If you're like most people, you want more muscle than you have right now, but you’re busy and you don’t have much free time to go to the gym and lift weights. If that's you, I have good news: Science has uncovered two highly effective training methods that can reduce the length of your workouts by up to 50 percent, while still delivering identical gains in size and strength. Here’s what they are and how to use them for the best results.
The first method: Rest-pause training
Let’s say you want to train your biceps. You pick up a dumbbell and start curling. The first 3-4 reps feel relatively easy. As the set continues, the reps get progressively more difficult, with those last few being the hardest to complete. After cranking out rep twelve, you put the weight down and take a couple of minutes of rest. Then, you repeat the process twice more.
In total, you’ve done three sets. Each set took around 40 seconds to complete. And you took two minutes of rest between set one and two, and another two minutes between set two and three.
In other words, it’s taken you six minutes to do three sets. And it was the final few reps of each set that made the largest contribution to muscle growth. Norwegian trainer Borge Fagerli calls those last few reps “effective reps,” as you get an effective training stimulus from each one. What if there was a way to squeeze all those growth-promoting reps into a shorter period of time? Instead of taking six minutes to get those reps in, you could get the job done in a lot less time. Enter rest-pause training. With rest-pause training, you do a single set, followed by multiple mini-sets. Each mini-set is separated by very short rest periods. Let’s go back to the dumbbell curl again to demonstrate how it's done.
As before, do as many reps as you can in your first set. Then you rest—but only for 20 seconds or so. Then, pick up the weight and crank out another 3-4 reps. Rest 20 seconds. Do another mini-set of 3-4 reps. Rest 20 seconds. Grind out a final mini-set of 3-4 reps, and you’re done.
In both cases, the number of effective reps is about the same. But with rest-pause training, you get the job done in less than three minutes, rather than six. You may be thinking: It all sounds great in theory, but where’s the science? In recent years, scientists have put rest-pause training to the test. And while the research is still in its infancy, early results are extremely promising. In one study, a team of Brazilian researchers found that muscle was built just as quickly with one rest-pause set as it was with three normal sets.
For the study, lifters were assigned to one of two groups: traditional or rest-pause training. Both groups trained four days a week, hitting the chest, shoulders and triceps on Monday and Wednesday, and the legs, back and biceps on Tuesday and Thursday.
The traditional group completed 3 sets of 6 reps with a weight that was 80 percent of their maximum, resting for two minutes between each set.
Lifters in the rest-pause group did the same exercises, also using a weight that was 80 percent of their maximum. However, after completing the first set, they rested for 20 seconds, did a few more reps, rested 20 seconds, and so on. Once they’d completed a total of 18 reps, they stopped.
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After six weeks, the researchers reported “no significant differences in strength gains and body composition changes between groups.” Put differently, the results from rest-pause training were equal to those achieved with traditional training.
Crucially, the rest-pause group made their gains with less gym time. In fact, their workouts lasted just 35 minutes—roughly half the length of the hour-long workouts performed by the traditional group. Rest-pause training, however, isn’t the only way to get more from the time you spend in the gym.
The second method: Drop sets
There’s also some interesting research to show that drop sets—sometimes referred to as descending sets, or stripping—are an effective way to gain muscle in far less time than traditional training.
To do a drop set, perform as many reps as you can in your first set. Then, drop the weight by around 20 percent and keep going. As soon as you hit the point where you can’t do another rep, reduce the weight again by around 20 percent and continue the set until fatigue forces you to stop.
Much like rest-pause training, you’re squeezing the amount of work you do into a much shorter period of time. As a result, your muscles can be made to grow with shorter workouts than you’re used to. In one studyThey a team of Japanese researchers compared two training programs over a six-week period. Both groups trained their triceps twice a week. Lifters in the first group did three sets of conventional resistance training. They performed as many reps as they could in each set, resting for around 90 seconds between each one.
The drop set group, on the other hand, performed a single set, reaching failure at around 12 reps. Then, without resting, they dropped the weight by 20 percent and kept going until they couldn’t do any more. The weight was dropped by 20% again, and the lifters continued until they couldn’t complete any more reps. Both groups gained muscle, with no statistically significant differences between the two. However, the drop set group finished their workout in less than half the time of the traditional training group. Another study also showed no difference in muscle gain with three months of drop sets versus traditional training. However, the drop set group were able to finish their workouts more quickly. They gained the same amount of muscle with less training time than the traditional group.
What’s the best way to use drop sets and rest-pause training?
The way you incorporate drop sets and the rest-pause method in your workouts will depend a lot on your specific goals and circumstances. Both training techniques demand a lot from your body, and you don’t want to use them on every exercise in every workout, all year round.
You might build a short routine based around drop sets and rest-pause training, which can be your go-to workout whenever you’re short on time and can’t fit in a regular training session. You could also save them for some of the exercises performed later in your workout, once the heavier compound lifts like the squat and deadlift are out of the way.
Exercises like pull-ups, press-ups, seated rows, leg presses, or dips are all suitable candidates for rest-pause training. Exercise caution if you plan to use the technique on movements like squats and deadlifts, as fatigue may end up compromising your form and increase the risk of injury.
If you’re training on your own, drop sets can only be used on exercises where you can change the weight quickly. This usually means machine-based movements, such as the leg extension or triceps pressdown. If you train in a gym where there’s a dumbbell rack, exercises like the lateral raise or biceps curl are also an option, as you can switch instantly from a heavier dumbbell to a lighter one.
The main message, then, is that extending a set past the point where you’d normally stop, be it with rest-pause training or drop sets, is a time-efficient way to deliver the same muscle-building stimulus in a fraction of the time of regular training.
Christian Finn is a UK-based personal trainer who holds a masters degree in exercise science. He blogs regularly at MuscleEvo.
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