In Part 1 we looked at how using barbell complexes, kettlebell training, and manipulating time under tension techniques can be added into your strength training programme to help break through plateaux, mix things up, or take your training up a gear. Continuing this theme, in Part 2 we explore three more advanced techniques that will help you to keep your programming fresh and encourage those gains to keep on coming.
Super-sets are quite simply a combination of two or more exercises in one set. The main strength benefits of structuring your workout in this way are to either overload a particular muscle group (agonist super-sets) or allow one muscle to recover while you target its opposite (antagonist super-sets). Both methods are particularly good for strength and hypertrophy (gaining muscle size), and are commonly associated with a more traditional body-building approach to strength training.
As previously mentioned, this method focuses on targeting one muscle group per set, usually choosing two ways to work the chosen muscle until fatigue. For example, if you were exercising the pectoral muscles, then you could super-set with a flat dumbbell chest press, followed by an incline dumbbell chest fly. Or if you were exercising the hamstrings, you could choose deadlifts followed by hamstring curls. When performing super-sets like this it’s important to get your rest periods in, so that each set is completed with correct form and the required rep range. If you are training for strength then aim for 2–3 minutes between sets, but if you are training for hypertrophy then 90 seconds of rest will suffice.
The theory behind the method is that blood flow to the working muscle is increased between sets by stressing the opposite muscle group. For example, working the biceps and triceps, or the chest and back. One of the major benefits of using antagonist super-sets is that you can achieve optimum recovery in each muscle while increasing the overall workload across the session, which can lead to fantastic gains in muscle size as well as overall body strength.
These represent the most common approach to structuring super-sets, but they are by no means the only options. For example, you can use super-sets to fit more exercises into your session and choose exercises that use totally different body parts – maybe a front squat and a pull-up, or a barbell row and a back squat. I consider this a much more productive use of your rest periods, without affecting your ability to perform each exercise to full capacity. Another way could be to combine a strength exercise with a corrective or postural exercise that inadvertently benefits it. For example, a heavy bench press with scapula retractions, or a dumbbell lunge with some glute activation drills. There are no particular rules to follow with these alternative examples of super-setting, but if you are looking for optimum strength and size gains then stick with the traditional agonist and antagonist described above.
German Volume Training (GVT)
German Volume Training is quite simply the king of strength-training protocols.1,2 It’s certainly not for the faint hearted and should not really be attempted until you can consider yourself an intermediate/advanced level lifter, but its effectiveness for strength and size gains is unparalleled. Canadian strength training guru Charles Poliquin, who has made this method more famous and mainstream, says that GVT has its roots in weightlifting training programmes from the 1970s, where it was used to help competitors gain muscle mass quickly (not improve lifting performance) in order to move up weight classes without gaining body fat.
The method is as simple as it is brutal. You choose big bang exercises (squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, barbell rows, chest presses, shoulder presses, etc.), calculate 60% of your 1 rep max, then perform 10 sets of 10 repetitions with 60 seconds of rest between sets. Don’t be fooled by the ‘lifting 60% of your maximum’ part and start thinking it sounds a bit easy. GVT works in the same way as barbell complexes (see Part 1) by increasing total training volume across the session. You probably won’t have ever worked so hard in a session until you try this – so it’s vital to get your nutrition spot on, especially eating enough protein post-training (20–30g within 60 minutes of training).
Poliquin recommends a 5-day split on the programme; working in cycles of 3 workout days and 2 rest days. Poliquin has his own style of programming this method (and as he is the driving force behind promoting GVT for hypertrophy, I would highly recommend researching his books and articles on the various nuances of the programming), but generally speaking the 5-day cycles continue for a period of 8–12 weeks, with exercises changed every 4 weeks or 5–6 cycles.
So if you’re looking to pack on some lean muscle, burn some fat, and truly become a machine in the gym, then this method is the one to try – remember to let me know how it goes!
The Olympic lifts – the clean and jerk (C&J) and the snatch – are becoming so trendy amongst fitness circles that I’ve even seen them described as being hipster (cringe)! This new-found interest in this style of lifting is most likely borne from the rise of Crossfit – but whether you love or hate that particular fitness craze, there is no doubting the effectiveness of Olympic lifting when it comes to getting stronger. Just look at some of the weightlifting records: currently the world record holder in the 48kg women’s weight class lifts a 98kg snatch and a 121kg C&J, which is more than double her bodyweight for both lifts (and most likely more weight than most guys at your local body building gym can put above their heads!). Granted, the Olympic lifts are all about technique and getting under the bar rather than pressing it up, but you can see my point that a person of 48kg in weight (the lightest weight class) needs to be very strong to move around that sort of weight from the floor.
So What Are the Olympic Lifts?
I’ve mentioned the names of the lifts, but what are they? Both the snatch and C&J involve taking a weight from the floor and getting them above the head – the snatch goes up unbroken, and the C&J goes up with a reset point at the shoulders. If you’re unfamiliar with them, actions speak louder than words, so I’d recommend watching this clip of my weightlifting coach Giles Greenwood during his gold medal-winning performance at the Commonwealth Games in 2002.
As you can see, weightlifting takes a combination of strength, power, skill, and bravery to get the bar accelerated above your head and then caught in a stable position. It’s not easy to learn, but then again you wouldn’t expect to learn to play an instrument overnight – so if you want to learn how to do it, be prepared to spend many, many hours learning the fundamentals, transition exercises, and working on your mobility and flexibility, and be brave enough to fail lifts to improve overall.
Despite the amount of training tutorials that are available on YouTube, I would advise against trying to teach yourself how to lift. Instead, find yourself a qualified weightlifting coach (a strength coach may not have experience teaching these lifts) who can run through the basics, assess your form, and help you set up a programme that will see your strength gains go through the roof while helping you gain legendary status amongst your gym buddies who still struggle to do a dumbbell shoulder press with good form.
I hope that this two-part series has shed some light on the various programme tweaks you can try in order to step your strength-training up a gear and make that transition from beginner/intermediate lifter to advanced status. Please don’t rush into trying it all at once; it can take many years to get through all the techniques successfully. Whatever your path to becoming a machine at the gym, never stop trying new things and always ask questions to the people who are where you want to be.
Will you be switching up your routing at the gym after reading this series? What new techniques will you try? Leave a comment below with your experience!
- (2014, 6th November). Introduction to the German Volume Training. [Weblog]. In Strength Sensei. Retrieved 12 April 2016, from http://www.strengthsensei.com/introduction-to-the-german-volume-training .
- (2011, 1st March). The Return of German Volume Training. [Weblog]. In T Nation. Retrieved 12 April 2016, from https://www.t-nation.com/training/return-of-german-volume-training .