DPT-404.1- Exercise Prescription: Muscular Endurance & Hypertrophy – Training Systems

You must first complete DPT-404- Exercise Prescription: Muscular Endurance & Hypertrophy before viewing this Lesson

Training Systems

Training systems add variety to resistance training. A number of training systems have been developed. Appropriate inclusion of these training systems can enhance a workout by providing a new physical stimulus for the body to adapt to, as well as providing variety from a psychological point of view. Remember that no one training routine or training system is perfect. Each can be used for a phase of training, but it must be remembered that the body will adapt to the stimulus relatively quickly. Cycling the training systems as well as the exercises, volume and intensity of the workouts will ensure mental and physical stimulation for clients. The following section will outline a number of popular training systems and discuss when they are best used. Training systems should be thought of as “plateau busters” or ways of increasing the intensity of a workout dramatically. They should only be utilized within a structured periodised plan as over use of such systems can rapidly result in over training and regression.  

Multiple-set system, or ‘setting’:

The multiple-set system, or ‘setting’ probably forms the basis of the majority of resistance-based workouts performed in gymnasiums today. This system consists of an appropriate warm-up followed by multiple sets of the same repetitions performed with a given weight. For example, 3 sets of 10 repetitions (3 x 10), or 5 sets of 5 repetitions (5 x 5). 

The intensity and volume of multiple set workouts can easily be manipulated by varying the load (% of 1RM) and the number of sets performed per exercise. In this way, the multiple set system can be seen as highly versatile, as it can be used to work towards any of the fundamental resistance based training objectives (i.e. endurance, hypertrophy, strength). Examples of how progression can occur in successive workouts using the multiple-set system are listed below.

Progressive resistance
Objective – strength: Session target – 5 x 5
WorkoutReps achievedLoad (kg)

Example 1 -multiple sets using progressive resistance

Progressive repetitions
Objective – hypertrophy: Session target – 4 x 6-8
WorkoutReps achievedLoad (kg)

Example 2 –  multiple sets using progressive repetitions

The examples above show how a client could progress using the multiple-set system over a number of workouts. The progressions are controlled in a very similar way in both examples. In the first example, the trainer will impose a sets x reps target for the client and the resistance will only be increased when all repetition targets are met. In this example, the client achieves the 5 x 5 target during workout 3, and so the load (resistance) is increased slightly for workout 4.

The second example works in much the same way. In this example, the trainer will only increase the load once the client can complete all sets at the upper end of the target repetition bracket (i.e. completes 8 reps within the 6-8 rep range). Note that the load progression in both examples is small. Small increments allow sustained progression over time, which is the cornerstone of any successful resistance training programme. Load increments of 5% or less should allow for sustained progression if applied at appropriate times.

Pyramid Training

Pyramid training involves manipulating the load and repetitions over the course of multiple sets of the same exercise. The basic concept of a pyramid involves progressively increasing the load and decreasing the repetitions with each successive set. The trainer should ensure that the client is adequately rested prior to commencing the subsequent sets (rest periods can be timed in order to achieve consistency of effort from workout to workout). 

SetRepsLoad (as % of 1RM)

Reps and loads for the pyramid system training – from Poliquin (2001). Rep progression for an ascending pyramid

The pyramid system is widely known and is often utilised in resistance training programmes. Pyramiding can be performed in three distinct ways: ascending pyramids, descending pyramids, and complete pyramids.

Ascending pyramids adopt a light-to-heavy approach, whereby each successive set is performed with a heavier resistance for fewer repetitions. The descending pyramid starts with the fewest repetitions and the heaviest load (following an appropriate warm-up) and for each subsequent set a percentage of the load is removed. The lighter load allows more repetitions to be performed than the previous set. The complete pyramid combines the ascending and descending approaches. Starting light the client builds to the peak over a number of sets, then attempts to repeat the same repetitions on the descending phase.

Although popular and well known, the pyramiding approach to resistance training is not without its critics. Zatsiorsky (1995) contends that few contemporary elite strength and power athletes utilise the ‘outdated’ pyramid approach to training. The reason given is that the early sets in ascending pyramids cause accumulative fatigue, negatively affecting performance when training with maximal loads at the top of the pyramid. For this reason, Zatsiorsky considers both ascending and complete pyramids to be questionable techniques when training for a resistance orientated goal. He suggests that the majority of elite strength athletes prefer to progress quickly to the main training load in order to train with maximal intensity.

A second criticism of the pyramiding approach has been put forward by Poliquin (2001). Poliquin contends that the majority of individuals that employ the pyramid system utilise intensity increments that are too wide to elicit the desired response. In the example in the table listed on the previous page, the intensity varies from 70% to 100% of 1RM as the pyramid progresses. This equates to a 30% intensity spread over the course of one pyramid. Poliquin (2001) suggests that this intensity spread would be ineffective, as the body would have a hard time figuring out exactly what the training stimulus is (note that the 70-100% intensity spread crosses the borders from low intensity hypertrophy through to maximal strength!). 

To make pyramiding a more effective training stimulus, Poliquin (2001) suggests that the intensity spread employed should be no more than 10%. This will comply with what Poliquin refers to as the law of repeated efforts and presents the body with a stimulus that will elicit a specific adaptive response. Note that the example below is a complete strength-based pyramid with a plateau, rather than a one set peak.

SetRepsLoad (as % of 1RM)
10 70

Broad pyramid for hypertrophy.

Drop sets (strip sets):

A drop set is a resistance training system that is popular among bodybuilders. It is a technique that allows a client to continue a set past the point where it would usually terminate. Drop sets, sometimes referred to as stripping, involves performing a set to failure, then removing a small percentage of the load and continuing with the set. This procedure can be repeated several times (2 to 3 drops in load per set is standard). A set to failure followed by three successive load decrements performed with no rest would be referred to as a triple drop. The key points for successfully performing drop sets are listed in the table below.

Guidelines for planning and performing drop sets
select an initial repetition range within the guidelines of the phase of training planneddecide how many drops are going to be performed (a higher number of drops will increase sensations of fatigue and discomfort)select which exercise(s) are going to be used in conjunction with the drop sets system. perform all planned sets of the exercise as normal when concentric failure is reached, lower the load by a small amount (5-20%) and continue the set immediatelyrepeat for as many drops as desired. Note that only a small number of repetitions should be completed with the new load once the weight has been lowered

Example: for a client training for hypertrophy the following drop set procedure could be employed:

Drop sets – DB shoulder press
SetRepsLoad (kg)Recovery (sec)
410 (to failure)25None
Drop 14 (to failure)22.5None
Drop 23 (to failure)20None
Drop 32 (to failure)17.5N/a

It should be noted that as drop sets extend a set beyond the usual point of termination (i.e. concentric failure), it can be considered a demanding training technique. Many individuals overuse systems such as drop sets by including them in every set of every workout. This approach is likely to lead to rapid burnout and stagnation of results. Unfortunately, the mentality of ‘no pain, no gain’ still exists as the underpinning philosophy of many individuals who train with resistance. Adopting this approach is one of the key reasons that such individuals fail to make the long term progress that their dedication probably deserves.    


The superset system involves performing two different exercises back-to-back with little or no rest in between (Siff, 2003; Fleck and Kraemer, 1997). There are three key variations of this system. The first variation of supersetting involves performing two exercises for the same muscle back-to-back. 12 reps of squats followed immediately by 12 reps of lunges would be one superset for the quadriceps and gluteals. This sequence can be repeated following a standard rest interval.

The second exercise in each superset is always performed with significant muscular fatigue present. As a result of this fatigue the intensity of the second exercise is always much lower than if the muscle had been allowed to recover during a standard rest interval. This renders this type of supersetting relatively ineffective for maximal force development (strength training). However, completing two exercises in this manner would be good for local muscular endurance and possibly hypertrophy because the volume of work performed is relatively high (note that a hypertrophic response would be most likely if the initial set were performed within the hypertrophy repetition range). This style of supersets can employ two, three (a tri-set) or more exercises (a giant set) for the target muscle group. The greater the number of exercises employed the greater the degree of fatigue experienced and the greater the muscular endurance demanded. 

The second variation of supersetting consists of performing two exercises back-to-back that involve antagonistic muscle pairs i.e. biceps brachii / triceps brachii or quadriceps / hamstrings. This version of supersetting allows a significant load to be placed on the target muscle during each set. This is possible because while the agonist is working the antagonist is recovering and vice versa. This allows more intensity to be utilised as each set is performed from a relatively rested state. Fleck and Kraemer (1997) report that significant strength gains have been achieved by individuals trained using this variation of the superset system.

A third variation of supersetting exists called complex sets where superset exercises are performed alternately instead of sequentially (i.e. one rep is performed of the first exercise followed by one rep of the second exercise and this is repeated until the required number of total reps is completed). Both agonist and antagonist type supersets can be performed as well as non-related muscle/exercise pairings.

Examples of complex sets include the following…

1. dumbbell fly and press 

2. dumbbell squat, curl and press

3. stiff legged deadlift and bent over rows

4. lunges and side lateral raises

5. front squat and push press

6. squat, squat thrust, press up, squat thrust, squat (aka ‘Burpee’) 

This variation of supersets is very useful when attempting to perform large amounts of work in relatively short amounts of time for example, or when attempting to improve cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance within the same workout.  

From a commercial point of view all three types of supersetting can prove useful to the trainer who only has limited time with certain clients. The lack of rest intervals means that the work element of the session can be completed in less time than usual.


The pre-or-post-exhaustion systems are often performed in the workouts of bodybuilders. These systems involve the use of isolation exercises to preferentially fatigue a muscle whilst eliminating synergistic weaknesses. Consider the following example:

In the bench press, the agonist is the pectoralis major, with the main synergist being the triceps brachii. In the majority of clients the triceps will fail before the stronger pectoral muscles. By employing either pre or post exhaust isolation exercise it is possible to “bypass” the weak synergist and permit greater fatigue of the target muscle – in this example pectoralis major.

In pre-exhaust the pectoral isolation exercise is performed prior to the compound

e.g. cable crossovers performed before bench press.

In post-exhaust the pectoral isolation exercise is performed after the compound 

e.g. bench press performed before cable crossovers.

Both methods result in the agonist doing more work than if regular sets were employed.

Guidelines for developing pre and post-exhaust routines are listed with some examples in the table below:

Muscle groupIsolation exerciseCompound exercise
Pectoralis majorCable crossoverBench press
QuadricepsLeg extensionsSquats
Latissimus dorsi Straight arm pulldownLat pulldown
Anterior deltoidDB front raiseDB shoulder press

Muscle groupCompound exerciseIsolation exercise
Pectoralis majorBench pressDB flyes
HamstringsStiff legged dead liftsLeg curls
Latissimus dorsi Chin/pull upsDB pullovers
QuadricepsFront squatsLeg extensions
Medial deltoidsWide grip upright rowSide lateral raises

Peripheral heart action (PHA):

Peripheral heart action (PHA) is a resistance and aerobic-based workout that aims to keep the heart rate elevated for the duration of the session. PHA is essentially a gym-based circuit during which a series of exercises are performed sequentially and continuously. PHA workouts are simple to design and effective for increasing muscular tone and endurance while simultaneously delivering aerobic fitness benefits. As with most training systems there are several variations of PHA. Guidelines for constructing PHA sessions, and some examples of PHA workouts are listed in the table below.

There are several variations of the PHA concept and it is relatively straightforward for the trainer to experiment and find what works well for each individual client. Using the examples from the table above, numerous variations of PHA can be devised. Some examples are listed below:

The trainer selects one group of resistance exercises and one aerobic exercise from the table above and performs these exercises continuously for the desired number of circuits. The workouts performed on subsequent days could utilise a different group of resistance exercises performed with a different aerobic exercise. This is normally known as ‘circuit weight training’ or CWTIn CWT the order of exercises is less prescriptive than PHA and basically requires the client to perform their exercise programme sequentially without rests between sets. The only caveat is that non-overlapping exercise should be employed.

The trainer uses all four (or more) groups of exercises listed above and performs them all in sequence with an aerobic exercise between each resistance grouping.

The trainer performs all four groups of exercises in sequence without any aerobic component. Multiple sets can be performed of each grouping if appropriate i.e. 2 laps of the group 1 exercises followed by 2 x group 2 and so on. This sequence is more akin to the PHA format described by Fleck and Kraemer (1997).

A very popular and effective version of PHA/CWT training is the 3×3 workout popularized by NFL strength coach Matt Brzycki. Simply select a compound leg exercise, a compound upper body push exercise and a compound upper body pull exercise. (e.g. squats, military press, chins). Select 12-15 rep maximum loading for each exercise and after a thorough and appropriate warm up, perform as a non-stop circuit for three circuits. Subsequent workouts should utilize a different three exercises e.g. deadlifts, bench press and seated rows.

Once the athlete could perform the 3×3 circuit without undue fatigue, or the athlete could complete the workout noticeably more quickly than previously performed,  loads would be increased by 5 to 10% to illicit a further training response. 

Brzycki coined the phrase “metabolic conditioning” from the results he gained from his already fit and experienced athletes who used the 3×3 approach referring to the fact that fitness improvements weren’t just cardiovascular, anaerobic or muscular endurance in nature but all three.

PHA is an excellent method for developing muscular endurance and basic aerobic conditioning when limited time is a consideration. Exercise selection is important when designing PHA workouts. Compound exercises should be used as multiple muscle groups need to be employed during each exercise in order to place a high circulatory demand on the body. Standard rules of exercise order do not apply to PHA as the exercises are performed continuously as a circuit.

Higher volume training systems:

A number of training systems specifically manipulate volume as the main training variable. Volume, as we know, is a vital component required in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.  The most popular variations on this theme are ‘German Volume Training’ (GVT) and ‘Escalating Density Training’ (EDT) popularised by Charles Poliquin and Charles Staley respectively.  

GVT is a method utilised by European weight lifters when hypertrophy is required for an elevation in weight category. It is a simple but effective method of increasing LBM but is considered by some to be overly repetitive, however workouts are short and progress is easily monitored.

GVT Protocol

Select 60% of 1RM

Attempt to perform 10 sets of 10 reps with exactly 60 seconds recovery between sets

Initially it may not be possible to perform all sets of 10 reps and a workout may look something like this 10,10,10,10,10,10,9,9,8,7 reps. 

The aim is to work towards performing 10 sets of 10 reps at which point the weight should be increased by 5%. 

GVT workouts normally consist of one compound exercise and one isolation exercise for the same muscle group.  For example:

  • bench press and DB flyes
  • squats and leg extensions
  • deadlifts and leg curls

The isolation exercise is considered to be secondary and is performed for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps only. Normally, only one pairing is utilised on each training day necessitating multiple training days. Only large muscle groups are suitable for GVT and smaller synergistic muscle groups e.g. biceps, triceps, calves etc are trained with minimal volume, if at all, so more recovery resources are available for the bigger muscle groups which have greater hypertrophy potential.

EDT is another higher volume training method that lends itself very well to the development of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

In EDT, an agonist/antagonist superset is performed back and forth with little or no rest for a pre-determined time period (usually 15 minutes). This time period is known as a PR zone (personal record). 2-3 PR zones are used per workout.

The aim is to count the reps completed in each PR zone, and attempt to perform more reps in subsequent workouts. Progression is measured by the volume completed per workout. When an improvement in volume of 10% is noted, resistance is increased by 5%.

Super Slow:

As the name suggests the super slow system involves performing repetitions at a tempo significantly slower than normal. Fleck and Kraemer (1997) suggest that repetitions can take anywhere from 20-60 seconds to complete. The Ultimate Exercise Guild of America (chief proponents of super slow) suggest a 10 second eccentric and 10 second concentric phase in most compound movements utilising a rep range of 4-6, resulting in a time under tension (TUT) of approximately 80-120 seconds.

Advocates of the super slow system suggest that the increased TUT enhances force production potential. This is in part due to the deliberate exclusion of momentum from the movement. This means that muscular contractions must perform all of the work. This system does not appear to take into account the fact that appropriate use of momentum is one of the fundamentals of human movement. In order to complete repetitions at such a slow tempo the load must also be significantly reduced. This may actually limit force production as strength development is best achieved using near maximal intensities. 

The specificity principle of fitness states that there will be a specific adaptation to the imposed demand. It can therefore be argued, that the super slow system of training will only be of genuine benefit if the client’s regular activities involve moving a load very slowly. As with any other system the super slow training technique may yield some results if used infrequently, simply because it is a novel stimulus for the body to adapt to. However, the super slow system has been heavily criticised by many authors in the field of exercise and fitness. As super slow necessitates the use of greatly reduced workloads, this system is however, a very useful tool when training clients with injuries where excessive loading may aggravate any existing musculoskeletal conditions.  

Matrix (‘21s’): 

This method of training is one of the first training systems that most gym users are exposed to…normally in the form of “21s” for bicep curls.

The matrix system can be utilised when performing most resistance exercises and involves breaking a rep down into three distinct phases…normally described as outer range, inner range and full range. Each phase is performed for 7 reps, giving a total of 21 reps, hence the name “21s” being synonymous with the matrix method.

A set of “21s” for bicep curls would be performed as follows…

7 reps from extension to 90 degrees of elbow flexion

7 reps from 90 degrees of elbow flexion to full flexion 

7 reps full range of movement

The premise of the matrix method is it increases time under tension per set and thus promotes an increase in hypertrophy. 

Forced/negative reps:

It is often the case in resistance training, that we fail concentrically when performing an exercise but actually have some eccentric strength left. That is to say, we may not have the ability to lift a certain weight but may still have the ability to lower the load under control. Potentially, a number of motor units are left unused which, when seeking hypertrophy, might potentially limit some of the gains that would otherwise have been made. In forced reps and negative reps we can overcome this weakness by exaggerating the eccentric phase of an exercise or making the concentric phase slightly easier.

To employ forced reps, the client performs as many reps on his/her own as they can until the point of volitional failure is reached. At this point, the trainer provides a minimal amount of assistance to permit the performance of another rep. As the client fatigues further, the trainer will provide slightly more assistance each rep for a total of 2-4 reps before terminating the set. This process is merely an extension of normal spotting procedures. It is important to note that at no point should the trainer be helping to the degree that they are doing more work than the client! If this is the case, the load is too great or the set has been extended too far beyond failure.

In negative reps, the concentric phase of an exercise is all but removed and all the effort is applied to the eccentric portion of the movement. Potentially this means the client can be exposed to supramaximal loads in excess of their normal repetition maximum. Examples of negative reps include leg extensions where the resistance is raised with two legs but lowered with one, chin/pull ups where the client climbs/jumps into the top position, and lowers themselves slowly into the extended position or a bench press where two spotters are used to lift the bar into the starting position and the client lowers the bar slowly on his/her own.   

Clearly both methods are advanced, should not be attempted by novice clients and only performed with the aid of an experienced spotter/trainer. It should be noted that the eccentric portion of any exercise is believed to be the main contributing factor in causing DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).  However, this type of training can also result in dramatic increases in strength and cross sectional size when performed judiciously with advanced clients.

Contrast training:

In strength training, the nervous system is often the limiting factor in performance. Contrast training is a system that attempts to “trick” the nervous system into permitting the muscular system to perform more work than it usually does through “synaptic facilitation”.

The premise of contrast training is that it is possible to make a heavy resistance feel lighter than usual by lifting a heavier weight shortly before.

Contrast training protocol:

Perform 1 rep with 95% of 1RM

Rest 2-3 minutes

Perform as many reps as possible with 8-10 RM

Rest 2-3 minutes

Repeat sequence 2-3 times more

The rep with 95% of 1RM should feel heavy but not impossible. Its purpose is to excite the nervous system and encourage nerve synapses to fire synergistically and quickly. 

After resting for the required interval, the nervous system is prepared for another close to maximal effort, however because the load has been significantly reduced for the second set the load will feel much lighter than it would have otherwise, thus permitting more reps than usual to be performed. It is not unusual for users of this system to perform 1-2 reps above their normal repetition maximum, thus exposing themselves to greater training stimulus.  

It is possible to “water down” this system for clients less used to near maximal loads by employing 3-4 reps with 5RM and 15RM loading parameters. This variation permits the client to gain some of the benefits of the system without experiencing the inherent risks associated with very heavy loads.

Owing to the use of near maximal resistance this is not a system for beginners but for more advanced clients, especially those seeking strength and hypertrophy from their training, this approach is effective.

Conflicting Training Goals

As mentioned previously one of the principle variables in the success of any hypertrophy programme is recovery. The frequency of workouts is an important factor in the recovery process. If a workout is repeated too frequently the ability of the body to recover from the exercise stimulus will be limited. 

An equally important factor affecting the ability to recover is the amount of other physical activity or exercise the client performs on a regular basis. Often individuals that train for hypertrophy include too many other types of physical activity. It is common for individuals to train with weights several times a week and also go running on a regular basis, or play football at the weekend and attend midweek training sessions. 

If an individual has a training goal that is as specific as hypertrophy they will need to dedicate the vast majority of their physical resources towards achieving this aim. It is impossible for individuals to obtain significant results across a number of components of fitness simultaneously. Training methods that induce beneficial adaptations in one component of fitness may produce negative effects on another ability or physiological system (Zatsiorsky, 1995). For example, strength and hypertrophy gains obtained through intense resistance training may have a negative impact on aerobic fitness and vice versa. If hypertrophy is the key training objective a minimal volume of other modes of exercise is recommended.


Balady, G. J. et al (2000). General principles of exercise prescription. In ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (B. A. Franklin et al, eds.) pp 138. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Baechle, T. R. et al (2000). Anaerobic Exercise Prescription. In Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (T. R. Baechle and R. W. Erle, ed.) pp. 393-425, Human Kinetics.

Baechle, T. Earle, R. & Wathen, D. (2000). Resistance training (ch), in Essentials of strength training and conditioning 2nd edition. Baechle, T & Earle, R. (eds). Human Kinetics

Brillon, D. Zheng, B. Campbell, R. & Matthews, D. (1995). Effect of cortisol and amino acid metabolism in humans. Am. Jn. Phys. Endocrinology-Metabolism. 268. 

Brzycki, Matt Maximize your training page 271- 283 metabolic conditioning. Sept 1999 Contemporary books

Dalton, E. (2003). The perils of perfect posture, Part 1. www.massagetoday.com/archives/2003/01/02.html

Earle, R. W. & Baechle, T. R. (2004). NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training. Human Kinetics

Elphinstone, J. & Pook, P. (1999). The core workout. Core Workout

Fleck, S. & Kraemer, W. (1997). Designing resistance training programs. Human Kinetics.

Hedrick, A. (1995). Training for hypertrophy. Strength and conditioning. June 1995, vol 17, no 3.

Heyward, V. H. (1998). Advanced Fitness Assessment and Exercise Prescription. Human Kinetics

Jalali, R. (2003). Muscle breakdown: Is cortisol leading you down the catabolic pathway? www.thinkmuscle.com/articles/jalali/cortisol.htm

Kendal, F. P. McCreary, E. K. & Provance, P. G. (1993). Muscle testing and function. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Krieder, R. B. (1999). Dietary supplements and the promotion of muscle growth with resistance exercise. Sports Medicine, 27(2): 97-107. 

McArdle, W. Katch, F. and  Katch, V. (2001). Exercise physiology: Energy, nutrition and human performance. 5th Ed. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Newton, R. and  Kraemer, W. (1994). Developing muscular power: Implications for a mixed methods training strategy. Strength and Conditioning, Oct 1994.

Pincivero, D. M. Lephart, S. M. Karunakara, R. G. (1998). Effects of intrasession rest interval on strength recovery and reliability during high intensity exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 1998, 12 (3) 

Poliquin, C. (2001) Modern trends in strength training. 

Robergs, R. & Roberts, S. (1997). Exercise physiology: Exercise, performance and clinical applications. Mosby.

Schmidt, R. & Lee, T. (1999). Motor control and learning: a behavioural emphasis. Human Kinetics

Schumway-Cook, A. & Woollacott, M. H. (2001). Motor Control. Theory and Practical Applications. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Siff, M. (2003). Supertraining. Supertraining Institute, Denver.

Back to: Diploma in Personal Training (NVQ) > DipPT - Module 4 (universal-teacher)