Imagine you’re driving up a hill that’s so scary steep you’re worried about rolling backward if you back off on the gas pedal. As you’re flooring your car’s accelerator, the engine is churning maximally to keep you climbing. Then, instead of continuing ever upward, you take a detour, but as the road’s angle decreases you continue to keep the pedal to the proverbial metal. Of course, without easing up on the power on this flatter road, you accelerate. You’re pushing the engine just as hard, but now that its load has lightened you’re able to move more easily.
Now, let’s consider this as an analogy for weight training. Do a single rep with a maximum weight (steep road) and follow that with a set of reps with a moderate weight (flatter road), and your engine, so to speak, will be raring to go all-out as you move through your second set. Fact is, you’ll actually be stronger with that lighter load than if you hadn’t preceded it with the heavy load because your muscles are, in effect, accelerated. The max-out method — the name of this approach — is a workout technique that uses this acceleration: By pairing heavy and lighter loads, max out can actually speed up your strength gains and push your muscle growth into overdrive.
A second startling tale was whispered about Canadian Ben Johnson’s infamous 100-meter sprint at the 1988 Olympics — one that didn’t involve doping. The tale involved the cutting edge of sports science, and the story went like this: 10 minutes before traveling 100 meters on foot in less time than any other human in history, Johnson squatted 600 pounds for three reps.
The story sounds counterintuitive. How could someone run at his best after taxing his legs with such heavy lifting? Well, fact is, Johnson didn’t. The pre-dash squatting is a myth. But if the weights had been nearby, perhaps he could have done the feat and finished as well as he had. What happened subsequently is that thanks to the tale, a generation of athletes came to learn about post-activation potentiation (PAP).
Even before the term “post-activation potentiation” was coined, the technique was used in baseball. Swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle before stepping to the plate makes the actual bat you use at the plate feel lighter and thus move faster. This same approach can be used with your weight-training. By using a heavy weight before a moderate weight, you can make the latter feel lighter and thus eke out more reps than you’d normally be able to. This in turn will stimulate more growth in the muscles.
Exercise physiologist explains the science behind this: “Lifting a heavy weight is like a wake-up call for your muscles. Then, when you follow the heavy weight with a set of lighter weight, your muscles react as if they’re still raring to move that heavier weight. In this way, you’re about 10% stronger when handling the lighter weight.
“The precise mechanism for this is unknown,”continues, “but it’s theorized the approach works because the heavy weight enlists more motor unit recruitment and force, and your nervous system anticipates that you’re doing another heavy set. But instead, you give it a lighter set so that your revved up nervous system recruits more muscle fibers, and you’re stronger than you’d otherwise be on that second set had you been training in a more standard manner.”
While there are numerous ways of incorporating PAP into your weight training, explains one method that’s especially effective for stimulating muscle growth: the max-out method. He notes: “After warm-ups, your first set should be a single rep performed with approximately 90% of your one-rep max [1RM]. Next, rest for as long as five minutes to ensure that you’re fully recovered.
“Then you should do the second set of the same exercise — using a weight that’s approximately 80% of your 1RM — something with which you can usually get about eight reps. You push this set to failure; you should be able to eke out 1–2 reps more than if you hadn’t preceded this set with the post-activation potentiaton heavy set. After another lengthy rest, you can then repeat this sequence.”
The max-out method is going to be most effective with those lifts on which you can pack on the most plates, so favor multijoint, bilateral exercises like leg presses and overhead presses rather than doing, say, one-arm triceps press downs (one joint, unilateral). Instead, for your triceps max-out lift, choose close-grip bench presses (two joints, bilateral). Furthermore, to make certain you can move the greatest amount of iron when using this approach, do your max-out sets first for a bodypart before fatigue levels have set in. After completing max-out sets, follow them with regular sets of 8–12 reps on isolation and compound exercises.
Warm Up — It’s Crucial
Safety should always be your paramount concern, so warm up thoroughly before your one-rep max-out set. By using 90% of your maximum, the weight you push should be something with which you can get a relatively easy single, but use a spotter whenever necessary. Maintain strict form, and do just one rep even if you feel you can get another (because it’s the set after this one that really counts!). This isn’t the time to extend beyond that one rep with additional forced reps or to incorporate other intensity techniques. This is your “one-and-done” set. The second set is to failure.
Your Machine Options
Machines will allow you to more safely do your 90% set on many exercises and more safely go to failure on your 80% set — even if you have spotters. For this reason, returning to the triceps, as an example, it’s generally best to do your close-grip bench presses with a Smith machine instead of a barbell. Conversely, avoid lifts like barbell incline presses and barbell front squats where one-rep sets and failure sets become risky propositions. (See “Multijoint Maximizers” at right for examples of (mostly) mechanical compound exercises ideal for the max-out method.) Biceps are difficult to hit with a multijoint exercise, so choose a single-joint, bilateral lift in which you can pack on substantial iron, such as barbell curls or EZ-bar preacher curls.
The max-out method is a high-intensity technique for advanced trainers. “Don’t do more than three one-rep sets and three lighter follow-up sets per exercise,” he instructs, “and use the max-out method only once per bodypart before moving on to other exercises done for straight sets. Because it’s a high-intensity technique, you should do less volume than usual in a routine when you incorporate the max-out method.”
He also recommends you follow the max-out sequence with another set of the same exercise done with 70% of your 1RM and pushed to failure. In this way the sequence of exercises doing, say, Smith-machine overhead presses would follow the protocol in “Constructing Your Max-Out Workout” at right.
This is then followed by sets of 8–12 reps of the other exercises you typically do in your shoulder routine. For example, you may do dumbbell lateral raises, barbell front raises and pec-deck reverse flyes. To make certain you fully recover when using max out, reduce your normal volume in exercises that complement the max-out exercise. In our example, if you normally do four sets of those single-joint shoulder moves, do only 2–3 sets because they’re preceded by max-out shoulder presses, which also hit your middle and front delts. In addition, don’t add other intensity techniques, like drop sets or forced reps to a max-out workout.
You can use max out at any time to shock a complacent bodypart into new growth, but he recommends a routine that incorporates one max-out exercise for each major bodypart. These exercises can be changed from workout to workout. Stick to the max-out method for a period of 4–6 weeks. Afterward, return to mostly straight sets of 8–12 reps for the next 4–6 weeks.
Let’s return to that sprint up a steep hill because it’s an apt analogy for working out. Training shouldn’t always be a level road. Whether packing on muscle or stripping off fat, the key to progress is to avoid the easiest path and instead climb over challenging obstacles. The max-out method makes your journey easier in the long run by making your journey harder in the short term. The cool thing about this, though, is that it accomplishes it via a little trickery on your nervous system, in effect faking out your physique, prepping you for an all-out assault and then lightening the load. Max out revs up your muscles to use ever greater weights and, in so doing, keeps you speeding onward and upward toward your goals.