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Controlled Burn

Techniques for Managing Muscle Fatigue for Growth

Before you get excited, thinking that this article is about how to reduce or eliminate muscle fatigue during exercise, allow me to tell you upfront that this article is not about that.  Rather, it’s an article about how to manipulate and prolong muscle fatigue.

Why would you want to do that?  Well, assuming you’re not a masochist (one who enjoys receiving pain), muscle burn is one of the principle hallmarks of growth-inducing resistance exercise.  The better we understand it, and the better we can manipulate it, the more we can improve our ability to produce muscle growth.

A number of recent studies have demonstrated that prolonged “time under tension” contributes greatly to the development of muscle – as much, or more so – than the use of heavy weights for lower reps (less time under tension).  Further, a number of “muscle growth” experts – including Brad Schoenfeld and Steve Holman ( – have written extensively about this.  In fact, it was Steve Holman who explained this concept to me, a couple of years ago.  Before then, I had been keeping my reps relatively low, and emphasizing heavier weights – and getting a compromised reward for my efforts. Now I do reps as high as 50 per set (not necessarily all with the same weight), and I’m getting spectacular results.

In a recent article in FLEX Magazine, entitled “The Pro’s Secrets to Getting Huge”, a number of the top guys in the sport reported their “secrets”.  These include “high reps”, “super slow reps”, “shorter range of motion” (continuous tension), “drop sets”, “static holds” (isometric), and “isolation”.  All of these are ways to increase the burn in a target muscle, during an exercise.  Clearly, going for the burn is a good strategy, if your goal is increased muscle size.  This concept is not necessarily new, even though the recent scientific studies are.

During the 1980s, many of the bodybuilding stars (Arnold, Zane, Ferrigno, etc.) were quoted in the magazines as using a variety of “Weider Principles”.  These included “Super Sets”, “Pre-Exhaust”, “Break-downs”, “Forced Reps” and “Rest-Pause”.  All of these, except the last one, were clearly designed to produce MORE fatigue in a target muscle, during a given set.  The last one, “Rest-Pause”, does the opposite – it reduces fatigue (by providing a momentary rest for the target muscle, between reps).  This seemed odd to me at the time.  “How could producing more fatigue, and less fatigue – both – build muscle?”, I wondered.

The fact is, muscle burn (“time under tension” / TUT) is a balancing act.  The goal is to produce prolonged fatigue in a target muscle, for at least 40 seconds per set.  Longer is better, generally speaking.  So the trick is to manipulate the burn – sometimes using techniques that increase the fatigue, and other times using techniques that mitigate the fatigue – for the sake of extending the duration of a set.

Keep in mind, a set is not simply (…or at least should not be) a predetermined number of repetitions.  A set should allow you to produce a balance between:

1. Adequate Muscle Contraction and Elongation (“range of motion” / ROM)

2.  Adequate Fatigue (i.e., sufficient “time under tension” / TUT, sufficient reps)

3.  Adequate Resistance

If you use too much weight, you won’t get enough time under tension / enough reps.  Conversely, if you emphasize high reps too much, or you don’t take advantage of the techniques below, it forces you to use resistance that is too light.

There are a variety of techniques that I use, which allow me to moderate the fatigue, during a given set, so that I can achieve the right balance of “enough resistance, enough fatigue / TUT, and enough ROM”.  These techniques may, or may not, be obvious to an observer.  Certainly, what guides these techniques are not – introspection, fatigue assessment, ambition and courage.  It’s a voice, inside one’s head, that guides the application of these techniques.

My fatigue-management techniques include the following:

1.  Changes in Resistance – staring with less resistance and high reps, and reducing the reps as the resistance is increased, and then decreasing resistance during final breakdown sets

2.  Changes in the Speed of a Rep – sometimes slower (especially on the “negative” / eccentric phase of the rep), sometimes faster

3.  Changes in the Range of Motion – sometimes partial, sometimes full….sometimes emphasizing stretch and contraction, sometimes staying only in the mid-range

4.  Changes in the “Continuous Tension” – sometimes taking no rest at all between reps, and other times allowing a momentary pause between reps (quarter second, half second, full second….depending on fatigue level, and remaining reps)

5.  Changes in the Contraction Time – sometimes holding / squeezing the contraction for one or two seconds, and sometimes avoiding the contraction entirely

6.  Changes in Lever Length – sometimes increasing the available resistance by extending (straightening) a limb (e.g., arm), and other times reducing available resistance by shortening (bending) a limb

All of these techniques require assessment and decision-making, in the moment, which is why it’s vital that one be focused during one’s workout.  Looking around, chatting with your friends, texting between sets, selecting a different song on one’s iPod – all serve as distractions from the assessment and decision-making process that should be occurring during your sets.

What one is feeling in their target muscle – during a set, as well as between sets – combined with the knowledge that one needs to meet certain requirements for ROM, TUT and amount of resistance, is the framework with which fatigue management decisions are made.  When optimized, it’s what allows one to go from “average physique” to “great physique” (assuming other requirements are met – nutrition, genetics, etc.).

One must first assess (very honestly) the degree of fatigue (burn) they’re feeling in a target muscle, during a set.  Then, they must allow their ambition to motivate the amount of effort that is required to push through a set, despite seemingly insurmountable fatigue.  If you don’t want your goal badly enough, it’s going to be very difficult to feel the motivation to confront an extremely high level of burn.  It takes courage to continue a set, even though it’s screaming for you to stop – but that is exactly what you must do, in order to achieve optimal results.

The techniques above are to be used strategically to help you achieve that, but they can – unfortunately – also be used as a cop out, if used too soon, or without adequate need.  Yes – you can reduce your resistance in a given set (i.e., breakdown set), but not without first exhausting the heavier weight.  Yes – you can reduce your range of motion during a given set, but not if you still have the ability to do full reps.  You can choose to pause between reps, but only when that is the only way you’ll be able to finish the set.  You can shorten (bend) your arm length during the set (e.g., side raises, etc.) but only if using the fully straight arm would absolutely preclude you from reaching your rep goal for that set.

Maximizing muscle fatigue is the ultimate goal, with mitigation of fatigue used only as a method of extending the time under tension, and completing the set.

Author - Doug Brignole - is a state, national and international bodybuilding champion, and author.

Author – Doug Brignole – is a state, national and international bodybuilding champion, and author. Photo by Michael Neveux – 2011

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