Extended Sets for Size and Strength

A classic tool ripped straight from page one of the Old School Training Bible for serious gains in size and strength.

It’s human nature to gravitate towards the path of least resistance, especially in the fitness world. It’s the reason why some will blindly follow a generic machine-based workout that an overly upbeat training/sales staff person gave them when they signed up, often for months on end.

These “mail it in” type of trainees make up about 30 percent of the people you’ll see toiling away in a typical commercial fitness factory. Whether they got their cookie cutter program from a trainer, a magazine, or off the back of a cereal box, they dutifully follow it to the letter, piss poor results and all.

Another 65 percent of lifters would put Biggie Smalls to shame. They’re freestyle masters, and random training phases complement their capricious mentalities. However, though they may be lifting hard, usually they’re not lifting smart. Their gym ventures tend to be punctuated with poor exercise choices and a sophomoric gym-rat mentality, not to mention God-awful technique.

Then there’s the remaining 5 percent – those who train with purpose and thought behind their programming. If you’re on this site, you’re likely one of them.

So when it comes to using advanced lifting methods, such as extended sets, you don’t want to just “throw 'em in because they’re cool.” You need to know which ones build muscle, increase strength, strip off fat, or just inject some much-needed variety.

This article will focus on using extended sets for the purposes of getting bigger and stronger.

Size Training

Bodybuilders talk about training for “the pump.” Increasing blood volume and ultimately promoting sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is something that separates bodybuilding training from other training styles.

To maximize this effect by way of extended sets, we need to find ways to exhaust the muscle by performing as many reps as possible with a supposed “max.”

1. The Classic Drop-Set

This is likely the first “advanced” size-training strategy ever developed. Drop-sets are simple. Take one exercise, say biceps curls. Do a set of 6 reps with close to your max effort for that many reps, and then immediately grab a pair of lighter dumbbells. Perform 8 reps or so. Finally, grab an even lighter pair and rep out to mechanical failure.

I’d use this method with training clients who have some size training experience, but not years’ worth. It’s a simple, relatively effective exhaustion technique.

Of course, everything has its disadvantages, and in this case it relates to fast twitch versus slow twitch muscle fibers. Since our fast twitch fibers are the most explosive fibers, we want to tap into them primarily to improve our size and strength.

However, after the first “drop” of a standard drop-set, due to their short energy span, the fast-twitch muscle fibers should technically begin to drop out of the lifting effort for the second and third phases of the lift. So we’re achieving exhaustion but we aren’t putting our fast twitch fibers to the best use.

On top of this, since the load is decreasing, we don’t get to keep the resistance above 70 percent of our max for the whole time.

For these reasons, I’d recommend this method to a lifter who doesn’t use drop sets frequently, or to a lifter new to hypertrophy training.

2. Mechanical Drop Sets

The mechanical drop set is the immediate solution for extending the work set without sacrificing the weight lifted. The key lies in making minor modifications to the exercise in order to perform more reps.

As an example, take a barbell bench press loaded with 225 pounds. Suppose you start off using a triceps-dominant narrow grip and hit 6 reps. By quickly switching to a medium grip, you’ll be able to bang out a few more reps without adjusting the load. A final adjustment to a wide grip should allow for a few reps more.

3. Ladder Sets

Ladder set training addresses how drop sets tend to go stale with advanced lifters. Here’s a sample ladder set:

  • Using your 10 to 12 rep max in an exercise, perform 2 reps.
  • Rest for 10 to 15 seconds, and then immediately perform 3 more reps.
  • Rest for 10 to 15 seconds, and then perform 5 reps.
  • Rest once more for 10 to 15 seconds, then perform 10 reps.

I stole this idea from the great Dan John, and I’m a big fan. The fact that you’re using the same weight through the entire set eliminates any doubt as to whether you’re still using an intensity that will promote hypertrophy benefits.

The fast twitch fibers get a chance to do a bit more work because their energy source (ATP) gets a partial recovery, thanks to the short mid-set “breaks.”

By the end of the ladder set, you’ve essentially performed 20 reps with your 10 to 12 rep max. Not too shabby.

This is also an awesome psychological test. Like breathing squats, you have a finite target number to reach that marks a complete set, not just “muscular failure.”

With each break period, you know that you have to perform more reps than you just did, though you’re under more fatigue than you were when you started.

It’s a way to learn to pull deep and get out a few grinders, and you’ll leave the gym feeling more accomplished than you’ve ever felt before. This rep scheme works best with the big movements like the bench press, standing press, pull-ups, weighted dips, and squats, but you can incorporate them into smaller isolation movements like leg extensions, curls, and seated dumbbell presses.

Strength Training

There are some crossovers between size training and strength training, and using drop-sets and ladder sets will definitely give some benefit where adding strength is concerned.

But if you want to bench 550, you have to focus on performing more reps with as similar a load to your working weight as possible.

4+2 Clusters

The 4 + 2 cluster method is an effective tool for performing more reps than you normally “could” with a heavy load.

Put your 5-rep max on the bar for a big movement (bench press, press, deadlift, squat, weighted pull-ups), but perform only 4 reps, leaving some juice in the tank. Rack the weight and rest for 10 to 15 seconds.

Then, immediately un-rack the load and perform as many reps as possible (this usually results in another 2 reps, and it’s a safe number to gun for). You just performed 6 reps with your 5-rep max.

This exposes your body to more sub-maximal efforts under high work load, and the cumulative effect is nothing but positive for lifters after strength gains.

Single-Rep Clusters

Taking cluster sets right down to the rep is a smart way to expose your body to many more max efforts in a given workout. Put 90 percent of your max effort onto the bar and then perform one rep. Rest for 10 to 15 seconds, and repeat 2 to 3 more times.

A Cool Twist: Coach Rich Sadiv came up with the “10 minute challenge,” where 30-second breaks are taken between 90 percent max single-rep efforts until ten minutes elapses.

The point was to take people out of “pyramid” mode and into their heavy work sets for a greater period of time, and for more total reps.

Putting It All Together

Using these methods can result in some serious gains in size and strength. A program that alternates between them is just the ticket.

Sample Program Week 1: Strength

Day 1 – Back

Exercise Sets Reps
A Deadlift, Single-Rep Clusters 5 *
B Weighted Pull-Up, 4 + 2 Clusters 4 *
C1 Seated Row 4 12
C2 Dumbbell Reverse Fly 4 12

* rest 3 to 4 minutes between sets

Day 2 – Chest

Exercise Sets Reps
A Flat Barbell Bench Press 10 minute Challenge @ 90% 1
B Pin Press Set up bench on a low incline 5* 5
C Cable Chest Fly 4 12

* rest 3 minutes between sets

Day 3 – Legs

Exercise Sets Reps
A Front Squat, 4 + 2 clusters 5*
B Romanian Deadlift 4** 6
C Eccentric Glute-Ham Raise 4*** 6
D Leg Press 4 12

* rest 3 to 4 minutes between sets
** rest 3 minutes between sets
*** rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 4 – Shoulders

Exercise Sets Reps
A Standing Press 5* 5
B Barbell High Pull 4* 6
C1 Dumbbell Lateral Raise 4 10
C2 Face Pull 4 12

* rest 3 minutes between sets

Sample Program Week 2: Size

Day 1 – Back

Exercise Sets Reps
A Bent-Over Row, Ladder Set 5
B Lat Pulldown Mechanical drop-set (wide grip, mid grip, reverse narrow grip) 4
C Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 3 15*
D Stiff-Arm Pulldown 4 12

* per arm


Exercise Sets Reps
A Barbell Bench Press Mechanical drop set (narrow grip, mid grip, wide grip) 4
B Smith Machine Incline Bench Press, Ladder Set 3*
C Standing Cable Fly 4 15

* Only 3 rounds are used as the mechanical drops will have already fatigued the chest.

Day 3 – Legs

Exercise Sets Reps
A Barbell Back Squat, Ladder Set 5
B Walking Lunge 4 20 steps
C Leg Extension, Drop Set 4
D Leg Press 2 20

Day 4 – Shoulders

Exercise Sets Reps
A Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Ladder Set 4
B Push Press 4 10
C Mechanical Drop Set Dumbbell Front Raise/Dumbbell Lateral Raise (standing)/Dumbbell Bent-Over Lateral Raise 4
D1 Face Pull 3 15
D2 Trap-3 Raise 3 15

Day 5 (Optional) – Arms

Exercise Sets Reps
A Mechanical Drop Set Preacher Curl/Hammer Curl/Standing Biceps Curl 4
B Mechanical Drop Set EZ Bar Skullcrusher/Skullcrusher-Pullover/Skullcrusher to Chest Press (a.k.a. J-Press) 4
C1 Weighted Dip 4 10
C2 Close Grip Chin-Up 4 10

Wrap Up

Just as a precaution, in no way am I suggesting that you constantly use extended sets and other advanced lifting methods that stray from the basics – especially if your technique in the basics isn’t stellar.

Start by just peppering a couple into your programs for a phase or two. It doesn’t take much to see results. Apply this stuff wisely and you’ll tap into size you didn’t think you had, and be more powerful than a locomotive. Sound familiar?