Advanced Overload Techniques
There are 2 types of Advanced Overload Techniques: Structural and Technical. Structural AOTs result from structuring the workout to create an overload while technical AOTs are the result of intensifying the movement itself to increase time under tension, impact the strength curve, or go beyond normal MMF. Regardless of the advanced overload technique, the purpose is to increase the time under tension to maximize cross-bridge activation for maximal motor unit recruitment. This article will address each advanced overload technique used during strength training, how to use them within a program, and recommendations for implementation.
Post-exhaust is a structural overload where a multi-joint movement is immediately followed by a single-joint movement for the same primary agonist with no rest between exercises. It is best when used after a set where the multi-joint movement performance may be either unsafe or compromised if entering the set fatigued. It is also the ideal way to introduce structural overloads into a workout since the multi-joint set will be unaffected.
Example: Squats put a tremendous amount of stress on the entire body and if not performed with perfect form, could lead to serious injury. If Squats are performed to MMF, typically the quads still have more to give but no more quality reps can be performed with perfect form due to a breakdown in core stability. Therefore, a post-exhaust set of leg extensions can be performed to finish off the quads without affecting the performance or safety of the set of squats.
Pre-exhaust is a structural overload where a single-joint movement precedes a multi-joint movement for the same primary agonist with no rest between exercises. It can be used to help fatigue muscle groups that typically do not reach MMF due to weaker support muscle groups that fail first.
Example: Flat Bench Press is classified as a chest exercise; however, if a set of Flat Bench Press is performed to MMF, it will be the triceps and anterior deltoid that reach MMF, not the chest. In order to bring the chest to MMF during a set of Flat Bench Press, a set of Cable Flies can be performed to MMF immediately prior to the Flat Bench Press. Typically you will still be able to perform the same amount of weight and reps as if you were fresh, but the chest will reach MMF at the same time or before the anterior delts and triceps. This technique is more advanced than a post-exhaust because you are entering the larger compound movement in a fatigued state.
Drop sets are a structural overload where upon completing a set to MMF of an exercise, the weight is reduced and another set or additional reps are performed until you reach MMF again, with as many drops as the program prescribes (although there are diminishing returns after one or two drops). The key to getting the most out of a drop set is the amount of time it takes to change the weights, and reducing the weight by the correct amount so that the desired rep range can be attained with the reduced weight. Machines with weight stacks allow for immediate weight changes with the switch of pin. Free weight drop sets require removing collars, removing plates, walking to the other side of the bar, repeating, then getting reset and ready to lift. That all takes time. Spotters can certainly speed up this process. As for the recommended weight reduction for a drop set, typically a 40-50% reduction of the weight will allow for the same amount of reps to be performed as the first set.
Example: If I perform a set of Squats with 315 lbs for 10 reps to MMF, than I should be able to reduce the weight to 155-185 lbs and perform another 10 reps with perfect form before reaching MMF again.
Pauses are a structural overload where upon completing a set to MMF of an exercise, you give yourself 15 seconds of rest before completing another 2 or 3 reps to MMF again at the same weight. This can be repeated 2 or 3 times, adding an additional 5-10 reps at your heaviest weight.
Example: After completing 10 reps of weighted pullups, you reach MMF. Drop down to the ground, pause for 15 seconds, shake out your hands, get your mind right, and pound out another 3 reps. Pause again, and pound out another 3 reps. Repeat until you are out of gas. The pause allows for a brief recovery in the ATP-CP System to allow for enough energy to complete a few more reps.
This is a good choice for a one-set MMF protocol to get the most out of that exercise before moving on without performing multiple sets. It can also be used on the final set of a multi-set program. While performing another set with rest instead of pausing and continuing would add more total time under tension, pauses excel at quickly bringing you back to that place of MMF with a heavy load, causing muscles to experience MMF multiple times in rapid succession.
Supersets, tri-sets, and giant sets involve pairing multiple exercises together for the purpose of efficiency and difficulty, but are actually not always an effective structural overload technique. Pre/post-exhaust is a form of superset that is a structural overload because it pairs multi-joint (compound) movement with a single-joint (isolation) movement that results in pinpoint MMF of the target primary agonist. Push/pull movements can be superset together, but that is merely for efficiency, not creating a structural overload. If multiple compound movements are superset together, or multiple isolated movements for that matter, the resulting super/tri/giant set will be challenging, but will result in the weakest link in the movement reaching MMF over and over, not the primary agonist.
Example (not recommended): Tri-setting Incline/Flat/Decline Bench would be a multi/multi/multi tri-set that would leave your anterior deltoid destroyed (weakest link) and your chest (primary agonist) merely fatigued.
Example (preferred): Supersetting Incline Bench (multi-joint) with a Pec Deck (single-joint) would be classified as a post-exhaust AOT that would leave target the chest (primary agonist), with MMF precision.
Forced positives are a technical overload where upon reaching MMF, 2 or 3 more perfect form reps are performed with the assistance of a spotter. This allows for negatives to still be performed without assistance, but help through the positive phase to accomplish a few more reps. This increases the total time under tension, as well as causing deeper microtears in the muscle fibers than MMF alone. This is best on movements where a spotter can be in a position of leverage to provide 10-15 lbs of assistance during the positive phase, and in the event of total exhaustion be able to safely secure and rack the weight.
Example: Forced positives are effective on Flat Bench Press, where the spotter can essentially perform an upright row to assist through a few more positive reps, and if total exhaustion occurs can secure and rack the bar from a position of leverage. A poor choice for forced positives would be a Bent Row. There is no place that a single spotter could stand to help assist through the positive phase, and then be in a position of leverage to help safely secure and rack the weight.
Added negatives are a technical overload where each rep is made more difficult by additional weight added during the negative phase of the movement. This is best done with a spotter either adding weight manually, or laying a sandbag or something else on the lifter during the negative phase only.
Example: During a Prone Leg Curl, after completing each rep, the spotter would begin to pull the machine arm back down while the lifter resists the negative phase on the negative of each rep. The principle here is that the human body is capable of lowering more than it can lift; therefore, additional resistance during the negative phase intensifies the exercise. Be aware that less positives can be performed when added negatives are implemented
Isolateral negatives are a technical overload where a normal positive is performed, followed by only using one arm/leg to perform the negative. Implementation is limited to movements that a controlled negative can be accomplished safely by only one side of the body.
Example: A good choice for isolateral negatives would be a prone leg curl. Using both legs, perform the positive phase of the leg curl, then lower the weight using only one leg, alternating which leg does the negative. Since muscles can lower twice as much as they can lift, isolateral negatives overload one side of the body during the negative phase, then rely on a coordinated effort of both sides to perform the positive phase. Barbell movements are poor choices for this AOT; Stick with fixed machines (independent sided machines will not work either).
Negatives are often confused with added negatives and are much harder. It will be necessary to have 2 spotters to safely execute Negatives, so be prepared to ask for additional competent help. Negatives are reps that are performed with loads at or above your 1RM, where the lifter and 2 spotters lift the weight, and the lifter lowers the weight under control through the negative phase. If using the 1RM weight, typically the lifter will be able to perform 3-4 controlled negatives before needing help even during the negative phase. The target for negatives should be 6 reps, 4 done by the lifter without assistance during the negative phase from spotters, followed by 2 more reps with help during the negative. This will cause MMF during the negative phase which causes significantly more microtearing than positive MMF. Anticipate needing a week off for recovery after performing negatives.
Chains are used as a technical overload that attempts to balance out the strength curve on movements that become easier as you finish the rep.
Example: Based on the strength curve of Incline Bench Press, at the bottom of the rep the chest is under tension and the movement is at it’s most difficult. As you press the bar up and approach the fully extended position, the movement becomes easier because of the strength curve. To make it harder at the fully extended position, secure a chain to each side of the bar.
Resistance bands can be used to either assist through the range of motion, or add additional tension to adjust the strength curve of a movement.
- Assist: Using bands to assist through the range of motion is a good choice for motions where you need help performing the rep. Assisted pull-ups, for example, are a good choice for resistance bands where large bands can be positioned on a pull-up caged area and can be used to help assist in the pull-up, much like a forced positive on every rep.
- Resist: Using bands for resistance is a good choice for adding tension to a movement to intensify the strength curve when approaching the contracted position. Hammer machines are a good choice for this method, using the handles and the frame of the machine as anchor points for the band. As the weight is pushed/pulled through the range of motion, additional tension is added as the band is stretched, intensifying the strength curve.
Quarter reps add additional time under tension to the rep and is defined as a rep that is completed through only a quarter of the normal range of motion for that rep. They can be performed in contracted, middle, or stretched positions of the range of motion, all resulting in a unique training adaption.
- Contracted Position:Adding a quarter rep to the contracted end of the range will affect the total reps performed, but the time under tension will be stacked in the most difficult portion of the range. This is good for movements where the stretched end of the range of motion is either minimal on impact or adds unwanted stress on the tendons and ligaments.
Example: Cable flyes are a good option for a contracted quarter rep, since in the stretched position of the range the shoulder is awkwardly loaded, putting tension on the tendons and ligaments through the shoulder rather than on the muscles.
- Middle Position: Adding a quarter rep to the middle of the range of motion is a technique that can be used to overcome “sticking points”. Sticking points are spots in the range of motion where cross-bridge activation is underdeveloped and neuromuscular junctions are inefficient. This can be an anatomical problem (i.e. insertion/origin location on long bones for leverage), or it can be the result of relying on gravity and momentum rather than steady time under tension throughout the full range of motion. For example, it is not uncommon on bench press to be strong at the very bottom with a “sticking point” somewhere in the middle of the rep.
- Stretched Position: Adding a quarter rep to the stretched position is a good choice for movements that do not put enough tension on the muscles. Some TRX movements, all Bowflex exercises, and most barbell free weight movements have stretched positions where the strength curve of the movement becomes much easier.
Pulses are a technical overload technique that are used when no more full range of motion reps can be performed to add some time under tension before completing the set. Pulses are partial reps that are done in the contracted position that consist of roughly 2 inches of movement. For example, as you approach MMF on a reverse fly, rather than completing that final negative, perform a series of 5-10 mini pulse reps in the contracted position before completing the negative. Implementing this technique on single-joint movements can help maximize time under tension on movements.
Nick Ryan, CSCS