The purpose of this article is to share various methods you can utilize to make low load and bodyweight exercises as effective as possible in regards to preserving and/or building muscle.
The primary principles behind these methods are:
- Increasing time under tension which puts the muscles in an environment that can enhance muscle growth (slow eccentrics, intra-set holds, iso pre-fatigue, etc.)
- Increasing density by doing more work in a shorter period of time (Gironda 8×8, myo reps, etc.)
- Combining exercises in a way that ensures all muscle fibers are fully activated and/or taken close to failure (such as drop sets, supersets, tri sets, pre and post-exhaustion, etc.)
There are many upsides to utilizing these methods including:
- Maximizing effectiveness of training for muscle growth when sufficient load (70-80% of 1RM) is not available (i.e. lockdown, traveling, etc.)
- Improving mind-muscle connection
- Potentially maximizing muscular recruitment
- Minimizing joint stress
There are several potential downsides to utilizing these methods as your main mode of training such as:
- Unnecessary fatigue (you have to do more “painful” work for pretty much same result as higher load work)
- Decreased rep quality. Rep quality is directly correlated with “intensity”. Intensity is the amount of load lifted. Since it’s not using 70-80% of your 1RM, it’s not considered high quality.
There are various ways to execute each of these methods, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to give one example for each. Let’s get started.
1. Pre-exhaustion method
Pick two exercises for one specific muscle group, one isolation and one compound. Perform isolation exercise. Take 10 seconds rest. Perform compound exercise.
Example: Quads. Start with a seated band knee extension for 10-12 reps. Take 10 seconds rest. Follow with a foam roller wall squat for 8-10 reps.
2. Post-exhaustion method
Pick two exercises for one specific muscle group, one compound and one isolation. Perform compound exercise. Take 10 seconds rest. Perform isolation exercise.
Example: Hamstrings. Start with a dumbbell Romaninian deadlift for 8-10 reps. Take 10 seconds rest. Follow with prone band hamstring curls for 10-12 reps.
3. Mechanical drop set
With this drop set, you start in your weakest position and end in your strongest. Basically, you incrementally alter your position to regress the exercise so that you can continue as you get more fatigued.
Example: Push-ups. Start with 8 feet elevated push-ups, move to 8 regular push-ups, then 8 hands elevated on couch/bench push-ups, then 8 high countertop push-ups.
4. Gironda 8×8
Perform exercise for 8 reps, take 10 seconds rest, perform 8 more reps, 10 seconds rest, repeat for 8 total sets.
Example: Hip thrusts. Perform 8 reps, rest 10 seconds, perform 8 reps, rest 10 seconds, repeat for 8 total sets.
5. Myo reps
Choose a weight that you can do 10 challenging reps with. Perform 10 reps, rest 10 seconds, perform 3 reps, rest 10 seconds, perform 3 reps, repeat until you can no longer perform reps. If you can do more than 10 reps on that second attempt, increase the weight.
Example: Try this with biceps curls.
During an isometronic, you push as hard as you can into an immovable object for short bursts of time.
Try this with quadruped kickbacks. With your knee slightly flexed, push your foot into the wall as hard as you can for 2-4 seconds at a time and repeat for 10-20 total seconds.
With isokinetics, you use the same tempo throughout the movement.
Example: Push-ups. Lower down for 3 seconds, then take 3 full seconds to push back up. Repeat this for an entire set.
8. Iso pre-fatigue
Perform an isometric hold of the rep for 10-60 seconds, then do as many reps as you can.
Example: Band row. Pull back drawing your elbows towards your hips and hold tension in your lats for 10 seconds. Perform as many reps as you can.
9. Intra-set holds
Do 3 holds where the peak muscle tension is in the given movement throughout the set. If you can do more than 12 total reps, increase the time of the holds.
Example: Hip thrust holds in top position (hip extension) 10 seconds, do 5 reps, hold at top for 10 seconds, do 5 reps, hold at top for 10 seconds, then do as many reps as possible.
10. Stato-dynamic reps
Hold anywhere from 1 to 3 different points in the movement. Anywhere from 3-6 seconds. If you’re doing one hold, keep it closer to 6 seconds. If you’re doing 3 holds, keep holds closer to 3 seconds.
Example: Chin-up. Start to pull yourself up 1/3 of the way, pause 3 seconds, pull up another 1/3, pause 3 seconds, pull all the way up. Lower down 1/3 of the way, pause 3 seconds, lower down another 1/3, pause 3 seconds, lower all the way down. That’s one rep.
11. Darden 30-10-30
Hold for 30 seconds, do 10 reps, hold for 30 seconds again.
Example: Hands elevated push-up. Hold for 30 seconds at the bottom of the push-up. Do 10 reps. Hold for 30 seconds at the bottom of the push-up again.
12. Slow eccentrics
The eccentric is the lowering or “negative” portion of the movement. Try taking 4 seconds in the lowering phase of the exercise.
Example: …I can’t think of a traditional weight lifting or bodyweight exercise where this wouldn’t make sense. Slow eccentrics are awesome.
13. Tempo contrast
Alternate between slow and fast reps for 2 at a time.
Example: Squats. 2 slow reps, 2 fast, 2 slow, 2 fast. If you can do more than 12, try this with a single leg variation instead.
14. Regressive range of motion
Take your set to technical failure. Once you can no longer perform an entire rep, do partial reps.
Example: Single leg hip thrust. Perform full range of motion reps (full hip extension) until you reach failure. Squeeze out a few more partial reps from bottom with just as much extension as you can.
There are several ways to approach supersets, but what is most appropriate for low load training is to hit the same muscle group 2 different ways with minimal rest between each exercise.
Example: The previously mentioned pre and post-exhaustion methods are great examples of appropriate supersets.
There are several ways to approach tri-sets, but what is most appropriate for low load training is to hit the same muscle group 3 different ways with minimal rest between each exercise.
Example: Delts. Perform 10 bent over reverse flyes, 10 dumbbell lateral raises, then 10 overhead presses back to back.
17. 1 ¼ reps
Perform one full range of motion repetition followed by ¼ range of motion repetition where the peak muscle tension is in the given movement. Repeat for entire set.
Example: Single leg hip thrust. Perform a repetition taking the hips into full extension, lower down ¼ of the way, go right back up into full extension, lower all the way down into flexion. Repeat for 8-10 reps.
18. Blood flow restriction training
This is also known as occlusion training or kaatsu training.
Cutting off blood flow can put the muscles in an environment that can boost muscle growth with low loads. You can purchase blood flow restriction bands or use a belt or therapy band. This makes the most sense with isolation work.
An example would be to wrap tourniquets around upper arms close to the shoulder to perform low-load high-repetition biceps curls.
None of the above should be confused with turning weight lifting into circuit training or cardio. The goal here is to build or preserve muscle mass, not necessarily to get the heart rate up or “feel tired”.
Although increase in heart rate and fatigue could be a byproduct of these training styles, a sole focus on them would be an unproductive way to train for body composition goals.
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- Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Importance of Mind-Muscle Connection during Progressive Resistance Training.” European Journal of Applied Physiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26700744.
- Helms, E R, et al. “Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Resistance and Cardiovascular Training.” The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24998610.
- Nishimura, Akinobu, et al. “Hypoxia Increases Muscle Hypertrophy Induced by Resistance Training.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2010, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21266734.
- Schoenfeld, Brad J. “Potential Mechanisms for a Role of Metabolic Stress in Hypertrophic Adaptations to Resistance Training.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2013, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23338987.