Bodybuilders through the ages have always sought to make their training more intense and more effective. Probably the first method developed that allowed a bodybuilder to extend his sets and to make his sets harder and more intense was cheating. After the performance of as many reps as could be done in strict style, several more reps could be done by cheating the weight up.
Later on, techniques like forced reps, negatives, supersets, trisets, drop sets and/or combinations of these methods were used, all for the purpose of making the muscle being trained work harder than ever and to increase the pump. The final payoff was increased muscle size and better muscularity and development.
All of these methods are effective and should be used at different times by serious bodybuilders to shock their muscles and to keep their muscles constantly adapting and growing. There is another approach, however, for increasing training intensity that is not utilized very often. This is unfortunate because it is a very effective means, one that doesn't get as much press as it should.
I refer to what is called "extended set combinations." This system allows a bodybuilder to continue to work a set for many more reps than he normally would, but without resorting to supersets, forced reps or practices of that nature.
For an example of what I call an extended set combination consider lying triceps extensions. This is an excellent triceps mass builder when done properly on its own, but by using extended sets you can work the triceps even harder. You would do this by taking the triceps extensions to failure and then immediately changing over, using the same bar and weight, to close grip bench presses. Even though your triceps are too exhausted to do more reps of the extensions, by switching immediately with no rest to a compound movement like the close grip bench press you can continue to force the triceps to work because the change in action and leverage puts you in a stronger biomechanical position. The pecs, deltoids and the muscles of the shoulder and chest girdle -- even the lats to some degree -- help you to force out more reps.
This method is especially useful to people who exercise without training partners and who don't have the benefit of a helping hand to do forced reps, negatives or drop sets as weights are stripped from a bar.
Another example of extended sets would be flat dumbbell flyes to failure followed immediately by flat dumbbell bench presses. Once you fail with your dumbbell flyes why stop the set? Why not keep going and really make those pecs work? By going immediately with the same weight from flyes to presses, you force the pecs to continue working and make them burn and ache and pump up like balloons.
These are just two obvious examples of extended sets. The key to making extended sets work for you is to switch immediately with the same weight to the second exercise and to resist trying to do the second exercise too quickly or letting the reps of the second exercise strictly and smoothly, with great concentration and control, and then, as you fatigue, speed up the reps to allow you to get as many as possible done.
That's a good rule of thumb for any exercise, by the way. Do the first reps of your set a little slower than normal. Speed up a little as you get halfway through the set, and by the end of the set you should be trying to move the weight as fast as you can; however, because of muscle fatigue, it will actually move very slowly, if at all.
Keeping the principle in mind, let's go over some ways of extending sets for each muscle group.
Besides the aforementioned combination of flat dumbbell flyes and flat dumbbell presses, you can do incline dumbbell flyes with incline dumbbell presses, and decline dumbbell flyes with decline dumbbell presses. That's obvious and easy to figure out.
Another effective extended set goes from dips to Parrillo dips. The Parrillo dip is sort of a shrug done on the dipping bars. It is excellent for the pec minors. First do a set of regular pec dips to really blast the lower and outer pecs. Keep the elbows wide and go as low as you can to stretch the pecs to the maximum, but only come up two-thirds to keep tension on the pecs. Also, lean forward as you dip to throw more stress onto the pecs. (To dip for triceps you would not go as low but would come up to a full lockout and try to remain vertical as you dipped.) Once you fail with the pec dips you are ready to switch to the Parrillo dip. Here is how to perform it:
From the top or lockout position lower your body as far as you can without bending your arms. As you press yourself up, arch and push your chest out as much as possible and squeeze hard at the top. Make sure you do not bounce. Keep going until fatigue makes you stop. This excellent extended set combination will give new meaning to the expression "massive chest pump."
The lats are more difficult to train in extended set style, but it can be done with a little ingenuity. One way is to go immediately from wide grip chins to the front, where an overhand grip is used, to close grip chins using an underhand or curl grip. You are stronger in this curl grip position so even when you cannot do more reps in the wide grip position you should be able to continue on and do several more reps (at least) in the close grip (underhand) position.
The same can be done on lat machine pulldowns. You could do wide grip lat pulldowns to the front or back and, when failure comes, switch immediately to the mechanically stronger close grip underhand position. This combination also ensures that all sections of the lats are well worked.
Another combination that works well when training lats and back is bentover barbell rowing and deadlifts. Start with a heavy weight that limits you to approximately six strict reps of barbell rows. When you cannot do any more strict reps, start to snap the weight up and use as much body English as you can to get the bar moving. Finally, when it is impossible to do reps even with cheating, switch immediately to regular deadlifting and do at least 10 deadlifts. Your lats and spinal erectors will get a very good workout.
To work more upper back and traps try a combination of bentover barbell rows and shrugs -- but in a bent position. As with the above example, do your bentover rows until failure. Then, instead of switching to deadlifts, stay in the bentover position and use your lats, traps and upper back muscles to shrug the weight up and down. Keep your arms straight and use your hands just to hold the bar. Let your back muscles do all the work. Keep shrugging until your back muscles and grip give out. Hand straps are useful in allowing you to handle more weight than your grip allows.
One of the most effective exercises for working the traps and parts of the deltoids is the upright barbell row. This is one exercise that lends itself readily to extended sets.
Pick a weight that allows about six strict reps. When you cannot get the bar up to nose/chin height strictly, start to heave the weight up. This should permit another three to five reps. When you get to the point where you cannot get the bar up to chin height, despite all-out heaving, you are ready to switch to exercise two, which is what I call a power upright row. It's sort of a modified high pull or clean.
To do the high pull, lower the bar from chin height all the way to the floor. Then using some rebound and momentum to allow you to drive the weight past the sticking point, heave the weight up to chin height. Switching from upright rows to power upright rows should allow you to do at least another six reps and maybe more. Believe me, your traps will burn like never before. I find that the power upright rows seem to hit the lower traps better than any exercise I know of.
Another potent combination is high pulls with power cleans. Do as many high pulls as possible. When failure comes, switch immediately to power cleans and rep out. This is a great trap combination
The power clean is my favorite trap/upper back exercise. It combines well also with shrugs. Do as many power cleans as possible. When you can no longer get the bar to shoulder height, switch over the barbell shrugs. Do the shrugs slowly and fully, shrugging your traps as high as you can and holding at the top to make them contract. Use straps, if necessary, to reinforce your grip.
If you lack traps, try and or all of these combination extended sets. Your trap worries will be a thing of the past.
There are many excellent extended set combinations for deltoids. One of the best is strict standing presses and push presses. Take a bar off a rack (or clean it), and use a weight that allows between six and ten strict reps. When failure comes, instead of ending the set switch immediately to push presses.
To do the push press, bend your knees about three to five inches and then quickly straighten your legs hard, driving the weight up with the power of your legs, arms and shoulders. The knee kick or drive helps get the weight past the sticking point and allows you to do another four to six reps with max weights. This exercise quickly adds mass to the deltoids, especially the front head.
Another excellent deltoid combination you might try is dumbbell laterals with dumbbell presses. Use dumbbells heavy enough to really make you work to get six or eight reps done. Do these laterals with the arms bent, the upper body leaning forward and heaving the weight up a bit to it past the sticking point. When failure comes, clean the dumbbells to the shoulders and continue on with as many presses as you can do. This will make those side heads burn!
You can also combine one-arm laterals with one-arm dumbbell presses, a pairing which allows you to concentrate on one deltoid at a time.
Or try combining dumbbell laterals with W-presses. This time choose dumbbells that allow for stricter action on the laterals, cheating only on the last few reps. When failure comes, immediately bring the bells up to shoulder height, with curl grip, arms bent, and elbows pulled back in line with the shoulders. In this position your arms should form a W. Rather than pressing up in a vertical line using triceps strength, move the bells in a wide, sweeping arc, like that used in dumbbell flyes for the chest, until they meet overhead. Do as many W-presses as you can, stopping only when muscular failure occurs.
Another good combination for deltoids is the barbell upright row and behind the neck press. Do as many upright rows as you can. When failure comes, clean the bar to your shoulders and continue on with strict behind the neck presses. If you choose to, at failure, switch to some push presses. Your delts won't know what hit them!
Another delt combo you might try is Scott press and regular dumbbell presses. The Scott press is done with elbows pulled back behind the head, the dumbbells tilted so that the outer plates are higher than the inner plates, and only pressing the bells for the middle portion of the pressing motion -- that is, you only go up two-thirds and never let the bells touch the shoulders. This version of pressing hits the side head hard. When failure comes, switch to regular dumbbell pressing. If standing, continue on and do a few push-type presses as well.
To hit the rear delts try combining bentover dumbbell rows and shrugs. Do the rear laterals to failure. At this point, instead of putting the bells down, do ten or fifteen slow dumbbell rows, bringing the bells to the upper chest and really squeezing the rear delts hard. Next do some bentover shrugs. Stay in the bentover position and let the bells hand with the arms straight. Shrug hard and hold each rep for a count of three. Try for ten shrugs. This should add new intensity to your bent laterals and new growth to your rear delts.
As mentioned before, you can combine lying triceps extensions and close-grip bench presses. This combination works really well. You can also combine bent-arm pullovers and close-grip bench presses. For a wicked pump, try combining all three. First do as many triceps extensions and you can. Next switch to the bent-arm pullover and go to failure. Finally rep out on the close-grip bench presses. It will feel as if someone has put a blowtorch to your triceps. Talk about a pump!
Another combo you can try is the one-arm triceps extension and the one-arm dumbbell press. As soon as you hit failure on the one-arm extensions, switch to the one-arm press and rep out.
Try strict triceps pushdowns and cheat triceps pushdowns. To do the strict triceps pushdown keep your body upright and your elbows in to your sides. Allow only your forearms to move. Don't let the upper arms move away from the body at all. When failure comes, switch immediately to the cheat triceps pushdown. Bend over at the waist, let the elbows go wide and push the bar straight down rather than moving it in an arc as you did with the strict triceps pushdowns. These extended pushdowns really pump the triceps to the max.
Finally try going from dumbbell kickbacks to dumbbell extensions to dumbbell presses. These movements can be done either with two arms or one arm at a time. Use a medium-heavy dumbbell. Bend over at the waist and do kickbacks to absolute failure. When failure comes, bring the bell (or bells0 up and do either one-arm or two-arm overhead triceps extensions. When you fail at these, go quickly to one-arm or two-arm dumbbell presses. This combo really fries the tris.
The most basic biceps combo is strict barbell curls and cheat barbell curls. This pairing was discussed at the beginning of the article. To add a new wrinkle to this old standby, try going from strict barbell curls to cheat curls to power curls. For power curls, as for power upright rows, you need to bring the bar down to the floor and bounce it from there. Use speed, momentum and inertia to help you to drive the bar past the sticking point. One point: Make sure you wear a good belt to protect your back, and don't go too crazy or you risk injury to your lower back or the elbows and tendons and ligaments of the upper arms. If you want to take your arms past the pain barrier and get them growing again, this combo will do it for you.
Another combination that has worked well for me personally is the straight bar preacher curl followed by the barbell curl. Do as many preacher curls as you can. Without letting go of the bar step away from the preacher bench and continue on with strict, then cheating, barbell curls. Yipes! This one burns like crazy. You might want to use straps to reinforce your grip.
How many times have you done one-arm concentration curls and failed with a relatively light weight after only eight or ten reps? Why stop there? Upon failing with the concentration curl, immediately stand up and continue on with strict, then cheating, one-arm dumbbell curls. Talk about intensity!
Here's another beaut: Do a set of drag curls to failure and then continue on with strict, then cheating, barbell curls. To do the drag curl hold the bar at waist level with your chest arched high. Drag the bar up the body to a point just below the pec line and lower slowly. The bar should never leave the body. Once failure comes, revert to strict barbell curling, then cheating curls to failure. Your biceps will ache like never before.
You can also combine seated dumbbell curls with standing dumbbell curls and seated barbell curls with standing barbell curls. The principle is the same in all three cases. The action is stricter when you do an exercise seated because you can't cheat as much. Standing up allows you to use more body English to cheat out more reps. Any time you are doing any form of seated curl, regardless of what it is, I recommend you don't stop just because failure comes and you can't do more reps in the seated position. Standing up changes the leverages and allows you to force out probably three to five extra reps. This ensures your biceps work to the max.
You can also combine hammer curls and dumbbell curls, reverse curls and barbell curls, and wrist curls and reverse curls. Remember, intensity for immensity!
Thigh exercises are a lot harder to combine than movements for the muscles of the upper body. Still it can be done. Try full squats and half squats, sissy squats and squats, and sissy hack squats and hack squats.
To do the sissy hack squat place your feet near the bottom of the platform on the hack squat machine. Get up on your toes and, as you lower yourself, allow the knees to come forward so that they are ahead of your feet. Only come up two-thirds. Once failure comes, move your feet back near the top of the platform and continue on with regular hack squats. This makes the lower part of the thighs burn and pump up to the max.
Using the Smith machine you can do a sissy-style squat to failure, with your feet well forward and your upper body leaning back into the bar. Do as many reps in this style as you can. When failure comes, move the feet back in line with the bar and continue on with regular squats, but only come up two-thirds to keep constant tension on the thighs and to compensate for the relatively light weight you will be using.
Squats to half squats are probable best done in a power rack for safety purposes. Do as many full squats as you can. Once you near failure, switch to half squats. Have the safety catchers set up so that you can dump the bar when you need to. Keep doing as many half squats as your legs and lower back will take. Go until you can't get up and you are forced to dump the bar.
Give lunges on the Smith machine combined with leaning-back squats a try. Do as many lunges as you can. When failure comes, move your feet forward so that you can lean back into the bar, but not as much as with a sissy squat. Only come up two-thirds to keep tension on the thighs. Really make those quads burn.
Try combining straight-leg deadlifts to near-failure with regular deadlifts. Do as many straight-leg deadlifts as you can. Then bend your knees, but keep your head up and your back straight, and do another 10-15 bent-legged deadlifts. A few months of these will thicken up those spinal erectors.
Also try combining good mornings with stiff-legged deadlifts. Put a light bar on your shoulders as if you were about to squat. Lock your knees and incline your upper body forward until it is parallel with the floor. Using only lower back strength return to the starting position. When failure comes, bring the bar from your shoulders to mid-thigh position and continue on with stiff-legged deadlifts. You should get a super pump in the lower back from this combo.
On standing calf raises do as many reps as you can with your knees locked and your legs straight. When failure comes, bend your knees and continue on. Bending the knees should allow you to force out an extra five or six reps and make those calf muscles really work hard. Have a pail of water ready to pour on your calves to put out the fire. What a burn!
You can also combine seated, standing or donkey calf raises with squatting down calf raises. Once failure comes when doing one of the above exercises, get off the machine. Squat in a low position -- then rise on your toes as high as you can. Rep out to failure.
To work one calf at a time try combining one-legged calf raises with two-legged calf raises (alternate legs every other set) or one-leg toe presses on the leg press with two-legged toe presses.
Try combining crunches, situps and legs raises with knee-ins. Do as many crunches as possible. When you can't possibly do another, switch to situps and continue on. When doing the situps only come back two-thirds to keep tension on the abs. This is an excellent combo for the upper abs.
To combine leg raises and knee-ins lie on the floor or, better yet, on an abdominal board set on a low incline. With your knees slightly bent to keep pressure off the lower back do as many leg raises as you can. Never let your feet drop or touch the floor. Stop within three inches of the floor to keep tension on the abs. When failure comes, switch to knee-ins. Bend your knees and curl them up to chest level, tensing the abs hard each rep. Keep some bend in the knees as you return to the starting position. This combo will work the lower abs hard.
The hamstrings are hard to train with extended set combinations. One progression you might want to try is one-leg curls to two-leg curls, alternating legs with each set. Also try Parrillo deadlifts with stiff-leg deadlifts. To do Parrillo-style deadlifts, arch your back up and stick your glutes out. Maintain this position throughout the exercise, pivoting from the hip, not the lower back. This exercise stretches the hams like no other exercise I know of. When failure comes, switch to regular stiff-leg deadlifts, which are basically just toe touches with a barbell. The difference between the two exercises is that with the Parrillo deadlift the back is always arched up while with the stiff-leg deadlift the back rounds.
So there you have different extended set combinations to try for every muscle group. Should you do extended set combinations on every set? Definitely not. But it's worth doing on at least one exercise per muscle group to add that extra intensity, especially if you train alone and don't have a training partner to help you to do forced reps, negatives and drop sets.
If you are looking for ways to increase training intensity and maximize muscle pump, while shocking stubborn muscles into new spurts of growth, you owe it to yourself to consider the extended set combination approach. Try it. You'll like it.
Enjoy Your Lifting!