pushing a muscle (or muscle group) beyond its limit with cluster work is liable to come with degradation in your form.
As such, you shouldn’t pair cluster work with technical or intricate exercises. Instead, opt to use cluster sets on simple, often single-joint exercises that aren’t technically complex or that require extensive setup.
Best Exercises for Cluster Sets
- Dumbbell Curl
- Lateral Raise
- Leg Press
- Leg Extension
- Straight-Arm Pulldown
Not every intensity technique is on the table if you train solo. With a reliable training partner at your side, though, you can use forced reps as a means of “cheating” your strength — and take your muscle growth to new heights as a result.
When you approach failure on an exercise, several things occur at once. Your technique breaks down, you might run out of breath and, most often, the speed at which you move the weight grinds to a screeching halt.
However, your training partner (or spotter) can manually assist you and help you push through a few extra reps that you physically could not hit yourself.
How to Use Forced Reps for Bodybuilding
It is totally possible for you to reach failure on a set for reasons other than the target muscle running out of gas. Poor cardio or sloppy technique can prematurely end a set, leaving gains on the table.
To avoid this, you can have your training partner physically help you lift the weight. On pressing movements, they can gently nudge your elbows to ensure you lock your arms out. During machine work, lightly pulling on the handle you’re pressing against can help you push through a sticking point as well.
The only area that you can’t really include forced reps in is with pulling movements, simply due to the physical nature of pulling exercises. Almost anything else is on the table, though.
Best Exercises for Forced Reps
- Bench Press
- Shoulder Press
- Leg Extension
- Leg Curl
- Preacher Curl
Some training techniques require niche equipment or a specific kind of performance, while others are all about work ethic. As-many-reps-as-possible, or AMRAP sets, are exactly what they sound like. Pick an exercise, assign it a given weight, and go until you simply can’t.
How to Use AMRAP Sets for Bodybuilding
While strength athletes and CrossFitters alike use AMRAP work regularly in the pursuit of new personal records, as a bodybuilder, you can make use of the occasional AMRAP set as a quick and dirty way of ensuring that you’ve adequately taxed a given muscle.
If you’re short on time, not on a dedicated program (unwise if you’re trying to build your physique), or need to test your work capacity, you can pick a moderate weight and go for an AMRAP set.
It’s worth pointing out the obvious — AMRAP work is extremely tiring, especially if you’re using a compound exercise and being honest about your exertion. You shouldn’t kick off a long workout with an AMRAP set, as subsequent movements are likely to suffer a loss of quality.
Best Exercises for AMRAP Sets
Frankly, almost any movement can be performed in an AMRAP style. It all depends on the goals you’ve set for your session and what you want to get out of the movement. That said, you may want to avoid performing AMRAP work on any technique-intensive exercise.
Furthermore, you might also find that moves with long ranges of motion (think squatting, for instance) throttles your ability to truly hit as many reps as you can simply because you’re likely to run out of breath before you hit muscular failure.
Not every intensity technique involves pushing the endpoint of a set. You can make things harder from the jump by working in some pre-set stimulation, or pre-exhaustion, to ensure that your first working rep is a little more challenging than it would otherwise be.
How to Use Pre-Exhaustion for Bodybuilding
Much like supersets, there are two common ways to incorporate pre-exhaustion into bodybuilding workouts. The first entails hitting up an isolation movement for the muscle group you’re working that day — think performing a few sets of leg curls before you start your hamstring workout.
The second method aims to reduce how much of the load is shared across your supporting or secondary muscle groups. The idea being that if you fatigue your triceps before you head to the bench press, more of the resistance will fall across your pecs as a result since your tris are torched and not available to assist with the movement.
Best Exercises for Pre-Exhaustion
- Leg Curl
- Leg Extension
- Close-Grip Push-Up
- Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Reverse Curl
- Dumbbell Flye
An exercise’s load profile refers to how the resistance is distributed throughout your range of motion. Some movements, especially barbell or dumbbell exercises, are easy at the start and difficult at the end (or vice-versa).
Accommodating resistance involves adding an implement like a resistance band or weight chain to your exercise to adjust its difficulty. It’s a great way of filling the “gaps” in an uneven load profile, helping you get the most value out of the exercise in the process.
How to Use Accommodating Resistance for Bodybuilding
You can use bands or chains to make the hardest part of the exercise even more challenging, or provide some extra tension during the “easier” portion of the lift. For example, lateral raises are easy to begin lifting but get much harder the higher you raise your arm.
If you perform the move with a resistance band pinned under your feet, it’ll double up the difficulty as you attempt to complete each repetition.
Best Exercises for Accommodating Resistance
- Lateral Raise
- Preacher Curl
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Back Squat
- Hip Thrust
Blood Flow Restriction
Blood flow restriction, or BFR, is not nearly as scary as it may sound. It’s a common misconception that BFR restricts blood flow to your muscles — in reality, the technique prevents the opposite.
By applying a cuff or tourniquet to a limb, you can restrict the amount of blood that leaves a muscle. If blood can only flow in, the only thing you’re at risk of is suffering from a skin-tearing, shirt-busting pump.
How to Use Blood Flow Restriction for Bodybuilding
The biggest benefit of BFR work is that it allows you to quickly turn a light weight into a very challenging stimulus. BFR drastically reduces your force output and artificially intensifies low-load training.
In simple terms, this means that you can work around an injury that may prevent you from lifting heavy or help ensure you’re getting quality hypertrophy if you don’t have access to heavy weights at home or in your gym.
Best Exercises for Blood Flow Restriction
As long as you can apply a cuff to the limb in question, you can perform BFR training with nearly any movement targeting any muscle. That said, the musculature of your arms and legs are particularly suited for BFR.
Cuffing high up on your arm allows you to work your biceps, triceps, or forearms while doing the same on your thigh will give you a sickening leg pump.
What the Science Says
Are intensity techniques all they’re cracked up to be, or simply a longstanding byproduct of meathead tradition? Fortunately, there has been plenty of scientific research conducted on many different intensity techniques and how they play into your potential muscle growth.
Literature on drop sets isn’t exactly comprehensive, but some studies have analyzed how they affect oxygenation, muscle activity, and power output.
Some literature has observed that, in trained athletes, drop sets do produce greater levels of muscle activation and peak power output, possibly due to a priming effect wherein the heavier weight helps you produce more force on the subsequent drops. (1)
Interestingly, some literature has arrived that the conclusion that pre-exhaustion doesn’t significantly impact overall fatigue levels or your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). That said, the subject hasn’t been exhaustively studied (no pun intended). (2)
In practical terms, this may indicate that pre-exhaustion may be a valid personal choice if you want a stronger mind-muscle connection with the muscle you’re training on that day.
Blood Flow Restriction
BFR has a plethora of interesting literature behind it. Interestingly, much of the science on the matter posits that BFR is actually an extremely potent mechanism for increasing muscular strength. (3)
That said, there’s plenty of good cause backing BFR for hypertrophy as well. Perhaps most compelling is the idea that, apparently, BFR elicits a hypertrophic response without requiring that you train to failure with heavy weights. (4)(5)
Training to Failure
When it comes to intensity, whether or not you should train to failure remains one of the more hotly-debated topics in fitness literature. While intensity techniques are a valid tool, most modern research has arrived at the tentative conclusion that you don’t need to train at your absolute limit to make gains. (6)(7)
That said, intensity techniques can be a great way to help you remember what real effort actually feels like. Furthermore, even if a longer, lower-intensity workout provides comparable results, not everyone has the time for a two-hour gym session.
If you need to hit a certain amount of “work” to elicit growth, including drop sets or cluster work can be a viable shortcut — as long as you take your recovery seriously as well.
Who Should Use Intensity Techniques
Since each and every one of these methods comes with its own unique array of benefits, it might be easy to think that you can simply plug all of them into your workout routine and go to town. However, that is absolutely not the case. Intensity techniques can add a lot of flavor to your training, but beware — too much of a good thing can spoil the meal.
Intermediate & Advanced Bodybuilders
Muscle aspirants in the first year or two of training have little need for fancy techniques. When you’re just starting out, your body is already so sensitized to change and growth that drop sets or BFR work may be considered redundant. If you’re still adjusting to the rigors of heavy resistance training, these tactics might tax your recovery a bit more than you can tolerate.
For more experienced bodybuilders, however, this isn’t the case. Not only are you comfortably acclimated to regular training, but your propensity for muscle growth isn’t as robust as it once was. In such cases, amping up your training with a couple of these techniques can do wonders.
Those Short on Time
Many of these techniques involve compressing the amount of work you’d typically perform into a smaller timeframe. This serves the dual purpose of both making the session physically harder and, in particular, cutting down on the amount of time you need to get a good session in.
If you’re a lunch break lifter or are forced to work out during primetime at your gym with the facility packed to the brim, some drop sets and cluster work can help you build more muscle with less time spent in the gym.
Turn It Up
Bodybuilding is hard. To build a world-class physique, you need to put your head down and grind through hundreds, if not thousands, of painful workouts in the gym. It’s not for the faint of heart.
That said, going to the gym shouldn’t be a dreadful experience — even if you aspire to the Mr. Olympia stage. Intensity techniques are a stellar way to ratchet up your workouts, but they shouldn’t be the cornerstone of your training.
Like everything in the sport, if you want the best results you should be calculated and precise about your workouts and when you choose to push the envelope. When the gloves come off, though, there’s no better way to break a sweat and build new muscle.
You may hate it in the moment, but the results that follow will be worth the squeeze.
- Goto, M., Nirengi, S., Kurosawa, Y., Nagano, A., & Hamaoka, T. (2016). Effects of the Drop-set and Reverse Drop-set Methods on the Muscle Activity and Intramuscular Oxygenation of the Triceps Brachii among Trained and Untrained Individuals. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(4), 562–568.
- Soares, E. G., Brown, L. E., Gomes, W. A., Corrêa, D. A., Serpa, É. P., da Silva, J. J., Junior, G., Fioravanti, G. Z., Aoki, M. S., Lopes, C. R., & Marchetti, P. H. (2016). Comparison Between Pre-Exhaustion and Traditional Exercise Order on Muscle Activation and Performance in Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(1), 111–117.
- Loenneke, J. P., Wilson, J. M., Marín, P. J., Zourdos, M. C., & Bemben, M. G. (2012). Low intensity blood flow restriction training: a meta-analysis. European journal of applied physiology, 112(5), 1849–1859.
- Bjørnsen, T., Wernbom, M., Paulsen, G., Berntsen, S., Brankovic, R., Stålesen, H., Sundnes, J., & Raastad, T. (2021). Frequent blood flow restricted training not to failure and to failure induces similar gains in myonuclei and muscle mass. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 31(7), 1420–1439. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13952
- Wilson, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Joy, J. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Naimo, M. A. (2013). Practical blood flow restriction training increases acute determinants of hypertrophy without increasing indices of muscle damage. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 27(11), 3068–3075.
- Lacerda, L. T., Marra-Lopes, R. O., Lanza, M. B., Diniz, R., Lima, F. V., Martins-Costa, H. C., Pedrosa, G. F., Gustavo Pereira Andrade, A., Kibele, A., & Chagas, M. H. (2021). Resistance training with different repetition duration to failure: effect on hypertrophy, strength and muscle activation. PeerJ, 9, e10909.
- Lacerda, L. T., Marra-Lopes, R. O., Diniz, R., Lima, F. V., Rodrigues, S. A., Martins-Costa, H. C., Bemben, M. G., & Chagas, M. H. (2020). Is Performing Repetitions to Failure Less Important Than Volume for Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength?. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 34(5), 1237–1248.
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