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The max-out method is a high-intensity technique for advanced trainers. “Don’t do more than three one-rep sets and three lighter follow-up sets per exercise,” Peña instructs, “and use the max-out method only once per bodypart before moving on to other exercises done for straight sets. Because it’s a high-intensity technique, you should do less volume than usual in a routine when you incorporate the max-out method.”

Peña also recommends you follow the max-out sequence with another set of the same exercise done with 70% of your 1RM and pushed to failure. In this way the sequence of exercises doing, say, Smith-machine overhead presses would follow the protocol in “Constructing Your Max-Out Workout” at right.

This is then followed by sets of 8–12 reps of the other exercises you typically do in your shoulder routine. For example, you may do dumbbell lateral raises, barbell front raises and pec-deck reverse flyes. To make certain you fully recover when using max out, reduce your normal volume in exercises that complement the max-out exercise. In our example, if you normally do four sets of those single-joint shoulder moves, do only 2–3 sets because they’re preceded by max-out shoulder presses, which also hit your middle and front delts. In addition, don’t add other intensity techniques, like drop sets or forced reps to a max-out workout.

You can use max out at any time to shock a complacent bodypart into new growth, but Peña recommends a routine that incorporates one max-out exercise for each major bodypart. These exercises can be changed from workout to workout. Stick to the max-out method for a period of 4–6 weeks. Afterward, return to mostly straight sets of 8–12 reps for the next 4–6 weeks.


Let’s return to that sprint up a steep hill because it’s an apt analogy for working out. Training shouldn’t always be a level road. Whether packing on muscle or stripping off fat, the key to progress is to avoid the easiest path and instead climb over challenging obstacles. The max-out method makes your journey easier in the long run by making your journey harder in the short term. The cool thing about this, though, is that it accomplishes it via a little trickery on your nervous system, in effect faking out your physique, prepping you for an all-out assault and then lightening the load. Max out revs up your muscles to use ever greater weights and, in so doing, keeps you speeding onward and upward toward your goals.

Even great delt workouts stop producing results sooner or later. Here’s how to mix it up to keep on growing.

If you grew up in Southern California, one of your dreams as a kid was to spend a day at Disneyland. I recall the first time I went there, I was so excited that I raced from one adventure ride to the next. I’d frequently take a day off from school to travel with my older sister on subsequent visits, and later on would drive there with friends. While the Magic Kingdom no doubt lived up to its name, over time something decidedly unmagical also happened: It just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

An economist might say this is the law of diminishing returns in action, but it’s not cited as a condition specific to Disneyland. In fact, it’s evident in many aspects of our lives. This being a magazine on muscle building, you’re one step ahead of the game if you’ve already figured out that diminishing returns also applies to your weight-training efforts. In fact, it’s probably the No. 1 reason you aren’t making gains any more. Here’s why.

That great shoulder workout you did a few months back, the one that gave you the tremendous pump and feel-good next-day muscle soreness and the same one you’ve done on shoulder day every workout since, doesn’t seem to be so effective any longer. As you hit your body with a training stimulus and overload a target muscle, your body responds (given rest and good nutrition) by growing stronger and bigger. But soon enough your body plateaus because the novel training stimulus isn’t new for very long, and each subsequent workout becomes less valuable — see, diminishing returns. Eventually you can expend a lot of effort in the gym and go absolutely nowhere.

In the theme park example, one way to make sure your excitement levels don’t taper off (or at least diminish as quickly) is to visit other amusement parks: Six Flags, Universal, SeaWorld, Knott’s Berry Farm, each of which has different and unique attractions. Changing up your training can have a similar effect: By choosing slightly different exercises that work the target muscles in similar yet different ways, the muscles can never quite fully adapt because you’re always changing your approach to some degree.

While this particular article focuses on changes you make with your exercise selection, order and rep ranges, you can also try variables such as volume, rest periods (between sets and workouts) and intensity-boosting techniques (forced reps, drop sets, rest-pause and the like) to introduce additional variety into your routine. Because just like riding Space Mountain for the 100th time, after a while it’s just not the same as it used to be.


Gyms offer a variety of types of equipment — barbells, dumbbells, machines, cables — and while you may not know how to use them all at first, in time you’ll want to. That’s because most any move can be done a variety of ways, and each one is slightly different from its cousins. Take the overhead shoulder press. It can be done: 1) seated with dumbbells, 2) seated with a barbell, 3) seated on an exercise machine, 4) standing with a barbell or dumbbells, 5) brought in front or behind the neck (careful with this latter variation) or 6) in combination with any of these permutations.

The fact is, each one is slightly different from the others. The barbell, for example, lets you use more weight and is easier to control than dumbbells but doesn’t require as many stabilizer muscles. With a machine you hardly engage stabilizer muscles at all so you can really load up the weight without having to worry about balance. When standing, you can use a bit more body english, generating momentum through the knees and hips, which enables you to push more weight than you can in seated versions. In addition, because hand position is slightly different on each variation, the muscle-recruitment pattern is slightly different with each one as well, meaning you can build the muscle from a greater number of angles for better overall development.

Hence it behooves you to learn as many variations of a given exercise as you can. Not only is that helpful navigating around the lines of people clogging a particular piece of equipment that’s next on your workout list, but the variety will do your body good as well.

If you never max out on an exercise, it’s difficult to know what 90% of your 1RM is, let alone 80%. You can estimate your max by using the table below, counting how many reps you do to muscle failure so long as you use good form without assistance from a spotter.

For example, if you can do eight and only eight reps with 225 pounds, then 8 is 80% of your 1RM. Next divide 225 by 0.8 and you’ll find that 100% of your 1RM is 281 pounds. You can also compute 90% of your 1RM from knowing that 281 is your estimated 1RM. Just multiply 0.9 x 281 and that yields 253 pounds.

Hence, if you don’t know your max lift of a given exercise but do know you can do 225 pounds for eight reps, then you’d be using 250–255 pounds on your heavy single-rep sets, and 225 pounds on your 80% sets. The magic is that by using this technique, you should therefore be able to complete 10 reps, not just eight.

The Technique in a Nutshell

The max-out method uses a heavy, single-rep set before a lighter multi-rep set of the same exercise. The approach actually boosts your strength in the multi-rep set.

The post-activation potentiation of a heavy single rep triggers your nervous system for additional heavy singles and revs you up to be approximately 10% stronger than usual in the following set.

The max-out method is for advanced trainers with more than one year’s worth of training experience who want to boost muscle growth and strength.

Do the max-out sets first for a bodypart when your strength is greatest early in your workout. Remember that’s when your energy reserves haven’t yet been tapped.

Use the max-out method for 4–6 weeks, followed by 4–6 weeks when you focus on another method. It can also be used at any time to shock a stagnant bodypart.

The Smith machine provides a relatively safe method of going to failure on many compound lifts, especially if you don’t have a spotter. Generally, you should favor machines over free weights with this technique, especially when training alone and/or when holding the resistance above your body.

The max-out method spurs greater strength and muscle growth.

Multijoint Maximizers

Here are some of the best exercises and their corresponding bodyparts that do well with the max-out intensity technique.

Quads/Glutes: Leg Press, Smith-Machine Squat

Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlift

Back: Smith-Machine Barbell Row (over and underhand grip)

Chest: Smith-Machine Bench Press (flat or incline bench)

Shoulders: Smith-Machine Overhead Press

Triceps: Machine Dip, Smith-Machine Close-Grip Bench Press

Constructing Your Workout

While the schematic may seem a bit daunting, it’s actually pretty easy to use when building your own max-out bodypart workouts. For additional reference of what should constitute your 90% 1RM exercise, refer to the “Multijoint Maximizers” chart above.

Finish the remainder of your body-part workout, doing the normal number of reps for each set. Note that you should reduce the number of total sets for the bodypart to account for stress placed on your neural bed by the max-out portion of the bodypart workout.

While there are numerous ways of incorporating PAP into your weight training, Peña explains one method that’s especially effective for stimulating muscle growth: the max-out method. He notes: “After warm-ups, your first set should be a single rep performed with approximately 90% of your one-rep max [1RM]. Next, rest for as long as five minutes to ensure that you’re fully recovered.

“Then you should do the second set of the same exercise — using a weight that’s approximately 80% of your 1RM — something with which you can usually get about eight reps. You push this set to failure; you should be able to eke out 1–2 reps more than if you hadn’t preceded this set with the post-activation potentiaton heavy set. After another lengthy rest, you can then repeat this sequence.”

Go Multijoint

The max-out method is going to be most effective with those lifts on which you can pack on the most plates, so favor multijoint, bilateral exercises like leg presses and overhead presses rather than doing, say, one-arm triceps pressdowns (one joint, unilateral). Instead, for your triceps max-out lift, choose close-grip bench presses (two joints, bilateral). Furthermore, to make certain you can move the greatest amount of iron when using this approach, do your max-out sets first for a bodypart before fatigue levels have set in. After completing max-out sets, follow them with regular sets of 8–12 reps on isolation and compound exercises.

Warm Up — It’s Crucial

Safety should always be your paramount concern, so warm up thoroughly before your one-rep max-out set. By using 90% of your maximum, the weight you push should be something with which you can get a relatively easy single, but use a spotter whenever necessary. Maintain strict form, and do just one rep even if you feel you can get another (because it’s the set after this one that really counts!). This isn’t the time to extend beyond that one rep with additional forced reps or to incorporate other intensity techniques. This is your “one-and-done” set. The second set is to failure.

Your Machine Options

Machines will allow you to more safely do your 90% set on many exercises and more safely go to failure on your 80% set — even if you have spotters. For this reason, returning to the triceps, as an example, it’s generally best to do your close-grip bench presses with a Smith machine instead of a barbell. Conversely, avoid lifts like barbell incline presses and barbell front squats where one-rep sets and failure sets become risky propositions. (See “Multijoint Maximizers” at right for examples of (mostly) mechanical compound exercises ideal for the max-out method.) Biceps are difficult to hit with a multijoint exercise, so choose a single-joint, bilateral lift in which you can pack on substantial iron, such as barbell curls or EZ-bar preacher curls.

While we’ve assembled a pair of shoulder workouts here that on the surface look fairly similar — each starts with a multijoint move and then adds a single-joint exercise for each delt head — but they in no way mirror each other. In fact, they make a number of substitutions that introduce variety into your training (such as doing a movement one arm at a time (or unilaterally) instead of two; using cables instead of free weights; doing a move seated instead of standing; allowing the cable to run in front of or behind your back).
For starters, the most basic way to set up a shoulder workout is to lead off with a compound move (some variation of the shoulder press) and then add single-joint exercises for each of the three delt heads (front, middle and rear).

The bread-and-butter movement in a shoulder workout is the basic overhead press, a compound move that engages all three heads (generally the front and middle delts to the greatest degree), as well as the triceps. But if you always do it the same way, without variation, soon enough your results will stagnate. Doing that same press with other pieces of equipment — a barbell, Smith machine, other kinds of machines, or with a twist of the wrists as is the case with the Arnold press — you slightly alter the muscle recruitment pattern and muscles engaged. That’s the key to making sure an exercise remains effective, as well as altering such variables as volume, rest periods and intensity-boosting techniques.

The same is true with single-joint moves for each of the delt heads: Learn simple exercise substitutions for standing lateral raises for your middle delts, front raises for anterior or front delts and bent-over lateral raises for the posterior or rear delts. In fact, there are many more variations not listed here that you should also consider incorporating into your training at some point.

While the basic combination of a shoulder press combined with three isolation moves is a template that’s been followed successfully by trainers for decades, its value diminishes over time as your body grows accustomed to it. Some individuals, sadly, creatures of habit, continue to do the same routine even though it stopped producing gains months — or years — earlier. A smarter approach to ensure continued growth is to make changes every couple of months, sometimes more frequently, so that the adaptation process never ends.
Variety isn’t just the spice of life, it also ensures your muscle-building progress.

Seated Overhead Press

Targets: All heads, with emphasis on front and middle delts, triceps

Exercise Family: Overhead presses are compound moves, which are typically performed first in your shoulder routine, and consist of more than two sets of joints working together, in this case the muscles that attach to the elbow and shoulder joints, so the triceps are also assisting. Press the weight overhead to full-arm extension without locking out your elbows.

What’s the Difference? Dumbbells require the most coordination but also allow the most freedom, so you can even do them with your hands facing forward or neutral (palms in). Hence, more stabilizer muscles are involved but you typically won’t be able to go as heavy. Though machine designs vary by manufacturer, in general they don’t require you to balance the weight; just get set in position and push. This is especially helpful for beginners or toward the end of your workout when your shoulders are highly fatigued.

Dumbbell Form Tip: Getting the weights into position can be tricky so a spotter is a good idea; he can also assist you as you fatigue.

Barbell Form Tip: Setting the machine up for your body frame is critical. Adjust the machine so that the handles sit outside your shoulders; your elbows should point down and out.

Front Raise

Targets: Front delt

Exercise Family: Single-joint moves in which you move your straightened arm (one at a time or simultaneously) directly in front of your body are called front raises. Because they’re single-joint moves, do them after your presses and use a challenging but moderate weight. Note that the front delts also get worked quite heavily on chest day.

What’s the Difference?
You’d think since both moves are using a single arm they’d be fairly similar, but that’s not the case. With the cable, you do all of your reps for just one arm consecutively so it doesn’t get any rest between reps. When alternating with dumbbells, one arm gets a short rest period while the other side is working, which in fact makes the set somewhat easier, enabling you to either use more weight or do more reps. Further, with cables the line of pull comes from an angle (the line of pull with dumbbells is always straight down via gravity). On cables, this ensures there’s always constant tension on a muscle from the bottom of the range of motion to the top. While the dumbbell front raise has tension at the top, it doesn’t at the bottom, as your arm is hanging straight down, so the front delt can relax.

Dumbbell Form Tip: With both versions keep your elbow unlocked but your arm as straight as possible.

Barbell Form Tip: Align your working-side shoulder with the lower pulley so that it smoothly runs directly out in front.