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Positive Failure for the Most Growth Fibers

Q: You’ve said that to get at the most growth fibers, you have to push work sets to at least positive failure. Now you’re saying to use 4×10, where the first three sets are not to failure and only the last one is an all-out set.  Aren’t those first three sets a waste of time in terms of muscle growth?

A: You’re essentially bringing up a classic muscle-building argument: volume vs. intensity. One point, something even the staunchest high-intensity advocates will agree with, is that muscle fibers either fire completely or not at all. That’s the all-or-none principle. It means that even during light warmup sets you’re getting all-out activation of the fibers that are involved. Granted, it’s not a lot of fibers because the poundage is not demanding—but you’re firing a small portion of the muscle completely and thoroughly.

So with a 4×10 sequence you’re gradually and exponentially ramping up fiber activation. With each one of those sets, even though the first few are not to failure, you’re completely exhausting bundles of muscle fibers. With the last set, which is to all-out positive failure, you get at the most growth fibers; however, the previous subfailure sets helped that happen by exhausting a portion of the fiber pool.

As you can see, 4×10 is simply a less stressful, more volume-oriented way to achieve maximum fiber activation on any exercise. As I’ve discovered, it’s a godsend for those who are on the verge of overtraining and need less workout stress—not to mention older trainees. Remember, the more all-out sets you do, the more cortisol you pump into your system, and that can cannibalize muscle tissue.

That’s why I’ve been recommending that X-Rep trainees use a total 4×10 program for a few weeks after an extensive all-out intensity phase. I’ve also found that it works extremely well when you’re dieting hard. Lower-carb/lower-calorie diets, even if they reduce carbs gradually, compound the cortisol problem, so lower-intensity volume-style training like 4×10 can keep gains coming.

Coincidentally, I recently learned that some of the most successful bodybuilders of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s used a similar method precontest, including one of the most impressive short men of all time, Danny Padilla, who said he learned about it from Arnold and Sergio.

The 4×10 method works because it’s high density—more work in less time—with a power edge. Plus, it’s less stressful on the joints, tendons, ligaments and the adrenal gland. Jonathan Lawson and I have made some of our best gains with total 4X training during our summer ripping phase. when calories and carbs are low and cortisol is easily triggered.

Sometimes emphasizing density with a bit less intensity is just what you need for maximum muscle immensity. (For more on 4X mass training, see TEG.)

Note: For more on the 4X method, see The X-traordinary 4X Mass Workout, available at

Editor’s note: Steve Holman is the author of many bodybuilding best-sellers and the creator of Positions-of-Flexion muscle training. For information on the POF videos and Size Surge programs at Also visit for information on X-Rep and 3D POF methods and e-booksIM

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