The final leg of the series by Glenn Cranham B.Sc

 In ‘Using Set Systems 2’ we looked at set systems that involved increasing or decreasing either the load, reps or both. In this final article we will consider high volume training systems and those that sit outside of the parameters previously discussed.

 Higher volume training systems:

A number of training systems specifically manipulate volume as the main training variable. Volume is a vital component required in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.  The most popular variations on this theme are ‘German Volume Training’ (GVT) and ‘Escalating Density Training’ (EDT). 

GVT is a method utilised by European weight lifters when hypertrophy is required for an elevation in weight category. It is a simple but effective method of increasing LBM but is considered by some to be overly repetitive, however workouts are short and progress is easily monitored.

GVT protocol

Select 60% of 1RM

Attempt to perform 10 sets of 10 reps with exactly 60 seconds recovery between sets

Initially it may not be possible to perform all sets of 10 reps and a workout may look something like this 10,10,10,10,10,10,9,9,8,7 reps.

The aim is to work towards performing 10 sets of 10 reps at which point the weight should be increased by 5%.

GVT workouts normally consist of one compound exercise and one isolation exercise for the same muscle group.  For example

  • bench press and DB flyes
  • squats and leg extensions
  • deadlifts and leg curls

The isolation exercise is considered to be secondary and is performed for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps only. Normally, only one pairing is utilised on each training day necessitating multiple training days. Only large muscle groups are suitable for GVT and smaller synergistic muscle groups e.g. biceps, triceps, calves etc are trained with minimal volume, if at all, so more recovery resources are available for the bigger muscle groups which have greater hypertrophy potential.

EDT is another higher volume training method that lends itself very well to the development of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

In EDT, an agonist/antagonist superset is performed back and forth with little or no rest for a pre-determined time period (usually 15 minutes). This  can be adjusted up or down depending on experience and fitness level. The time period is known as a PR zone (personal record) and 2-3 PR zones are used per workout.

The aim is to count the reps completed in each PR zone, and attempt to perform more reps in subsequent workouts. When an improvement in volume of 10% is noted, resistance is increased by 5%

EDT protocol

An upper body/core EDT workout may look something like this:

PR Zone 1

A1 Bench Press

A2 Bent Over Rows


PR Zone 2

B1 Military Press

B2 Chins


PR Zone 3

C1 Swiss Ball Crunches

C2 Dorsal Raises

The client rests as long as is necessary between exercises, reducing recovery as they become more accustomed to the programme. Resistance used should be around an 8-12 RM, however in the initial few sets, effort should be slightly sub-maximal (keeping 1-2 reps in reserve) so as not to fatigue too early.

EDT offers the client a simple way of tracking progress as they merely have to log the number of reps performed, with no worry of rest intervals and sets. If they perform more reps in a given PR zone, they have by definition exposed themselves to a greater workload and, given that all other recovery factors are attended to, progress should be seen.

Super slow:

As the name suggests the super slow system involves performing repetitions at a tempo significantly slower than normal. Anything from 20-60 seconds to complete.

Advocates suggest that the increased time under tension (TUT) enhances force production potential, in part due to the deliberate exclusion of momentum from the movement. This means that muscular contractions must perform all of the work.

Critics argue that appropriate use of momentum is one of the fundamentals of human movement. Stating that in order to complete repetitions at such a slow tempo the load must also be significantly reduced. This may actually limit force production as strength development is best achieved using near maximal intensities.

The specificity principle of fitness states that there will be a specific adaptation to the imposed demand. It can therefore be argued, that the super slow system of training will only be of genuine benefit if the client’s regular activities involve moving a load very slowly. This argument has been used to argue further that this method of training may in fact slow down force production in power exercises.

Matrix (‘21s’):

This method of training is a traditional favourite of bodybuilders…normally in the form of “21s” for bicep curls.

The matrix system can be utilised when performing most resistance exercises and involves breaking a rep down into three distinct phases…normally described as outer range, inner range and full range. Each phase is performed for 7 reps, giving a total of 21 reps, hence the name “21s” being synonymous with the matrix method.

A set of “21s” for bicep curls would be performed as follows…

7 reps from extension to 90 degrees of elbow flexion

7 reps from 90 degrees of elbow flexion to full flexion

7 reps full range of movement

The premise of the matrix method is it increases time under tension per set and thus promotes an increase in hypertrophy. Additionally it has the benefit of increasing the volume of work performed at the ends of the range of movement where the muscle are often weakest. It can be useful when using lighter weights an increasing the range of an exercise i.e deeper squat

Forced/negative reps:

It is often the case in resistance training, that we fail concentrically when performing an exercise but actually have some eccentric strength left. That is to say, we may not have the ability to lift a certain weight but may still have the ability to lower the load under control. Potentially, a number of motor units are left unused which, when seeking hypertrophy, might potentially limit some of the gains that would otherwise have been made. In forced reps and negative reps we can overcome this weakness by exaggerating the eccentric phase of an exercise or making the concentric phase slightly easier.

To employ forced reps, the client performs as many reps on his/her own as they can until the point of failure is reached. At this point, the trainer provides a minimal amount of assistance in the concentric phase to permit the performance of another rep. As the client fatigues further, the trainer will provide slightly more assistance each rep for a total of 2-4 reps before terminating the set. This process is merely an extension of normal spotting procedures. It is important to note that at no point should the trainer be helping to the degree that they are doing more work than the client! If this is the case, the load is too great or the set has been extended too far beyond failure. As with decending sets this will often be incorporated when a client fails to achieve the prescribed basic set.

In negative reps, the concentric phase of an exercise is intentionally reduced or removed, and all the effort is applied to the eccentric portion of the movement. Potentially this means the client can be exposed to supramaximal loads in excess of their normal repetition maximum. Examples of negative reps include leg extensions where the resistance is raised with two legs but lowered with one, chin/pull ups where the client climbs/jumps into the top position, and lowers themselves slowly into the extended position or a bench press where two spotters are used to lift the bar into the starting position and the client lowers the bar slowly on his/her own.  

Clearly both methods are advanced, should not be attempted by novice clients and only performed with the aid of an experienced spotter/trainer. It should be noted that the eccentric portion of any exercise is believed to be the main contributing factor in causing DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).  However, this type of training can also result in dramatic increases in strength and cross sectional size when performed judiciously with advanced clients. 

Contrast training:

In order to make the strongest muscular contraction the nervous system must be able to simultainously recruit as many fibres as possible.

Contrast training is a system that attempts to “trick” the nervous system

and make a heavy resistance feel lighter than usual, by lifting a heavier weight shortly before.

Contrast training protocol:

Perform 1 rep with 95% of 1RM

Rest 2-3 minutes

Perform as many reps as possible with 8-10 RM

Rest 2-3 minutes

Repeat sequence 2-3 times more

The rep with 95% of 1RM should feel heavy but not impossible. Its purpose is to excite the nervous system and encourage nerve synapses to fire synergistically and quickly.

After resting for the required interval, the nervous system is prepared for another close to maximal effort, however because the load has been significantly reduced for the second set the load will feel much lighter than it would have otherwise, thus permitting more reps than usual to be performed. It is not unusual for users of this system to perform 1-2 reps above their normal repetition maximum, thus exposing themselves to greater training stimulus. 

It is possible to “water down” this system for clients less used to near maximal loads by employing 3-4 reps with 5RM and 15RM loading parameters. This variation permits the client to gain some of the benefits of the system without experiencing the inherent risks associated with very heavy loads.

Owing to the use of near maximal resistance this is not a system for beginners but for more advanced clients, especially those seeking strength and hypertrophy from their training, this approach is effective. 

Self ‘Spotting’ Systems

The following systems are all methods that are employed in order to complete the last few reps of a set, often when attempting to complete another set system. Popular with bodybuilders, the systems are generally utilised when training by oneself in order to give assistance to a movement without a spotter.

It’s very important to note that these systems are only intended to help with the last 2-3 reps to push beyond normal concentric failure. These systems are commonly over utilised in favour of appearing to be able to lift heavier weights. Where assisstance is required at the begining of a set (unless performing negatives) the weight should be reduced to enable completion or very near completion of the set without assistance.

Cheat Sets:

Basically this is where you use a small amount of momentum to assisst yourself. Commonly seen with guys doing bicep curls and thrusting their hips slightly to assist with the initial stage of the lift. Other common exercises are with lat pull downs and low/ seated rows, here a slight backwards jerk with the body helps the initial phase of the movement. ‘Kipping’ (using momentum) for pull ups and muscle ups is another commonly utilised practice.

Rest Pause:

With this method the intention is to complete as set to failure,  then pause to enable some of your fibres to recover before completing a further few reps. There are various debates as to the length of the pause and the number of times this is repeated past failure. I utilise this method every so often on just a couple of exercises (bench press & Squats).

Partial Range:

As discussed with the Matrix systems our muscles are often weakest towards the ends of their range. Utilising the partial range systems means performing the last few reps with less than full range range where the muscles may still have sufficient strength. An example would be performing a bench press or press up whilst only going to 90° at the elbow, or squats at 90° or less at the knee

Here’s a final workout for you. You may be a little sore after.

Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Dynamic stretch, Warm up 6 mins CV       4-5 RPE  
Front Squats Matrix 2 21 (7/7/7) 65% 1 min
Close grip Lat pull Down Matrix 2 21 (7/7/7) 65% 1 min
Bench Press Matrix 2 21 (7/7/7) 65% 1 min
Back Squats GVT 10 10 60 1 min
Wide Grip Pull Ups (kipping)

/Lat Pull down

Cheat 3 10 Bodyweight or 75% 45secs
Bench Press with a spotter Rest Pause

(8sec pause)

3 10 75


1 min
Leg Extensions (2 legs up, 1 leg down alternating) Eccentric 3 10 75




Cool Down & Stretch          

Legs, Pull & Push Hypertrophy Workout

This concludes our little series of articles on set systems. I really hope you enjoyed incorporating some of them into your training and feel a you have a few more tools when programming for yourselves and your clients.