Triple-Threat Sets - Isolation and Compound Exercise Variations


If you're not sore after a workout - your muscles will not improve.

"How in the hell can you get a decent workout in a home gym?" the commercial gym diehards ask. "You're so limited."

Hey, I'll admit to the commercial gym's superiority in that vital area we call variety. With all of the machines and cable apparatuses there's simply more freedom of choice. If you get stale on an exercise like dumbbell laterals, for example, you can try the Nautilus lateral machine or give cable laterals a shot. In a home gym you don't have the luxury of many choices.

This limitation doesn't have to be a hindrance, however-in fact, it can actually make your workouts more productive. Now, before you decide that I'm simply rationalizing my choice of training at home, let me explain.

When your mind is presented with a limitation-in your training or any endeavor, for that matter-your mind's pilot light is ignited as the thought process begins. As your mind heats up, it, in turn, stimulates the ingenuity and creativity fires, and when this happens, your training becomes much more exhilarating both mentally and physically. This means that not only are your workouts more challenging, but you're also making gains at a much more rapid clip. Let's look at this creative process in action.

Let's say that you aren't feeling your lateral raises the way you used to-in other words, you've gone a bit stale on this movement. What are your options?

» You could substitute another exercise. After checking out all the possible replacements you can do in your home gym, such as upright rows, however, you still believe that laterals are your best bet for that wide-shouldered look. Basically, they isolate your lateral heads the way no other movement can. You decide that it doesn't make much sense to drop them now.

» You could do them first in your delt routine and do your pressing movement second. You're getting so strong on your presses, though, that you hate to move them and reduce the poundage at this point. It might smother your motivation.

» Your third option-and probably your best-is to make your laterals more intense and somewhat extraordinary by adding a little something extra to the movement. A revered but often forgotten technique that will help you accomplish this is descending-, or triple-threat, sets.

The triple-threat technique condenses three sets into one. Let's stick with laterals for our example. Take a pair of dumbbells that you can crank out six to eight strict reps with-say, 35-pounders. As soon as you hit failure, put the 35s down and immediately grab the 25s. Rep out with these until you hit failure, probably around rep four, put them down and grab the 20s. Rep out again for one last set of three or four reps. After this mega-intense, triple-threat set your delts will be on fire and pumped to the bursting point because of the simple fact that you're cramming a lot of intensity into a small time frame.

According to Bernard A. Centrella, author of IRONMAN's popular "Science of the Rep" series that appeared in the mid-'80s, descending sets are more productive than regular sets for two reasons: "One, they provide a greater pump in a shorter period of time, which always seems to be indicative of a more intense movement, and two, they reduce the amount of work done-a requirement whenever intensity is increased." When Centrella says they "reduce the amount of work done," he's comparing them to three regular sets. True, you're still doing three sets, but you aren't doing the preliminary "warmup reps"-those first easy four or five-of the last two sets; you're only doing the hard, growth-producing reps-the last three or four-of sets two and three.

If you decide to blowtorch a few of your bodyparts with the descending-set technique, you'll want to adhere to the following guidelines:

» Keep your form strict on every rep. There's no need to cheat, since you'll be getting plenty of work from this three-sets-in-one technique. Also, cheating can cause injury when your intensity is this high, so avoid it as much as possible.

» Don't get carried away with this technique. Usually one descending set, which is really three sets, is all you need for any exercise if you truly work hard. In rare cases two are acceptable. After that move on.

» If you want to make the descending-set technique even more intense, try adding a few forced reps at the end of your last set [see also "Triple-threat Variations" at the end of this column]. Be cautious, however, as the more intensity you use, the more you stress your nervous system. After a workout with this type of intensity your entire system requires more time-at least one complete rest day-for full recuperation.

» Don't use this technique on more than five exercises in any one workout. Once again, you don't want to over stress your recovery system.

The descending-set method is truly one of the best home-training techniques available. If you're getting somewhat stale on a few exercises, give it a try, push your sets hard, and watch your muscle mass ascend to new levels.

Triple-threat Variations

Here are a few variations you may want to try to up the intensity of your descending sets even further:

» Two forced reps at the end of each of your three descending sets. Forced reps tend to stress your nervous system, so be conservative with them.

» Negatives at the end of your third descending set. When you hit failure, your partner lifts the weight for you and you lower it to the count of six. You'll probably only manage two or three of these blistering reps, but you'll have no doubt that you pushed the muscle into the growth zone.

» 1 1/4 reps on your first set of the series. Here you raise the weight to the contracted position, lower it one-quarter of the way down, drive it back to the contracted position and then lower all the way down. That's one rep. This is tough, but the contraction and burn you get are well worth the effort. You'll have to use less weight, but you'll feel your muscles working much harder than they do during a normal set. The 1 1/4 technique works best on peak-contraction exercises-movements like leg extensions, where there is resistance in the contracted position.

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