We have written about various methods for pushing a set beyond the point of muscular failure, techniques that force a working muscle to hypertrophy more quickly and to a greater ultimate degree. The methods usually used to push a muscle past failure are cheating, forced reps and descending sets. But I haven't heard or read anything recently about the use of burns, another excellent technique for pushing a muscle beyond the point at which it fails to continue contracting forcefully due to excessive overload. So let's talk about burns!
Few highly competitive bodybuilders would dispute that pushing past failure on one, two or perhaps three sets per bodypart from time to time is highly beneficial. Not only does it result in quicker and greater muscle gains, but it also improves muscle density and (to some extent) even surface vascularity. That's certainly been the case for me over the last few years. Pushing beyond failure even more than ever will hopefully bring me even greater gains in the future.
Admittedly, there are a few bodybuilders who, because of vastly inferior recuperative ability, actually overtrain if they push even a single set of one body-part past failure. Such bodybuilders would be better off training to about 80-90% of failure as part of a low-set workout approach to each muscle complex.
For those who can push beyond, there are several options. Usually, a bodybuilder tries cheating a bit at first, just enough to get the bar past its sticking point so that the muscles are forced to complete the rep. On this level cheating works pretty well, but a lot of dudes find it a bit imprecise in that they either cheat too much and the bar literally flies upward, or they don't cheat enough and thus can't get the bar past the sticking point.
A more precise way of lessening the poundage when the muscles are growing progressively more fatigued is to have a training partner grasp the middle of the bar and pull or push upward with just enough force to allow you to get through the sticking point so as to finish the rep in fine style. Normally, a maximum of three or four cheating or forced reps are done at the end of a set. Since the muscles are fatiguing at an accelerated rate, any additional assisted reps would literally be wasted.
Quite a few bodybuilders have followed the lead set by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the seven-time Mr. Olympia. Arnold used descending sets, which he called stripping sets. With this technique, loose plates are loaded in identical configurations on each end of the bar, with the collars left off.
At the failure point, two training partners simultaneously strip off a predetermined number of plates to permit a bodybuilder to continue his set for three or four more reps. A second, and sometimes a third weight drop can be made when doing a single set of descending poundages. Obviously, this is a very intense way to induce hypertrophy. It should be followed by the more highly conditioned athletes in the sport, and then only after a preconditioning period to enhance assimilation of the method.
While partners aren't necessary for cheating reps, they are essential for both forced reps and descending sets, though the use of partners can set up some annoying situations. You need one partner for forced reps, usually two for descending sets. But for burns, you need no partner whatsoever, which is often the reason why a champ will prefer to do burns to push a set past failure from time to time.
The term "burns" comes from the ungodly burning sensation you will experience in a muscle group on which you're using the technique. It's not unlike a blowtorch blasting the area. But the more of this type of physiologically induced pain (it certainly isn't indicative of an injury situation), the greater will be your ultimate development each time you step onstage for competition.
I usually introduce a rising bodybuilder to burns by first placing him on a standing calf machine. I allow him to do two or three warm-up sets with progressively heavier weights, until he can load up a stack that limits his set to 10-12 good, solid and complete reps without cheating or other forms of assistance. As soon as he fails to complete the last full rep, he goes into burns.
Burns can be done either at the top, bottom or middle position of each movement, though with standing calf raises it's easier to do them in the bottom, fully stretched position. Keeping tension on your calf muscles (while maintaining straight legs and a firm upper body), begin to bounce quickly up and down over a range of motion of perhaps two to two and a half inches. Part of the impetus for this movement comes from the actual resiliency of the calf muscles as you bounce at the bottom, though part also comes from a very hard upward push, trying to get up on your toes again on each bounce.
These short bounces are called burns, because your calves should begin to burn with the fire of Hades after only a few brief reps. If you've gone to genuine failure prior to starting a set of burns, you probably won't be able to do more than 10-12 burns beyond the failure point before the pain becomes unbearable, forcing you to terminate the set.
When doing burns, particularly with calves, you should stretch the muscle vigorously as soon as you have finished the set. The quicker you start stretching, the more rapidly the pain will subside and allow you to prepare for another set.
On occasion I'll use burns when I'm not actually trying to extend a set past failure. If I'm after more quadriceps separation just prior to competing, for example, I'll do a few full, slow reps on leg extensions, then spend a minute or more doing burns (with a range of motion of two or three inches) at the very top of the movement. Obviously, this can be very painful, particularly if you do multiple sets with burns at the end of each one, but it's also very productive in terms of bringing out the rips between and within the quadriceps muscles.
The same sort of application of burns can be done in the middle range of a movement, either to advance a set past failure or to work on bringing out specific muscular details. I've used this approach extensively in this manner, and I'm sure you will, too, once you've given burns a good trial in your own workouts