If you’ve followed my blogs much, you’ve probably noticed a high number of training technique variations that seem to go against conventional wisdom. As the years have gone on, I’ve become more of a fan of higher tension times and low rest periods. That’s not to say heavy training doesn’t have it’s place in muscle building, but it’s certainly not the only way to build muscle as some might like you to believe.
There was a time when I would promote only heavy training for real mass gaining—supersets, drop sets, and anything else that involved extended sets, were something I’d save only for contest or photo shoot preparation. It wasn’t long after Steve Holman and I developed our original X-Rep training back in 2004 that I started to accept the idea that extended sets, or longer tension times, played a vital role in muscle building as well as conditioning. I also started to take notice of the fact that I would actually gain muscle as the intensity and tension times increased while the rest periods were decreasing, despite being on a reduced-calorie diet. Interesting.
As you’ve read here in my Labrada blogs and my X-Rep training blog, I’ve fully accepted longer tension times as the best way for me to train currently. I’m not as young as I once was, so I’m much more in tune with my joints, and the high-intensity interval-like training has the added bonus of keeping my heart healthy and strong—my family appreciates my attempt at living as long as possible, and it just helps me to feel great over all.
TORQ is one of the main techniques I’ve continued to use, as it gives me a great balance of tension times and short rest periods, and I’ll often use other techniques within other sets of a workout that allow the use of a little more weight or varying rep tempos, so I’m hitting even more muscle fibers.
TORQ, if you haven’t been following, is Tension Overload Repetition Quantity, and it boils down to taking your 30-rep-max weight and doing 30 reps to failure. Rest 40 seconds, add weight and do 20 reps to failure. Rest 40 seconds, add weight and try to get 15 reps, or as many as you can. Depending on the exercise and body part, there are actually times when you’ll need to just stick with the same weight for all sets. Isolation, or contraction, movements are the ones where you’ll likely just stick with the same weight throughout. It’s an incredibly efficient way to train for muscle gain, and the burn brings a ton of pain—that can help with the body’s natural hormone production. Bonus!
While I feel the variations of this sort of training better than anything I’ve done in the past, it’s not to say I don’t want to occasionally deal with hoisting something more meaningful in the numbers department. I can’t say it has anything to do with ego, as I train alone in a home gym, but it’s partly just to feel a heavier workload once in a while, and also for the peace of mind to know that I’ve still got it.
There are times when I’ll use a double-drop on the last set of a TORQ sequence just to extend the tension time a bit more. Drop sets are when you’re done with the 15 reps of your last set, reduce the weight for 6-8 reps, and then reduce the weight again for 5-6 reps. I love doing that as an easy way to extend the set, but as I said… Sometimes I like to find ways to use a bit more weight instead.
A good variation to quench the thirst for heavier weight is Power TORQ. It’s the same as TORQ, but between the second and third sets, you rest one to two minutes, add much more weight and go for max reps, which should be five to six reps instead of 15. The first two sets provide high-rep warm-ups, and the longer rest from the second to third set will allow more muscle recovery for better power generation (more strength).
Even older trainees should be able to use this without worry, as the 30- and 20-rep sets should provide enough muscle fatigue on the third heavy set to prevent too much joint stress.
Another option for a Power TORQ approach would be to do the regular three-set TORQ sequence of 30-20-15, but then rest for one to two minutes, increase the weight significantly and then go for six solid reps. That should provide a bit more fatigue in the target-muscle, so it should limit your last heavy set even more. Older trainees or anyone with joint issues may prefer that version.
With the Power TORQ tactic and using 30, 20 and then heavy for six to eight reps on your last set, you should get a very good feel. For a really unique variation, using a speed set instead of heavy at the end can really light things on fire…
With Speed-Shift TORQ you do each set with a different rep speed, or cadence. On the first set you’d do 30 reps, lifting in 1 second and lowering in 1.5 to 2, which is a bit faster than standard rep speed; on the second set you do 20 reps, lifting in 1 second and lowering in two to three, which is the standard rep speed; on the third set you do your maximum number reps, each rep lasting 1.5 seconds total. That’s considered a speed set.
There will be some exercises where you’re able to increase the weight on each set, but for most isolation/contraction exercises you’ll have to use the same weight on all three sets.
This is a great method to get a wide variety of tension times and rep speeds. You’ll notice that the first set will give you more than a minute of tension time. The second set will be fewer reps, but a longer tension time because of the slower negatives. Those should give you up to 80 seconds of time under tension. The third set should be fast, but still very much in control.
So, the rep speeds go fast, standard then fastest. Remember, that final “speed set” should still be in control. Speed does not mean throwing weights around; it’s only a reference to the quick tempo.
If you’re looking for a way to kick up your intensity and get away from heavy training for a bit, give TORQ or Speed-Shift TORQ a try. If you want to get the benefits of longer tension times, but can’t get away from the desire to train heavy, give Power TORQ a shot. Either way, variation can be the kick to unlocking muscle creation.
About the Author
Jonathan Lawson has been working in the health and fitness industry for over 20 years; weight training for 21 years, competed in numerous bodybuilding competitions, worked for IRON MAN Magazine for 17 years, co-owns X-Rep.com where he has co-published over 15 e-books and writes a daily training blog. He has appeared on the covers of, and been featured in, dozens of international magazines, books and e-books.