As our total volume of resistance training experience increases with each workout and we achieve gains in strength and muscular hypertrophy we make a steady transition from untrained to trained. Along with this transition our rate and degree of increase in strength and muscle size diminish and eventually we all reach some kind of plateau.
It seems that authors of bodybuilding articles have forever been talking about how to break through this plateau. Often they’ve advocated the use of advanced training techniques such as drop-sets/breakdown sets (performance of a set to muscular failure with a given load and then immediately reducing the load and continuing repetitions to subsequent muscular failure), rest-pause training (single, near-maximal repetitions with a brief rest phase in-between), pre-exhaustion training (performing an isolated exercise immediately prior to a compound exercise to ‘pre-exhaust’ a target muscle), or others. All of these methods retain the single aim of increasing the state of fatigue within a given muscle and thus hoping to increase motor unit and muscle fibre recruitment activation and catalyse greater adaptations in strength and/or size. It all seems pretty logical really…but is there any evidence to support these recommendations. The present article represents a brief review of the scientific research for the three aforementioned advanced techniques.
Drop Sets/Breakdown Sets (BD)
A person will reach muscular failure with a given load (e.g. 80% 1-repetition maximum; RM) when their force levels drop below that load (e.g. <79% 1RM). As such decreasing the weight to ~50% 1RM allows the continuation of exercise and thus more repetitions. It’s been hypothesised that BDtraining recruits both type II and type I motor units because it utilises both heavier and lighter loads allowing high muscular tension as well as providing fatigue, metabolic stress and ischemia as a result of the length of time the muscle remains under tension (Schoenfeld, 2011). Multiple noteworthy authors have previously advocated this technique (Westcott, 2003; Fleck and Kramer, 2014; Baker & Newton, 2005) but there seems to be an absence of empirical evidence.
One such paper considered acute hormonal responses to BDtraining;Goto, et al., (2003) reported greater increases in growth hormone (GH) following performance of a set of knee extensions at 50% 1RM immediately after sets of knee extensions at 90% 1RM when compared to sets at 90% alone. Whilst elevated GH levels have been linked to potentially greater gains in hypertrophy (Schoenfeld, 2010), there remains some dispute about the extent of this relationship (Carpinelli, 2010; West, et al. 2010). Irrespective; the study did not measure strength or cross sectional area (CSA) of the muscle, and as such; does not prove chronic adaptation.
However, a second study by the same group of authors (Goto, et al., 2004) compared traditional training (5 sets of knee extensions and leg press exercises, 2 x / week at 90% 1RM) to BD training (the same protocol with an additional set performed 30 seconds after the 5th set using 50% 1RM) in trained participants. Their results showed significantly greater increases in isokinetic torque and muscular endurance for the BD training group. In addition, though whilst not statistically significant, hypertrophy of the thigh also seemed to be greater in the BD group.
With a good scientific mind we could be critical and question as to whether the superior results from the BD groups were a product of the BD set, or simply the additional volume of performing a 6th set of exercise. Certainly this area appears to warrant further research.
Rest-Pause (RP) Training
This method seems to be credited to Mike Mentzer (Mentzer & Little, 2003) and consists of single, near maximal repetitions with brief rest periods between repetitions. As per BD training (see above) this technique often utilises the reduction of load as you fatigue. As such it follows suit that the same hypothesis still stands as to why you would improve in strength and size; motor unit and muscle fibre recruitment from heavy loading, as well as fatigue and metabolic stress.
However, once again there seems a relative dearth of literature surrounding this training technique. The first study which appears to consider RP training (though it doesn’t mention the term) is that of Berger &Hardage(1967). These authors compared groups of untrained participants training at either 10RM or performing 10 single repetitions (starting at 1RM and decreasing the load for each repetition –notably this is almost the exact protocol recommended by Mentzer & Little, 2003). The authors reported greater increases in strength as a result of RP training compared to 10RM training.
A second study considering RP for trained participants (Giessing, et al., 2014) compared 3 training conditions; (i) near failure, (ii) muscular failure, and (iii) RP. Participants completed full body workouts 2 x / week and following 10 weeks of training results showed similar strength increases for RP and muscular failure training groups. The near failure group showed no increases in strength suggesting that reaching muscular failure is a requirement to continue increasing strength, whilst the lack of differences between reaching muscular failure and RP question the efficacy of this advanced technique.
Pre-Exhaustion Training (Pre-Ex)
This appears to be the more complicated and perhaps most misunderstood of the techniques discussed. Originally credited to Arthur Jones in the 1970s (though suggested to have preceded his thinking; Jones, 1970) this works on the hypothesis that when performing a compound exercise (e.g. a bench press) the prime mover or target muscle (e.g. the pectorals) do not reach sufficient fatigue because the smaller synergist muscles (e.g. anterior deltoids, triceps, etc.) reach failure beforehand. PreEx training suggests that if our compound exercise is preceded by an isolated exercise (e.g. a pec-fly) then we can fatigue our target muscle and then move straight in to the compound exercise where the synergist muscles will help perform the exercise and create a greater fatigue to the target muscle. Once again this technique has been advocated (e.g. Darden, 2004; Baechle& Earle, 2008) with relatively little scientific evidence to support its use.
In fact until last year there were 3 studies which had investigated PreEx training, all considering the acute effects by measuring muscle activation (Augustsson, et al., 2003; Gentil, et al., 2007; Brennecke, et al., 2009). Whilst these are interesting in themselves none of them have methodological rigour sufficient to really add to this discussion, primarily because muscle activation does not infer strength or hypertrophy gains. In fact the studies all reported no advantage to the PreEx technique for the target muscles whilst showing some increases in synergist muscle activation (e.g. triceps) during the compound exercise when using the PreEx technique (Gentil, et al., 2007; Brennecke, et al., 2009).
The final article is that of Fisher, et al.(2014). Thirty-nine trained males and females performed 12 weeks of resistance exercise in one of three groups; (i) PreEx (pec-fly immediately followed by chest press, pull-over immediately followed by pull-down, and knee extension immediately followed by leg press), (ii) PreEx with rest, e.g. the same exercises in the same order but with 60 seconds of rest between the exercises, and (iii) a control group who performed the same exercises in a different order. The main findings were that no group significantly improved their strength beyond that of the other groups, suggesting there are no greater physiological benefits to PreEx training beyond that of more traditional methods.
The present article represents a brief review of these advanced methodsto help better understand the degree of adaptation from these training techniques. Whilst we might consider the use of these methods by our own and fellow trainees results’ we should alsoremain objective to the science.Certainly the methods discussed are presented under logical hypotheses and with this in mind it might be that, irrespective of physiological adaptations, there are psychological benefits to using advanced training methods, which as yet, research has not uncovered!
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