Extended Sets: Methods to keep going to gain muscle

One thing we respect here at Definitive Physique is heart. Fortitude, resilience, guts whatever you want to call it this trait is that sets our personal trainers and our personal training clients against the rest. The ability to keep going in a working set is what pushes the body to make adaptations. This essentially is what exercise is all about and what will make you gain muscle. You push the body to the limit of its capabilities, you recuperate and come back stronger. Momentary muscular failure leads to hypertrophy and strength increases, as a personal trainer this is what I am usually pushing for with my clients. The point at which they reach failure is dependent on the routine we are doing and goal which we are aiming for. Unfortunately it is all too common to see trainees give up on a set they could have easily finished. Negative thinking during a set is often a problem when people give up too easily. I encourage my personal training clients not to think at all during a working set. When you start thinking thoughts will pop into your head like “This is uncomfortable” or “This is difficult”. In this article I’m going to outline techniques you can use to extend a set that would otherwise be over. In turn, this longer time under tension will lead to greater gains in hypertrophy and strength. Strength training is about progressive overload and all too often people do not push themselves hard enough to force their bodies to transform. Although these techniques are different they follow the same principle, which is to incorporate more muscle mass or to improve leverage and allow you to continue the set. A word of warning, some of these are advanced techniques and are not for the faint hearted.

The rest-pause method

The rest-pause method involves taking a 10-15 second intra-set pause between repetitions and is an excellent method for performing additional reps. This method is different to cluster training as it is performed at the onset of fatigue not throughout the entire set, as in the cluster method. For example, in a barbell bench press you would complete the set until failure, re-rack the bar, rest 10 to 15 seconds and complete additional reps. This short rest period allows the bodies short term energy system, the phosphagen systems, to replenish. We use this method a lot here at Definitive Physique for our clients who are trying to add muscle mass. Like most of these methods using rest-pauses is intense and should be used sparing so as to not inhibit recovery. I recommend using it in the final set of a 2 set exercise.

The cheating method

The cheating method involves changing the technique of an exercise to incorporate more muscle mass, and sometimes momentum, to allow you to continue the set. For example, in a standing barbell curl a slight extension of the lower back will help you to complete the set. As with all these techniques this method should be used with caution and be used at the end of the set not for the entire set. Unfortunately it is all too common to see the cheating method used for the entire workout in most commercial gyms! Another example of this method would be to switch from a standing military press to a push press. This involves bending and the knee and the hip just before you push and incorporates the strong muscles of the lower body. By using the additional strength through the leg drive you will be able to complete a few more reps.

Drop sets

Drop sets are probably the most common extended set method. This method involves starting with a heavy load and lifting it till failure then dropping to a lighter weight and continuing the set. There are many variations of drop sets and in fact they could warrant a whole article in themselves. One such method was first popularised The Iron Guru, Vince Gironda he called it going ‘down the rack’. In a down the rack drop set, you start with a heavy weight at one end of the dumbbell rack and continue down the rack lowering the weight each time until failure. This method is particularly good for training a lagging body part. A more strength based drop set would be 4,4,4. In this case you start with a heavy load and drop the weight roughly 10% each drop with the aim to perform 4 reps on each load.


This next method will not only help you extend the set for hypertrophy it will also produce great strength increases. Negative repetitions involve lowering the weight under control and letting your personal trainer lift the weight you have failed on. Your aim should be to keep these lowering reps as slow as possible (6-10 seconds ideally), when the weight is just dropping and you can no longer control it the set is over and you have reached what is known as negative failure. I should state here that in this example you would switch to negatives when you can no longer lift the weight you are using doing a whole set of negative repetitions is another method. Forced negatives are another variation of the negative method. When you reach failure to extend the set further have your personal trainer apply pressure to the weight as you lower it. This forces you to cope with more resistance and is a different stimulus for your muscles. Make sure you have an experienced training partner/personal trainer applying the pressure as only a small amount is needed for this method. Your aim is to fight against the pressure they exert. You will commonly hear the term “Fight against it” or “Don’t let it beat you!” here at Definitive Physique.

Change the leverage

Changing your position to increase leverage you have over the resistance you are working against can allow you to continue working. By increasing the leverage you can keep the set going whilst using the same weight. Changing the angle of your torso position is one way to do this. For example, in an incline dumbbell press you rep out until failure, decrease the height of the bench and keep going without changing the weight. The lower the bench is the more recruitment of the pectorals, this added recruitment will allow you to keep going. In a seated incline curl you would start at a low angle where your biceps are fully stretched then increase the height of the bench at the onset of fatigue. By shortening the lever arm during a set you can reduce the resistance and keep the set going with the same weight. An example of this method would be in a dumbbell pullover. At the start of the set you keep your elbow at a relatively straight angle. At the onset of fatigue you decrease the angle of your elbow and continue the set. This method would also be applicable to a dumbbell fly.

Training beyond you limit is essential if you aim to increase your muscle mass and strength. The techniques described in this article will allow both trainers and trainees to continue sets they would otherwise finish. Although, it should be noted that these techniques are designed to extend the set they should not be performed from the first rep. Enjoy.

MikeH profile3 Extended Sets: Methods to keep going to gain muscle
Mike Hoad MSc Personal Trainer & Co-Founder of Definitive Physique

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