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Wicked-Awesome Mass-Building Tips

In the spring and summer, however, we’re on a fat-to-muscle mission. While we still want to build mass, we understand that getting ripped is of primary importance, so we go to workouts that include fat-to-muscle tactics, like negative-accentuated sets—one second up and six seconds down. That helps us refine our physiques and keep adding muscle as we chisel in the cuts.

Q: X-Reps are giving me some wicked-awesome mass gains. The extra pump and burn I get from doing [those end-of-set partials] is hot! I was thinking, though, that since they work so well, how about using only the short X-Rep range for all of my sets, without any full-range reps? Wouldn’t that give me some giant mass gains?

A: Jonathan Lawson, my training partner, and I first addressed X-Only sets in the e-book X-Rep Update #1 and even wrote a chapter on Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler’s workout, which includes a lot of X-Only sets. Because the low, semistretch point is the key spot for fiber activation, it seems logical to stress that segment of the stroke as much as possible. Specifically, the range is from not quite all the way to the bottom of the stroke to about the halfway mark.

Then again, if you watch, say, your quads fire when you do leg extensions, it appears that different fibers are twitching all the way through to the top, contracted position—you have to be lean to see it happening. It could be that different fibers fire at different spots along the stroke, and that’s why we suggest doing some sets at least close to full range if you’re going to incorporate X-Only sets. Even Cutler uses range-of-motion variety.

One excellent option is to use the last set of a power pyramid as your X-O set. For example, after a few progressively heavier warmup sets of incline presses, you do set 1 full range with a weight that gives you nine reps; rest, add weight, then do set 2 with a full range for around seven reps. Add a bit more weight and do your third set in X-Only style—that is, only the bottom third of the stroke—for max-fiber activation. Talk about pain to gain.

Cutler keeps his reps up around 10 or higher for most of his X-O sets—and that’s a key point. You need a double-digit rep range to maintain tension on the target muscle long enough to get the best hypertrophic stimulation.

For an even larger leap in growth-jolting intensity, you can opt for Forced-X Overload. You load a weight with which you can get only about four X Reps on your own, and then your partner helps you force out eight to 10 more—an extreme overload that will ratchet up growth fiber activation. [Note: There’s more on X-Only and Forced-X-Overload training as well as a look at research that verifies their mass-building power in the e-book X-Rep Update #1, available at the X-Shop at]

Q: I’m blown away by your Positions-of-Flexion training. My gains have been unreal since I started using some of the POF bodypart programs. However, I’ve had knee surgery and therefore have some pain doing sissy squats [the stretch-position exercise for quads]. Is there a substitute?

A: The sissy squat is the full stretch-position move for quads because the legs and torso remain on the same plane through the entire set. That provides full elongation in the quads in the bottom position.

Anyone who has a predisposition to knee pain or has had knee problems in the past should avoid the exercise. It’s not dangerous to individuals with normal knee strength and function, but if you have a weakness, the sissy squat should be off your exercise list—just as shoulder pain and/or injury should keep you off the bench press.

The solution for you is to do an extra set or two of a different quad midrange exercise. For example, if you begin with squats as your midrange move, instead of going to sissy squats next, go to leg presses, front squats or some other squat variation that doesn’t produce pain for one or two work sets. Then end with leg extensions, the contracted-position exercise.

If leg extensions ever hurt your knees, drop them as well. You could do a third midrange squatting move, but flex your quads for two seconds at the top of each rep. While there’s no resistance in the contracted position, a static contraction can increase neuromuscular efficiency and activate more fibers.

Injury is not something to gamble with. If an exercise causes joint pain, delete it from your program immediately, even if it means missing a key position of flexion. Remember, the midrange-position exercises do produce some stretch overload in the target muscles, which can significantly add to a workout’s mass-building effectiveness.

Q: What is the best rep speed for muscle growth? I’m a bodybuilder, so I’m not that concerned with strength. I just want mass.

A: A recent study attempted to determine the optimal rep speed for building muscle. It compared doing sets with a two-to-three-second positive and a two-to-three-second negative—about a three-up/three-down cadence—with a power cadence, which is one second up and three seconds down. The power cadence produced the most mass [Int J Sports Med. 30(3):200-204; 2009].

Muscle biopsies suggest that the power cadence causes more damage to more muscle fibers than traditional reps, leading to a greater degree of protein remodeling in the trained muscle. You may know that slow lowering—the eccentric stroke—causes more muscle damage. Notice, though, that both groups lowered the weight in three seconds. So what gives?

The key is that the power-training group used a more forceful turnaround for the one-second positive than the slower tempo of the other group. That explosive jolt right at the semistretch point of the target muscle activates significantly more fast-twitch muscle fibers, so more growth fibers are engaged on every rep and for each traumatic negative.

That study actually verifies why end-of-set X-Rep partials are so incredibly effective—you force the muscle to continue firing, activating the myotatic reflex and getting more dormant fast-twitch fibers into the action. In the above study the controlled explosion occurs on every rep of a power set. Ending with X Reps would make the set even more anabolic.

Based on that study, my recommendation is to use one second up and three seconds down for your big, multijoint—a.k.a. midrange—exercises; for example, bench presses, squats, rows, pulldowns and so on. Isolation moves are more dangerous, especially stretch-position exercises like flyes and pullovers, so slow down the positive somewhat for less joint stress. I like a two-up/three-down tempo to grow on those.

Q: You and Jonathan were high on the Size Surge workout, but now you never mention it. What’s the deal? I was thinking about getting on it, but it’s off your radar.

A: We often use the 10-week Size Surge Workout during our winter mass-building phase. It’s built around the big, basic exercises and features plenty of power sets, muscle trauma and recovery time. That style of training works optimally when you’re not restricting calories—bad-ass bulk building at its best. [See Jonathan’s before and after photos from the first Size Surge experiment at www]

In the spring and summer, however, we’re on a fat-to-muscle mission. While we still want to build mass, we understand that getting ripped is of primary importance, so we go to workouts that include fat-to-muscle tactics, like negative-accentuated sets—one second up and six seconds down. That helps us refine our physiques and keep adding muscle as we chisel in the cuts.

Does that mean you can’t use the 10-week Size Surge program in the spring and summer? Of course you can. You can use it anytime you want to go for maximum muscle mass. For example, it’s great for football players trying to bulk up over the summer. If you use it when you’re trying to get ripped, however, you’ll have to go on a cutting-style diet, and that may reduce the amount mass you’re able to build.

The bottom line is that you can adapt almost any workout to your present goals, but some are better than others for speeding up specific results—and diet is always a major factor.

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, see the ad section beginning on page 230 of the August 2010 issue of Iron Man. Also visit for information on X-Rep and 3D POF methods and e-books.  IM

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