Intermittent Sets for Bench & Squats
A few months ago you recommended “intermittent sets” of pull-ups for a great lat workout. Can you use them for exercises such as bench presses, squats, seated presses, etc?
A: “Intermittent sets,” which are also sometimes called “stutter sets,” can produce an intense training effect that can quickly elevate relative strength (your “pound for pound” strength).
Just as a quick review, intermittent sets are timed sets with brief (very brief) periods of relaxation within the confines of the set. My example of an intermittent set for pull-ups was to start the stop-watch, perform as many reps as possible in succession, then to drop down from the pull-up bar and rest for twenty seconds or so, then to resume with one or two more reps and so on until one minute was up. In other words, just do as many reps as possible in one minute, regardless of how many times you need to “stop and go.”
Intermittent sets are safest and most effective for exercises that don’t take much time to prepare or “set up” for. One of the reasons intermittent sets work so well for pull-ups is that it’s so easy to dismount and remount the bar during the set. However, if you were performing heavy dumbbell bench presses, half the battle is getting into position – you’d eat up all of your rest periods getting set up.
Intermittent sets can also be implemented easily in most dumbbell-based bicep and tricep exercises. For example, pick a set of dumbbells that you can curl for six to eight reps. Get as many clean reps as possible, and then rest for 10-15 seconds and nail a few more, repeating this pattern until your minute is up. Three sets and a day later, you won’t be able to raise a fork to your mouth to feed yourself.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re performing an exercise that requires a spotter, it probably is not wise to implement an intermittent set. For example, on back squats, I think the exhaustion that mounts during this type of training makes the walk back to the rack hazardous at best. On the other hand, squats performed in a Smith machine (note to Paul Chek: I am not recommending that anyone do this!) would be a candidate for intermittent sets.
Powerlifting or Weightlifting?
I’ve competed in powerlifting and Olympic style weightlifting. Both sports appeal to me; however, I’m more of a stand-out in the Olympic lifting. Do you think I should bag the powerlifting competitively if I plan on getting serious about the Olympic lifting?
Bag it? No way! If you’re getting more serious, place greater emphasis on the discipline you plan on pursuing and plan phases to emphasize strength for the secondary sport around that. A basic philosophy of mine is that you should always be training all elements of your program, but just in varying proportions.
I happen to think that powerlifting and Olympic lifting can enjoy a symbiotic relationship within the confines of a training program. With that, I’m sure I’ve pissed off athletes, coaches and waterboys clear across the strength world, but I think they’ll get over it.
Case in point: Mark Henry is a powerlifter. As a matter of fact, Mark Henry is a world record holding powerlifter. Mark joined a small club of big men who have deadlifted over 900 pounds a couple of years ago and then went on to represent the US men’s Olympic weightlifting team at the Atlanta Olympics. It can be done.
If you’re focusing on Olympic lifting, emphasize powerlifting about three to four months prior to an event during your maximal strength phase. To evaluate strength development in that phase, see if you can find a power meet and lift for fun. Competition may actually help get the projected numbers in your “assistance lifts.”
“Bigger Faster Stronger” Program
Dear Mr. Staley:
My son’s high school baseball team just started their off season strength training. The coach says they will be using the “Bigger Faster Stronger” training program. My son is enjoying this immensely, but I just wanted to get your opinion on the BFS program.
A: In a nutshell, ‘Bigger Faster Stronger’ (BUS) is a sports conditioning program devised to develop explosive strength and agility through the use of basic periodization and short and long term goal setting.
The BFS program has six ‘core’ exercises: Bench Press, Squat, Power Clean, Towel Bench Press, Box Squat, and Deadlifts. A few optional “assistance” exercises are permitted but not deemed critical (i.e., Curls, Skull Crushers, Calf Raises, etc). Each of these exercises are performed once a week. During the first week, athletes perform five sets of five repetitions on each exercise. On week two, athletes perform three sets of three. Finally, on week three, athletes hit the whole spectrum, performing one set of five, one set of four, one set of three, one set of two, and a one rep maximum. On the forth week, athletes are encouraged to take an active rest, lifting only recreationally.
BFS measures work output in any particular cycle by adding up the sum total of all pounds lifted in all repetitions performed in an exercise. For example, if you bench press 155 pounds for 5×5, your effort on that set would be represented by 775 pounds. In order to beat this, and athlete could perform 155 pounds for 4×5 and raise the bar to 160 pounds for one set for a work output of 780 pounds. Athletes are encouraged to break these records by as much as possible every time they train.
The major problem I see in the BFS program is the “break the record” (any Super Dave fans out there?) mentality. Because the program encourages athletes to break their work output record each time they train, the byproduct is sometimes a sacrifice of correct exercise technique. I offer a simple solution to this problem – if a work output record cannot be recorded with proper technique, it’s time to exchange the exercise for another exercise targeting the same muscle and continue in the same set/rep scheme. Problems notwithstanding, this program far transcends the typical, static, marathon lifting session prescribed by most coaches. I just wish they employed a wider exercise menu and had a stronger emphasis on technique.
Books and Careers in Sports Science
I love reading Mesomorphosis – I literally can’t get enough of it. I really want to pursue a career in the sport sciences. So I have two questions:
1) I’ve been following your career for the past several years, and I want to know which books have had the strongest impact on your thinking.
2) Could you give me some advice on how to get my career goals initiated?
OK, here are ten books that come immediately to mind. They aren’t all specifically related to strength training, but they all have been very important to my personal evolution, for whatever that’s worth (all of these books should be readily available at):
2. Supertraining by M. Siff & Verkshansky
3. by T. Kurz
4. by T. Bompa
5. The Charlie Francis Speed Training System by C. Francis
6. by B. Lee
7. by P. Ward
8. by A. Dreshler
9. The Warrior Athlete by D. Millman
10. by J. Krishnamurti.
As for your career goals, there are a myriad of educational backgrounds within the exercise field. I know very successful exercise physiologists, physical educators, biologists, physicians, chiropractors, neuromuscular therapists, physical therapists and a plethora of other titles who convene on the field of ‘sport science.’
One fairly fast way to get the ball rolling is to become certified as a professional trainer. I genuinely think that the information in ISSA’s fitness training curriculum will help refine your decisions about specializing in the fitness field. As a trainer, you will certainly benefit from the sheer volume of training hours you’ll accrue over time. ISSA members also enjoy free access to me (there’s a bargain for ya!) on the ISSA tech support hotline. For more info onprograms call toll free: (800) 892-4772.
As for academics, if I were going to do it all over again, I’d emphasize chemistry big time. When I was in school, I didn’t see the relevance of this, but from my current vantage point, I know now it’s invaluable to understanding everything from training to nutrition.
Hi, I have been reading some of your articles and it appears that you favour a frequency of once per week for a muscle group without a large amount of volume. If this is correct, I am curious as to why you recommend such large periods of overcompensation and if not, what do you feel is the desirable amount of time between muscle groups.
A: Excellent question.
First, I would recommend greater frequency for novices and/or people who aren’t or who don’t know how to push themselves.
Second, the programs you’re speaking of normally place back and triceps together on one session, chest and triceps together on another, and legs (and possibly abs) on a third session. Another variant I commonly use will group chest and last together on one session, bi’s and tri’s together on another session, and quads and hams on a third In these types of scenarios, the larger muscle groups (e.g., quads, hams, pecs, and lats) are receiving stress once per week, which is appropriate for hard-working athletes. The smaller muscle groups (e.g., biceps, triceps) are trained twice a week – one time directly, and the other time indirectly, through pec or lat work.
I know that for myself, after a hard pec, hamstring, or back session, I’m normally sore for 4-5 days. I don’t consider it “backsliding” to have 2-3 days of no soreness before training the muscle again. I think one day of no soreness would be the bare minimum, in fact.
I do sometimes prescribe higher frequencies for advanced athletes in “neural” phases of training. In fact, Olympic lifter Joel Senate is just coming off of a phase of back squatting 3 times a week. Two to three weeks of this followed by adequate rest leads to a really nice supercompensation, if you time it right.
I should mention abdominal and calf work while I’m at it. In my programs, abdominal frequency depends on posture, how much the abs are stressed during the athlete’s sport practices, his or her abdominal strength levels, and what part of the year we’re in. Often, an abdominal exercise is placed in every training session. At other times, weeks may pass with no direct abdominal training at all. Calves (more specifically gastrocs) tend to get really hammered during the athlete’s main sport practices, but for bodybuilders, I normally suggest one session per week, as long as you absolutely murder those little guys (6-8 hard sets per session).
Zig Zag Method of Weight Gain
I really committed to putting on some weight this year. I increased my caloric intake significantly and gained five pounds in one month. I thought I found the key but I disappointingly stopped gaining weight and can’t even think of eating any more than I do right now. Do you think I’ve simply achieved my genetic potential?
From what you’re telling me, and just as a matter of basic principle, I seriously doubt that you’ve reached your genetic potential! Few people even come close to training hard enough and/or smart enough to get anywhere close to their potential.
When it comes to nutrition there are many approaches – low carb, high carb, low fat, glycemic this and metabolic that. Amid all the confusion one fact holds true and is universally agreed upon – if you consume more calories then you expend, you will gain weight; if you consume less calories then you expend, you will lose weight.
The problem with this formula is that the body responds to eating like training – it habituates to unchanging stimuli over time. As your caloric intake increases, your metabolism elevates to process the greater amount of energy you are delivering to it. In your case, you seem to have adapted to the additional calories. You may be able to keep your total calories high and lower your metabolism for increased mass with the ‘Zig Zag’ method of weight gain as developed by Dr. Fred Hatfield.
Here’s how it works:
1) Figure out how many calories you consume in a day (presuming your bodyweight is constant). If you don’t know how many calories you consume, log everything you eat in a food diary for seven days. Total all the calories you consume over the diary and divide the sum by the number of days you monitored it and you will have an average caloric intake. If you cannot estimate your caloric intake from reading labels go to a local book store and pick from a thousand titles that will help you estimate calories of specific foods.
2) For four to five consecutive days “overeat” by consuming two calories per pound of bodyweight more than you normally eat (based on your diary).
3) For the remaining days of the week “undereat.” Consume two calories per pound of bodyweight less than you normally eat (based on your diary). Keep the macronutrient ratios the same when you elevate the calories. If you’re on a 40-30-30 nutrition plan, or whatever you prefer, increase and decrease the calories accordingly. Eat every two hours if possible. A lot of athletes I work with seem to like to alternate meal/ shake/meal/shake etc. This way, the low fiber content of the shakes is offset by the higher fiber contained in the “real” meal. Without this kind of meal/shake alternations, your toilet paper expense will begin to skyrocket, if you get my drift!
Pregnancy and Exercising
I’m pregnant with my first child. It seams like people are less and less concerned about pregnant women exercising these days. Can I just continue with my usual training routine?
Research suggests that staying as fit as possible leads to a safer pregnancy and a faster recovery. Although you should always prioritize the advice of your ObGyn, I have listed some precautions suggested by the ACOG () for exercise during pregnancy:
- Regular exercise is preferable to intermittent activity.
- Exercise should not be performed in hot humid weather.
- Ballistic Movements should be avoided.
- Deep flexion or extension of joints should be avoided due to connective tissue laxity.
- Heart rate should be measured at times of peak activity. Use target heart rate range.
- Take liquids before during and after exercise to avoid dehydration.
- No exercise should be performed in the supine position after month four.
- Don’t hold your breath during exercise.
Best of luck and congrats on taking a responsible approach toward your pregnancy. You’ll both reap many rewards, I’m sure.