When my wife and I bought a new home around 10 years ago, we knew we were going to spend a few dollars on structural upgrades. One of them was an extra foot of ceiling height in the basement so that once my gym was set up, overhead pressing wouldn’t be a problem. That foot cost an extra 22 grand, by the way! But luxuries like hardwood flooring, granite counter tops, crown molding and the like, we decided to hold off until later.
One household item that I didn’t give much consideration to initially was the toilet. Builders will try to save money anywhere they can and toilets are no exception. I mean if you passed a kidney stone you’d clog these things so you can imagine what it was like on a high protein and fiber diet!
When the day came to renovate, I made sure that the toilets were on the list. All four bathrooms were outfitted with new, high-end TOTO toilets. Pardon the pun, but these things kick some serious butt! I mean, you could eat bowls of cereal, oatmeal and cream of wheat, a loaf of bread smothered with peanut butter and jelly, and inhale some fruit along with it – you know, the typical breakfast you had in the ‘80s – and it would be no match for these beasts.
Once in a blue moon, like maybe once a year, you would accomplish the ultimate goal of clogging a TOTO and once you do, it’s tough to unclog! On a couple occasions, it’s taken me a few days of hardcore plunging before hearing that sacred “down the drain” sound. Forget battling ropes, you want conditioning? Unclog a TOTO!
Well, it just so happened that on one of those “clogged” occasions, we were expecting guests. My wife was busy cleaning the house, setting the table, getting the kids ready and making dinner, and I had the hard task: unclog the TOTO! After getting an unbelievable arm pump, I decided to go to Home Depot and pick up one of those mega “Fred Flintstone” plungers. When I got back, I threw on a tank top and went to work. After half an hour of what looked like a Crossfit session, still no success! I needed a different approach. I turned to my computer for help.
A simple internet search on “how to unclog a TOTO toilet” changed my life forever! In a forum post, a plumber mentioned that most people are doing it wrong when they try to unclog a toilet, any toilet. Using brute force with a “big ass” plunger (again, pardon the pun) can make things worse! The trick is to use very short, quick strokes until you see the water vibrating and then pull up on the plunger. Most of the time, the bowl will siphon out when you lift the plunger up and away.
It was worth a shot. So I went over to the toilet, grabbed the scrawny plunger and used short, quick strokes. As soon as the water started to vibrate, I lifted that “sucker” up and the toilet unclogged. Just like that! What normally would take hours, even days, was accomplished in seconds! If I would’ve used my brain instead of my brawn, I would’ve solved this problem much sooner with far less effort.
It’s funny because this little incident reminded me of a well-known technique in strength training that's quite effective for muscle growth. Basically, it involves rapid partial movements at the end of a set to extend the time under tension and induce greater metabolic stress as a stimulus for hypertrophy. And much like a clogged toilet, these short, quick strokes produce fast results!
From old-time champions like Larry Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger to new-age stars like Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler, many professional bodybuilders have used this method in one form or another to pack on muscle. Even YouTube sensation CT Fletcher advocates this form of penitentiary-style lifting.
Back in the day, these quick, partial cramping reps performed at the end of a set were called “burns” and for obvious reason. We’ve all done this with calf training and it burns like hell! But have you ever tried it with bench presses, pull-ups, squats or even wrist curls?
In The Education of a Bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger states:
“The forearm, like the calf, is a hard muscle to reach. Do as many full reps as you can, then continue with partial reps until your forearm is tight and burning. Don’t worry about pain; it means growth… Take a weight you can handle for about 15 full reps. Then push yourself with some partial reps, even if you are able to move the bar only an inch. Do five sets of 15 repetitions and include a few burns at the end of each set.”
Fact is, burns can be done on just about any exercise. In Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger expands on this concept:
“Continuing to do partial reps when you are too tired to complete full range-of-motion repetitions is a shock method I have always used for almost any muscle in the body, and it is a particular favorite of Dorian Yates. Dorian has done a lot of training where he forced his muscles past the point of momentary failure to almost total exhaustion, using techniques like forced reps and partial reps. Partial reps are most effective at the end of a set, when you are almost exhausted. For example, if you were doing Preacher Curls, you would have your workout partner help you lift the weight and then you would lower it a few degrees and then lift it as much as possible, even if only a few inches; then lower it some more and do some partial reps from that position, repeating this on the way down until your muscles are burning and exhausted.”
Why are burns effective for muscle growth? As stated in the book Reps!: “Burns enable the trainer to continue an exercise when another rep cannot be performed. They keep the blood in the area a few seconds longer. More fibres are recruited and fired off. More growth is stimulated.”
Steve Holman and Jonathan Lawson of Iron Man Magazine have coined these short, rapid bursts or pulses as “X” reps. They advocate conducting these eXtra partial reps near the bottom of a movement at the semi-stretch position and only on the last set of any big exercise like presses or squats. According to Holman and Lawson, the longer tension time can trigger more growth by creating occlusion, or blocked blood flow, which triggers a full-blown pump as well as a number of key anabolic responses such as activating more muscle fibers and more anabolic hormones. This is the precise stress that promotes a tremendous increase in the size of a muscle cell and possibly in the number of muscle cells (research ties stretch-position overload to hyperplasia, or muscle-fiber splitting).
Many professional bodybuilders have used burns in this manner. For instance, Larry Scott, one of the first champions to extensively use burns, would perform 6 full reps of preacher curls to failure with a heavy barbell and then immediately do 6 partial reps in the bottom position before finishing his set. Scott built some legendary arms with this technique!
Another option for burns is to do them near the peak-contracted position. Swedish bodybuilding sensation Andreas Cahling, who looks more jacked today at the age of 60 then most guys a third of his age, used this variation of burns quite effectively during his competitive years on movements such as leg extensions, leg curls, rows, chins and pulldowns. In Joe Weider’s Ultimate Bodybuilding, Cahling revealed how well this method worked for him:
“To give you an idea of how much benefit I received from incorporating burns into my routines as a means of pushing selected sets past failure, consider my progress during the year leading up to my Mr. International victory. A year before, I was not yet doing burns, and had cut out at 185 pounds. In none of the previous 3-4 years had I gained more than 3-4 pounds of solid new muscle mass. But after eight months of doing burns, I was up to 196 super-hard pounds of dense muscle mass and won my biggest title!”
Try burns in your next workout. Do them at the end of every last set of an exercise to fully exhaust the muscles involved. Do them in the bottom range, in the top range, at your sticking point, or simply in mid-range. At the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters where you do them as long you prolong the time under tension until there’s nothing left in the tank.
Typically, these end-of-set partials are only a few inches in range and should be done for 6-10 reps: less than 6 and you’re wimping out and more than 10 means that you should've been able to perform one more full-range repetition before “burning” out!
Deadlifts are one exception where burns may not be appropriate, but you can use them on squats, just make sure to set the safety rods appropriately. Of course, a spotter is always “handy!”
Training is no different than unclogging a toilet. You want to get the most results with the least amount of effort and time. So take the plunge with burns! I’m not saying that they won’t kick the “crap” out of you, but you can expect fast results. When all your effort in the gym is in the toilet, use short, quick strokes to get things moving again.
To your success,
John Paul Catanzaro
Posted Jun 21, 2015