5 Growth Strategies for Training Solo
To gain muscle, you’ve got to consistently push past muscle failure, but without a training partner you could be out of luck. Here are 5 techniques that can actually take the place of — or work better than — a workout partner.
By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
We often put a lot of emphasis on the importance of having a training partner. For safety reasons, timely encouragement and for help to get past sticking points, there’s no denying that a partner is invaluable. But for many of you, training alone is your only option. You have to self-motivate, self-spot and you have to get yourself to the next level on your own. If that’s the case, we’re here to tell you that if it’s all up to you, your gains just might be in the best hands. Whereas having a partner allows you to blast past failure with forced reps, after learning about what tactics you can do sans training partner, and the kinds of gains they induce, you might agree that a training partner would likely just get in the way, anyway.
Regardless of whether you train solo or not, one overriding principle holds true: Your body will only change according to the level at which you stress it. In other words, if you don’t overload your target muscles and push yourself beyond normal limits, your gains will slow to a halt. Economists may call it the law of diminishing returns, but it applies equally well to your bodybuilding efforts. Quite frankly, a standard, straight-sets approach each day just isn’t going to cut it because you quickly adapt to the stress level you place on your body after a few months, especially if you don’t continue to up the ante, so to speak. Now if on the other hand you force your body to work harder, differently or for longer periods of time, then we’re talking about continued gains in muscle or strength. This month we dive into techniques that allow for those very principles of overload. How do you increase the overload to improve muscle gains without a training partner to assist you? We break down six training tools that cause damage, promote muscle confusion as well as increase the time under tension of the target muscle — all techniques the solo trainer can use to his advantage. We’ll isolate each scheme, what it is, how it works and offer some examples of how to work it into your routine.
Solo Tactic #1: Rest Pause
What is it: A favorite among competitive bodybuilders whether they have a partner or not, rest-pause is a technique that helps boost your intensity by allowing you to tap into your creatine phosphate (CP) system. CP is responsible for supplying energy for powerful bursts in muscle fibers, such as sprints and low-rep explosive sets of weight training. Although CP lasts only briefly, fortunately it’s replenished during rest periods very quickly.
With rest-pause, you train briefly with a fairly heavy weight, then rest for a very brief period, then train again, then rest again, repeating this sequence over and over. It basically allows you to complete more reps with a given weight than you could otherwise accomplish in straight-set fashion. Straight sets exhaust the CP system whereas using the rest-pause technique allows you to blast the target muscle but rest it before reaching failure, tapping into your body’s ability to quickly replenish energy. How quick? Really no more than 15–20 seconds. With that replenished energy you can restart your set having regenerated greater force and more reps at a given weight. The more force and reps you can perform in a given time period, the bigger your muscles will grow in response.
How to use it: While the load and the rest periods can vary, we suggest you select a weight that would cause you to fail between 6–7 reps, but do only 3–4 reps, then stop. It might feel at first like you should keep going as you haven’t reached muscle failure, but resist that urge and force yourself to stop. Rest for 15–20 seconds, then repeat for another 3–4 reps. Continue this work, rest, work, rest sequence as many times as possible until you cannot do three reps. All that starting and stopping constitutes just one set. Each set then, comprises several small segments that make up a full rest-pause set. So if you do four small sets of 3–4 reps at a time that makes one rest-pause set, which totals 12–16 reps with a weight that would’ve caused failure at seven reps! One important note: You can also use the rest-pause technique at different intensities. The 6–7RM is a fairly heavy weight, but later in your workout you might want to use a 10RM weight, or even a 12RM weight, in which case the total number of reps on a given set — and the pump — will escalate significantly.
Because you don’t have a partner, it’s important to make sure you’re safe and that you use your time wisely as you attempt to increase your intensity through these tactics. That’s why it’s important to select the best tools for each. The rest-pause technique is great when applied to most machines, either plate-loaded or pin-loaded, as well as within the power rack or Smith machine. It might not be the best choice to do with tools like dumbbells or barbells because getting a weight into and out of position takes time and effort.
While some bodybuilders are staunch supporters of this technique, incorporating it every time they step foot into the gym, in actuality, rest-pause employs a very high level of intensity with heavy weights, which can lead to overtraining. Instead, we encourage you to throw in several weeks of straight-sets workouts to rest your joints and avoid overtraining.
What’s a sample program look like: Here’s an example of what a single rest-pause set might look like when applied to the overhead press for shoulders.
* Choose a weight that you can do for just seven reps (your 7RM) but don’t do seven — do just four and rack the weight, then follow rest-pause protocol.
Important Note: When you can’t perform at least two reps, you can quit the set and rest a full two minutes to restore your system. Even though CP recovers quickly, when you string together multiple sets like this, eventually the stores are too diminished to allow you to continue at a very high intensity.
Best bodyparts: All
Best used with: Pin-loaded and plate -loaded machines, power racks and Smith machines, cable-driven exercises
Avoid using with: Dumbbells, free-weight barbells