Sets from Hell!
By "Maximum" Bob Whelan
Posted on NaturalStrength.com on March 14, 2000
Reprinted, with permission, from HARDGAINER
"The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven."
Big Billy Banks arrived a few minutes early for his Saturday afternoon training session. Even before he got to the door he could hear weights banging, my shouting, and Victor Peck screaming bloody murder through the noisy Marine cadence tape that was blasting away. Billy knew that he, too, was in for one hell of a day!
I have been training Victor (on and off) for seven years. His mother hired me as a present to him for his 30th birthday. He was about 40 lbs overweight at the time, and smoked cigarettes. He had trained a decade earlier but was hobbled by a serious knee injury while playing football, and then he got off track.
Victor is one of the most gung-ho determined guys I know. All he needed was some direction and a little shove. He quit smoking and has taken to serious training like a fish to water. He is now a high-intensity training fanatic and has totally changed his life. He is 6-4 tall and 250 lbs, and in the best shape of his life, at age 37. He has a high level of conditioning and mental toughness, and was an ideal candidate for my new half-hour training program. A bonus is that the half-hour program is much cheaper than the hour-long program. But many people are unable to do the half-hour program because they do not have the high-level of mental toughness that is required. Even many who think that they are in good condition could not take the half-hour workout because every work set is to complete failure with very little rest between sets. Anyone′s mental (and physical) toughness would be put to the test by the half-hour workout.
I recently twisted Victor′s arm to try it. At first he had some doubts. He was used to the hour workout and thought that only half an hour of training wasn′t long enough. But now he has no doubts. He is a believer!
Billy joined in with me, screaming at Victor to finish strong. Victor was coming down the home stretch and needed to rally his remaining energy. Victor moved from the Hammer Iso-Lateral Behind Neck Press to the Hammer Iso-Lateral Pulldown-where he went to failure, and then continued to pull in a "static" contraction for an additional 10 seconds. Then it was over to the Hammer Iso-Lateral Leg Press with 350 lbs, and Victor pushed out 20 reps. He collapsed in the machine and was drenched in sweat. Prior to Victor′s workout the rubber floor was dry. Now there were many small puddles of sweat on the floor.
"Great workout, Bob!" Victor gasped.
"Twenty-seven minutes," I responded, "you worked real hard, as usual."
I asked Billy if he minded starting his workout about ten minutes late, so Victor could do the sandbag. A big grin came over Billy′s face. He did not mind at all. Victor wasn′t smiling, but he was willing. People love to watch others do the sandbag! Victor already has his name on the bag as he got 200 lbs around a few months ago, but had not done it since. He recently tried 225 lbs for the first time, but failed to get it more than 20 feet. Because he was pretty tired, today he was going to go for the 200 again.
For this high-rep 30-minute workout we only do warmup work for the first upper-body movement, and the first lower-body movement. The reps are high enough (usually over 10 for the first set of each exercise) for warmup work not to be needed for every exercise. But this system only works if the first set has high reps. If low reps, pyramids or singles were to be used, that would be different and we would do specific warmup sets for each exercise (and not be able to fit the workout into a 30-minute session). But Victor was using a very specific routine tailored to fit a 30-minute time limit.
Here is a typical workout that I′ll put Victor through in 30 minutes:
Five-minute cardiovascular warmup and series of 20-second static-hold stretches for the entire body
1. Squat or deadlift (alternating, once per week for each): 1 warmup set and 1 set to failure, moving up in weight next time if 20 reps are reached in perfect form
2. Hammer Iso-Lateral Chest Press: 1 warmup set, 2 sets to failure
3. Hammer Iso-Lateral Row: 2 sets to failure
4. Hammer Iso-Lateral Behind Neck Press: 2 sets to failure
5. Hammer Iso-Lateral Pulldown: 2 sets to failure
6. Hammer Iso-Lateral Leg Press: 1 set to failure, moving up in weight next time if 20 reps are reached in perfect form
Exercises 2-5 are done one after the other, to failure, in two rotating series. The poundage is increased the following workout once 8 or more reps is reached on the second set of a given exercise. Note that exercises 2-5 are alternating pushing and pulling movements. This entire program is done in under 30 minutes, with the hardest exercises done first and last. A sandbag carry and/or grip work is/are sometimes added after the regular 30-minute workout.
Like all of my clients, Victor does cardiovascular work, abdominal work, and extra stretching in his own time.
I recently moved my gym (again) to a bigger and better facility, just a block away from the old place. We now do the sandbag carry outside in a fenced-off alleyway behind the gym. My landlord owns the alley and gave it to me as part of the lease. We call it "sandbag alley." We start and finish at the same place. The actual carry for a single up-and-down trip is about 250 feet. Up and down sandbag alley twice is about the same distance as around the old third floor, so the same 10-minute time limit remains. Victor managed to get the 200-lb bag up and down the alley twice in under 10 minutes before collapsing in a heap. Billy and I were hoarse from screaming encouragement. Victor′s workout, including the sandbag carry, took only 35 minutes.
YOU CAN′T TRAIN HARD AND LONG
You can train hard, or you can train long. But you can′t do both. One hour is probably the limit for a high-intensity workout. The two- and three-hour marathon workouts in the mega-hype drug-infested bodybuilding mags are greatly exaggerated. Being in a gym for three hours is not the same thing as training for three hours. Those guys spend more time looking in the mirror, gossiping and talking than they do training. The drugs they use enable them to train at a low level of intensity and yet still get good results. But most of those types don′t have a clue of what a hard workout is.
With my one-hour program (seven exercises) only the third (final) set of each exercise is always done to complete muscular failure, and you get some rest between sets-usually no more than one minute and only after squats, deadlifts and leg presses. For the hour-long workout I use the "controlled failure" method for the first two work sets of each exercise. Using this method you stop at the rep goal for the set, if it′s reached. If the goal isn′t reached, and you went all out, then you reached muscular failure. The half-hour program (six exercises) has a maximum of only two work sets per exercise, but both are done to complete muscular failure with very little (or no) rest between sets.
Both workouts are brutal and take some getting used to, but I make all newcomers start with the one-hour program. If they adapt well to the program and show that they have the ability to train hard, and are mentally tough, they have the option of switching to the half-hour program.
Here′s how Drew Israel describes the difference between my half-hour and one-hour programs: "Bob′s hour program is like taking body blows and shots to the head. But the half-hour program is all shots to the head. With both programs you end up on the floor."
My clients have to prove that they are really ready if they want to switch to the half-hour workout. It′s not the physical factor I′m looking at; it′s mainly the mental factor. To make the half-hour workout productive you must be willing to go all out and hold nothing back. You must be willing "to go down with the ship." You have to have the right mental state to make it work. Many do not. But it′s a good system because you get rewarded with a cheaper rate for your mental and physical toughness.
The equipment you have available is a big factor in determining which program would work best for you. You need to have all equipment pre-loaded before starting the workout. If, for example, you only have a single barbell that you use for all exercises, the half-hour workout isn′t practical.
The better your mental focus, the more you are able to get good results from one or two sets to failure per exercise. (To help you increase your mental focus, and effort level, apply what you learn from the excellent article titled "The White Moment," by John Christy, in hardgainer issue #40.) There are many trainees who will not get good results from one or two sets to failure. But it′s not because one or two sets to failure doesn′t work. It′s because the individual has failed to understand and apply what true muscular failure is.
I′ve been experimenting in my own training with just one set to failure. I′ve always known that it works, but have never used it. I′ve always felt better doing at least two sets to failure per exercise. My friendship with Drew Israel influenced me to give it a try. When you see how big and strong Drew is, you can′t help but be influenced. Since November 1996 I′ve only done one set to failure per exercise in my own training. I′m stronger than ever and training with weights for less than one hour per week-two training days per week, less than half an hour for each session. In a recent visit to Drew′s place I got 500 lbs for 10 reps in the Hammer Leg Press with a dead stop pause on each rep. It works for me, Drew, and others, because we understand what complete muscular failure is, and what type of mental focus is needed.
Of course, it′s important always to have good mental focus, but the fewer sets that you do (per exercise), the more important that mental focus is. If you do one set to failure, you can′t have a lapse in concentration because you can′t make it up in later sets. You must be "on" throughout each set. There is no room for mistakes. Every one must be a quality, all-out, kick-ass, life-and-death set or else you will be wasting your time and doing nothing more than burning calories. It′s not merely thinking positively. You must combine anger and aggression with positive thinking. Get mad at the weights. Growl, scream, and let yourself go! It′s life and death. It′s combat. You must have the attitude that you are going to war. If you can′t (or won′t) do this, you are better off with multiple sets.
TOTAL MUSCULAR FAILURE
If you can finish the repetition, then you can′t be at positive muscular failure because the weight is still moving in a positive direction. You must try one more rep. Positive muscular failure is not when the weight feels heavy. It′s not when you are shaking and your muscles ache. Positive muscular failure is when the weight ceases to move in a positive direction even though you are pushing or pulling as hard as you can. But this is just the first part of a complete set to failure.
The second part of a quality set to true complete failure is continuing to push or pull in a static contraction for about ten seconds after you have reached positive failure. The third and final part of taking a set to complete failure is lowering the weight slowly.
Many exercise scientists and researchers believe that the static contraction (held after reaching positive failure) is the most beneficial part of the set. Whether or not you do it could make the difference between success and failure while using one set to failure. But most people are not willing to train to complete failure because it′s so brutal. So one set to failure won′t work for these types. These people are not willing to do what it takes to make one set to failure work, but the rewards are great for those who will.