Push Your Limits With Partial Reps and Other Training Techniques

Oxygen Magazine asked me what I thought about a few “old school” training techniques that have been around a long time but many people don’t know about. One is ascending/descending reps and the other is the partial reps technique. Below is the article taken from Oxygen:

Technique: Ascending/Descending sets

aka “Running the Rack” or “Running the Stack”

The premise of this method is simple: You’re either moving up (ascending) or down (descending) in weight during one super-long set. Extending your sets like this increases the time under tension for your muscles, which in turn forces adaptation and change.

You can increase or decrease the weight as many times as you’d like during your set, depending on your masochistic leanings for the day. Let’s use the machine chest press as an example of a moderately intense ascending set, changing weight four times. Begin by setting the weight stack with 5-pound weights per side for 10 reps. After rep 10, immediately change the pin setting on the weight stack so that you’re next using 10 pounds per side and go for another 10 reps. Again without resting, move the pin again setting the weight at 15 pounds per side and do still another 10 reps (or as many as you can muster). Finally, move the pin up to the 20-pound weights and rep until you can’t go anymore. For a descending set (also called a “drop set”), reverse that sequence, starting with your heaviest weight and decreasing every time you reach a point of initial failure.

An ascending set on its own serves as a good warm-up for any bodypart, while a descending set is a super finisher. The good news is you should only have to do one ascending or descending set per exercise and per workout to reach kaputville.

Word of caution: Be aware that certain exercise techniques may upset your fellow gym-goers. Running the rack using a series of dumbbells, for example, may not be practical during the gym’s peak hours because this technique can have you monopolizing a lot of gym real estate, which may not sit well with other gym members. Rule of thumb for ascending/descending sets: If your ascending/descending set will require a lot of real estate, you might want to choose another technique or train during non-peak hours when the gym isn’t so packed with members.

Try It Yourself

Pick an exercise in your next workout to try either an ascending or a descending set, such as machine chest presses or machine shoulder lateral raises or cable curls.

“This technique is traditionally done with dumbbells, but you could easily do it with a machine that you can easily adjust,” says Cari Shoemate, a personal trainer and yoga instructor based in Houston (cari-fit.com). For example, use a cable machine with a rope attachment for doing triceps pressdowns: Start either with a low weight and build with each set or with a heavy weight and drop with each set.

If you want to get creative, try using a bodyweight exercise. Shoemate explains: “Try descending sets with push-ups. Using a bench and step, work your way from the hardest angle to the easiest, starting with high-decline push-ups (feet on a bench), then to low-decline push-ups (feet on a step), then regular push-ups and finally incline push-ups with your hands on a step, feet on the floor.”

Technique: Partial Reps

In Oxygen, we love to preach about doing full range-of-motion reps. And in fact, studies confirm that stopping short robs you of the complete benefit of an exercise. That said, there is a time when a less-than-complete rep is not only acceptable but encouraged.

Partial reps allow you to extend a set beyond the point of initial failure, putting more beneficial stress on your muscles and promoting a hormone response that sets recovery and repair activity into motion. You may not be able to do a full rep anymore, but you can likely still move through part of it, trying for three-quarters, then a half and then one-quarter reps, stopping when even those become impossible.

“I’ve always been a fan of partial reps because they can be done anywhere and with any type of weights or resistance,” Shoemate says. Partial reps typically focus more on building muscle endurance versus strength, but it really depends on how you do them. “If you’re doing higher reps, then your focus will be more on endurance,” Shoemate says. “But if you only do a certain angle or range of motion and are using heavier weights, it’ll definitely build strength and give muscles more shape and definition.”

Because they’re so intense, use partial reps sparingly on a set or two at the end of a workout once or twice a month.

Read the rest of this article and another great technique here. 

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My favorite partial reps exercise is called “21’s” done with bicep curls. Start by doing 7 full range reps (extend arms all the way down and then curl all the way to the top). Then, do 7 reps on only at the high range – starting at the top of the curl and extend or lower arms only halfway down then back to the top. Finish with 7 lower range – starting with the weight down by your sides and then stop when you get to the halfway point.

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