ascending set protocol

Ascending Set Protocol for Advanced Trainees

The program that got you to a 200 lbs bench press is not the same program that will get you to bench 400 lbs.

That’s common sense, but as the saying goes: Common sense is not that common. And it stands very true in the realm of strength training.

The complexity of a training protocol is function of the level of an athlete. Always strive to do as little as possible and as simple as possible to elicit progress. A common mistake amongst trainers is to try and throw the proverbial kitchen sink too early when designing programs.

While advanced techniques have a definite appeal to them it is a mistake to call upon them unless necessary.

Dodge the bullet by using a good periodization plan.

Undulating periodization has always been a staple of my programs and with stellar results.

The Science of Periodization

Musculature and nervous system are the pillars of physique and sport performance. Research on the writings of the top East European strength experts, and discussions with strength expert Dietmar Schmidtlbeiche lead me to elaborate such undulating patterns. Indeed, for most individuals alternating high-volume phases (known as accumulation phases) with high-intensity phases (known as intensification phases) is very conductive to progress. In fact, my own model of undulating loading patterns has been compared in the scientific literature to other modules of training, and has been shown to be superior, particularly when training the upper body.

The accumulation phases I prescribe use higher repetitions, high volume/low- or medium-intensity training.

Accumulation Phase Characteristics:

• High number of exercises (2-4 per body part)

• Higher reps (7 reps or more)

• Lower sets (2-4 sets per exercise)

• Higher volumes (no. of total sets x total reps)

• Lower intensities (below 80 percent)

• Shorter rest intervals (30 to 90 seconds)

A typical accumulation phase may consist of 3 exercises of 3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting an average of 75 seconds between sets.

These rep and intensity brackets emphasize type IIa as well as type I fibers. As well as generating a good deal of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. It comes from the increase in volume of the cell itself, but not from the contractile elements. The cross-section increases stems from stored fuel like glycogen, capillary density etc..

Intensification Phase Characteristics:

• Low number of exercises (1-2 per body part)

• Lower reps (1-6)

• Higher sets (10-12 total sets per body part)

• Lower volumes (total no. of sets x total no. of reps, e.g., 6 sets of 3 reps=18 reps of volume)

• Higher intensities (80 percent and above)

• Longer rest intervals (3-5 minutes)

A typical intensification phase may consist of 2 exercises of 5 sets of 4-6 reps, and resting an average of 3-5 minutes between sets.

These parameters emphasize the development of type IIx fibers which albeit being less endurant have the ability to generate more force.

Note that science has identified up to 47 different types of muscle fibers with different characteristics. Consider fiber types IIx I, and IIa as convenient milestones to navigate on this wide spectrum.

The Art of Periodization

The respective length of each phase will be affected by several factors:

  • First and foremost determine the goal. Is it strength or mass gains?

If the overarching objective is hypertrophy, then it calls for longer accumulation phases. Conversely, strength gains require longer intensity phases. As a rule of thumb a 1:4 ratio produces consistant results.

  • The other consideration that will modulate the ratios is neurological efficiency.

Neurological efficiency describes the ability to recruit the higher threshold motor units. These fast twitch fibers (typically IIx) respond best to intensity and tend to fatigue quicker. This is why when intensity goes up, the rep count goes down.

Neurological efficiency is largely governed by neurotransmitters set-up, and training age. Neurologically gifted trainees are these guys than bench press 1,5x body weight on day 1 at the gym. Both seasoned and gifted athletes tend to adapt quicker.

Hence, the beginner typically stays 3-4 weeks on the same protocol in the athletic population. Note that this number can go up with the general population. Whereas an advanced athlete will not stay for more than 2 weeks and sometimes even as little as one week on a given protocol. And same goes for a neurologically efficient athlete.

science, ascending set protocol

Here an example:

Phase (Intensification/Accumulation)      

Acc.1.          

Int.1.          

Acc. 2.       

Int. 2.         

Acc. 3.      

Int. 3.         

Beginner

12

6

10

5

8

4

Advanced

8

4

6

3

4

2

Note that overall intensity goes up regardless of the phase. This is dictated by the principle of progressive overload.

Thus the undulating pattern works on a macro level -from week to week. But I took the idea one step further and decided to modulate the training stressor at the micro level. Let me clarify. Instead of alternating intensity and accumulation phases across weeks, I condensed the principle within single workout units. This means I would work a broader range of fibers within the same workout.

Back-off Sets:

The rationale is similar to another method that effectively uses high reps, namely back-off sets. With back-off sets each workout concludes with a twenty to twenty five rep set for a given bodypart. Bill Starr is a big fan of this method. And it is a great way to knock off the lower threshold motor units once you have done your quality heavy work. This a very good plateau buster for hypertrophy training. In fact, a recent Japanese study demonstrated that when added to the time-proven 5 x 5 program, back-off sets boost the hypertophy gains.

Note on intensity bracket:

When it comes to strength training, I advise to restrict the intensity of any given workout to a 10-12% spread. The reason is that wide variations in training intensity can scatter the recovery ressources and render the training suboptimal from a neurological perspective. Vladimir Zatsiorsky and Tudor Bompa were vocal in their reluctance to exceed a 30% bracket. I prefer to work within a 10-12% intensity spread 80% of the time for strength and relative strength workouts. 

As for hypertrophy, we gain more leeway since the focus shifts from functionality to mass gains – functional or sarcoplasmic mass, regarless.

I am a big fan of creating a big repertoire of techniques. And sometimes you come across methods that are so effective that they work across borders. One such gem I have in my arsenal is doublé training. It’s a great plateau buster that can work for strength specialization or hypertrophy specialization. Click To Tweet

Doublé Training

I learned it from Pierre Roy, who’s is Canada’s most productive weightlifting coach. Basically it involves doing the same exercise twice in the same workout.

Obviously Roy first used it in the sport of Olympic lifting to break plateaus, but it can be used in athletic training and hypertrophy training as well. Incidentally a French physiologist named Gilles Commetti raved about doublé for building mass. So I decided to use the system with this end in mind.

Doublé is a French term that means to do something twice. And here’s how it works: Whatever lift or body part you want to improve, you do it twice in your workout. So for example if your squat is weak or quads so puny your silhouette is reminiscent of those birds feeding of carotenoid pigment rich foods. Then you squat at the beginning of a workout, and you squat again at the end.

The Ascending Set Program I’m about to present you with combines doublé training with a micro periodization.

The Blueprint of the Ascending Set Protocol

This program can be used for as long as four to six workouts. And could be repeated every 6 months or so.

Pick two exercises per body part.

Repeat both exercices twice in the workout.

Use a agonist/antagonist scheme.

  • Pair One: A1/A2 and B1/B2

The rep range used for the A1/A2 and B1/B2 pairs ranges from 8 to 2 reps according to neurotransmitters set-up and training age.

Rest periods oscillate between 100 and 120 seconds depending on the body part trained. Larger body parts call for longer rest periods.

  • Pair Two: C1/C2 and D1/D2

The rep range for C1/C2 and D1/D2 falls in the vicinity of 25 reps.

Rest periods vary between 100 and 120 seconds depending on the body part trained.

Here’s an example for Chest and Back.

advanced trainee

Order

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Tempo

Rest

A1

Bench Press Prone Sdt BB Medium Grip with Chains

4

2-4

50X0

120 sec

A2

Chin-up Pronated Wide Grip

4

2-4

50X0

120 sec

B1

Dips Chest

4

2-4

5010

120 sec

B2

Row Kneeling Sdt DB Neutral Grip Unilateral

4

2-4

5010

120 sec

C1

Bench Press Prone Sdt BB Medium Grip

1

25

10X0

90 sec

C2

Chin-up Pronated Wide Grip

1

25

10X0

90 sec

D1

Dips Chest

1

25

10X0

90 sec

D2

Row Kneeling Sdt DB Neutral Grip Unilateral

1

25

10X0

90 sec

Exercice Selection

When selecting exercices for the ascending set protocol opt for most bang for your buck exercises. Forget about triceps kick-back and shoulders external rotations. Squat and Bench Press are on the menu.

There is an important fact to bear in mind: Form dictates fonction. When performing multi joint exercises keep in mind that small muscles will get tired first and might limit the efficacy of your workout. Hence front squat typically don’t fare well with rep schemes higher than 6 since rhomboids tends to get tired quickly and will limit the performance. In the same vein, with complex motor patterns lifts, technique goes down the drain with higher reps. And is therefore a poor choice. Deadlifts would be a controversial choice here. At the opposite Leg Curls Prone or Good Mornings would be excellent. Yes, even leg curl which are typically trained at the lower end of the rep repertoire.

This method both suits upper and lower body. But will be especially effective for upper body which requires more variation.

Closing Words

As you see it is an astute combination of several advanced techniques. This is why this protocol is designed for advanced athletes. For one thing it is hard, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Secondly it is useless for a beginner. You don’t kill a fly with a hammer.

Train smart, hard and keep learning.

Coach Charles R. Poliquin