Variation on a Theme -Overload Variations – Part 1 – Damian Marsh

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In our quest for size strength and power it is easy to stay on the same path, to do what we are familiar with, what we like doing. We all have our “go to” methods which we believe gives us results. However, the body is an amazingly adaptive organism. Sometimes we need to head in a completely different direction compared to our “normal” training. In this context, normal is a relative word. It may be that we need to start straining under the bar with close to maximum poundages for those more accustomed to training for the “pump”. Alternatively, it could be focusing on a higher rep range for those whose staple diet consists of singles, doubles and triples. Or it could involve lifting a submaximal load with maximum speed. Sometimes though, all we need is a variation on a theme to provide not only a physical, but also a mental stimulus for gains. An example of this can be seen in the overload methods of diminishing sets and cluster training to spice up tired set and rep protocols.

Diminishing Sets

This involves taking as few sets as possible to perform a predetermined number of reps at a designated load. It is typical to see set and rep prescriptions of 3-6 x 8-12 when looking to increase muscle cross sectional area or 3-6 x 1-5 when training for maximum strength. Rather than just going through the motions and knocking out three to six sets for an exercise, diminishing sets challenge the lifter by trying to reduce the number of sets taken each week. For example, it may take 8 sets to achieve the rep goal in week 1 but in week 4 you can do it in only 5 sets.

A further variation is to time yourself to achieve your targeted reps. In this variation there is no predetermined rest period. You still try and utlise as few sets as possible but you now have to be careful not to rest too long because you are trying to beat a time record as well. For example it may have taken you 10min and 20sec to get out the reps in 8 sets in week 1 but only 8min 25sec in week 4 when you achieved the rep goal in 5 sets. This helps you increase the density of your workout because you are performing more reps per unit of time.

This overload method is typically used in an accumulation phase when the goal is to increase work capacity. Loading parameters for your designated training focus involve;

Exercise: Compound Exercises
Load: 8-20RM or 60-80% of 1RM
Target Reps: 50-100
Rest: 30-90sec
Note: This method works well with bodyweight exercises as a finishing challenge to a workout, e.g. 100 reps of Chin Ups with 1min recovery. It could also be used as a superset e.g. 100 reps between Chin Ups & Dips with 1min between each superset.

Maximum Strength
Exercise: Compound Exercises
Load: 3-6RM or 80-90% of 1RM
Target Reps: 15-30
Rest: 1-2min

Exercise: Compound Exercises with a speed focus e.g. bench throws
Load: 20-50% 1RM
Target Reps: 20-30
Rest: 30-90sec
Note: For increasing power capacity the exercise set must be stopped when the speed is no longer appropriate. This can be done subjectively by a trained eye or if possible utilising equipment to assess power to give objective feedback. Alternatively, when using the smith machine for bench throws or jump squats, the height of the bar can be used to determine when to terminate the set.

Cluster Sets

Cluster sets involve taking “mini breaks” between reps or clusters of reps that make up a set. This enables more weight to be lifter for a predetermined number of reps, or more reps to be performed at a designated weight, or more reps achieved at a desired speed quality. Depending on the style of cluster training used it is appropriate to utilse when increasing work capacity in an accumulation phase or when higher loads are needed in an intensification phase.

A cumulative set is a type of cluster where the reps increase after each mini break in a set. For example using a 10RM load perform 1 rep, then rest 10sec, 2 reps, then rest 10sec, 3 reps, then rest 10sec, etc. You keep going until you fail to beat the previous rep tally e.g if you got up to 7 reps, then rest 10sec but then only got out 4 reps you would terminate the set. One to two of these sets are a good alternative to a back off set which typically involves a submaximal load of 10-20RM after the main loading sets of an exercise. Each preceding set acts as a form of pre fatigue and increases the time under tension for the muscle.

Exercise: Compound Exercises
Load: 8-12RM or 60-80% of 1RM
Reps: Max – work up to artificial failure (failure due to fatigue)
Sets: 1-2 as a back off sets or finishers to a workout
Rest: 10sec between clusters, 60-90sec between sets

Maximum Strength
Clusters for maximum strength involve 1-2 reps interspersed by short 10-20sec breaks with high loads. They can be used to increase reps at the designated load or load at designated reps. For example

If a set of 5 could be done with 85% of max in a traditional continuous fashion, 7-8 may be possible utilising 15sec breaks between repetitions.

Or if a set of 5 could be done with 85% of max in traditional continuous fashion, 87.5-90% may be used to still achieve 5 reps with 15sec breaks between repetitions.

Exercise: Compound Exercises.
Load: 2-5RM or 85-95% of 1RM
Reps: 1-2 per cluster, 4-6 per set
Sets: 3-5
Rest: 10-20sec between clusters (longer breaks e.g. 20sec are needed with exercises such as back squat which are harder to rack and unrack compared to bench press), 90sec-3min between sets

Clusters for maximum strength involve single repetitions interspersed by short 10-20sec breaks with moderate to high loads for strength speed exercises such as power cleans and 2-3 repetitions between clusters for speed strength exercises such as bench throws. They enable each rep to be performed more explosively before fatigue sets in and slows down the performance of the exercise.

Exercise: Compound Exercises
Strength Speed: e.g. Olympic variations
Speed Strength: e.g. bench throws, squat jumps
Load: Strength Speed: 70-90% of 1RM
Speed Strength: 10-30% of 1RM
Reps: Strength Speed: 1 rep per cluster, 3-5 per set
Speed Strength: 2-3 reps per cluster, 4-9 reps per set
Sets: 3-5
Rest: 10-20sec between clusters, 90-3min between sets

Putting It Together
To show you how these methods can be used I’ve provided a simple one session example of a total body program utilising traditional set & rep protocols for hypertrophy and one for maximum strength and power, and then the same program utilising some of the methods described.

Hypertrophy – Traditional

Back Squat: 4 x 10 @ 75%
Bench Press: 3 x 8 @ 75-80%, 2 x 15-20 back off sets
Bentover Row: 3 x 8 @ 75-80%, 2 x 15-20 back off sets
Chin/Dip superset: 3 x max
Note: 90sec rest between sets

Hypertrophy – Variation On A Theme

Back Squat: Diminishing Set 50 reps @ 75%
Bench Press: 3 x 8 @ 75-80%, 2 x cumulative sets @ 70%
Bentover Row: 3 x 8 @ 75-80%
Seated Row: 2 x cumulative sets @ 70%
Chin/Dip superset: Diminishing Set 100 total reps between exercises
Note: 90sec rest between sets

Max Strength/Power – Traditional

Power Clean: 4 x 3 @ 85%
Back Squat: 4 x 4 @ 85%
Bench Throws: 4 x 6 @ 20%
Bench Press 4 x 4 @ 85%
Note: 2min rest between sets

Max Strength/Power – Variation On A Theme

Power Clean: 4 x 4 @ 85% as cluster sets with 15sec between 1 rep clusters
Back Squat: 4 x 6 @ 85% as cluster sets with 20sec break between 2 rep clusters
Bench Throws: 4 x 6 @ 20% as clusters with 10sec break between 2 rep clusters
Bench Press: 4 x 4 @ 90% with 20sec break between 1 rep clusters
Note: 2min rest between sets


Now none of these methods are new. In fact Noah probably used them on his arc in his purpose built gym. However, there is a difference between knowing what to do and doing what you know. And perhaps I have given you some ideas to tweak your own training. As Einstein said “imagination is more important than knowledge” and everything known is just a variation on a theme.

Damian Marsh

Damian Marsh has extensive experience with professional athletes having been involved with the ACT Brumbies Rugby Union team since 2000, firstly as athletic performance coach and now as the coordinator of the athletic performance program. During this time he has also been involved with the Australian U/21 rugby program in three world cup campaigns and two years with the Austalia A. Academically he achieved first class honours in his human movement degree and is completing a PhD looking at speed and power constructs in Rugby.

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