We are flooded with a variety of training techniques that are meant to assist you in taking your program to the next level. Many of these techniques leave you with minimal results and take the place of a well-designed program. By far, the one training technique that I see misinterpreted the most is rest-pause training. This may be due to the fact that there are a myriad of variations concerning rest-pause training, or due to the fact that so many personal trainers/fitness “experts” do not understand the science behind the technique.

So, I thought I would dive into rest-pause training, while also discussing two other techniques to add a little variation into your program. Enjoy the read!

Many trainers implement advanced resistance training techniques in order to assist their clients in busting through plateaus, or to simply add variety into their training program. However, most trainers and recreational lifters, implement these advanced techniques without understanding the scientific rationale behind the strategies, or how to properly program them in order to make their training optimal.

And I want to make one thing crystal clear- there is a difference between merely reaping some benefits of training and your training being optimal!

These techniques should be implemented as a variation within the structure of a well-designed program, which adheres to some type of periodization theory!

This article will assist you in understanding the scientific rationale behind these training techniques, as well as how to program them for OPTIMAL benefits!

 Rest-Pause Training

Technique: Rest-pause training has been around since the 1950s, but has many variations of how it can be performed. The original Joe Weider method (hereafter referred to as traditional) most notably utilized loads around 85-90% of your 1RM and involved completing 2-3 repetitions, then resting for 15-20 seconds before completing another 2-3 repetitions for a total of 4-5 sets. The traditional method focuses on short rest periods between sets at a higher relative load. However, one of the most commonly utilized methods today involves taking a repetition maximum (RM) and completing repetitions until muscular failure is reached. This method can be referred to as high intensity resistance training (HIRT) since you are reaching muscular failure (1). After reaching muscular failure, you complete subsequent sets of 1-2 repetitions while resting 15-20 seconds between each set. The HIRT method focuses on completing more repetitions for a set repetition maximum (RM).

Another popular method of rest-pause training is cluster sets, which are characterized by a short inter-set rest period of approximately 10 seconds. There are cluster sets geared towards strength as well as hypertrophy. During a strength-focused cluster set, it is generally recommended to work with a load between 88-92% of your 1RM and complete 1-2 repetitions. You would then complete 3-5 sub-sets of repetitions with a short 10-15 seconds inter-set rest period. After completing one full set, you would rest for approximately 3 minutes before completing additional full sets. Haff et al (2003) pointed out that you can alter the load during the short rest periods in order to enhance power and velocity. For example, if your feeling fatiguing at 90% of your 1RM in a strength cluster set you could reduce the load 5-10 pounds and focus on maintaining your speed and form (3).


Scientific Rationale: In general, rest-pause training can be utilized to assist you in training for strength, strength-endurance, power, speed-endurance, or good, old-fashioned hypertrophy. The theory behind rest-pause training is predicated on the assumption that you will be able to move a higher relative load (ideally at least 80% 1RM) for a greater number of total repetitions than traditional training would facilitate (i.e. increased average training intensity). Many trainers and coaches use this as a method by which to develop strength endurance, which is characterized by conditioning your anaerobic and neuromuscular systems in order to facilitate the ability to move high relative loads for a greater total volume (sets x reps x weight).

In traditional resistance training, it is suggested that through the accumulation of fatigue you will be able to recruit more high threshold motor units since the size principle of orderly recruitment is independent of fatigue. High threshold motor units, or fast fatigable MUs, are the larger motor units in a motor pool and produce the fastest time to peak force, highest force, and greatest power of contraction. However, as fatigue accumulates it can reduce peak power output and rate of force development (RFD), which can negatively impact your performance. Cluster training can assist you in maintaining your ability to produce peak power, while reaching your peak power output as quickly as possible (i.e. RFD). The short-term rest between repetitions allows for the use of a heavier load, which (as mentioned above) facilitates the use of a greater total volume at a higher relative intensity. This is accomplished through the partial replenishment of phosphocreatine (up to 70%), which allows for energy production from the ATP-PC pathway.

However, the benefits of rest-pause training go far beyond simply developing strength and power parameters. Paoli et al (2012) demonstrated that HIRT created an acute increase in their subjects resting metabolic rate (RMR), as well as a decrease in their respiratory exchange ratio (RER). The acute increase in RMR is intriguing since RMR makes up the largest portion of an individual’s daily energy expenditure, while the decreased RER is representative of an increase in fat oxidation for energy (1).

The increase in RMR due to HIRT is thought to be attributable to an increase excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) (1). EPOC is the simply the elevated oxygen consumption after exercise cessation, which is vital when considering energy expenditure since the higher the EPOC the more energy that will be expended. EPOC can be described as increasing exponentially with increasing exercise intensity, while increasing linearly with increased exercise duration (1). Therefore, you will generally see a greater increase in EPOC with higher intensity workloads than you will with lower intensity, longer duration activities.

The decreased RER is intriguing, since most novice weightlifters would figure that higher intensity exercise would not increase fat oxidation upon the completion of the bout. However, this is quite easy to explain. High intensity training depletes the body of its muscle glycogen stores, which must be replenished post-exercise. Therefore, the body initiates a glycogen sparing effect and spares all glucose and gluconeogenic precursors from further oxidation. Through this glycogen-sparing cascade, the body begins to utilize fats as its primary energy source.

What can this information tell us regarding HIRT and its effect on metabolism? It is important to remember that this study is an acute training study, and all measures on RER and RMR were taken 22 hours post-exercise (1). This study compared HIRT in the rest-pause format against a “traditional” resistance training protocol. The “traditional” resistance training protocol utilized moderate loads (70-75% 1RM) and repetition ranges (8-12), which could be described as hypertrophic training. Chronically, you could imagine that training ONLY utilizing the HIRT method as described in this study would not elicit the same hypertrophic effects as the “traditional” protocol. This would have a dramatic impact on individual RMR. Therefore, you can understand why the HIRT method described in this study would need to be interspersed between other types of training for increasing muscular hypertrophy, and ultimately caloric expenditure.

Additionally, lower-to-moderate intensities (i.e. 60-75%) can assist in adding volume to a periodized program to enhance hypertrophic milieu such as metabolic buildup and muscle damage, while not taxing your nervous system to the degree of higher intensity training. Furthermore, low-to-moderate intensity training can be used to initiate hypertrophy in type I muscle fibers.

As mentioned previously, rest-pause training is commonly utilized as a tool to train the neuromuscular system and facilitate the acclimatization to increased loading. Marshall et al (2012) investigated HIRT and the acute neuromuscular responses it elicited. Marshall and his team found that HIRT elicited greater motor unit recruitment, as well as demonstrated no additional neuromuscular fatigue post-exercise (4). Additionally, Marshall and his colleagues found no significant difference in RFD between the HIRT and the other protocols (4).

Programming: Rest-pause training should be utilized as a supplement in a specific microcycle of a periodized program (check out a comparison of two types of periodization theories here). Rest-pause training is high intensity training and should be programmed accordingly. Therefore, you would ideally implement rest-pause training on a strength focus day of a daily undulating periodized model (DUP), which would be followed up by a hypertrophy/volume focus day consisting of low-to-moderate loads and higher volume. In a more traditional periodization model, rest-pause training should be implemented during a strength or strength-to-power focused block, while planning a recovery-unloading week accordingly.

Pro’s Tip: Cluster training is great tool for developing skill patterns under a higher relative load and has great benefits, but do not lose sight of your program by getting carried away with variations!

 Pyramid Training

Technique: Pyramid training is used by physique competitors, powerlifters, and recreational weightlifters alike. Linear Pyramid Training (LPT) involves starting with a low-to-moderate relative intensity and increasing the intensity, while simultaneously decreasing the repetitions. In contrast, Inverted Pyramid Training (IPT) is simply reversing LPT. Therefore, you would start at a higher relative intensity (i.e. heavier weight) and less repetitions, while decreasing the weight and increasing repetitions every set. There are other variations of pyramid training such as triangle pyramids, but for our purposes we will focus on LPT and IPT.kroc

Scientific Rationale: Overall, pyramid training is meant to increase volume assisting in developing muscular hypertrophy, while IPT attempts to manipulate this affect slightly through theoretically allowing you to obtain more volume at a higher relative intensity. Some would argue that IPT allows you to obtain more total volume (i.e. sets x reps x weight), while working at a higher AVERAGE relative intensity. However to date, there are no studies comparing LPT and IPT, while equating the total volume.

LPT allows you to “prime” your nervous system, which can assist you lifting those heavier loads when you work up to them. This is accomplished through gradually increasing the stimulation of frequency, which assists your body in eliciting maximal recruitment and excitation. It has been shown in the literature that an individual maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) consistently varies from day-to-day (5).

Additionally, LPT allows fatigue to accumulate to lesser degree in the sets preceding your higher intensity lifts, but some fatigue still occurs. We want some fatigue to occur, as this assists in activating our high threshold motor units (as discussed earlier) and facilitates a rotation in motor unit recruitment.

Aside from neuromuscular alterations, LPT also provides an ideal volume and intensity for stimulating muscular hypertrophy. Muscular hypertrophy is stimulated by mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, which can be achieved through either model of pyramid training. Additionally, the metabolic stress initiated by the higher volume in pyramid training will assist in increasing glycolytic activity, which has been identified as a facilitator of anabolic signaling as well as acute testosterone and growth hormone elevation (6).

Programming: Pyramid training should be programmed as part of hypertrophy focused training block. When programming with an undulating periodized theory, attempt to use pyramid training on your hypertrophy day, or “high volume” day. As with any high volume training block, remember to provide a recovery-unloading week prior to entering a strength or strength-to-power training block.

Pro’s Tip: Leave your ego at the door and make sure you set the weights so that you can get all of your reps. At the end of the day, pyramid training is meant to facilitate hypertrophy- not putting up ridiculous amounts of weight.

Paired-Set Training

Technique: Paired-set training involves completing two exercises in succession without rest, and is generally completed in an agonist-antagonist manner (7). Commonly, agonist-antagonist paired-set (APS) training is completed in a push-pull form, which simply involves matching a push movement with a pull movement that activates the antagonist musculature (i.e. bench press and barbell row).

Scientific Rationale: Paired-set training can be implemented to squeeze in a quick workout in an extremely efficient manner, however it also has physiological benefits. Grabiner (1994) suggested that contracting an antagonist muscle increases force output during subsequent contractions of the agonist, which is most likely due to reduced antagonist inhibition. There is also the potential for an increase in stored elastic energy in the muscle-tendon complex, which could lead to an increase in force production in the agonist muscle group(s) (7, 8).

The neuromuscular advantages of paired-set training can assist with increasing total volume (i.e. sets x reps x weight) by increasing the force production of the agonist. Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that the neuromuscular advantages could lead to an increase in the RFD of the agonist muscle (9).

Aside from the physiological benefits, paired-set training is extremely efficient. When programmed correctly, APS training enables a greater volume (sets x reps) to be completed in a given amount of time without significantly reducing intensity or total training volume (i.e. sets x reps x weight) (10). Therefore, APS training allows for an increased training density (i.e. total volume per unit of time), which could assist with facilitating muscular hypertrophy as well as conditioning the anaerobic energy systems (10).

Programming: APS training can be used in any training block, however you must manipulate rest periods according to your average training intensity. For example, if you are in a strength focused block (or a strength focused day) you would need to have rest periods >90 seconds to maintain the intensity. In contrast, if you are training in a hypertrophy block (or volume focused day) you can have rest periods as short as 30 seconds depending on the intensity level. This would allow you to achieve your planned volume within a shorter period of time.

Pro’s Tip: Arrange your push-pull movements in a similar plane of movement. For example, a horizontal push to a horizontal pull or a vertical push to a vertical pull.

Wrapping Up

These training techniques should add some variation into your program, while allowing you to further manipulate your program towards your goals. Additionally, this article has provided a look into the scientific basis for these techniques that we commonly see utilized. Remember- implement these techniques as a variation into a structured, periodized program, in order to achieve OPTIMAL results.



marc lewis

About the Author: Marc Lewis M.S.(c), CSCS, ACSM-CPT is a graduate teaching/research assistant at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Exercise Science, as well as the Director of Sports Performance for Winston Salem Personal Training in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Marc received his undergraduate degree in exercise physiology from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.






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