Varying Weight / Load Selection For Muscle Mass Gains
The weights we lift in the gym – whether they are free weights, incorporated in machines, attached to cables, or any other type – are the fundamental aspect of resistance training.
A training program that alters the loads you are lifting is therefore a fairly reliable way of stimulating muscle growth from your efforts.
The basic tenet of load manipulation is to stimulate an anabolic response by changing the tension on the muscle fibres by manipulating the resistance.
You’re probably thinking any kind of resistance training involves manipulation of the load. A standard ascending pyramid increases the load with each set.
That’s correct, but pyramids are mostly designed around repetition ranges, as are any other examples of programs that focus more on the number of reps than the load.
Here you will see that the number of reps you can perform is synonymous with the load selection, and you could just as easily call heavy-light sets ‘low-rep-high-rep’ sets.
Regardless, the emphasis is on resistance and not reps. Perhaps the best example of this is the classic dropset.
These are reliably effective, and very simple to understand. Dropsets are also something you can throw into your normal training as well as making them the focus of your program for a short while.
A dropset is where you perform repetitions with a given weight until you reach muscle failure. When that happens, you immediately strip some weight off – about 25% – and start repping to failure again without a rest.
You can do 3 to 5 drops within a single set before taking a rest and then repeating the process for another couple of sets.
That would be the more focused method of doing it.
The other way is to finish each group of sets on each muscle group with a dropset, so that you would complete 2 sets as normal and then crank out a big dropset to finish off the muscles.
Big barbell exercises are tough to do this way because it takes a while to strip the weight, unless you have a spotter. You really want to make the weight change a fast movement to minimize the rest your muscles get.
The dumbbell rack is good as you can quickly select a lighter set of bells.
The best dropsets are probably on machines and cables though because you can just drop the pin a couple holes on the stack and start lifting again with virtually no break, which is the whole point really.
You can even do some mega dropsets where you just drop one plate at a time to thoroughly burn your muscles on that last set. If you work down from a high weight that can be something like an 8-10 drop dropset.
Dropsets allow you to work your muscles to failure multiple times in one set. In fact, it’s the only way that can be achieved without the help of a spotter.
The incrementally decreasing weight is basically a way of pushing the muscle beyond its self imposed failure limit.
It’s a similar effect to when a spotter helps you by taking more and more of the load as your set progresses but where you keep the actual weight constant. Those are called Forced Reps or Assisted Reps, and they can be of great use when you don’t want to pause to mess around with the plates on a bar.
The biochemical response to pushing the muscles past their threshold and continuing to reach failure with the lighter weights in such a brief space of time is the release of two of the most important anabolic hormones in the body: human growth hormone (HGH, or just GH) and IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1).
The more we stimulate the release of these hormones during the workout, the more potential muscle mass we can grow in the days following, especially during our sleeping hours when they come out again.
The initial spike from training with techniques like dropsets is key because it signals the level of hypertrophy response that is necessary as a result of the training stimulus.
I probably don’t have to tell you that growth hormone is one of the most popular physique enhancing drugs, as well as a phenomenal healing and recovery aid, when used in its illicit exogenous form.
Dropsets, however, will help you make more of your own, endogenous, growth hormone. And that’s always good for growing more muscle.
Diablos – Point to Point Pyramids
I call these diablos because the visualization of the method looks like those funky yoyo things you spin on a rope (which are actually called Diabolos, but whatever).
“Diablo” also works because these workouts are the brain child of Lucifer himself.
Remember pyramids? – if not, I explain them more deeply in the Reps Variations article. The short version is this:
Ascending Pyramids: this is where you select a heavier weight after each set. Generally speaking, less reps are performed with each passing set as well.
Descending Pyramids: here you would with the heavier weight and decrease the load per set. Reps tend to be increased, or at least performed to failure with each drop in weight.
As you can see, these pyramids are relevant from a repetition and load perspective. One tends to have an inversely proportional effect on the other.
I’ve also talked about Diamonds before, which are essentially two pyramids performed back to back. Diamonds are an ascending pyramid followed immediately by a descending pyramid.
The diamond shape is used because it looks like two pyramids/triangles base to base.
Diablos, on the other hand, are like two pyramids that are performed point-to-point. They are sets of incrementally decreasing followed by sets of increasing load, usually returning back to the original weight.
These can be used with most exercises, equipment and muscle groups but the most effective approach is to use them on the bigger compound lifts.
In a typical squat diablo, you would select a weight that you can perform 6, 8, 10 or 12 reps with. You would then perform those reps for the first set.
For the second set you would drop the weight enough to allow you to perform the same number of reps as you did in the first set.
The third set involves a similar drop, again so that you can carry out the same number of reps.
You could continue to a fourth set of decreasing load but if you’re new to these it’s probably best to start the back side of the diablo after 3 descending sets.
For the first ascending set, simply add load back on to the bar so it’s equal to the second set’s weight. You then lift that for as many reps as possible.
The last set’s load should be the same as the first set. You’ll probably struggle to do many reps with it but that’s kind of the point.
It would look something like this:
- Set 1 – 315 lbs x 8
- Set 2 – 300 lbs x 8
- Set 3 – 275 lbs x 8
- Set 4 – 300 lbs x 3
- Set 5 – 315 lbs x 2
Obviously, the reps in the last sets are determined by your fatigue level, but the idea is that their low number compliments the higher rep sets in the first half.
For some people, these are particularly difficult, and they are not necessarily the most effective strategy for everybody, but they CAN trigger change if you are experiencing some stagnation in your training progress.
Running the Rack
This one’s fairly straight forward.
Most gyms have long racks of dumbbells these days and they usually include an expansive range of weights all the way up to 200 lbs in some cases.
Running the rack involves performing increasingly heavy sets of dumbbell exercises until you reach a weight you cannot lift.
The idea is to increase the load after each set only by the difference between the weight you just used and the next one on the rack. Dumbbell sets in gym tend to be in 5 lb increments, so you increase by that much.
It’s important not to sacrifice form as the weights get heavier and heavier. Once you reach a weight that you can just about complete a single rep with, then you have effectively run the rack.
The cool thing about this is that if you run the rack every once in a while, you should see the progress you have made in the meantime simply by making it further up the line of dumbbells.
To add extra muscle mass building depth to running the rack, you can descend back down the weights once you have reached that heavy single rep. You could do this in discrete sets or as a massive dropset.
If you do it as separate sets with rest intervals then you should descend by the same minimum increments as you ascended, i.e. 5 lbs in most cases.
If you perform the descent as a dropset then you will find better success if you skip a couple of weights each time – 10-15 lb increments should be fine for about 3 or 4 drops total. This will allow you to get more out of each set rather than reaching failure too quickly every time.
Running the Rack is best used on big mass building dumbbell exercises like presses and rows. It’s also pretty intense, especially if you are doing the dropset descent, so I wouldn’t use them more than once per muscle group.
It’s a good method for bringing up a muscle group that’s falling behind. A lot of people find success with shoulder pressing given that the shoulders are prone to lagging behind the larger groups that have more stabilizer and support muscles to assist.
The shoulders, however, are also quite susceptible to injury so it pays to make sure they are properly warmed up before hammering them with this or any other intensive program addition.
Breakdowns – Simple Triples
I discussed a method called Tri-set Pyramids in the rep variation article, which are sets where three distinct rep ranges are hit without taking a break. A typical example would be 5-10-20 sets where you start with a large lift for 5 reps and incrementally decrease the load and the number of recruited muscles with each increase in repetitions.
Breakdowns involve a similar decrease in load and similar repetition ranges but rather than completing it all in one set, the breakdown is done after each discrete set.
Also, the exercise remains the same for each of the breakdowns, rather than switching down to a more isolatetion-type movement.
While both the tri-set pyramid and breakdowns work to boost muscle growth potential by forcing your muscles to operate in distinct stress brackets – i.e. low, medium and high rep ranges – their execution is quite different.
Here’s an example of a simple triple breakdown:
Exercise: Barbell Rows
- Set 1: 205 lbs x 5
- Set 2: 165 lbs x 10
- Set 3: 95 lbs x 30
These sets can be performed with the usual 2 to 3 minute rest.
The second set’s load selection is about 20% less than the first set. The 3rd set is around 50% of the first set’s load.
High reps from 25 to 30 are meant to challenge the slow-twitch fibres once the fast-twitch have been used in the first couple of sets. This can improve muscle size because most of your large muscle groups are about 50-50 slow-twitch to fast-twitch fibres.
By training both fibre types equally you should stimulate some simultaneous growth and thus increase mass more than single rep-range training.
The three ‘classic’ repetition ranges are involved here with suitable time spent on each exercise type to produce some new adaptation.
Closing Remarks on Load Variations
I think programs and sets that manipulate the load deserve some concluding remarks, because a lot of people find it difficult to lift lighter weight for the sake of progress.
It’s usually because of their ego, and a compulsion to lift as heavy as possible all of the time, often in the overly-hyped hypertrophy range.
The idea of lifting less to gain more might even make sense to some guys…until they get to the gym, and the voices in their heads start telling them they have to go big or go home.
It’s often what leads to people repeating the same 8-12 rep range forever trying to force progressive overload, when all they’re really doing is setting themselves up for stagnation.
I believe working outside your comfort zone contributes a lot to success.
It’s easy to bench big weight every other time you’re at the gym because it’s enjoyable. It might not be as appealing to do 30-rep sets with light weight after your first couple of heavy sets but it works well.
And if it works well then use it regardless of whether the guy or girl you are trying to impress just walked into your area while your grunting your way through a set of 135 on the bench.
If you let your ego do the lifting then you’re already half way to missing your goals. Anyone that matters shouldn’t care about the numbers you’re lifting. Manipulating your weight selections will help you lift more in the future anyway. That’s what consistent progress is all about.
I’ll leave you with a rather obvious word of warning: You need to have a good base of strength – especially core strength – to tackle the sets where you start heavy and pyramid down.
Warm-up sets are a given, but even those will not help you if your nervous system is just not experienced enough with heavier weight.
It should be implied that you are familiar and comfortable with the multi-joint compound lifts such as the deadlift, benchpress, shoulder press, military press and bench press, before you start fiddling with descending pyramids, diablos and so on.
A good benchmark to look out for is the point where you stop making leaps in progress from straight set training. If you’re tracking your progress with any accuracy, then you’ll know when that happens.