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There’s a conundrum with forced reps, and it’s the key to their effectiveness. By assisting, a spotter makes reps easier, but by making them easier, he makes the set harder. It’s all a matter of perspective. When you’re under the iron and you can’t eke out another rep on your own, continuing onward with forced reps will feel anything but easy, even as helping hands lessen the resistance. Forced reps are one of the most effective methods for blowing through stop signs and barreling into the pain (and growth) zone.
“Assisted reps” would be a more accurate name than “forced reps,” but the latter captures the feeling you might get when just enough resistance is removed for your set to continue beyond your normal limits. You’re forced to keep going. Failure is not an option. And that brings us to the first and most important thing to know about this technique: It’s exercise overtime. A spotter should assist you only when you’re on the verge of failing, and he should apply only enough pressure so you can continue to move the weight at the same pace as before.
The key to effective forced reps is the transfer of resistance from your muscles to his so the reps are not too hard or too easy but just right, progressing at the same pace as all preceding reps and within the same groove. (For this reason, a regular training partner, who should know your strength, is the ideal spotter.) On each subsequent forced rep, more stress will need to be removed. If, after reaching failure at eight reps, your spotter helps just enough for you to grind out four more, you’ll understand that forced is an appropriate adjective, after all.
As with cheating, forced reps don’t work with all exercises. Deadlifts, lunges, and barbell rows are among the ones where it’s impractical for someone to assist. The good news is that forced reps can be used with some exercises you should never cheat, including most lifts for chest (such as incline presses, dumbbell flyes, and dips) and many for legs (including squats, hack squats, and leg presses). Sometimes, as in the case of squats, the spotter should hover closely behind you, simulating your movements. Other times, as with hack squats, he stands to one side and pulls up on a weight sleeve.
HOLDING IT DOWN
A spotter can also make reps more difficult. These reverse forced reps are effective during the earliest stage of a set. Usually, the first reps serve as precursors, tiring you out before the real growth inducers at the end. But if a spotter makes them harder, you can do maximum-effort reps from the get-go and create a sort of dropset in which resistance is lessened throughout the set.
For example, when doing pullups, the spotter can apply downward pressure to your feet, making reps harder. He can then remove stress as the set advances until you’re doing reps by yourself. Then, as you begin to struggle, he can provide upward pressure on your feet, relieving increasingly more resistance on the final reps. In this progression from reverse forced to unassisted to forced, you’re using maximum resistance from the first rep to the last, instead of coasting through the early stage and straining only at the end.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Our triceps forced-reps routine illustrates how forced reps can be applied to a variety of exercises. During the final reps of pushdowns, your spotter can push down on your hands, pull down on the cable, or lift up on the weight stack. All three methods require careful focus to remove just the right amount of stress. Pushdowns can also be done unilaterally without a spotter; you lightly press down on your working forearm with your other hand. Close-grip bench presses are relatively easy for a spotter. He stands behind you and lifts up on the bar just enough for you to keep pressing at the same pace. Finally, for lying triceps extensions, the spotter squats behind you and helps move the weight both up and forward in a semi-arc, being careful not to help too much or not enough. The weight needs to keep moving, you need to stay in the groove, and your muscles need to feel the pain.
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FORCED-REP TIP SHEET
TRICEPS FORCED-REPS ROUTINE