All bodybuilders experience periods when they can't seem to make any improvements to their physiques regardless of how hard and how regularly they train. When I began training, I gained more than 30 pounds and tripled my strength in six months. Then I hit a sticking point that lasted several months. I soon became discouraged and stopped training altogether. I just didn't know how to break through the progress barrier. I added exercises, performed more sets and tried to increase my poundages, but nothing seemed to get me going again.
Many months later, when I started working out again, I had the good fortune to train under Mr. America and Mr. World John Farbotnik, who taught me how to blast past sticking points and keep making progress. In less than six months under Farbotnik's guidance I gained three inches on my arms and five on my chest, and I upped my bench press poundage to 350. I also gained 25 pounds of solid bodyweight.
Not everyone has the opportunity get firsthand training advice from a bodybuilding superstar who's also as great a teacher as Farbotnik, Vince Gironda, Bill Pearl, Clancy Ross, Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger are. Even so, magazine articles like this one make workout methods available to everyone. The following routine, which has been used by many bodybuilders I've known, is one of the most productive techniques for pushing past plateaus.
The Simple Solution
For years when bodybuilders hit a plateau and their muscles refused to improve, the recommended cure was usually to take a break from training for a couple of weeks. This wasn't always effective, however, and some people had difficulty getting back into a regular training groove after the layoff.
A better solution, in my opinion, is to radically change your routine after a few days off, rather than laying off completely, and I can't think of a better way to break the monotony than a technique called Compound Continuation Sets, or CCS.
CCS involves performing two different variations of the same exercise and using two different poundages in the same extended set. During the first part of the set you use a heavy weight for low reps, giving the target muscles the benefit of power and mass training, and for the second part of the set you switch to a variation of the same exercise, using a lighter weight for a higher rep range.
In my discussions over the years with Larry Scott, Robby Robinson and others, they all agreed that a muscle must be pushed to the limit of its contractile ability, forcing you to work beyond what you thought was your limitation - grinding out those final two or three reps that are the most productive.
Conventional set/rest/set training allows you to benefit from one or the other part of the compound continuation set, but not both. For example, when using one of the set/rest/set methods, you might do 5 sets of 6 reps of an exercise, resting between sets, and then perform 5 sets of 10 to 12 reps of a variation of that movement with less weight, again resting between sets.
With CCS you alternate the heavy and light movements, doing one round of each without pausing, for one complete two-movement set. For example, you do heavy standing dumbbell presses for 6 reps and without resting pump out 10-12 seated alternate dumbbell presses. After that you take a one minute rest and then work through another sequence of heavy standing dumbbell presses immediately followed by the seated alternate dumbbell presses, and you repeat this combination for three to five total sets.
The combination of heavy and light enables you to hit the target muscles more thoroughly. The heavy part of the set triggers a greater number of muscle fibers to act and also helps strengthen the ligaments and tendons, which increases your strength and mass. The second part of the combination set increases the flow of blood and nutrients into the capillaries that feed your muscles, which thoroughly pumps them up. You get the best of both worlds with essentially one exercise.
The CCS Total Body Challenge
Use the routine described here three days a week, taking at least one rest day between workouts. For every bodypart warmup with a few sets of the heavy-reps (first) exercise. As for the work sets, intermediate bodybuilders should stick with the low end of the set range (3), and more advanced trainers can do 5 compound sets.
Here's a rundown of how to perform the various movements:
Do a few warmup sets of medium-grip bench presses. After a short rest, take a slightly wider grip and do 6 reps with a heavy poundage followed immediately by a set of close-grip bench presses for 10-12 reps. After a one to two minute rest fire off another round without pausing between the exercises longer than it takes to change the weight. The combination of the two bench press variations works the entire pectoral area.
Do a few warmup sets of full squats. After a short rest add weight and perform 6 heavy reps, then, stopping no longer than it takes to lower the poundage, do 10-12 nonlock squats with your heels raised on a block. Nonlock squats are squats in which you don't allow let your thighs fully straighten at the top of the movement, stopping instead two inches from lockout. This keeps continuous tension on your quadriceps and gives you a massive pump. Rest for one to two minutes between compound sets.
To widen your upper back and thicken your lats and serratus muscles use two versions of the basic lat pulldown, starting with medium-wide-grip pulldowns for 6 heavy reps and switching immediately to the close-grip variety for 10-12 reps. Hold your rest to no more than 60 seconds.
To perform standing side raises for this routine, begin with the dumbbells at the outsides of your thighs and raise them all the way overhead. Do 6 reps with as heavy a poundage as you possibly can, grab a lighter pair of dumbbells, sit on a bench and perform 8-10 reps, raising the weights to about ear level. Rest no more than one minute between compound sets on this one. You can use a little body motion to help you handle the heavier standing raises with a bigger weight, but perform the seated version very strictly, tensing your delts forcibly when the dumbbells reach ear level.
The compound set of incline dumbbell curls will add mass and carve up your biceps. Sit on a 45-degree incline bench, take a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward and curl the weights all the way up to a full contraction. Lower back down until your arms are straight again and repeat. Do 6 reps, then switch as quickly as possible to a lighter pair of dumbbells and perform a set of incline outside curls. Start with the dumbbells at your sides with with your arms straight, your thumbs facing the front and your palms facing each other. Curl the dumbbells out to the sides of your body while turning your palms up, supinating your wrists, until the weights touch your delts. Lower back to the starting position and repeat for 8-10 strict reps.
Be sure to warm up your elbows and triceps ligaments with some lights sets of lying barbell triceps extensions. After a short rest move on to the heavy part of the compound set. Lie on a flat bench with the barbell pressed above your chest and your hands 10-12 inches apart. Bend your elbows, lowering the bar behind your head to the level of the bench, and then immediately press the bar back to the top until your arms are fully locked out. Do 6 heavy reps and then, taking no rest, grab a lighter barbell and perform lying barbell kickbacks for 10-12 reps. Start with the same grip as you used to the extensions and get into the bottom position of that movement with your arms bent back behind your head. Now push the weight straight back, parallel to the floor, until your arms are fully locked out. Then return to the starting position and repeat.
This is a rugged program but it's highly effective for shocking your muscles out of a slump, and you can complete in about 1.5 hours. It hits every major muscle group thoroughly, and the refreshing change jolts stubborn bodyparts into new growth, enabling you to cruise through a sticking point without wasting time on a forced layoff from training.
Remember to complete both parts of each compound set before you rest. Gradually cut the rest between compound sets to no more than 45-50 seconds.
It's also important to go all out during the second movement of each compound set, relentlessly squeezing out those final reps until you can't possibly get any more, for a maximum of 10-12.
So, the next time you reach a no-progress plateau, push yourself beyond it with compound continuation sets for six to eight weeks and break through to new and faster gains.
Complete CCS Routine
Bent-Knee Leg Raises, 1 x 30-50.
Medium-Wide-Grip Bench Press, 3-5 x 6 reps
Close-Grip Bench Press, 3-5 x 10-12.
Full Barbell Squats, 3-5 x 6
Nonlock Barbell Squats, heels raised, 3-5 x 10-12.
Medium-Wide-Grip Pulldowns, 3-5 x 6
Close-Grip Pulldowns, 3-5 x 10-12.
Standing Dumbbell Side Raises, 3-5 x 6
Seated Dumbbell Side Raises, 3-5 x 8-10.
Incline Dumbbell Curls, 3-5 x 6
Incline Outside Dumbbell Curls, 3-5 x 8-10.
Lying Barbell Triceps Extensions, 3-6 x 6
Lying Barbell Kickbacks, 3-5 x 10-12.
Cool Down -
Bent Knee Leg Raises, 1 x 30-50.
Calf Machine Raises, 3-5 x 15-20.