A blog reader named Jerry Wright who is in my age bracket (he's 50, I'm 44) recently suggested a great topic - my 'old-school tricks' to keep workouts fresh and interesting. I don't think I have any real 'tricks' per se, but there are a few really effective techniques I employ fairly often that anyone can try in their own workouts. Here are the ones I revisit on a regular basis.
Please keep in mind that any intensity-enhancing techniques should be used sparingly. Using all of them, all the time totally defeats the purpose of using them to 'shock' your muscles with a type of stress they aren't accustomed to. It would also lead to overtraining in most people pretty fast.
1. Drop sets
Most of us use this one. You hit failure with a weight, then cut the resistance and keep going. I might drop the weight 3-4 times in a single 'set' at times. It works well with dumbbells as long as you have them all available and in close proximity, though machines with selector stacks and cable movements are even better suited to rapid resistance changes. Anything where you have to remove weight plates is a bit more awkward and time consuming. Like most of the techniques I like to use, this one extends the TUT or Time Under Tension for the muscle you are working.
Hit failure and then rest anywhere from 5-30 seconds and then continue on with a few more reps. Like drop sets, you can extend the set to include more than one 'rest' period. Rest-pause is one of the core principles behind DC Training and it very effective. It allows you to get more reps with a weight than you normally would be able to.
A superset is nothing more than performing two exercises back to back with no rest in between, which hits the muscle group from two different angles in the same set. Pre-exhaust is really just a variation on this, but involves doing an isolation movement for a muscle group followed right up by a compound movement. Examples would be a leg extension and leg press, a pec deck and bench press, or a lateral raise and an overhead press. The pump and burn are significant. Supersets are usually done for the same muscle group, but they can also be done for opposing muscle groups like the biceps and triceps and the chest and back. The benefit there is that one muscle group is being stretched while the other contracts. Many swear by the effectiveness of using this for back to back biceps and triceps movements.
21's are usually thought of only for barbell or EZ-bar curls, but you can really use them for anything. They involve breaking the range of motion down into either two or three parts as follows:
7 reps in bottom half ROM, 7 reps top half ROM, 7 reps full ROM (the first two can be switched, doing top first)
7 reps bottom third ROM, 7 reps mid-range, 7 reps top third ROM (order can really be any way you want here)
5. Static holds
Static holds were a favorite of the late Mike Mentzer. To do them, you simply stop the rep at a given part of the ROM - or at several points along the ROM - and hold it there for 5-30 seconds (there are no rules about this). These are best employed as a 'surprise' by your training partner when you are nearing failure, and stress the muscle in a way you ordinarily wouldn't experience.
I'm not big on 'pure' negatives, which are when you only lower a very heavy weight for a given number of reps after a partner helps you get it into the contracted position. I feel those put too much stress on the joints and especially tendons and ligaments. Instead, I like to do a few negative reps after reaching positive failure. You can either cheat the weight up if you train alone, or have your partner help you get the weight into the start position. For best results, lower the weight slowly, as in 3-5 seconds.
When you hit positive failure, it doesn't mean you can't budge the weight at all. It just means you can't get any more complete reps. Often I will extend a set by doing a few more partial reps, either near the stretch position or the contracted position of the rep. With many free weight movements like barbell curls and lateral raises, for example, you can always eke out a few more partial reps from the bottom position after you hit failure on full reps.
Those are a few of my favorite intensity techniques. If you are looking to spice up your workouts, feel free to incorporate some or all of them at various times.