… as in “no pain, no gain.”
Special sets are a way of working your muscles that produce more spectacular results. It is a good idea to not do this until you’ve gotten pretty good at doing the exercises properly and your body is used to this sort of work.
There are three kinds of special sets that I know of, and they can be combined. Giant, super, and breakdown. I often confuse Giant and Super, so this definition may be reversed, but it hardly matters.
In a Giant Set, you do an exercise, wait one minute (or some other time, depending, but usually a minute) then you do it again. Then you do that again. Usually, a giant set is three goes at the exercise. Each time you try to reach exhaustion (I explain exhaustion below). You use the same weight, and you will often be able to do the same number of reps.
In a Super Set, you follow the pattern of a Giant Set but you use a different exercise on that muscle each time. So for a Super Set on your chest, you might do a bench press followed by dumbell press (same as a bench press but with dumbells instead of a bar) followed by a butterfly machine (one of those machines that you move with your upper arms, so you hit your pectorals without using your triceps). Different exercises work the muscles at different angles and thus work different muscle fibers, so a super set can be quite effective.
In a Breakdown Set, you do two or three (or more if you are crazy) instances of the same exercise in a row (like in a Giant Set) but you don’t wait between efforts. Instead of waiting, you (quickly) drop the weight by some percentage so it is possible to do the exercise again without rest. And I do mean quick. You can’t do this with a free weight bench press unless you leave the safety clips off and have a person helping you, to remove the outer weights as fast as possible. With a machine where you can quickly move the weight picker rod thingie, this can work quite well. With dumbells, you just have two sets of dumbells, one heavier and one lighter, ready to grab.
The thinking here is that some of your muscle fibers did not engage in the first set, so they are recruited in the second set if you do it right away. Then the third set, if you do one, gets the remaining loafers. If you go to exhaustion for two or three breakdowns in a row, the immediate effect is that the muscle you just worked is temporarily immobilized. You’ll feel like the muscle died. The longer term effect is that this muscle is dramatically strengthened.
Reaching Exhaustion. This is key. You can do all sorts of exercise at the gym, with all sorts of objectives having to do with flexibility, endurance, etc. etc. But if you want to build muscles you must work your muscles, one at a time, to the point of exhaustion.
This should be your mantra: The only rep that counts is the last one, and it only counts if you can’t do another one because you have killed the muscle (temporarily). Not very poetic but it is the key principle in weight training.
If you get half way through the last rep and have to stop, you lose. If you do the last rep but have enough in that muscle to have done another one or part of one, you lose. The whole trick is to use the right weight and he right number of reps that the last rep is perfect. There can be no more reps, and you completed the rep all the way through the required motion.
If you have a plan to exercise five muscle groups in one session and manage to get to perfect exhaustion at the end of each set for all of the muscles, then you’ve reached Gym Nirvana. Most likely you won’t reach perfect exhaustion with every attempt. But, over time, you’ll get good at reaching that point most of the time. It may help to keep a written record of what you’ve done. You may add a symbol (I use an explanation point) to indicate that a certain weight and number of reps reached perfect exhaustion. You can then use that combo the next time, or up the weight or reps by a small increment, to hit the same point again.
One way to increase the chance of reaching exhaustion is to use assistance. Often, this involves another person, and that person needs to do it correctly. Here’s how this works: You set things up so that you are able to do N-plus reps, but not a full N+1. Then, the person giving the assist helps you, ever so gently, with just a tiny little bit of pushing or pulling along with you on the weight or machine, to get through that last (N+1) rep and reach exhaustion. Most people who try to help with this but don’t know what they are doing try to hard. They help out to much, and you are not killing the muscle. The way to learn how much to help a person is to help yourself with some exercises first, and indeed, this is how you can do an assisted rep without another person, which is good, say, if you have no friends.
Take, for instance, the bicep curl. You sit on a bench, you have a dumbell in one hand and you are dangling it down near the ground, and you curl your arm up to lift the dumbell to your shoulder. Your elbow is resting on your leg just behind your knee when you do this.
Do that a few times and when you get to the last rep, since this is a very long rep (arm all the way out to arm all the way bent is a long distance) you may not be able to finish that last rep. But you’ve got this other hand that is not doing anything … you can use that hand to ever so gently assist, in the smallest way possible, your working arm to finish the rep, but pushing up on your working hand or on the dumbell itself as you lift it through the last half, or third, or whatever, of that motion.
When you do that notice how often you need very very little extra help to assist the almost killed, exhausted bicep to finish the rep. If you help someone else, remember that.. they are doing all the work. You’re just helping with that five, ten, fifteen percent of force that they cant’ muster. Assisted Rep Nirvana is when the person helping someone bench pressing over two hundred pounds gives the assist with one finger on each hand helping to lift the bar.
And, putting it all together, if you want, eventually, you can do a Super Set of Giant Sets in which you use Breakdown with Assistance on the same muscle. But you will die. But just before you die you will be really buff.
Symmetry is healthy
Symmetry is important because without it your spine will curl up or you’ll walk in circles or who knows what else may happen.
When you use the average weight machine or a bar on a bench press your muscles may fail to act symmetrically. One muscle, perhaps your dominant side (i.e., your left arm if you are left handed) may do more of the work. Or, after you’ve done that for a while and moved to another machine but sticking with the same muscle group, the other side may do more work because it is less tired. It is very difficult to force your muscles to act symmetrically.
There are two tricks to obtain and maintain symmetry. First, you use dumbells (or the equivalent, a machine that truly treats the limbs independently). With one dumbell in each hand, your contra-lataral muscles can’t help each other. Second, you do self administered forced assisted reps on the weak side. Say you know your left bicep is weaker than your right. Do as many reps as you can (with the last one assisted) with your RIGHT (stronger) arm. Then, do the same thing with your left arm. You will be forced to assist the left arm through the last two or three reps, often not just the last one. But this forced assisted rep will make that left arm get more out of the exercise than your right arm did. Do that every other day for a couple of weeks and your two biceps will be the same.
You can do this on machines that normally use both limbs. Just set the weight low and use one limb. This works nicely with some machines and allows for a comfortable assist. Avoid getting your fingers caught in the machine while playing around with this method.