The number one question I get from my athletes (and basically everyone else as well) is, “How can I put on some much needed muscle?” Unfortunately, there are many ways to do it, but they’re all generally dependent on three things: keeping one’s diet in check, genetics, and rest. (There are many, many other factors as well, but elaborating on them all would be way too long for this post.) Because of the dominance of these three, non-exercise related factors; I am always looking for short cuts or little tricks that can be added into any strength program to help with muscle gain for the majority of people out there.

One of the main tricks I use with my own athletes are timed sets. I try to stick a variation of this method in every one of my undersized athlete training programs, and it has yet to fail me or them. There are many different types of timed set variations out there, but the one I’m going to elaborate on is designed either to pack on overall muscle or to bring up some muscle on a lagging body part. (The latter for you body-builder types.)

Sitting down and watching the 2010 NFL Combine this past week really demonstrated this principle in action. Let’s take bench press for example: While watching all the guys at the NFL Combine do their 225 rep max test, you’ll notice that it doesn’t really matter if a given athlete got 8 or 38 reps. Regardless of total reps, the time each athlete spent moving the weight was about the same: between the 25-30 second mark.

When was the last time you got under a bar and did a burn out bench press set at any weight? For the most part, the body starts fatiguing in terms of lifting right around the 30 second mark regardless of the weight or rep range. So how do you use this observation to build some solid muscle? You can do this simply by increasing the time your body can move that weight without changing the weight used.

For my athletes, we try to use a weight that they can normally rep 12-15 times, and on the first week of doing timed set training, I’ll have them take that weight and try to get as many reps as possible in 30 seconds with one goal in mind: keeping the bar moving. I don’t care how many reps they get in those 30 seconds, (unless they are hitting 25+ for all the sets) but instead, I’m concentrating on having them keeping bar moving the entire 30 seconds. I’ll have them do this for 3 sets with roughly 90-120 seconds of rest between each set. When they get back to that exercise again the next week, I’ll have them do another timed set, but this time I’ll up the time to 35 seconds for 3 sets with the same rest period. We’ll then add 5 seconds to each set every week until they work up to 45 second sets. The weight stays the same every week. Additionally, I stick this timed set routine it in the middle of their regular training cycle to act as a supplement to their traditional power and strength work.

Depending on the athlete’s specific needs, I’ll change how many exercises I have them perform using this cycle. But for the most part, everyone starts with one timed exercise each training day that either relates directly to their sport or a lagging body part.Exercise selection gets tricky because you are dealing with fatigue, and during the course of a given set, lifting form tends to break down. So I’ve created a basic exercise template broken up by individual body parts. However, as always, get creative but don’t be stupid. Make sure you have a spotter, and make sure you pick exercises where safe execution isn’t heavily dependent on proper form. (Eg: dumbbell presses, deadlifts, etc.).

•Chest:
Bench Press, Incline Press, Wide Grip BB Floor Presses, Neutral Grip DB Press (This variation is ok because when you start failing the weight travels up and down instead of all over the place due to the elbow placement)

•Shoulders: BB Military Press, Seated BB Press, Push Press (although not great because the legs just take over), Arnold DB Press

•Triceps: Close Grip Bench Press, Straight Bar Tricep Presses, DB Skull Crushers, Elevated Close Grip Push-Ups

•Back: Lat Pull Downs (Any Grip or Attachment), Seated Rows, Bent Over BB Row (Underhand Grip Preferably), One Arm DB Rows

•Biceps: Hammer DB Curls, BB Curls, EZ Bar Curls, Basically any curl movement where both arms are moving at the same time except for the incline db curl. I believe it places too much stress on the shoulder especially when form starts breaking down from fatigue.

•Legs: Narrow Stance High Bar Squats (This Lightens the Weight Up Tremendously Making it Safer), DB Step-Ups, DB Single Leg Squats (Elevate the Back Foot), Straight Leg/Romanian Deadlifts

So now that you have some exercises, how do you incorporate them into your program? Below I have a basic 3 day/week workout program that I put together for hard gainers, and later I’ll show how to incorporate timed sets into this sample routine.

Here is the original template:

Day One:
Bench Press: 2 x 6-8
Incline DB/BB Press: 2 x 10-12
Military Press: 2 x 6-8
DB Skull Crushers or Close Grip Bench Press with 4-5” ROM (Not all the way down to your chest and your index fingers should be where the knurling starts): 2×10-12

Day Two:
Pull-Ups or Wide Lat Pull-Downs: 3xAMAP (As Many As Possible – Use Minimum ¾ Your BW for Pull-Downs )
Bent Over Yates Row 3 x 8 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNxZmvOdl5Q
EZ-Bar Curls: 1 x 10
Kneeling Cable Crunches or Other Heavy Ab Exercise: 3×10

Day Three:
Squats: 2 x 10
Deadlifts: 1 x 10
Glute Ham Raises or Straight Back Straight Leg Deadlifts: 2×10

Now because this specific program is designed for hard-gainers, I don’t want to increase the volume too much; so below is how I would implement timed sets to get the most out of them. The timed set exercises are bolded:

Day One:
Bench Press: 2 x 6-8
Incline DB/BB Press: 3 x 30 seconds (Week 2 – 35 seconds, Week 3 – 40 seconds, Week 4 – 45 seconds)
Military Press: 2 x 6-8
DB Skull Crushers or Close Grip Bench Press with 4-5” ROM (Not all the way down to your chest and your index fingers should be where the knurling starts): 2×10-12

Day Two:
Pull-Ups or Wide Lat Pull-Downs: 3xAMAP (As Many As Possible – Use Minimum ¾ Your BW for Pull-Downs
Seated Cable Rows Wide Underhand Grip – 3 x 30 seconds (Week 2 – 35 seconds, Week 3 – 40 seconds, Week 4 – 45 seconds)
EZ-Bar Curls: 1 x 10
Kneeling Cable Crunches or Other Heavy Ab Exercise: 3×10

Day Three:
Squats: 2 x 10
Single Leg Squats: 3 x 30 seconds (Week 2 – 35 seconds, Week 3 – 40 seconds, Week 4 – 45 seconds)
Glute Ham Raises or Straight Back Straight Leg Deadlifts: 2×10

You would run this sample template for a 4 week period, and then you’d move the timed set onto another body part or exercise.

If you train more for pure strength or a hybrid style like Westside 4 Skinny Bastards, replace the lift right after your Max Effort set with one of the corresponding timed set exercises and you will be shocked at the dramatic size and power increases you will get in return.

Add a few of these sets into your next training cycle and let me know how it goes. If you have similar exercise routines you’ve experimented with, be sure to share in the comments.

D