• Before mentioning any techniques to go beyond failure, it’s important to define how to properly tax a muscle to get to what is termed momentary muscular failure. If you don’t reach that point, there is no sense in bringing in any additional techniques. A distinction needs to be made between how a bodybuilder should perform a rep as opposed to a weightlifter or powerlifter. A weightlifter/powerlifter’s primary concern is in moving the maximum amount of resistance from point A to point B by any means necessary. Applying stress to the muscle is not a concern so the sore one gets after training is neither here nor there. A bodybuilder on the other hand should approach each rep from a totally opposite point of view. The main goal must be to force the target muscle to work as hard as possible with as little contribution from surrounding muscle groups or momentum as possible. That’s why I am such a staunch advocate of strict, controlled form. It’s the best way to ensure maximum stress on the muscle gaining max strength and size. There is some scientific evidence to support that the negative aspect of the rep actually incurs the most damage to a muscle. Repairing this damage is how muscles become bigger and stronger. Always keep in mind that there are three types of strength, and each can be expressed in terms of a portion of a repetition:

    1) Positive – lifting the weight

    2) Static – holding the weight in the fully contracted position of the muscle

    3) Negative – lowering the weight

    This doesn’t apply universally to all exercises, as there are some movements in which there is very little resistance in the fully contracted position. Two notable examples would be the end point of a rep for either squats or deadlifts. At the lockout, most of the stress is actually borne by the joints. However, in most other exercises you can gauge your static strength by whether or not you are able to pause at least briefly in the fully contracted position. If you are unable to do so, it’s a clear indication that you employed momentum to move the weight rather than pure muscle power. So this is an extremely easy way to check your form and be sure that you are indeed taxing the muscle, so that a set only ends when the muscle itself has truly failed. One tip I often tell people to facilitate this is to do your best to relax the rest of your body and attempt to perfectly isolate only the muscles that you are trying to work. Anything else is usually wasted or misdirected energy. As much as I am in favor of training as heavy as one can, you must keep in mind that bodybuilding is not about lifting weights – it’s all about working the muscles as hard as humanly possible. Now that you hopefully understand how to properly take a set to failure, we can discuss techniques to go beyond failure.

    1. Forced reps

    It should be said straight off that forced reps are an art form, and only a good training partner will have the ability to assist in administering them properly. The intent of forced reps is to apply just enough help to get past the sticking point of a rep and complete one or two more past the point of positive failure. Of all the intensity techniques out there, in my opinion this one is by far the most commonly abused. You can walk into any gym in the world and witness this on the bench press. Guys will load up the bar with significantly more weight than they are capable of lifting, and recruit a training partner or spotter to lift part of the weight for them from the very first rep onward. What’s the bloody point in that? Obviously this ridiculous practice stems entirely from the ego, as guys like to delude themselves into thinking they actually did do ten reps with 100k, or whatever the case may be. This harkens right back to what we were speaking about in regards to weight lifting versus bodybuilding. Guys like that generally don’t have very much in the way of chest development because they never actually work their pecs intensely enough to stimulate growth. I would much rather see a trainer do five or six reps entirely on his own before a spotter or training partner provides just enough assistance to allow for one or two more additional reps. Anything more than two forced reps at the end of a set is pointless, in my opinion.

    2. Negatives

    We mentioned earlier that the negative portion of a repetition is at least as important as the positive, and perhaps even more so. Back in the early 1970’s, Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones recognized this and advocated ‘negative only’ training, in which spotters lifted the weight and the trainer would only lower it slowly. This proved impractical. Not only would this often require the services of two very strong spotters (picture the logistics of trying to lift a 500-pound barbell for someone on squats so that he only has to lower it), but also potentially dangerous. That’s because we are all weakest in the positive part of a rep and strongest in the negative. If you can lift 300 pounds in the bench press, chances are that you are probably capable of lowering something like 400 or 450 pounds. That’s a terrific amount of stress on the joints, tendons, and ligaments, especially if you make it a routine practice. A far more practical and safer way to incorporate negatives is to reach failure with a given weight and then have a training partner assist you in moving it to the fully contracted position two or three more times so that you can lower it very slowly, thus exhausting your negative strength, the last of the three (positive, static, negative) to give out on you. Another less common way to employ negatives is something called ‘negative accentuated training.’ In this, you lift the weight using two limbs but lower it with just one. A couple examples where this could be done are leg extensions, machine curls, machine rows with a chest support, a leg press, or a seated bench press machine. Essentially, you would only be able to perform negative-accentuated sets on machines in which both limbs move one movement arm. It would not be possible on a unilateral machine such as most of the Hammer Strength series.

    3. Rest-pause

    Rest-pause been popular for many years thanks to Mike Mentzer and Arthur Jones! The basic premise is to take several brief rests during a set so that a heavier weight can be used. For example, you may be able to use 300 pounds for a total of eight reps in rest-pause fashion, whereas otherwise you would only manage four reps. You might do something like three or four reps, put the weight down for ten seconds or so, do another two reps, rest, and finish with a final rep or two. In this way, you hit positive failure three separate times during one set. A very real benefit of rest-pause is that it gives your muscles a chance to adapt to much heavier loads, and that strength will carry over into your normal straight sets.

    Intensity techniques: use them wisely or face the consequences!

    The above techniques can be tremendously productive at boosting intensity and stimulating greater muscle growth, when used judiciously; that is to say occasionally. But too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Techniques like forced reps, negatives and so on place a higher demand on a muscle’s recovery. Overusing them can quickly lead to overtraining, and one may eventually expect to see a regression in results rather than progression. Be careful to use them on an as-needed basis, such as only for a weak bodypart, and even then only for limited periods of time. Don’t employ something like forced reps for every set – reserve it for perhaps the final set of each exercise, and rotate the bodyparts you use them for. You get the idea. Taking sets beyond failure can be extremely effective in building your physique, so long as you don’t do it too often and you truly take the muscle to positive failure first.