The Science of Advanced Bodybuilding Exercise Prescription

By Jason Tremblay & Andrew Vigotsky

In 1977, a docudrama focused on the 1975 Mr.Olympia and Mr.Universe competitions became available to the viewing public. This film, appropriately titled Pumping Iron, introduced many to the world of Bodybuilding and training for the purpose of muscular development, myself included.

The science behind training for muscular development, referred to as hypertrophy, is simply captivating. Five years ago as I first watched the namesake of this site training, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander – why was he using this rep range, why was he using momentum on his barbell curls, what is the purpose of his training program being laid out the way that it is?

These questions drew me towards the science of bodybuilding, and more importantly, the science behind writing programs for maximal muscular development - and those techniques that were seen during Pumping Iron? I later found out that they were referred to as The Weider Training Principles; created by a Canadian gentleman named Joe Weider. Since then, my fellow coaches at The Strength Guys and I have studied, practiced, and created hundreds of periodized training programs with the goal of maximizing muscular development. During this process we have learned how to manipulate the usage of these techniques to maximize positive outcomes, and minimize the negative outcomes. The purpose of this article is to share the theory, supporting research, pros, cons and practical implications of three popular intensity techniques with you – so that you can implement them into your own training as well.

Intensity Technique #1 – The Dropset

What are Drop Sets?

Drop Sets, otherwise referred to by Joe Weider as the Descending Set Principle, involve working a muscle to failure, and then reducing the weight before immediately continuing. (Stoppani, 2013)

The Theory

The benefit of this technique is rather simple, Drop Sets allow for more weight to be lifted for more reps than in a more conventional situation. Such an occurrence would enhance time under tension, and the buildup of lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphates (McArdle, 2010). Enhancing time under tension and metabolic stress appear to be of great benefit to those seeking muscular development. (Spiering, 2008; Toigo, 2006)

Pros of Implementing Drop Sets

  • Increasing high threshold motor unit recruitment due to more contractions occurring in an environment of accumulated fatigue (Spiering, 2008; Burd, 2010).
  • Dropsets can be performed on most exercises independently, therefore they do not require the assistance of a training partner or spotter – although it is recommended.


  • Increased risk of burnout (Willardson, 2006)

The Verdict

Dropsets appear to be a valid and effective technique of training for muscular development. Due to the increased risk of burnout, it would be wise to keep usage of this technique to a reasonable weekly minimum.

Practical Implications

For the purpose of fatigue management, we suggest periodizing dropsets in a weekly undulating manner. Weekly Undulating Periodization involves changes in a training variable on a weekly basis.

Week 1 – 8 total dropsets

Week 2 – 4 total dropsets

Week 3 – 10 total dropsets

Week 4 – 4 total dropsets

The model above includes an alteration of training volume which creates a different magnitude of training stimulus during each week of a 4-week training program. The higher volume microcycles in week 1 and week 3 create a larger overload stimulus, while the lower volume periods in weeks 2 and 4 create a lower volume, maintenance based stimulus.

Additionally, we do not recommend utilizing dropsets on movements that require significant stability of the spinal column. One must also note that Dropsets performed on major compound movements will be more taxing than dropsets performed on isolation movements. This fact warrants more frequent usage of this technique on isolation movements such as a bicep curl, and more cautious usage of this technique on compound lifts such as the chest press.

Intensity Technique #2 - Cheat Reps

What Are Cheat Reps?

Cheat Reps involve utilizing moderate amounts of momentum to overcome fatigue at the end of a set.

The Theory

As fatigue builds up, force output decreases. There is a significant amount of research to indicate that the intent to continue to contract can stimulate a full spectrum of motor units, and therefore is a valid and valuable means of training for muscle hypertrophy (Loenneke, 2011; Burd, 2010, Ogborn and Schoenfeld).

Arandjelovic (2013) investigated the effects of cheating on the dumbbell lateral raise exercise in a complex modeling paper. He concluded that using moderate momentum (57.5º/s) seems to be ideal for safely increasing training stimuli and the resulting hypertrophy response by increasing torque on the target muscle.


  • Increased torque on the target muscle (Arandjelovic, 2013)
  • Cheat Reps can be performed without the assistance of a spotter


  •  Limited usage ability

The Verdict on Cheat Reps

Cheat reps are a valid method of increasing torque on the muscle being trained, and thus appear to be a valid method of training for muscle hypertrophy. (Arandjelovic, 2013) Due to the precarious nature of utilizing momentum on many exercises, we recommend confining the usage of cheating to the following exercises:

  •  Curls
  •  Shoulder Raises
  •  Cable Tricep Extensions

Practical Implications

Due to safety concerns, we only advise the usage of cheat reps on exercises that will not place the spinal column in a precarious position. This guideline eliminates the use of cheat reps on a large number of exercises, and leaves us with isolation exercises to work with. Since isolation exercises require significantly less coordination, and are less taxing in nature, we recommend that bodybuilders utilize cheat reps at the end of each set in a frequent manner.

Intensity Technique #3 – Supersets

What are Supersets?

Supersets are defined as performing two exercises in a successive manner without rest.

The Theory

Supersets allow for more work to be performed in less time. On its surface, the benefit of this method are two-fold; more metabolic stress, and increased energy expenditure per unit of time. (Schoenfeld, 2010; Kelleher et al. 2010) As we delve further into the theory and evidence behind supersets, we can begin to classify different types of supersets based off of the exercise sequence used.

Antagonist-Agonist Supersets

A basic example of an antagonist-agonist superset would be performing a lying leg curl in succession of a bout of leg extensions. Research indicates that contacting an antagonist muscle increases force output during subsequent contractions of the agonist (Schoenfeld, 2011; Grabiner, 1990). Essentially meaning that performing lying leg curls before leg extensions would hypothetically lead to more force output being produced on the leg extension.

Compound Supersets

The Compound Set Weider Training Principle involves training two exercises for the same bodypart in a successive manner. Weider recommended utilizing the Compound Set method with sequences such as 8-10 reps of leg press, followed by 10-15 reps of leg extension. (Weider, 2011) The benefit of this method is similar to the benefits of the Dropset method discussed earlier – enhancing metabolic stress and time under tension.


  • Time-efficient
  • Independent
  • Enjoyable


  • Utilizing multiple pieces of equipment at once during the busier hours of gym operation isn’t always feasible. This limits creative possibilities for athletes that train during prime-time hours of operation in busy gyms.


Supersets are an effective method of increasing energy expenditure per unit of time, buildup of fatigue metabolites, and time under tension (Kelleher, 2011; Weider, 2011; Schoenfeld, 2011)

Practical Implications

We recommend utilizing supersets frequently for many reasons: decreasing the duration of training, performing more work per unit of time, increasing metabolic stress, increasing time under tension, and increasing the entertainment value of training. For that reason, we recommend using supersets frequently during hypertrophy training.

There is a time and a place for the usage of all of these training modalities. Ultimately it is up to the exercise programmer to decide on the extent of their implementation and how it will fit into the larger ecosystem of training variables. For further information on programming for bodybuilding, as well as powerlifting and strength and conditioning, you can get in touch with us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thestrengthguys, Twitter and Instagram @TheStrengthGuys, or via our website: www.thestrengthguys.com



Jason Tremblay is the Co-Founder and President of The Strength Guys, an up to date coaching organization which creates evidence based, stylish, and effective programs for athletes. Jason has developed strength and conditioning programs for  numerous champion bodybuilders and powerlifters, as well as for NASCAR pit crews and drivers. 

Andrew Vigotsky is the Chief Research Officer for The Strength Guys. Andrew is also a student and researcher at Arizona State University.

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