Prepping for a Heavy Squat

Someone posted a question the other day: How do you prepare for a heavy lift (squat)

I figured I’d share a few of my thoughts…

1. Heavy walkouts are a good tool to prep you for the heavier weights
2. Sometimes I’ll do a ‘feeler set’. If supposed to do 500×5, I may do 500×1 to prime the body and CNS for that weight. If doing singles at progressive weights, I may do the first weight twice.
It helps me dial in the technique.
3. Technique. ‘It doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’ applies to squats more than any other lift, IMHBCO. Whether it feels heavy or not, keeping your technique dialed in makes the difference when the weight starts getting heavy
It takes confidence to attack a heavy lift
You have to attack it to complete it without your technique going all to hell…
All that being said, lifting heavy is a skill. You have to practice and get good at it. In competition, you’re not going to warm up to your opener, and you need the confidence to attack your attempts even when they feel heavy as shit.

Introduction to Box Deadlifts

One of my guys, Joe, has very powerful quads but has had difficulty getting them engaged to initiate his pulls from the floor. He found an effective way to train this technique issue: box deadlifts.

When used for squats, the box can be used in a couple of different ways:

  • Touch and Go: For touch and goes the box is simply used as an indicator that you’ve squatted to the desired depth. Once you feel the box under your glutes, reverse directions and lift the weight.
  • Box Squats: Squat to the box and come to a complete stop before ascending. Starting from a dead stop helps you build more explosive power into the concentric portion of your squat.

Joe’s technique is a deadlift touch and go. He sits back down to the box, using it to find the right hip depth*. More importantly, he uses the box as a queue to reverse direction. Using this queue, he comes to a complete stop and allows a brief pause before beginning the pull. This lets him focus on driving down through the heels and engage the quads along with the glutes and hams to initiate a powerful pull. His hips, shoulders and the bar all initially rise explosively at the same rate – the hips do not shoot up leaving his posterior chain to do all the work.

* Every individual has different body mechanics, strengths and weaknesses. Proper hip depth will vary by individual, and is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Deadlift Technique – By the Numbers

Deadlift v1“By the Numbers!” I heard my Air Force TI (Training Instructor) shout that more times than I cared to count during basic training. Marching maneuvers follow a set tempo, and ‘by the numbers’ is a reminder that each step in a maneuver is to be done to a set order and at a specific pace.

That is how I lift. Every movement in the lift is for a set purpose, and completed in a steady tempo. Steps in lifts aren’t be rushed, and unnecessary delays in setup are eliminated. Take the deadlift for example:

Taking too much time to set up your deadlift leaves you thinking about it. Nothing good can come from overthinking a deadlift. You will talk yourself out of the lift. If you spend more time than it takes to stop and reverse direction at the bottom of the deadlift you are wasting air (or you didn’t get your air before dropping your hips and therefore you do not have enough air in your lungs). By the time you step up to the bar you shouldn’t have to think about your technique, you know how to lift, it should come naturally.

If, on the other hand, you rush your technique you are much more likely to start your lift out of position.

Deadlifting by the numbers goes a little something like this:

  1. For the first rep, rotate at the hips keeping your knees relatively straight and grip the bar. For subsequent reps, lower the bar by rotating at the hips and keeping your knees relatively straight.
  2. Get ready for your pull by tightening your upper back and taking a deep breath of air into your lungs and abdomen.
  3. Drop into the starting position. Sit back by rotating around your knees to drop your hips down and bring your chest up.
  4. Come to a complete stop (like the ‘pause’ on your chest during the bench to prevent bouncing), and begin the pull. Your quads should fire strongly allowing your hips, shoulders, and the bar to come up at the same rate.

By the numbers – give it a shot. Make your lifts more deliberate and efficient!

Bench Press Overloading – Rack Presses vs Board Presses

Bench Press LockoutsOverloading your bench press weight is an important step in building a bigger bench press. You are probably familiar with the two most common methods, Board Presses and Rack Presses (also called lockouts), but what are the differences between these two effective training approaches, and how do you program them into your training plan? Here are a few pointers to help you use them effectively.


Board Presses

Board presses are exactly as the name implies: lay a board or boards on your chest, lower the bar to the board(s) and press back up.

What are the advantages to board pressing?

  • The Partial Range of Motion (ROM) allows you to overload the weight lifted. The more boards you use (typically between 1 and 3 boards), the more weight you can lift.
  • Unlike Rack Presses, Board Presses mimic bench pressing lifting pattern. Board presses have an eccentric (descent) and concentric (ascent) component. This allows you to practice your proper bench press technique with board presses.
  • Because board presses have an eccentric component, board presses take advantage of the body’s stretch reflex to give you more starting power at the beginning of the press.
  • Regardless of the gym or bench you use, you will always have a specific starting point for board presses, based on how many boards you use.

How can you use board presses?

  • Use as a primary exercise: Because board presses use basic bench pressing patterns, you can use board presses as a primary benching lift. You can use them to train the bench press at heavier weights than you use for full ROM bench presses.
  • Train for heavier weight: Using more boards, train your bench press weights above your current one rep max (1RM). As your training progresses train that heavier weight with fewer boards until you can press it from your chest.
  • Equipped/bench shirt training: If you’re an equipped bencher boards are a particularly useful tool. When using a new or very tight shirt, using boards helps you break the shirt in. As you are working up to a weight heavy enough to touch the chest, use a decreasing number of boards as the weight increases, bringing the bar closer to your chest.

Rack Presses (also called Bench Press Lockouts)

Rack Presses are performed in a power cage. Set a bench inside the cage and set the safety pins to the desired height and press the bar directly off the pins.

  • Because you’re using a partial ROM, Rack Presses allow you to overload the weight pressed. Note that for low pin positions (at or below your natural sticking point) you may not be able to press as much weight as you could press in a full ROM bench press. This is because (at least on your first rep) you do not have the use of the stretch reflex to assist in starting the press. Second and subsequent reps are typically easier than the first because of assistance from the stretch reflex.
  • Because you start Rack Presses from the safety pins there is no eccentric phase (of the first rep). You must start the first rep from a dead stop with no assistance from the body’s stretch reflex. This makes the first rep much more difficult than a board press, or full ROM bench press, and will build greater strength at that point.
  • Because you’re training in the power cage, you need very little assistance to perform Rack Presses. You don’t need spotter assistance – if you fail you simply return the bar to the pins. You don’t need assistance to hold the boards in place as with board presses.

How can you use Rack Presses?

  • Supplemental Lift: Because Rack Presses technique is not the same as bench press technique, they are used more effectively as a supplemental lift than in place of a full ROM bench press.
  • Single rep sets/Dead Bench Presses: Performing all sets of Rack Presses with a single rep forces you to start each set and rep from a dead stop without the aid of a stretch reflex. This can help build starting strength at that point in your bench’s ROM.
  • Train your sticking point: Setting the pins at the weak point in your bench press (typically the mid-point, where your pec strength declines and your triceps strength takes over) allows you to build strength at that point. Use them to overcome this weakness and lockout heavier weights.
  • Overload the top-end lock out: Training the top two inches of your bench press with a weight far above your full ROM 1RM prepares your body and central nervous system to handle heavier weights. You will find that it gives you much greater control and strength when lifting your full ROM 1RM.

Other Partial ROM Presses

Properly programming these overloading techniques at the appropriate point in your program can help you bust through plateaus, and let’s be honest, piling on a whole bunch of plates for theses presses is just plain cool!

Spotting 101

When I was training for my first meet after a layoff, I remember looking in the mirror to see my spotter (who shall remain unnamed because my wife hates it when I criticize her) playing on her smart phone. After being crushed down to the cage’s safety pins as if I were in a trash compactor I asked why she didn’t give me a hand.

“I thought you had it.”

Don’t take spotting for granted. Even if you keep your lifter from getting killed or maimed, you may still kill a good rep or set.

Common Mistakes

Just because a lifter stalls or stops doesn’t give you the right to take the lift away from them:

Even if it’s a PR attempt, it’s better to jump in than to bounce the bar of your lifter’s head:

So what is the right amount of assistance?

Generally speaking, you should give the minimum assistance needed to keep the bar moving. Let the lifter take over once past the sticking point to lock out if they can. Unless it is the lifters final set, and you are trying to completely spend them, don’t keep your lifter struggling and burn them out. Help them keep the bar moving at the normal rate they would press (for that weight). This will allow them to continue to lift productively for future sets.

Here are some spotting tips for specific types of training.

High rep and failure sets

If your lifter is completing a high rep set, push them to complete the full set. This means you’ll start to assist lightly as the bar begins to slow, and may be giving them significant help by the end of the set. The key is to keep the bar moving at a normal rate. Exception: if the lifter is going for a rep PR, don’t assist until they fail.

Heavy Training

When doing heavy sets, generally speaking a lifter should only complete one rep once you need a spotter’s help. Unless they’re working on a PR, don’t make them come to a full stop before assisting. Again, keep the bar moving at a normal rate so they have something left in the tank to complete the training session. I realize some lifters don’t want any help before failing (heard a guy a few weeks ago tell his spotter ‘touch the bar and I’ll kill you’), but it’s not worth killing the volume remaining in the training session to complete that one rep unassisted.

Note: I do make an exception to the ‘don’t keep your lifter struggling’ rule. If I have one of those lifters who wants to do 8 reps after they hit failure I let them struggle as long as it takes to completely burn them out before helping them rerack the weight. It’s not my set.

Setting a new PR

Setting PRs come with their own rules, whether it’s a one rep max (1RM) or a rep PR. If your lifter is setting a 1RM PR, don’t touch the bar unless they hit failure and the bar comes to a complete stop or begins to descend. Since the lifter is at their maximum weight, you need to be ready because they can get into trouble very quickly. Stay under the bar to protect your lifter if they fail. If they do fail on the attempt they may be spent, and the weight will be heavy – be ready to take the bar away. Give as much assistance as needed to get the bar back to the rack.

If the lifter is setting a rep PR, don’t touch the bar until they hit failure. You don’t necessarily have to take the bar away from them, you can help them get additional reps. Depending on how spent they are at that point, how heavy the bar is and your ability to assist them you may past the failure point.

Side Spotting

If the bar weight is beyond your ability to assist on your own, add side spotters to assist in the event the lifter fails with a very heavy weight. Our team has threshold weights for benching and squatting where we automatically add side spotters, and I recommend this approach.

When side spotting:

–          Keep your hands under the bar and ready to catch in case of a sudden failure, but don’t touch the bar. If the lifter needs assistance let the back spotter provide it.

–          If the back spotter needs your help, don’t yank the bar up suddenly. Both side spotters need to bring the bar up evenly or you could injure your lifter.

–          Once the lift is complete, even on successful lifts guide the bar back to the rack without lifting more than just what’s necessary to re-rack.

Wrap Up

As a spotter, your job is more than just keeping a lifter from failing. A good spotter helps the lifter get the most out of their lifting sessions.

Give it Everything You’ve Got – A Practical Application of Dynamic Lifting

When I started lifting weights at 18 years old, I had no idea what I was doing. When I first strolled into the gym on Lackland Air Force Base, I may have been steping into a different dimension on some SciFi channel show (although at that time where I grew up in the sticks, we did not get the SciFi channel, we got what was known as ‘Channel 12’).

What does this have to do with strength training? For the past 26 years I’ve observed what successful lifters have done, tested it, adopted what works, and dropped what hasn’t. I’m not a West Side lifter, but if you know anything about powerlifting, you know that WSB is an authority on power and strength training. I have adopted a number of Louis Simmons’ teachings into my programming. This article addresses my application of Dynamic Training.

Why add Dynamic Training to your program?

Watch someone bench pressing, or think back to your last bench session. When you warmed up at 135lbs you pressed the bar up with 135lbs of force. When you got to your working sets at 315lbs (or whatever your working sets were), you applied 315lbs of force. You recruited the muscles you needed to lift the weight on the bar, you hit your lifts, and you had a successful training session, right?

Maybe, but what did you leave on the table?

To answer that question, I have another question. (You can’t answer a question with a question! Yes I can, it’s my article…). What is Power? For the purposes of benching more weight (or squatting, pulling, etc.) power is a product of strength and speed. If your training consists of only applying enough force to overcome the weight on the bar, you are training for strength. You are not training for power.

Ok, I’m starting to get it, how do I apply it?

I’m glad you asked or quite frankly this article would be a huge waste. This is where dynamic training comes in. The concept behind dynamic training is to move the bar as fast as possible regardless of the weight. If you can bench 300lbs in .5 seconds, you should move 150lbs in .25 seconds or less.

How you work dynamic training into your program is dependent on your program’s structure, but it can be quite simple:

  • Select an unrelated workout 2-3 days before or after your heavy session for that lift. For example, dynamic bench sessions can be done at the end of your heavy squat session, 2 days after your heavy bench session.
  • Start with a weight around 50-60% of that lift’s 1RM. If your best bench is 405lbs, start with 205lbs (I know you’re going to use 225lbs, aren’t you).
  • Keep the rep range low, 2-3 reps. Sets should short enough so that you finish before you begin to tire, and the bar speed slows. Concentrate on moving the bar as fast as possible, try to move the bar faster with each subsequent repetition.
  • Use between 6-10 sets, depending on how many sets you can complete before you begin to fatigue and the bar speed slows.
  • After mastering dynamic training at the lower weights, begin increasing the weight in later sets of your dynamic session. Work on moving the bar explosively with heavy weights as well as lighter weight.

Dynamic training results

  • You will train yourself to drive the bar up with all of your strength regardless of the weight. You will be able to rapidly activate all available muscle fibers. Even at your heaviest weights you will move the bar more explosively.
  • Because you are training your lifts more frequently, you will practice lifting technique at lighter weights that you can naturally complete with better form. Your proficiency in the lifts will improve.
  • You will lift more weight.
I like to break my dynamic training up into groups of 3 sets. I start light with a weight where I can really move the bar fast, and bump the weight up as long as the bar still moves relatively quickly:

Sets 2-3:

Sets 4-6:

Sets 7-8:

Wrap up and Results

When training for the 2013 USA Powerlifting Nationals I added dynamic benches to my back training sessions. I started with a modest 225lbs for 9×3. After several months of training I hit a high on my dynamic bench of 7×2@405, lifted a personal record (PR) raw bench in the gym, and a huge equipped PR of 562lb bench in competition. Dynamic training works.

Big Bench Tip #3 – Leg Drive

This is more of a pet peeve than a tip, really. Watching poor form drives me crazy, particularly when a bencher completely ignores half their muscle mass when benching: legs hanging limply off the bench, feet dancing around as the reps get tough, feet up in the air during the press.

Ok, that last example actually has a useful function. However if you’re 5’9”, weigh 155lbs, and are pressing 135lbs with your feet in the air, you’re wasting your time. Learn to bench properly first, add some muscle, build some strength, and then start playing with isolation techniques.

Failing to involve your lower body in the lift is a common error. How exactly do you involve your lower body in the lift? Leg Drive!

What does leg drive do for you?

Driving through your feet creates muscle tension from your toes all the way up to your traps. It helps you maintain stability throughout the lift, and helps you maintain your back arch and keep your chest up. Put together, these lead to a bigger bench.

How do you incorporate leg drive into your bench?

  • Plant your feet flat on the floor. You may have to try different foot positions to find what works for you, but start with your feet underneath your hips.
  • Keep your shoulders firmly planted on the bench (you may need to chalk them so they don’t slide on the bench), drive though the balls of your feet and push your hips toward your shoulders. This will push your torso up into a tight arch.
  • Continue pushing through your legs maintaining the drive throughout the full range of your bench press. Your entire lower body should be tight, from the balls of your feet through your thighs.
  • If your legs are too short to plant them firmly on the floor and drive hard, try placing a plate underneath them as you bench.

If you are maintaining proper leg drive and tension, the only noticeable motion in your bench is the bar moving up and down. Your feet, legs, hips, abdomen, and chest should remain stable and motionless.

Deadlift Setup – The Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift is much more than a conventional deadlift with a wide stance. When setup properly you may find that the sumo deadlift allows you to get more leg drive into your pulls, and reduces tension on your lower back given the more upright starting position. Sumo deadlifts also can favor certain body mechanics (longer femurs, shorter arms) and strengths (dominant hip strength).

To leverage the sumo’s advantages, you need to set up properly for your sumo pull.

Lift Setup

  • Foot Position:
    • You are going to take a very wide stance for sumo deadlifts. Although there are not set starting points for sumo as for conventional pulls, try starting with your shins at the rings on the bar and move in or out from there, depending on the length of your legs.
    • Point your toes outward sharply. As your knees should track in the direction of your toes, with a wide stance you want your toes pointed out.
    • Keep the bar very close, within an inch of your shins.
    • Create a solid base. When the lift is completed, your legs angled outward form the base of a solid pyramid.

Notice the base created by the leg angle

    • Since you do have a wide stance and there can be significant lateral force on your feet, you will want to make sure that you perform sumo deadlifts on a non-skid surface, and that your shoes are clean and free of any materials that may make them slip.
  • Hand Position:
    • In most cases your sumo hand position should be identical to your conventional hand position. Your arms should hang straight down to the bar giving you the maximum distance between your shoulders to the bar. This creates an advantageous starting position by further reducing the the lift’s range of motion (ROM). It also reduces non-productive lateral forces created by taking a wider than shoulder width grip.
  • Grip: Your grip will be the same for sumo deadlifts as for conventional deadlifts
    • Double overhand grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated (overhand). This is the toughest way to grip the bar. As the bar weight increases, the bar will begin to roll out of your hands. It can, however, further lengthen your arm span shortening the deadlift ROM.
    • Alternating over/under grip – Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Which hand you use is your preference, but generally speaking it’s more effective gripping with your dominant hand pronated. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip.
    • Hook grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs. This is a very effective grip, locking the bar in and preventing it from rolling or slipping out of your grip, but it can be exceptionally painful.

  • Setting up for the pull: I promote a three step setup for sumo deadlifts, as I do for conventional deadlifts. This allows you to tighten up before the pull and create muscle tension that will help with your pulls.
    • Hinge at the hips to reach down and grab the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades downward to tighten your back. Think about tucking them into your back pockets. Take a deep breath into your lungs and abdomen, and force it downward to create a very tight and stable core.
    • Bring your hips down and chest up. Drive your knees out so you can push your hips forward toward the bar – try and drop your sack on the bar [a reference I stole from Dave Tate]. When you are set for the pull, your torso should be more erect than for a conventional pull, allowing you to drive straight up.
      • Notice from the videos below that you will drop your hips much lower than you do for conventional deadlifts.
    • Drive the bar straight up to lock out. Shove your knees out, and push against the outside edge of your shoes.
    • Sumo deadlifts are notorious for coming off the floor very slowly. Don’t get discouraged and quit on the lift if it is stubborn off the floor. Keep pulling and you’ll find the lockouts to be stronger.

Wrap up

The deadlift is a technical lift whether you pull conventional or sumo. To be successful pay as much attention to your setup as you do to your weight, sets, and reps. Simple corrections to your setup and technique can add a lot of additional lbs to the bar.

For a full review of the sumo deadlift, check out Brute Force Strength Book of Techniques:  Sumo Deadlift.


Overloading Your Training – Part 2: Overloading Weight

Part 1 of my overloading series discusses strategies for overloading volume in your training to increase the number of total reps lifted in your program. In this session, we’ll discuss overloading weight, and increase the amount of weight you move in a given lift. The goal is to train your musculature, supporting structure, and CNS to move weights above your current 1 rep max (1RM). This will prepare you to move heavier and heavier loads.


The first strategy, negatives, is the simplest. Load up the bar with more than you can lift and get to work. This approach focuses on the eccentric portion of the lift. With a spotter’s help if necessary, unrack the weight and bring it down slowly maintaining complete control of the weight throughout the range of motion (ROM). Once you’ve bottomed out the lift, your spotter helps you lift it back up. Tips on negatives:

  • Keep the weight at a heavy, near-max to maximum effort. Try 80-105% as a starting point.
  • Repetitions should be kept relatively low range – 3-5 reps.
  • Your spotter should keep his hands on the bar throughout full ROM for each rep. During the eccentric, your spotter should stay with the weight and help guide the bar down if necessary. Once you complete the eccentric your spotter will help you bring the bar back up to the starting position. Your spotter should be lifting a significant amount of the bar weight so the bar comes up quickly.

Note: Your strength will be depleted after performing the negative eccentric and you shouldn’t expect to lift as much as you can fresh. Make sure your spotter is capable of handling the weight you’re lifting.

  • The negative eccentric should move as slowly as you can maintain control of the weight. At near-max weight, start with half the speed of a normal rep and adjust from there.
  • To add effectiveness and train your sticking point, as you tire on later sets/reps try and come to a complete stop at the sticking point and hold the bar there.
  • If the weight is more than your spotter can easily handle adequately during the concentric lift, consider having side spotters assist as well.

Partial Reps:

There are a number of strategies to perform partial repetitions. Used properly, partial reps can be used effectively to overload with more weight than you would normally use. This will carry over to greater weight for the full ROM as well.

Board presses: Board presses are a strategy that allows you to overload the weight on your bench press. Have a (second) spotter hold a set of boards on your chest. Bring the bar down to the boards and press. Boards typically range from 1 board to 3 boards. Use proper bench press technique throughout the limited ROM.

A couple of strategies for using boards to increase your bench press 1RM include:

  • Start with a slight personal record (PR) and press to 3 boards for sets of 3-5 reps. In subsequent bench training sessions, remove 1 board per session and reduce the reps you complete per set. By the end of the mini-cycle you should press the new PR from your chest for singles.
  • Start with a significant PR and press to 3 boards. Rep range will be lower with the heavier weight. In subsequent weeks reduce the weight and remove a board. By the end of the mini-cycle you should again press a new PR from your chest for singles.

Pin Presses: Pin presses are similar to board presses in that they limit the ROM on your bench press and allow you to overload the weight used. They also allow you to perform the lift without assistance from spotters. They are limited, however, in the number pin settings you can use depending on the configuration of your squat cage.

Set up a flat bench in the squat cage. Set the safety pins so that when you lie on the bench the bar will not come all the way to your chest. Because of the limitation in settings of the safety pins, I generally use pin presses as a supplemental lift, not as a primary. Some strategies you can use with your pin presses:

  • Set the pins at the midway point in your bench. Lift for a slight rep PR with a low rep range.
  • Set the pins at the top end of your bench and practice lockouts at a significant PR weight. Pause at the top for a static hold (4-10 seconds).

Pin Squats: Similar to pin presses, pin squats allow you to limit the ROM for the squat, and overload your squat training. As with pin presses, pin squats shouldn’t be considered a primary squat exercise, you should not train to squat above parallel. When squatting, don’t anticipate the pins. Squat with normal squat technique until you hit the pins. Let the bar come to a complete stop on the pins and then drive straight back up.

Rack Pulls: Rack pulls are the ‘pin’ lifts for deadlifts. Typically you perform them in the squat cage, but you can also do them by placing blocks under the weights. Typical pin height can range from slightly below to slightly above the knee.

Although rack pulls shorten the ROM of the deadlift, when starting at or below the knee you may find that removing the initial leg drive from the pull can make them even more difficult than full ROM deadlifts.

It is important to maintain proper deadlift form when performing rack pulls. Grip the bar, rock back bringing your hips down and chest up before starting the pull.

Static Holds:

Static hold is a strategy to allow you to handle significantly more weight than your 1RM. You don’t perform any of the lifts ROM. You unrack it, lock it out, hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. The strategy is to train your body and CNS to handle greater workloads.

Squat walkouts: Walkouts train you to handle weights significantly above your squat 1RM. Load the bar with 105-110% of your 1RM. Unrack and walk out the weight using perfect squat setup technique. Lock the bar out and hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. I usually add walkouts toward the end of a heavy training cycle.

Wrap Up

Adding weight overloading strategies to your training program can train your body and CNS to handle heavier loads. Build them into your training programs wisely to spur strength gains.

  • Handling near-max to max weight loads can take a toll on the body and CNS. Learn when to back off the workload to limit overtraining.
  • Use limited ROM lifts sparingly as primary lifts. Don’t train your lifting patterns to limit your ROM when performing the full lifts.
  • The goal is to overload the weight you are lifting; if you haven’t used weight overloading strategies learn what your limits are. Start conservatively and build the weight up.
  • Learn and perfect proper technique for your primary lifts before implementing overloading strategies that modify the lift.

Overloading Your Training – Part 1: Overloading Volume

Overloading your training volume: the strategies discussed here are designed to push you past your limits in total volume for a particular lift. Simply put, the purpose is to help you get more total reps in a workout than you typically would for a given lift and weight. These strategies take the intensity level of your training up a notch.

Failure Sets:

You don’t have to train to failure on every set of every lift, or even in your primary lifts in every session to make progress. For most of my training I use Prilepin’s Table to plan my primary lift’s weight, sets and reps. On my supplemental and assistance lifts I generally target a training range that ends within 1-3 reps of failure. You can make consistent gains stopping just short of failure; however taking your sets for a particular lift to failure can increase the intensity of your workout.

The rest of the strategies in this article will help you take your sets past your failure point. This will force your body to recruit more muscle fibers than would normally be used for the given lift, and help you get stronger and bigger. That is the goal, right?

Forced Reps:

Having your spotter help you complete additional reps at the end of the set is the simplest way to increase your training volume. Just because your spotter helps you with some reps does not diminish the effectiveness of the set. Quite the contrary, the increased volume past failure can make for a highly effective training session.

The strategy is simple. Take the set to failure and continue lifting for additional reps using assistance from your spotter. For a given set target 2-3 forced reps at most per set. More than that and your spotter will end up lifting the weight for you, and will likely not be pleased.

Your spotter should give you just enough assistance to get past the sticking point enabling you to complete the rep unassisted. If you are at complete failure and cannot lock out the lift, your spotter should give you enough assistance to keep the bar moving at near your normal tempo for that lift, but should not take the weight away from you. You should be forced to press with all of your remaining strength as the spotter helps you lock out the lift. Maintain strict lifting technique and continue driving. Let your spotter give you just the boost you need to complete the reps.

Total Rep Sets:

In terms of complexity, the total rep sets scheme is also relatively simple. If you cannot complete the target reps in your lifting sets, simply add sets until you hit your target reps for the lift. For example, at 70% of my max on a given lift, using Prilepin’s Table I typically plan to complete 5×4 reps. If I miss some reps I continue lifting until I complete all 20 reps (example, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1).

I typically only use this approach for my primary lifts. Supplemental and assistance work can be greatly affected by the primary lift’s volume and intensity. If I have to adjust weight or reps on supplemental lifts in an individual session I usually don’t sweat it too much.

Cluster Sets:

Cluster sets can help you get more reps per set than you typically could in a particular set. Complete the target reps for the set, rack the weight, pause, and then continue to failure. Using the 70% example above, each set would go something like this:

  • Complete 4 reps
  • Rack the weight, pause 10 seconds
  • Unrack and continue lifting to failure

If the number of reps you get in the second part of the cluster is equal to or greater than the target reps in the primary component the weight is too light. In the 70% example your target range would be 4 reps in the primary part and 2-3 reps in the second portion of the lift.

Drop Sets:

I saved the best for last. And by best I mean horrific.

For best results use 2 spotters for drop sets, and leave collars off (if you can do so safely). The key to drop set pain is rapid weight changes between drops. To perform drop sets:

  • Unrack the weight and lift until failure
  • Rack the weight
  • Spotters quickly change the plates dropping to the next weight
  • Without resting unrack again and continue lifting to failure
  • Repeat the process until you hit the target number of subsets

A few tips to maximize the effectiveness of your drop sets:

  • Plan out your sets ahead and either load the bar with plates that can be easily stripped (for example if you’re squatting, you can easily drop a 45lb/20kg plate with each drop), or have the weights handy for your spotters if they must swap plates on and off
  • A good range is 3-5 subsets in a given drop set
  • Drop sets are most effective when your first weight is heavy enough to complete a reasonable number of reps – not less than 5 and not more than 8

Drop sets are exceptionally intense. Don’t try to use this strategy on all sets in a given lift. One or two drop sets is likely to do enough damage for the day.

Wrap Up:

Volume overloading will take you to failure and beyond. For safety and to maximize their effectiveness it is very important that you have a trusted spotter assisting you.

These strategies are a great way to crank up your training intensity. Use them in moderation, limit them to one lift in a session and don’t use more than one strategy in that session. Very high intensity strategies like drop sets shouldn’t be used for all sets in a session.

Try plugging volume overloading into your training program and crank up your training intensity.