Back Growth Training Tips
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 09, 2017
The following are some helpful tips for your back training. Please note that these are averages based on our personal training experience and that accrued through training thousands of clients over the course of many years. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
To stay rooted in the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made, before proceeding, please be sure you've read the introductory article for all of these specific muscle group training guides: Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth
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Likewise, before we dive into the training tips themselves, let's also review our key training volume landmarks and relate them to training the back:
All of these volume guidelines are for the combination of vertical and horizontal pulling exercises. Thus, when we say that with 4 back sessions a week typical MRVs are around 30 total sets, we generally mean about 15 sets of vertical pulling and 15 sets of rowing, not 30 sets of each!
Because “the back” isn’t a muscle or even several muscles but rather a large assortment of adjacent muscles, it’s best to think of back training by splitting it up into the exercises that require horizontal pulling and those that require vertical pulling.
What makes back a bit different from most other muscle groups is that it needs both vertical and horizontal stimulus within each microcycle. As a simple example, if you train back twice a week, you should focus most of your exercises on one of those days in the horizontal plane, and in the vertical plane on the other day. What you can also do is include some of the alternate focus exercises in each session, but do them at the end of the session and for less weight and/or volume. This way, both vertical and horizontal components are hit each session, but each is prioritized one time and gets to recover a bit more the next. Here’s an example:
We typically recommend including between one and three different back exercises in any given training session, as more than three is likely to cut into potential exercise variations that are better saved for later mesocycles. Within a single week (microcycle) of training, we recommend between two and five different back exercises. For example, if you train back 3x a week, you can do a heavy barbell row on one day, a lighter barbell row on the next day, and a pullup version on the last day for two total exercises in the week. On the other hand, if you train back 6x per week, you might want to choose as many as five different exercises, repeating only one of them in a heavier/lighter arrangement. Because you want to keep exercises variations fresh for when you need to change exercises (due to injury or staleness, for example), you should use as few exercises per week as possible to get the job done. Our recommendation to repeat the same exercises for every week of a given meso is further reason to get a great workout from a few more sets of barbell rows, vs switching to dumbbell rows, for example. If you’re doing an exercise, there should be a reason for it.
Lastly, how do you know when it’s time to swap out an exercise for a comparably effective one on your list? These questions about the exercise you’re considering swapping out can help:
- Are you still making gains in rep strength on the exercise?
- Is the exercise causing any aches or pains that are connective tissue related? And are these getting worse with each week or accumulating over multiple weeks?
- Is there a phasic need for the exercise to change? In other words, is the exercise appropriate for the rep range you’re trying to use it for? Example: barbell rows for sets of 25 just tire out your lower back, but machine rows for 25 pump up your upper back as intended.
- Are you getting a good mind-muscle connection on the exercise, or is it feeling stale and annoying to do?
If you are still hitting PRs on the exercise, it’s not causing any undue pains, you’re getting a good mind-muscle connection, and there’s no other need to change it, then don’t change it! If this means you keep an exercise around for up to a year or more, so be it! But, if an exercise isn’t yielding any more PRs for a whole meso (especially on a muscle gain or maintenance phase), hurting you beyond expected soreness, feels super stale, or is inappropriate for an upcoming rep range target, then you should replace it. Many times, the questions will fall on both sides, and then it’s up to you to make a wise choice considering all the 4 variables above.
Range of Motion
Not only is it important to do full range of motion for full development on back moves, it’s also important to prevent cheating with momentum. Of all the bent rows ever done to date on this earth, maybe only about 5% of them were likely done with good technique. The rest were done with some - and often an unacceptably high - degree of swinging. Remember, the only thing you get from swinging is the involvement of your legs. Unless you’re training legs and back with one exercise (aka "the deadlift"!), you shouldn't be moving your torso up and down to help you lift. Also, the lats seem to respond well to peak contractions, so bring that pulldown bar all the way down to your chest with each rep. Yes: you’ll have to lose some weight off the stack, but if you’re there to impress yourself with your strength, do it in the power rack, not the lat pulldown machine! And, you’ll also see lots of people doing pullups with only the mid-range, never going down to a dead hang or coming up all the way to at least get their chins over the bar. While this can be quite rewarding for the ego, sadly the same isn't true for your back musculature, making this largely unproductive move one to skip.
In general, like all muscles, the muscles of the back benefit from weights in the 30%-85% 1RM range, which in many people roughly translates to a weight that results in between 5 and 30 reps on a first set taken to failure. We can split this range into heavy (5-10,) moderate (10-20), and light (20-30) categories, and inspect the tradeoffs inherent in each.
The first point on loading is that the back, like most muscles, seems to benefit from some training in all three of the rep ranges listed above. Because the moderate (10-20 rep) range often offers the best tradeoff between stimulus, fatigue, injury risk, slow/fast fiber specificity, and mind-muscle connection, an argument can be made that a first-time program design could have most weekly working sets for the back in this range, perhaps up to about 50% of them. The other 50% can perhaps be split evenly between the heavy (5-10) and light (20-30) rep ranges, as loading range diversity has been shown to be a potential benefit in its own right.
While the 10-20 range can support nearly all types of exercises, the other ranges have some practical delineations. For example, weighted pullups should probably be done in the 5-10 range and not much higher, as the whole point of weighting pullups is to impose greater absolute forces. On the other hand, barbell bent rows and other back movements that require support of the body in a gravity-resistant posture may not be ideal for the 20-30 rep range. This is because the duration of such a set may fatigue supporting muscles before the pulling muscles themselves are fatigued, thus preventing true failure proximity and best gains in those targeted pulling muscles. This suggests that exercises like barbell rows and weighted pullups may be most beneficial in the 5-20 ranges, while pulldowns, machine rows and the like may be most beneficial in the 10-30 rep ranges.
When constructing a weekly training plan, it’s probably a good idea to train the heavy ranges before the lighter ranges. Because both types of training cause fatigue, they interfere with each other to some extent. However, the muscle and connective tissue damage from heavier training is likely more substantial, and hence presents a higher risk for injury when coupled with damage from earlier training. Thus, if you do sets of 5-10 on Monday and (nearly always) sustain some form of micro-tearing, sets of 10-20 on Wednesday are lower in absolute force magnitude, and are unlikely to cause the micro-tearing to expand into a notable injury. On the other hand, if you’re pre-damaged from lots of sets of 10-20 on Monday, going even heavier in such a state on Wednesday in the 5-10 range may be more likely to result in injury. Thus, a potential sequencing of heavy-moderate-light during the week might be advisable, with a day or two of extra rest between the light session and the following heavy session. This rest interval allows you to go enter a new, productive week of training, with most of the previous week's damage healed.
A sample arrangement of exercises, sets, and loads can look something like this:
Based on your personal responses to each of the main rep ranges, you can adjust the volume you use for any of them. For example, if you notice that you get a better stimulus (pumps, soreness, mind-muscle connection, etc.) and lower fatigue (joint stress, systemic fatigue, joint soreness, etc.) in some of the ranges vs. others, you can do more sets in those ranges and a less in others. That said, in most cases you should still include at least some work in the least productive ranges. For example, you might find that neither 5-10 nor 20-30 rep ranges work very well for your back training, so you might only do a few sets of both in most weeks, and do the vast majority of your sets in the 10-20 range.
When determining how long to rest between any two sets in training, our goal is to get enough rest to allow for the next set to be as close as possible to maximally productive. How can we ensure this? By answering 4 basic questions about our recovery status:
- Has the target muscle locally recovered enough to do at least 5 reps on the next set?
- Has the nervous system recovered enough to remove it as a limiting factor to target muscle performance?
- Has the cardiorespiratory system recovered enough to remove it as a limiting factor to target muscle performance?
- Have synergist muscles in the exercise being performed recovered enough to remove them as a limiting factors to target muscle performance?
It might take only 1-2 minutes to recover very well (let’s say, 90%) on all of those systems, but, because set to set recovery is asymptotic in nature, it might take another 3 minutes to get to 95% recovery and another 10 minutes to get to 99% recovery. Since you only have so much time to spend in the gym, 10 “90% recovered sets” in 45 minutes of training is a much more anabolic stimulus than only 3 “99% recovered” sets in that same amount of time. Thus, our recommendation is to make sure you can clearly check all 4 recovery boxes above, but not wait around for “near perfect recovery.”
Here’s an example of what can be considered “very good” recovery between sets of back training. Before you do another set of bent rows, ask yourself:
- Is my upper back still burning from the last set, or has pain dissipated?
- Do I feel like I can pull hard with my upper back again, and I am mentally ready for another hard set, or do I need more time to rest?
- Is my breathing more or less back to normal, or is it still very heavy?
- Are my forearms and biceps still very fatigued, or are they ready to support my upper back in the upcoming set of barbell rows?
If all of the above are clear for takeoff, you’re probably ready to do another set, and waiting much longer is highly unlikely to be of benefit.
You’ll notice that, depending on the exercise and on the lifter, very different rest times will be generated by this questionnaire. For example, straight arm lat pulldowns might not even have synergist muscles, so question 4 doesn’t even apply, whereas barbell rows might need 3 minutes between sets just to regain normal breathing. And, if you’re on the larger and stronger side, but your cardio isn’t great, you’ll be resting much longer than someone smaller, weaker, but in excellent cardio shape. While average rest times between sets of back training will be between one and three minutes, the most important consideration is to take the rest time you need, never copying someone else’s, rushing yourself, or sitting around needlessly once all four metrics indicate that you're ready to start your next set.
There are two main considerations for determining training frequency. The first is the duration of the increase in muscle growth after a bout of training between MEV and MRV. If such an increase in muscle growth continues for seven days, then perhaps a 1x / week frequency is optimal. If such an increase lasts only a day, then perhaps 6x / week for the same muscle group is much better. While direct research on muscle growth timecourses is very limited, it seems that typical training might cause a reliable 24-48 hour increase in muscle growth. This would mean that, if muscle growth elevation was the only variable of concern with regards to frequency, we should train every muscle 3-6 times per week.
However, the second main consideration for determining training frequency is recovery. A single bout of training between MEV and MRV causes muscle growth to occur, but also presents some degree of fatigue. If we are to progress in training and allow adaptations to fully take hold over days and weeks, we must allow enough time to elapse between overloading sessions for most of our fatigue to dissipate. On average, the exact amount of fatigue dissipation must be at least enough to allow performance to return to baseline or higher, so an overload can be presented. In other words, if you can normally barbell row 185 for 15 reps, your next workout for this muscle group should take place when you're recovered enough to once again row at least 185 for 15 reps. Unfortunately, the timecourse of fatigue is usually a bit longer than that of muscle growth, making recovery, not muscle growth cessation, the limiting factor on frequency for most. In most per-session
MEV-MRV training volumes, fatigue will take between one and four days to come back down enough to restore or improve on past performance, though this is highly dependent on the muscle and the specific exercises in question.
How do you determine what training frequency is appropriate for you? You can start by training your back at per-session MEV volumes. After each session, note when soreness has abated, and you feel recovered enough psychologically to attempt another overloading workout. When you’re ready - but no later - train back again, with volumes just a bit higher than MEV (using the RP Set Progression Algorithm which you can reference here). If you’re recovering on time, keep coming back and training your back as often as you have been. If you notice that you need more time to recover, add a day to your next post-back training window. If you’re recovering faster than you thought you could, train a bit more often. After a mesocycle of such adjustments, you will have a rough but very good guess about your average back training frequency for most of your future programs. In fact, your frequency will not only be tailored exactly to your muscle growth responses, but you can be pretty sure it’s close to optimal when it is derived from your recovery time: the primary variable that should determine frequency.
Just so that you have some expectation of where to start, most of us can recover from back training at a timecourse that allows for 2-4 back training sessions per week at MEV-MRV volumes. However, only through direct experimentation on yourself can you tell where in this range works best for you, or if your ideal frequency falls outside of it altogether. Just remember that, so long as you’re recovered to train again (aka, able to perform at or above normal levels), training is a better idea than waiting to train, because higher frequency programs, at least in the short term, have shown to generate more muscle growth than needlessly lower ones.
To improve your training frequency, you can alternate areas of focus and exercise selections between successive back workouts. For example, you might train mostly rows and very few vertical pulls on one day, and, on the next back day, you might train mostly vertical pulls and very few rows. This way, you’re allowing rows and vertical pulls to recover a bit more between back sessions, but you’re still getting a lot of back sessions in during the week, which probably means more growth. Because different exercises stress slightly different pools of motor units, which are fractions of your whole muscle, varying specific exercises is also a wise move, especially for higher frequencies. For example, if you do overhand pullups on one day for your vertical component, you might do underhand pullups or parallel pulldowns for your vertical component the next day, and so on. This rotation of slightly different exercises and movement patterns can also take repeated stress off of very small and specific parts of your muscles and connective tissues, which might reduce chronic injury risk exposure.
There are a few relevant timescales in periodization:
- The repetition (1-9 seconds)
- The set (5-30 repetitions)
- The exercise (1-5 sets)
- The session (2-6 exercises)
- The day (0-2 sessions)
- The microcycle (usually 1 week of training)
- The mesocycle (3-12 weeks)
- The block (1-4 mesoscycles)
- The macrocycle (1-4 blocks)
We’ve already covered the most important details on most of these timescales, so in this section, we’ll focus on a brief understanding of how to manipulate training over a typical mesocycle and training block.
A mesocycle is composed of two phases: the accumulation phase and the deload phase. The accumulation phase lasts as long as it takes to hit systemic MRV, which, because fatigue accumulates in MEV+ training, has to happen at some point. For beginners with very high recovery abilities, it can take up to 12 weeks of increasingly more demanding training for systemic MRV to be reached and a deload to be required. For very advanced lifters that have very strong, large, and volume-resistant muscles, it can take only 3-4 weeks of accumulation training to reach systemic MRV and need to deload. The deload phase is designed to bring down the fatigue from the accumulation phase, and it usually only lasts a week or so (one microcycle).
When you begin a mesocycle of training, you should probably begin at or close to your MEV for all the muscle groups you’d like to improve during that mesocycle, for reasons described extensively in our book on the subject of training volume. Week to week, you can manipulate working sets by using the Set Progression algorithm from the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. You should seek to keep reps stable from week to week while letting your RIR decline from a 3 or 4 RIR start until it gets down to 0 (for exercises that don’t threaten the bar falling on you) or 1 (for those that do) in the last week of training. The way you keep the reps stable as RIR falls is by adding weight to the exercises you’re using. How much weight to add is a matter of an educated guess on your part. You want to add enough weight to get your target RIR with the same reps as last week. For example, if you did 100lbs last week for 10 reps on your first set of an exercise at 2 RIR, how much should you do next week to get 10 reps again but at 1 RIR? Well, you might think that adding 2.5lbs would be too easy, and you could honestly get 11 reps with that next week at 1 RIR, but adding 10lbs might require you to push to 0 RIR to get 10 reps, so you would just add 5lbs and that will probably take you where you need to be. If you’re making very rapid gains on an exercise, you might have a few weeks here and there where even though you increased weight by a bit, your RIR didn’t decline. You might have hit 8 reps at 100lbs at 3 RIR last week, and then hit 8 reps again at 3 RIR with 105lbs this week! This is a good thing, and lots of these weeks are how beginners can sometimes crank out up to 12 weeks of accumulation. Since getting to failure too soon is MUCH WORSE than getting there a bit slower, we recommend being conservative on nearly all weekly weight additions.
If you can’t realistically add weight, you can add reps. This might happen when, for example, you are using the 25lb dumbbells one week and then having to do the 30lbers next week, wildly slashing your reps. Just remember to stay within your general rep range and not leave it in any given meso. If you start at sets of about 5 reps, don’t add any more reps than will give you sets of 10, because that will take you out of the 5-10 range and no longer fulfil the needs of your training program in the way it was intended. If you start to exit a range by adding reps, add weight to take yourself back into that range, even if the increments are big and take you all the way down to the bottom of the range. Yes, this might mean that last week you were doing 20 reps with the 20lb dumbbells on your first set, and this week you’re back to only 10 reps with the 25lbers at the same or one less RIR, but that’s proper training!
Once you cannot tie previous reps in at least two consecutive sessions for a given muscle group, you have likely hit its local MRV, and need to reduce its training volume. Our recommendation is to take the next planned session with half of the planned working sets, half of the planned reps, and half of the load for recovery. In the session after, resume your load progression from before, but start at a number of sets halfway between where you started the meso and your MRV set number, and an RIR of around 2. Thus, for example, if you hit 100lbs for 10 reps on a first set last session (6 total sets in the session for that muscle group), whereas the week before, you hit 95lbs for 12 reps, your next workout can be 50lbs for 3 sets of about 5 reps. Then, next week, you resume with 105lbs, but shoot for 2 RIR and do 4 sets total, because you started the meso at 2 sets, and 4 is halfway between 2 and 6 sets. Continue to train normally after that until and unless you hit MRV again.
Systemic MRV is when you’re training so hard that your desire to train plummets, your sleep quality declines, your appetite falls, and you might get sick more often. It’s also when nearly all of your muscles start to hit local MRVs at about the same time. Once that happens (and be honest with yourself when it does), stop the accumulation phase and begin the deload phase.
The deload can be done many ways, but our recommendation is to take sets to MEV for the whole week. The load should be week 1’s load for the first half of the week and ½ of week 1’s load for the second half. The reps should be roughly half of all week 1’s reps for all sets during the deload week. This makes the deload VERY EASY, which is the whole point, since hard training doesn’t bring down fatigue! You should feel refreshed and be craving hard training toward the end of your deload week if you’re setting it up correctly.
Those are the basics of periodization over the mesoscycle. The training block is a sequence of mesoscycles strung together for one unifying purpose. For example, a muscle gain block may be 3 mesocycles of 6 weeks each, one after another, with weight gain the goal for all 18 of those total weeks, or a fat loss block might be 2 mesocycles of 5 weeks long during which weight loss is the goal for all 10 of those weeks.
Though we can potentially alter all training variables over a training block, frequency, exercise selection, and loading are definitely noteworthy.
When you start a training block, your MEVs are very low and so are your weekly MRVs. Thus, you can fit your total training volume relatively easily into lower frequencies, such as 2x per week per muscle group, for example. As training progresses and you start your next meso, not only do your per-session MEVs go up, but your weekly MRVs go up as well, making fitting all your training into just a few sessions more difficult. As well, you’re now quite used to the exercises, and recovery between sessions occurs much faster, allowing a higher frequency microcycle to be much more realistic. At this point, you can increase your frequency a bit, perhaps to an average of something like 3x per muscle group, for example. In the last one or two mesos, your per-session MEVs are very high and your per-week MRVs even higher. To really get the best gains, another bump in frequency is recommended, and you might go to 4x or so training per muscle group, and perhaps even higher.
Unfortunately, super high frequencies might not be the most sustainable for a couple of reasons. First, muscles heal faster than connective tissues, and if you train with very high frequencies, sometimes your connective tissue recovery can lag behind your muscle recovery, which may set you up for injuries if unabated. Secondly, the sheer weekly volume that higher frequencies let you do productively might cause so much fatigue escalation as to not be sustainable for longer than a mesocycle or two. Thus, after training for a meso or two at your highest frequency, you might end the training block and seek to reduce the very high fatigue levels you have accumulated, in part by starting whatever phase you start next at lower frequencies.
Exercise Selection Periodization
For normal exercise selection decisions, you can just follow the 4-part exercise deletion and replacement guidelines in the variation section above. But as you add sessions from meso to meso with a climbing frequency, you’ll need to consider adding exercises. Yes, you can repeat exercises a few times in the week with different loads, but we recommend doing this sparingly, and more often adding in new exercises when you add new sessions as frequency climbs. Thus, you might start with an exercise on Monday and a different one on Thursday in a 2x meso, but when you move to 3x, you might have to add a new exercise on Friday, keeping the Monday exercise the same and moving the Thursday exercise to Wednesday. Because fatigue and wear and tear increase with each meso in a block, we recommend adding less systemically disruptive exercises more often than adding more disruptive ones. For example, you might consider adding some pulldowns on that Friday 3x session but adding barbell bent rows to an already fatiguing week of back training might be overkill. Yes, you can add very tough movements as you go, but we recommend against it in most cases. Thus, you start with pretty much only or mostly basic, high-stress moves such as barbell rows and weighted pullups earlier in the block, and later on add pulldowns, machine rows, and other such less fatiguing exercises as you add in sessions to expand frequency over the training block.
Whatever exercises you’ve carried over from one meso to the next should be done in the same rep ranges as they were done in the last mesos. For example, if you did barbell rows in the 5-10 rep range on a first set in the last meso, in the next meso, you should continue your loading progression to stay in that same rep range, which often means just adding small increments of weight from where you last left off in the last meso, or lightening up the weight just enough to get similar reps at 3-4 RIR again in the first week. But for new exercises added in each meso as frequency goes up, we recommend adding in the moderate (10-20) and light (20-30) rep ranges instead of the heavy (5-10) range. This recommendation occurs for two reasons. First, as you take on more wear and tear and fatigue, adding more 5-10 rep movements might cause a large increase in injury risk, especially now that you’re asking your body to perform with such heavy loads with even less recovery time between sessions. Secondly, very high rep (20-30) training seems to cause robust gains over a meso or two, but in part because your body adapts to buffering metabolites so quickly, might not work nearly as well for much longer. Thus, you may want to start with heavier training in the first meso of a block, keep it for all remaining mesos, and add in lighter training with new sessions as you go, which also pairs well with the selection of less fatiguing exercises. Here’s an example of how that might look for the back:
Once you’ve done a whole training block, you can do a mesocycle of low frequency (2x) training at MV with mostly 5-10 rep ranges and compound movements to resensitize your muscles to volume and growth again. This meso can take about a month and can be good to pair with maintenance eating to bring down any diet fatigue you might have from hard dieting in the last block. If you don’t have any real diet fatigue, you can instead take around 2 weeks of active rest (sometimes just one week if you count the deload after your last meso), where you train with 1x frequency for every muscle, with only about 2 working sets per muscle per session, and with weights that are around 50% of your 5-10 range, but doing them for only 5-10 reps per set. This ultra-easy training can make you ready for another whole block of training in the gym and can even be replaced with no training at all if you’re feeling really beat up or tired. Once you’ve taken this easy time, you’re probably ready to give another training block a go!
Straight sets are sets performed to 0-4 RIR, with enough rest time to recover all 4 limiting factors (see the rest time section above for details).
Because most back training is composed of large amplitude, large muscle-mass, compound exercises, it’s ideal for straight set training, which will be the vast majority of back training.
Down sets are straight sets, but with less weight (usually 10-20% less) than the previous straight sets. By lowering the weight, you can keep reps over 5 per set, and/or keep the mind-muscle connection high and keep technique excellent to continue to have a high stimulus to fatigue ratio in every set of that exercise.
Down sets are excellent tools in back training, as reps on compound moves such as pullups and bent rows can fall off quickly while fatigue rises quickly. Down sets on such exercises can re-vamp the technique and mind muscle connection, while allowing more reps to be done and thus more time in each set to focus the mind-muscle connection.
Controlled Eccentrics and Pauses
Concentric, eccentric, and isometric phases of each exercise can be between half a second and 3 seconds long and still confer near-optimal effects on hypertrophy. In some cases, slowing down eccentrics and extending pauses can enhance technique, mind-muscle connection, and safety of the exercise.
Pausing can be great at the bottom of pullups and bent rows to both enhance safety and standardize the tracking of performance. Several second peak contractions can be beneficial especially on pulldowns and back machines when targeting the hard-to-reach muscles of the mid back, such as the lower traps and rhomboids. Because loaded stretch under high tension stimulates growth, not all back movements should have long peak contractions, as that will require a massive load reduction for the exercise and will reduce the effect of the stretched position. Most of your back moves should have just a split second peak contraction, while a dedicated few can be intentionally light to allow for a peak hold.
Giant sets give you a certain weight to lift, an RIR range to hit (usually 0-4 RIR), and a goal of total reps over as many sets as it takes. An example is aiming to do 100lbs for however many sets it takes to get 60 total reps, while taking normal rest between each set. Such an approach can take the focus off of having to match or exceed the per-set reps you did last week, and can thus let you super-focus on technique and the mind-muscle connection, thus potentially improving both and getting more out of the training with exercises that can demand lots of technique and mind-muscle connection to be effective. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting giant sets at 2/3 of the contribution of straight sets, such that if you did 6 total sets to get to your giant set rep target, you can count that as 4 sets of “straight set equivalency” in terms of stimulus and fatigue. This discount is because with a higher focus on technique and mind-muscle connection and a lower focus on getting as many reps per set as possible, giant sets likely don’t cause as much fatigue as straight sets.
Giant sets can be excellent tools for individuals lacking a mind-muscle connection with their backs, which is very common, especially on exercises like pulldowns and machine rows, it just doesn’t pay to “crank reps” because you might as well be doing that with more compound and heavily loaded exercises such as pullups and free weight rows. On pulldowns and machine rows, giant sets can be great for just performing each rep with maximum mind-muscle and technique focus, and letting the reps add up to a total at the end, vs. pushing each set to a certain level and forgetting about mind-muscle halfway through. This isn’t to say that such exercises always need giant sets, just that they can sometimes benefit them.
Myoreps are just like straight sets in that they must check all 4 recovery boxes before doing another set. However, they are different in two ways. First, while the first set is usually between 10-20 reps (0-2 RIR), the next multiple sets only rest long enough to get between 5 and 10 reps each. This is to maximize the ratio of effective (near-failure) reps to total reps over the multiple sets. Secondly, for all of those successive sets to register the highest number of effective reps per set, the local recovery factor (the muscle itself) must be by far the most limiting, so that successive sets are not limited by the nervous system, the lungs, and other muscles, allowing the final reps of each set to recruit and tense the fastest and most growth-prone motor units. For this to be possible, only isolation exercises without limiting synergists are appropriate for myoreps. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting myorep sets each as the equivalent of a straight set. While they do have fewer reps, they are often taken closer to failure and thus turn out to be about as fatiguing.
Myoreps have limited application to the back, because their rapid and highly fatiguing nature can interfere too much with the mind-muscle connection. In addition, most back exercises are too compound and too synergist-dependent to conform well to myoreps. You can try myoreps on straight arm pulldowns and pullovers, but be very attentive to technique and mind-muscle connection.
Drop sets are exactly like myoreps, but with even shorter rest times because weight is reduced by 10-20% on average between each set. The effects are very similar. The advantage of drop sets is their time saving, and their slight disadvantage over myoreps is that dropping the weight a lot can reduce mind-muscle connection via reducing tension perception. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting drop sets each as the equivalent of a straight set. While they do have fewer reps and lighter loads, they are often taken closer to failure and in such rapid and painful succession that they turn out to be about as fatiguing.
Drop sets are not often a good fit for the back, first because they have all the limitations of myoreps and myoreps are not great for the back to begin with. Secondly, when dropping weights a lot after a few sets, the mind-muscle connection can be tough to sense with very light weights and in a high fatigue state. This is especially true for the back, which is already a mind-muscle challenge. Most people who try to do drop sets of back, on say, machine rows, end up just kind of “pulling with everything” and making their forearm flexors very tired, without a great stimulus to the back itself.
These supersets begin with an isolation exercise for a given muscle group, and with no rest after taking it to 0-2 RIR, end with a compound exercise to which the target muscle is a big contributor. The local pre-exhaust of the isolation exercise allows the target muscle to be by far the limiting factor for the compound exercise that follows, and lets it be exposed to a few more effective reps than it otherwise would be if that compound was done fresh. After each 2-exercise superset, 4-factor rest is again taken until the next 2-exercise superset begins. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting pre-exhaust supersets as 1.5x as the equivalent of a straight set. This is because the compound exercise done in the second part of the set is only limited (highly) by the target pre-exhausted muscle, and this isn’t nearly as fatiguing, especially systemically, as it would be if it were done fresh.
Pre-exhaust can be done for the back by doing straight-arm pulldowns or pullovers before pulldowns, for example. In the grand scheme, the back doesn’t seem to be the most fertile ground for pre-exhaust training, with most other muscles being much better suited to it.
Occlusion training is myorep training with the limb occluded just above the muscle. This occlusion causes the local muscle and nerve to be far and away the limiting factors on recovery between sets, and thus allows you to focus in on a target muscle group that might have otherwise been difficult to reach with non-occluded movements. The big benefit is time saving, because rest between occluded sets is only long enough to get another 5 reps, and you can also use weights at the very low end of the growth range and even a bit lower (20-30% 1RM). The downside is that the local vasculature adapts very quickly to occlusion, so it might not be very effective for any more than a mesocycle or two in a row. Also, some muscles are much harder than others to occlude, or even impossible to occlude. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting occlusion sets each as the equivalent of 2/3 of a straight set, as they cause much less systemic fatigue due to the lower reps and weights used.
Because it’s pretty much impossible to occlude the back muscles, occlusion sets have no real place in a back training program.
Sample Programming [Program Nickname: “Atlantic”]
Deadlifts and stiff-legged deadlifts can help build a massive back. Please see the training tips article on glutes for more on deadlifts.
This article originally published January 9, 2017