Your Guide to Training Volume Article Series: Chapter 3 – Special Methods

Your Guide to Training Volume Article Series: Chapter 3 – Special Methods - 1st Detachment

Guest article written by Tom Sheppard of Phoenix Performance Training.

Alas, here we are, the conclusion of this article series. For those of you who have made it this far, congrats. By reading these three articles, you will have likely done more reading than the average adult does in a year. Which should be celebrated. 

Now that we’ve established what triggers hypertrophy and how much volume (at what intensity) we need to stimulate it appropriately, I want to cover two often misunderstood concepts:; special or intensification techniques and de-loads. 


Training Efficiency

When we refer to “special methods” with regard to hypertrophy training, we are referring to methods that help us to increase the intensity of that particular set. Common examples that would come to mind for most people here would be drop sets, rest-pause, and cluster sets. But in reality, there is an almost endless number that you could come up with if you sat down and used your imagination.

Before we look at some of these methods individually, it's first important to cover what the goal of a special method is, which is to increase the efficiency of your workout from the perspective of the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio, which in this case is:

[Total number of maximally effective reps achieved]/ [Total number of reps performed]

When we’re concerned with hypertrophy, this is what we mean when we talk about “efficiency”. 

Let’s look at what happens when we perform regular, straight sets to one rep short of failure (1 RIR). As discussed in the previous article, a set of 6 or more reps that are performed to one rep short of failure will give us five maximally effective reps (MERs). So based on the rep range we are using, it would look something like this:

  • Straight set of 6 reps – 5 MERs for 6 total reps = 83% efficiency
  • Straight set of 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • Straight set of 15 reps – 5 MERs for 15 total reps = 33% efficiency

This is why I talked about lower rep ranges being better for hypertrophy in MOST scenarios. It allows us to achieve a much better level of efficiency in terms of stimulus to total workload. 

So, the inevitable question now will be: 

Bruh, so why don’t I just do sets of 6 on everything if I want to get jacked?

Great question, my muscle-bound intellectual. The reality is that while lower rep work does give us a better stimulus-to-fatigue ratio, it isn’t always the best option for other reasons. 

Firstly, not everyone can handle lifting in the lower reps ranges with higher loads all the time, especially if they are at a level where their volume requirements are high. We must take into account the stress our training has on our tendons, ligaments, connective tissue, and also our nervous system. If lifting heavier loads consistently causes these factors to limit our performance, then we are likely going to end up worse off.

Additionally, not all exercises lend themselves to heavier loading and lower reps. These tend to be the movements that deal with long lever lengths and that have easy mechanisms for you to “cheat” and take the loading away from the target muscle. The DB Lateral Raise is a perfect example of this; when it is performed for lower reps with heavier loads, it inevitably turns into a movement where most of the lifting is done via body momentum and the traps, not the lateral delts.

Lastly, using lower rep ranges can make progressive overload difficult with some exercises, primarily those that use lower loads. Let’s use the DB Lateral Raise as an example again. If we are using the 6-8 rep range with 10lb dumbbells, then once we go to increase the load, we may end up a bit stuck. The next dumbbells up will probably be 15lbs, which is a 50% increase in load. This will likely make it impossible for us to achieve 6 reps without a considerable amount of cheating, even if performing multiple sets of 8 with 10 lbs was quite easy. In this scenario, we’re much better off having a larger target rep range, say 12-20; that way, we can focus on progressively adding more reps with the same load. Not only that, but when we then go to jump from 10 to 15lb dumbbells, we will likely still be able to stay in our target range, and we can repeat the process again. 

So, as always, the answer is never as simple as “just do this rep range” on everything. But when it comes to training efficiency, we generally want to use the lowest possible rep range that allows us to train effectively while taking the above factors into account. 


The Role of Special Methods

Now that we have established what we mean by “training efficiency,” we can now judge the efficacy of a special method and whether it is worth utilizing in our training. Remember, if we don’t see a decent increase in training efficiency, then a special method is not giving us any benefit. Performing special methods does not inherently produce more growth/stimulus when you equate the number of MERs achieved, it simply allows us to achieve those MERs more efficiently. People always assume that because special methods are generally unpleasant and tough they cause more growth, but they don’t. 

The other thing that we need to remember here is that special methods also come at a cost. As I just mentioned, these methods all cause more discomfort than regular straight sets. This increase in discomfort is going to increase the degree of central fatigue experienced by the nervous system, which in turn impacts our recovery. This is why I would suggest the following guidelines when programming special methods:

  1. Only use a special method if it increases your training efficiency by a significant amount – for me, this is a 20%+ improvement in the % of MERs achieved. 
  2. Don’t use special methods on big, compound lifts unless you are very experienced – performing methods like rest-pauses on a back squat will create a higher degree of additional fatigue compared to doing the same thing on a leg press. Not only that but pushing to that level of fatigue on a free-weight compound movement requires a high degree of motor control and technique. So be careful here.
  3. Don’t use special methods all the time – as with everything, your body will adapt to the methods over time. So not only should you likely cycle through different special methods, but you should also spend time away from them to re-sensitize to the training stimulus (which we will cover later in the de-load section). An example of periodizing a special method may be:
  • Week 1 – No special methods
  • Week 2 – Drop-set on the last set of every exercise
  • Week 3 – Double drop-set on the last set of every exercise OR Single drop-set on two sets per exercise
  • Week 4 – No special methods and an overall reduction in volume compared to Week 1 (partial de-load)

So let’s move on to looking at a few of the more popular special methods.


Special Method 1 – Rest-Pause

Rest-pauses are probably the easiest and most effective special method you can implement. They are almost guaranteed to work. The only way you can mess these up would be by resting too long. If we rest too long and we recover “too much,” then we can end up falling outside of the MER zone.

Let’s look at an example below (we are assuming 1 rep in reserve on all sets here):

  • Straight set - 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • “Good” Rest-pause - 10 reps -> rest 15-20s -> 5 additional reps – 10 MERs for 15 total reps = 66% efficiency
  • Bad” Rest-pause – 10 reps -> rest 45s -> 8 additional reps – 10 MERs for 18 total reps = 55% efficiency

As before, our regular straight set gets us 5 MERs and only a 50% efficiency rate. Now, if we add a rest-pause with a short rest period, that means that when we jump back into the additional reps, we are still fatigued enough for the load to represent an 80% effort (or more). This means that all of those additional reps are MERs, and we improve our efficiency by 16% to 66%. Conversely, if we rest too long, then when we jump back into our additional reps, the load no longer requires 80% effort. So, we end up having to do ineffective reps to fatigue us before we reach that MER zone again. That’s why this only results in a 5% increase in efficiency.

Below we can see what happens if we use a heavier version of rest-pause training and also the effect of adding a second rest-pause:

  • Heavy Rest-pause - 8 reps (1 RIR) -> Rest 15-20s -> 4 reps = 9 MERs for 12 total reps = 75% efficiency
  • Heavy Double Rest-pause – 8 reps (1 RIR) -> Rest 15-20s -> 4 reps -> Rest 15-20s -> 2 reps = 11 MERs for 14 total reps = 79% efficiency

As we can see, by using a heavier/lower rep loading scheme, we achieve a higher level of efficiency due to fewer “wasted” reps in the initial set. This is why favoring lower rep ranges can be more beneficial for hypertrophy. Now, if we add a second rest-pause to this set, then we increase that efficiency even further. As I mentioned previously, you don’t want to use very intense techniques like this all year round, but they are certainly very helpful when it comes to increasing the stimulus of your workout. 

The rule of thumb when performing rest-pauses is simply going to be that if you get more than 6 reps on any of the rest-pauses, then you are resting too long. This will help you maximize the efficiency of them. 

Probably the most effective version of the rest-pause method out there is “Myo Reps”, created by Borge Fagerli. This is essentially an extended rest-pause set where you can achieve a very high number of MERs in a single set. In fact, for many beginners and intermediates, one Myo Rep set performed to the correct intensity could give them all the weekly effective volume they need for that muscle group. 

When I program these, the only variable I change is the initial rep scheme. I generally start with 6-10 reps as opposed to 8-15, just so I can ensure we don’t accumulate too many “garbage reps” at the start of the set. 


Special Method 2 – Drop-Set

Drop sets are probably the most well-known and utilized special method for hypertrophy. It involves performing an initial set and then lowering the load so that you can perform additional reps. 

In many ways, it is extremely similar to doing a rest-pause, except we are manipulating the intensity via lowering the load as opposed to resting enough to partially recover. Likewise, the efficacy of this method is also determined by exactly how you program it. Too much of a drop in load will result in the drop-set being too easy and not achieving MERs from the start, which will result in poor efficiency, as we can see below:

Straight set - 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency

  • “Good” Drop-set - 10 reps -> drop load by 15% -> 4 additional reps – 9 MERs for 14 total reps = 64% efficiency
  • Bad” Drop-set – 10 reps -> drop load by 30% -> 8 additional reps – 10 MERs for 18 total reps = 56% efficiency
  • Good” Double Drop-set – 10 reps -> drop load by 15% -> 4 additional reps -> drop load by 15% -> 3 additional reps – 12 MERs for 17 total reps = 71% efficiency

Once again, we can see here how too big of a drop in intensity will lead to a smaller gain in efficiency when compared to a straight set and how a second (well-programmed) drop set will increase efficiency even further. 

When programming drop sets, you are simply going to use the same rule that we applied to rest-pauses; if you get more than 6 reps, then your weight drops are too big.

For the record, dropping the load is not the only way of performing a drop-set. Instead, you can move from one variation of a movement to a slightly easier one (mechanical drop-set), or you can reduce the ROM to allow you to keep performing reps (ROM drop-set). These methods are a bit more advanced but can be very effective also. 


Special Method 3 – Super-set

Super-sets are another very popular method that we see pop up in hypertrophy training. Unfortunately, super-sets don’t increase the efficiency of the workout from a MERs point of view, but they can make a workout more time-efficient. 

Let’s see why:

Super-set Example 1 – Antagonistic Super-set

  • A1 – Machine Chest Press - 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • Rest 60-90s
  • A2 – Seated Row - 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • Rest 3 minutes


Super-set Example 2 – Same Muscle Super-set

  • A1 – Machine Chest Press - 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • Rest 60-90s
  • A2 – Machine Fly - 10 reps – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • Rest 3 minutes

In both examples, we achieve the same efficiency in terms of MERs compared to performing regular straight sets, we just complete the workload in less total time. 

Now, as we’ve already seen, we could improve efficiency here by changing these movements to a lower rep range:


Super-set Example 3– Antagonistic Super-set (Lower reps)

  • A1 – Machine Chest Press - 8 reps (1RIR) – 5 MERs for 8 total reps = 63% efficiency
  • Rest 60-90s
  • A2 – Seated Row8 reps (1RIR) – 5 MERs for 8 total reps = 63% efficiency
  • Rest 3 minutes


Super-set Example 2 – Same Muscle Super-set

  • A1 – Machine Chest Press - 8 reps (1RIR) – 5 MERs for 8 total reps = 63% efficiency
  • Rest 60-90s
  • A2 – Machine Fly - 10 reps* – 5 MERs for 10 total reps = 50% efficiency
  • Rest 3 minutes

*Here, we may want to keep the second, isolation-based movement using slightly higher reps due to the reasons discussed previously. 

Here we have improved the efficiency of the work we are doing, but again, it is no different to performing those movements separately in that regard. 

When it comes to super-sets, if you want to use them to save time, then go for it! But they do not make your workout more effective from a stimulus perspective. One factor that is worth remembering, however, is that performing super-sets will cause a slightly larger release of cortisol/adrenaline as you are asking your nervous system to go back and forth between two movement patterns (you’re essentially asking it to multi-task). So, it will make your workout slightly harder to recover from neurologically. 

If you are someone whose training time is limited and this facilitates you getting the desired workload done, then the trade-off will likely be worth it. But outside of that, there isn’t going to be any benefit to you performing super-sets, at least from a pure hypertrophy viewpoint (they have applications for other things). 


Special Method 4 – Clusters

Clusters are generally associated with training for maximal strength. In fact, clusters are one of my favorite strength training methods. Why? Because they allow us to accumulate a higher amount of work using the same load or the same workload with a heavier load. 

But wait….. doesn’t that sound like it might be useful for hypertrophy too?

Yes, it most certainly does sound useful. 

When training for maximal strength, we will generally program clusters using around 90% of 1RM and perform “sets” of 1 rep until we achieve a target rep range, usually 3-6. The only thing that we need to adjust when using clusters for hypertrophy is the loading zone and the number of reps “per set”. Instead, we will generally use a load of 75-80% (somewhere between an 8 and 6 rep max) and perform sets of 2 or 3. 

If we use 80%, then all of the reps we perform will be MERs straight away. If we use 75%, then most of our reps will be MERs depending on how many reps we perform per “set” and how much rest we have between them. As a general rule of thumb, 20-30s of rest in between “sets” works well for hypertrophy clusters, but this can vary depending on several factors:

  • How fast-twitch fiber dominant you are (more rest needed)
  • How aerobically fit you are 
  • The exercise being used (the more joints/muscles involved, the more rest that will be needed)
  • The number of reps per set (sets of 3 will take slightly longer to recover from than sets of 2)


Here’s what a hypertrophy cluster may look like with 75% and 80% of 1RM:

  • Using 75% 1RM - 3 reps (1 MERs) -> 20s rest -> 3 reps (2 MERs) -> 20s rest -> 3 reps (3 MERs) -> 20s rest-> 3 reps (3 MERs) – 9 MERs for 12 total reps = 75% efficiency
  • Using 80% 1RM - 2 reps (2 MERs) -> 30s rest -> 2 reps (2 MERs) -> 30s rest -> 2 reps (2 MERs) -> 30s rest ->  2 reps (2 MERs) – 8 MERs for 8 total reps = 100% efficiency

When using 75% of 1RM, our first “set” of 3 only gets us 1 MER, as it won’t be until the third rep that it will represent an 80% effort or above. But after this point, we will achieve MERs earlier in the “set” due to the incomplete recovery we will get between “sets,” meaning that by “set” three and four of the cluster, all our reps are now MERs. 

Even with 75% 1RM, we still achieve a level of efficiency that matches that which we achieved using rest-pauses and drop-sets. Obviously, with 80% of 1RM, we accumulate nothing but MERs, which is why this method can be so effective. 

If you want to take advantage of hypertrophy clusters but don’t want to use such high-loading zones, I suggest looking up a method called “Muscle Rounds” by Scott Stevenson. It uses a lower loading zone which means it doesn’t quite score as high in terms of efficiency (generally around 65-70%) as the above, but it is a great option for those who want to lift a bit lighter or for those who want to use a cluster approach with smaller/isolation-based exercises. 


OK, so that is a quick review of some of the most common special methods that we see used in the context of hypertrophy. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but even if you just took rest-pause, drop sets, and hypertrophy clusters, you could probably come up with enough variants to keep your training interesting for years. So long as you keep in mind that accumulating MERs as efficiently as possible is the goal, then it will still be effective. 


De-loading and Hypertrophy

While we’re discussing the matter of training efficiency, it would be wrong not to touch on the topic of de-loads. Now, when I bring up this subject in the context of hypertrophy, the most common responses I get are:

“Bro, I’m not a powerlifter trying to max out; I don’t need to de-load/peak”

“How can training LESS help me get jacked?!”

“Sir, this is a drive-through; please just make your order and move on”.

The role of de-loading with regards to hypertrophy seems to be quite misunderstood, and the attendant at the Burger King drive-through doesn’t seem to want to be enlightened for some reason. 

De-loading is a tool that is used to regain our training sensitivity.


Training Sensitivity

Training sensitivity is simply a measure of how well our body responds to the stimulus of training. Over time training represents a less significant stimulus to our body, and as a result, we see a reduced adaptive response from the body, usually in the form of a reduced increase in mTOR activation, GH, IGF-1, MGF, and so on. So over time, if we want to continue to get the same adaptive response from our training, then we have a few options:

Option 1 – Create a progressively larger stimulus through our training by increasing intensity and/or volume to force the same degree of adaptation

Option 2 – Offer up progressively bigger sacrifices to Cthulhu and hope he bestows greater gains upon us via his tentacular appendages 

Option 3 – Reduce our training stress to allow us to re-sensitize to the stimulus of training


Option 1 can work in the short term; in fact, this is how many periodized hypertrophy programs will be structured. They will gradually ramp up the stimulus over the course of the program so that we maintain enough of a stimulus to keep progressing. However, in the long term, this becomes troublesome because there is only so much training that we can recover from.  But even if that wasn’t an issue, eventually, we would all end up training for 8+ hours every day, which simply isn’t feasible for 99% of people. 

Option 2 also shows lots of promise, but there are only so many ritualistic sacrifices one can make before one ends up on the FBI’s most-wanted list. 

Which kind of leaves us with Option 3 as the solution to this issue in the long term. 

I mean, it makes sense, right? It’s just like using caffeine for energy. At first, one cup of coffee works great, but then over time, we de-sensitize to the effect (or rather, the beta-adrenergic receptors down-regulate), and then we end up needing progressively more to get the same effect. 

The exact same principle is happening here with our training. 

Now, most people end up “accidentally” de-loading throughout the year anyway. It could be due to work being crazy, a family vacation, or due to sickness or injury, but at some point, most trainees will take some form of break from training. 

You’ve heard the story before:

“Dude, I went on vacation for two weeks, and when I came back and trained my legs, I couldn’t walk for a week.”

What’s happened here is that the break from training has re-sensitized you to the stimulus, so much so that a workout that was just a regular workout before your vacation is now TOO MUCH of a stimulus for your body to recover from effectively. 

What you should do in this scenario is start off training with a considerably lower volume and take advantage of the fact that you can now stimulate progress from much less work. 

If you want to progress long-term with your hypertrophy training, then you must learn how to cycle your training in a manner that allows you to continue to get an adaptive response from the work you do. 


De-loading Methods/Options

1 – After every training cycle (assuming this is around 12-16 weeks), take one week off training entirely OR perform 2-3 weeks of training at a heavily reduced volume and/or intensity (i.e. a 50% reduction in volume)

2 - Build a gradually increasing workload or intensity and partial de-load into each training block (every 3-6 weeks) – this can prolong how much time you can go without having to take a “true” de-load and ensure you get a stimulus from each of your training weeks.

3 - Use vacations and public holidays as a convenient way to de-load – if you plan your de-loads around holidays such as Thanksgiving or Xmas, then you can take a break from the gym without harming your progress, and you can spend more time enjoying yourself. You can even purposefully “over-reach” prior to the holiday so that you know the break is actually contributing positively to recovery as well. 

It’s also important to ensure you can distinguish between training for results and training for the sake of training. Often people will have themselves convinced that they must do a certain level of training to progress. The truth is that they are often trying to justify to themselves the fact that they simply WANT to train that much. This is fine, but sometimes you must accept that the training you WANT to do and the training that gets you the best results aren’t always the same. 

If you’re reading this article, then chances are that you enjoy training. This is why it can be hard for us to accept that sometimes the best training for us to progress is LESS training, or perhaps even no training at all (for a short period). 

But trust me, if you don’t learn how to de-load and take a step back, all that will happen is that, at some point, you will be forced to do it. It could be through injury or sickness or whatever, but at some point, your body will make you take the break you need. If you leave it to that point, then the enforced break will always end up being longer than the strategic de-load you could have taken earlier. 



If you have made it this far, then I hope you enjoyed this article series and found it insightful. Hopefully, you now have a better grasp on how to train for hypertrophy in an effective and efficient manner in the short and long term.

Until next time, Tom

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