Ten Muscle Shocking Principles

Many years ago when I first began lifting weights, I first had to master the movement of each exercise. Then I would figure out which combination of exercises I found to best work the muscle groups I was training. It wasn’t until years after that began to make use of shocking principles to further push myself in the gym.

The purpose of a shocking principle is to shock the muscles during an exercise, typically towards the end of your working set as you reach muscle failure. As you’ll see below, there are a number of different principles that can be used across practically all forms of exercise. I’ve shown ten shocking principles (in no particular order or relevancy as to their effectiveness), in which I demonstrate their use within a different exercise for each one.

You’ll see within the first minute of the video that there is also a free training guide that, besides from covering many important aspects about training and nutrition, also includes all ten of the shocking principles. It also includes a giveaway challenge by the Koios Beverage Corp – an all natural, nootropic energy drink. Simply film yourself demonstrating one of the 10 shocking principles and post it on Instagram tagging myself (@robrichesfitness) and Koios (@koiosbeveragecorp) and I’ll be picking 5 winners to receive a 6-pack of their ‘Smart Beverage’ by December 1st, 2018.

Below is the full video showing all ten shocking principles and exercises (I’ve also included the timestamps for each movement next to the corresponding exercise and principle).

Ten Shocking Principles

#1 STRAIGHT SETS

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At first, you may not think a straight set is a shocking principle, but allow me to explain. Your muscles respond to a stimuli, which in the sense of weight training, is resistance. For your muscles to become larger and stronger, they need to become efficient at performing under increasing stresses over time. For example, if you could just about manage to squat 225lbs for 10 reps, and the following week you add an extra 5lbs (total) and can just about to perform 9 reps, there’s no point trying to increase the weight again. Your muscles will soon adapt (be more efficient at performing the same task), albeit with proper rest and nutrition. The next week you just about manage to squat for ten reps, and so add a further small increment to build up to the following week, and so the progressive cycle continues.

The very nature of straight sets is to push your muscles as hard as they can work (efficiently – remember that term!) I focus on this for every exercise I perform, although it’s usually only within the last set or two (as the first couple of sets are progressively warming up and building up to my heaviest weight – kind of like a car going through the gears before reaching top speed).

Once I’ve reached my threshold – the most my muscles can lift for the desired number of repetitions, then I’m primed for any number of the shocking principles shown below. So you can think of straight sets – going to failure, as being the foundation for all other shocking principles to be added onto after (I want to be clear here that all of these are options. I’m not necessarily saying to use each and every one within each workout. Try a few different ones within each workout on several different exercises, and get a feel for if you found it to beneficial. I look at these as a personal preference, so just because someone else swears by a certain principle, doesn’t mean that it will have the same effect for you).

#2 DROP SETS

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A drop set is probably one of the more common shocking principles that you’re used to. It pertains to reaching muscle failure at the end of a set and immediately lowering the weight/intensity and performing several more reps. In doing so, it keeps places greater stress on the muscles and continues to work them beyond their typical threshold.

I’ve personally found drop sets to be a great addition to many of my workouts, typically reducing between 20-30% of the total weight, and performing a further 6-8 reps on top of the set that I’ve just failed at. Depending on the exercise and type of movement being performed, you may find that you don’t need to remove as much weight, or maybe you do and you can still only manage a couple of reps extra. That’s OK. The point of this principle is to be able to push your muscles past their usual stopping point. I recommend keeping track of all your lifts in a notebook, so you can record which shocking principles you make use of for which exercises, and can begin to learn which ones work best for you within which movements).

#3 REST PAUSE

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The rest-pause principle has been a longtime favorite of mine when lifting heavy weights, and typically when I’ve been training on my own without a spotter around. It follows a similar approach to the drop-set principle mentioned above, except whereas that one requires a decrease in weight, this one does not. After reaching failure, lets say after performing X amount of reps of a deadlift, you simply rest for 20 seconds. You don’t need to do anything – not be on your phone, walking around talking to people, not a thing. You don’t even need to unwrap your grip if you’re locked on to the bar. So long as the muscles are not in use and you’re not holding the weight in any way, just focus on recovering and controlling your breathing for no longer than 20 seconds. Once 20 seconds has passed, get straight back into the exercise and try for a further 2-3 repetitions.

This principle works on your muscles recovering just enough that you’ll have the strength and energy to repeat the same movement with the same weight for a limited time. It’s this extended number of reps, or rather, work done by the muscles, that is a great catalyst for growth, especially when the movement involves large prime movers such as deadlifts, squats, leg presses, barbell rows, bench press, and shoulder presses.

Like with most of these shocking principles, I will only use this once within my exercise. This is because after having reached failure and then pushed my muscles even harder by using this shocking principle, I’ve already increased the stimuli on the muscles and set about a new limit for them to become adjusted too and more efficient at performing the same task, or in other words – grow just that little bit bigger and stronger. There’s no need to continue using this approach on the same exercise, and quite possibly within the rest of the workout either. Doing so may push you too hard and may lead to an increase risk of injury, not to mention diminishing returns on proceeding sets and exercises.

#4 SUPERSETS

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Whilst the first three principles mentioned above may work best for heavier exercises, this one – supersets, allow me to focus more on volume and intensity rather than weight alone.

I’ll also typically use the superset principle as I’m well into my workout, when strength and energy isn’t as high (which I’ll use for my biggest, heaviest exercises at the beginning of the workout), and so I’ll combine two exercises to be performed back to back, without any rest in between.

A great example of this is when I train shoulders, whereby after a couple of big movements like overhead barbell presses and shrugs, I’ll then move into a lot or isolation and unilateral type work, focusing on the individual heads that make up the deltoids. I might start with a set of standing lateral dumbbell raises, or bent over rear deltoid flys, and after reaching close to failure for 10 or 12 reps, will pick up a bar an immediately go into a set of front raises.

This is because my front deltoids get worked a lot with many chest and overhead shoulder movements, and are already quite well developed, so I don’t want to be focusing too much on them, but also don’t want to neglect them. Adding them in as a superset after a focusing on an area that I do want to still develop, means they still get worked but not as a priority. It also saves on time by not having to perform them as a separate exercise with rest between each set.

The example I give above shows the same muscle groups being worked within the superset, but it doesn’t always have to be this way. Often, I’ll superset barbell bench presses with some wide grip pull ups, as this helps to stretch my pectorals as I pull upwards, and fires up my rear delts and lat muscles, which also act as stabilizer and ancillary muscle groups during the bench press.

#5 CIRCUIT

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Circuits have been a long-time favorite of mine for combining several exercises into one circuit, and performing them all without rest, and then repeating the circuit for another 1-2 times. As with the superset principle mentioned above, this is something I’ll often make use of towards the very end of my workout, when energy levels are low and I’ve already pushed my muscles hard.

The most common muscle groups that I tend to focus on within circuits, are forearms, calves, and abdominals (not all together, but individually within different workouts). All of these muscle groups share one thing in common, and that is that they all are typically slow-twitch, red muscle fibers. Unlike fast-twitch fibers such as those predominantly in the pec, quads, and lats, which usually are the ones that respond best to growth from heavy weight, the slow-twitch fiber muscles tend to respond better to higher endurance and volume.

By continuing to work the muscles (say the abdominals), within a circuit of 3-4 different exercises, all of which target the same muscle from a different movement or angle, allows me to keep the intensity/stress on the muscles high, but without needing to use a whole lot of weight (if any). The same goes for when I train my calves or forearms – 3 exercises, performed for 15-20 repetitions, one after the after, and then repeat this process several times over.

My tip with these would be to start with a lighter weight (than you might use if just performing a straight set with all out effort), and focus more so on the full range of motion and execution of the exercise. Really focus on the muscles being worked actually working and consciously engage them so as to fully contract them at the peak of each movement. (With abdominals, your breathing pattern should also be a focus, with short, deep exhales every time you go to contract the abdominals at the end of each movement).

#6 ASSISTED/SPOTTER

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We’ll take a break from the volume-based principles as discussed within the last few exercises above, and get back to some good old fashioned heavy lifting. I discussed in point 3 the rest-pause principle, which is great for when I’m training alone, but if there is someone training with me, or someone around when I’m training (whom I trust – which is a very important quality needed in this principle as I’ll explain soon), then I’ll call upon them for as assisted spot at the end of my working set.

What this entails is to have the spotter be close by as you perform a set using the heaviest weight you can lift, usually for somewhere between 6-10 reps (I’ve chosen the bench press as the example). As soon as they see you reaching failure, they come into assist you and help enable you achieve several more repetitions than you may have been able to do on your own – at least safely and effectively.

When I say assist you, that’s exactly what I mean; they assist you by matching your tempo, taking only enough strain so that you can continue the exercise at the same speed as when you were performing it all on your own. They shouldn’t be lifting the weight for you, or hardly helping enough where you’re still unable to complete any more repetitions.

I mentioned trust when finding/working with the right spotter. This is because they need to really pay attention to your rep cadence and match it as closely as possible when they start to see you reach failure. If they start to help too soon, and lift too much, or try to help after it’s too late and you’ve already hit muscle failure, then this as a shocking principle no longer applies. When they get it just right, and can literally help assist you by just using a light grip without them taking too much of the weight from you, then you truly feel like you’ve taken your muscles to the next level where they have to step up, grow, and get stronger to be able to handle that weight again for the same repetitions.

#7 NEGATIVES

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Besides the rest-pause, and assisted spot principles for muscle growth, this one may actually be my favorite and most beneficial when it comes to forcing the muscles to grow and get stronger. Whilst all other shocking principles practically focus on either the concentric part of the lift (shortening of the muscles), and/or the competition of a full repetition and working set, this one seeks the opposite.

Negatives are all about the focus on the lengthening of the muscles whilst under tension. Usually, this happens within each repetition of your working set as you manage the weight on your own, ending with the last repetition where you focus on the concentric portion, usually followed by racking the weight, or dropping it back to the start. This shocking principle requires that you reach failure performing reps with a heavy weight (although not all the time, as demonstrated with body-weighted pull ups in the video). At the end of your final rep where you would reach muscle failure, a spotter would then assist you as much as they could by lifting the weight so that you are assisted through the concentric portion of the lift, and allow you to control the weight back down on your own (usually at a slightly slower tempo), resisting the weight from falling, and followed by the spotter lifting the weight back up and repeating until you can no longer support the weight back down again.

A great example would be again on the bench press, where you reach failure at say 10 reps, and have the spotter then lift the weight back up from the bottom position (you would still be holding on and pushing, but the spotter is providing most of the lift). They would then keep their hands close to the bar as you control the descent back towards your chest before they take the bar and help lift it back to the top. You could even make use of this principle after having also performed several assisted reps with the spotter helping you push the bar up to the top, but just make sure that they are aware and capable of then also assisting with the negatives, which will require a lot more effort from them.

The reason that this particular shocking principle is so great for strength and muscle gain, is that its said that you’re around 30% stronger on the negative portion of a lift than you are when actually pushing a weight. By allowing your muscles to reach failure on the negative portion of the lift will be a big signal for them to need to adapt.

#8 PARTIAL REPS

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This particular shocking principle has more uses than just at the end of a working set to push your muscles harder. Whilst the exercise shown within the video demonstrates 21’s being used on the arm curl (which I’ll get to shortly), I’ve also found partial reps to be a great addition to the movements such as dumbbell flys and barbell preacher curls. After performing several working sets (on either of the two exercises), I’ll then finish with several repetitions whereby I only focus on the last half of the range of motion. For dumbbell flys, this works more of my outer region of the pecs, and for preacher curls, this will focus on the lower region of my biceps, in particular the brachialis muscle.

Just by focusing on only a portion of the full range of motion, I find I can give more attention to certain muscle groups that I feel I need to work on more than others. It can also leave you with a great pump if you’re unable to finish the full range of motion for the final few reps. Another example is with dumbbell bench presses, whereby I may reach failure and can no longer press the weight to the full extension of my arms, but I can still press them for a few more reps if I’m only performing the first half of the movement.

Now, lets take a look at the beloved ‘21’s’, which focuses on performing different limited ranges of motion for 7 repetitions at a time. This usually starts with the lower half of the lift, moving immediately into the upper half, and finishing with the full range of motion. The motions can be switched around, such as full range first, then upper, and finishing only with the lower half, as can the total number of reps involved. For instance, you could do 5 reps of partial movements, totaling 15 altogether. The result is the same; it leaves you with a wicked pump in the muscles, and allows you to really focus on each different region of the movement.

#9 TEMPO

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As the name suggests, this principle relates to the speed (or lack of) at which you perform the repetition, and usually consists of 3 phases: the lift, a hold, the lowering (in the example shown above, it is the reverse). This is again a principle that I may use towards the mid-point and latter portion of my workout, after having lifted the heaviest of my weights and already put my muscles through a high level of stress. A slow and controlled set tempo doesn’t need to be using a lot of weight, as the time under tension is practically doubled, or even higher in some instances, than it would be under normal lifting conditions.

Lets take a look at the stiff-legged deadlift as an example of performing with a slow tempo, in which I used a tempo structure of 2:2:2. This meant a 2-second negative phase as I lowered the dumbbells down in a smooth and continuous fashion, followed by a hold at the bottom – with the muscles kept flexed, and a further 2-seconds during the concentric phase as I lifted the weights back up. I’ll tell you this: you may find that you can lift a lot more weight in a typical stiff-legged deadlift exercise, but when slowed down like this, you really feel the muscle be worked in a very different way. Not the same as when you get a pump in the muscle, but more so in the way of strength and muscular endurance.

 

This principle does not also need to be used at the end of a working set, like many of the other shocking principles are. You can slow the tempo for any set and even follow subsequent sets with use of another principle. Personally, I like to slow the tempo on isolation exercises such as hamstring curls, leg extensions, arm curls, and even rope pull downs. The tempo doesn’t always have to be in a 2:2:2 ratio, and can be switched up in a variety of different ways. Based on the exercise (in particular with compression/compound movements such as leg press and bench press), you could use a 4:0:1 ratio, which would mean a 4-second slowed decent, with no pause at the bottom and a 1-second (more of an explosive rep) push back up.

#10 RESISTANCE BANDS

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Our last shocking principle in this group may not be a typical shocking principle, but I included it as it great addition to many exercises that can push your muscles harder and if a different manner than the typical exercise alone may do. Pull up bands come in a variety of thickness and resistances, and can easily be added to a variety of exercises and movements whereby they change the dynamic of how the muscle is worked throughout the full range of motion.

Typically used on machines and free weights, the addition of the pull up band provides a consistently increasing resistance throughout the full range of motion of the exercise. Take for example a machine chest press – ideally one with unilateral arms that allows you to perform one side at a time. By hooking one end of the band around to a fixed point on the machine, such as a plate arm that holds additional weights, and the other around the handle, or fixed point on the machine arm that you’ll be moving, when you extend your arm out the resistance band will provide an increasing amount of tension the further you extend the arm.

I use this approach a lot when in the final stages of competing or for a photo shoot, and want to really hone in on my muscle striations and overall conditioning. Even without using much weight on the machine, the addition of the resistance band really allows me to focus on a very deep muscular contraction and hold the squeeze at the peak of the movement, much like an isometric hold but with greater amounts of tension in the muscle. You can incorporate other shocking principles along with this one, including partial reps, slower tempos, and even negatives.

SUMMARY

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I look at these shocking principles as like supplements to a diet; unless you have a consistent training routine and are performing all the exercises with correct form and pushing the muscles hard, adding in a drop set here or there, or finishing with some negatives isn’t going to deliver the expected results you may have wanted. It’s a collective effort, but one that if you’re on the right track and being consistent with your workouts, pushing hard in each and every one, then this array of shocking principles will certainly help you advance towards greater strength and size, amongst other benefits including endurance, conditioning, and in some movements, greater balance and coordination.

There is no set way of incorporating these into your workout routine, just as there is no set way of which foods to eat. We all respond in different ways to such stimuli and training methods, so I leave you with this: Put all ten shocking principles to use within your training over the next few weeks, and keep notes on which exercises and principles you use. Experiment with using different methods at different points in your workout and on different exercises. Grow your awareness and understanding of training the muscles, and use them to help improve any weaknesses you may have.

I look at weight training as being a very personal affair. After all, it’s all relating to you and your body, and what you want from it. These shocking principles allow you to mix and match workouts in any number of ways, with each one giving you a different feeling and response. Don’t feel like you always have to perform them the exact same way. Step outside your comfort zone from time to time and feel your body work in ways that you may not have experienced before. Execute each exercise to the best of your ability, and look at your time in the gym as being the foundation for future changes and development of your mind and body.