Death Sets Ultimate!
Massively High-Rep Training for Massively Built Muscles
(AKA: An Homage to the Late Dr. Ken Leistner)
Around five or six years ago, I was training with a good friend of mine. Even though he and I are good friends, we rarely trained together (and still don’t) due to the simple fact that he never liked to train legs or back muscles very hard, and, unfortunately, preferred a lot more training on the “showy” bodyparts of the chest and biceps. And, while I’m not against a nice “pump” workout for the pecs and the arms, I’m primarily going to train my legs and my back hard, even if it’s at the expense of other muscle groups.
And even though my friend could out-bench press me by a couple hundred pounds, I could easily (at least at one time) out-squat or out-deadlift my friend by 300 pounds on each lift!
That’s just sad in my book.
Now, even though my friend knew that I liked to train my back and my legs with plenty of intensity (“intensity” in this case referring to both - A - the amount of weight lifted and - B - the effort exerted), he also knew that I had a weak spot: I never particularly cared for moderate to high-rep training. Hell, he even knew that at one time I considered anything over 5 repetitions to be deemed “high”!
So, on this particular day, as friends are wont to do, he decided to “mess” with me a little. On this day of training, while he had been performing heavy bench presses, I had been doing a heavy deadlift workout. I had just finished a few sets of triples with somewhere between 430 to 450 pounds (I can’t remember the exact weight), and had stripped the bar back down to my initial “warm-up” weight of 250 pounds.
At this point, my friend said, “how many reps do you think you could do with 250?”
I looked at the bar and shrugged. “I dunno. 30 to 40 reps, I guess.”
“I don’t know, man. I might have to call bull crap on that one. 30 to 40 reps? Seems like a lot.” He was being a bit dismissive, but I knew it was part of the act, all an attempt to “get my goat”, as the saying goes.
“Okay, what do you want to bet?” I asked.
He smiled back what might best be described in the South as a big, shit-eating grin. “Case of beer? Hell, if you win, you can even have some of that fancy, German stuff you like. Me, I’ll make it easy on you - I only want some Bud Light.”
I’m not sure exactly what he meant by “fancy, German stuff”, other than the fact that I like Indian pale-ales and a good stout or porter, but it didn’t take but a few seconds for me to realize that this is a bet I was going to take - and easily win. I may not have enjoyed high-rep training, and he may have very rarely seen me do any of it, but that sure as heck didn’t mean that I wasn’t capable. “You’re on,” I said.
After a few minutes of rest, I took an over-under grip on the bar (I wasn’t about to take any chances with an over-over grip), and a few deep breaths, then commenced with the set.
When the set was over - and I was covered in sweat, feeling as if I could puke - I had managed 50 reps.
And then I collapsed in a heap right next to the bar, where I lay for a good 15 minutes before I felt as if I had any strength whatsoever to pick my butt up. “When you going to get my beer?” I asked, laughing. It was my turn for the shit-eating grin at this point.
“I’ll be damned,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d manage 25 reps, much less double that.” He shook his head.
That night, we drank 6 beers each from the case he bought - I was nice enough to share - and the next day, I was more sore than I had been in a long time.
And over the next several days, I started to think: maybe I should try some high-rep training again. I had, at one time, when I was much younger, gained an appreciable amount of muscle mass from using heavy weight and high-rep training, combined with plenty of rest for each muscle group.
For the next 8 weeks, I returned to, basically, an Arthur Jones-style HIT program: full-body workouts, minimal sets, and 2 to 3 days per week of training. Although I never again did any more 50-rep set of deadlifts, I do think such training has its place.
For the remainder of this post, I’m going to discuss the history and benefits of so-called high-rep “death set” training, and then I’ll give you some advice for making such a program actually work.
|The Late, Great Ken Leistner, seen here a few years before his recent death.|
I first read the term “death sets” while perusing through my first copy of Brooks Kubik’s Dinosaur Training sometime in the mid ‘90s. They were very similar to the method used for decades-upon-decades before that under the term “20-Rep Squat Program”. JC Hise in the ‘30s, and then Randal Strossen’s book “Super Squats” released sometime in the late ‘80s helped to cement this form of training. Hise and Strossen always used “breathing squats” while developing their programs, so what made Kubik’s approach slightly different was the fact that he recommended all manner of tough leg, hip, and back exercises other than just squats, coupled with the fact that it didn’t stop at 20 reps - not by any means, as Kubik recommended sets of 30, 40, or even 50 reps. But, here’s the rub far as that goes, Kubik wasn’t writing anything original on his part. He got the ideas (primarily, as far as I can tell) from the late, undoubtedly great Ken Leistner (“Dr. Ken”, as he was known, just passed away on April 9th, 2019), who penned a monthly column for many years in the very good, but now defunct, Powerlifitng USA Magazine. Leistner took Arthur Jones form of HIT training, and savvily adapted it to powerlifting and serious strength training instead of just bodybuilding.
But the benefits to this sort of heavy, high-rep training is in its ability to really pack on the muscle more than just aiding in developing prodigious amounts of strength. (In fact, if it’s strength, and only strength you’re after, you’re much better training in the near polar opposite way: with plenty of sets, really low reps, and not even beginning to approach near momentary muscular failure. But if that’s what you’re after, I have way more articles utilizing that approach on Integral Strength than the few articles similar to this one. For that matter, if you want to develop high levels of strength while minimizing muscle gain, stop reading this article right now, and go read one of those.)
For those of you who are serious about gaining a lot of muscle mass - i.e., those of you much younger than myself - death set training can be really beneficial. But I have to warn you: it’s not for everyone. Only those of you who have the blood, guts, and (dare I say) balls to actually want to give this sort of training a go. But for those of you who do actually enjoy this sort of training, or are simply sadomasochistic, then I can promise you that you will gain plenty of muscle mass with one of these programs.
In an article I wrote 5 years ago for this very blog, entitled “Revisiting the 20-Rep Squat Program”, I gave the formula that has long been the credo for those looking to embark on a death-set-style training regimen:
High-rep squats + milk + lots of food and rest = GROWTH
For anyone interested in using something other than just squats, then the credo may look more akin to this:
Heavy, high-rep leg and/or back work + milk + lots of food and rest = GROWTH (Big Time!)
Here’s a quote from Super Squats on the effectiveness of the 20-rep squat program:
“With the aid of squat racks, a number of Mark Berry’s students in the 1930s used heavy, flat-footed squats. By working up to weights in the 300 to 500 range, they started to gain muscular bodyweight at previously unheard of rates. The gains in this period that resulted from these methods was so conspicuous that Mark Berry was said to have ushered in a “new era” as a result of his emphasis upon intensive training of the body’s largest muscle groups. The Milo publications were filled with dramatic success stories based on these methods.”
But it doesn’t have to be the squat, and, of course, it doesn’t have to be for just 20 repetitions. The key to making our second above credo ring thoroughly true is to pick from a handful of really great exercises, and to not be afraid to use more than just one exercise for the “death-set” portion of the workout. Here are some of the exercises I have in mind:
- Conventional squats
- Box squats
- Deadlifts (sumo or conventional)
- Dumbbell deadlifts
- Deficit deadlifts (off of a platform, or something that “lowers” the bar)
- High pulls
- One-arm dumbbell deadlifts
- Thick-bar deadlifts
- Trap-bar deadlifts
- Barbell shrugs
- Deadlift shrugs
Hopefully, you get the point. And the point, in case you don’t friggin’ get it, is to choose exercises that work the back and the legs really hard - the more muscles the better, which means that “deficit deadlifts” would probably be numero uno if I really had to go with a #1 - and that allow you to use a combination of heavy weights and high reps.
If you wanted a system that’s as sure-fire of a way as almost any system to really pack the muscle on, and to pack it on as fast as humanly possible, then you really couldn’t go wrong - in fact, you can’t go wrong - with combining death-set training with what I’ve termed in the past to be “the Big 5”. For those of you needing a reminder - or in case you haven’t read my previous posts on the subject - here are the Big 5 in brief:
|A young Ken Leistner|
- Squat heavy weights
- Pick heavy weights off the floor
- Place heavy weights over your head
- Drag or carry heavy weights for a distance
- Consume a lot of healthy, calorie-dense foods on a daily basis
Now, let’s take a good, long look at what a good example program might be. And, remember, this is just a sample. Depending on your strength and muscle mass level - beginner, intermediate, advanced, and all things in between - will factor into just how much variety you need. The more advanced you are, the more the variety. Now, if you’re just starting out, or if you have never managed to gain an appreciable amount of muscle no matter how long you’ve been training, you can do the same workouts for weeks on end - 6 weeks minimum would probably be best. (I don’t care one whit if you’ve been training for years, you’re still a beginner if you’re weak and/or lack muscle mass.) On the other hand, if you are an advanced lifter at the opposite end of the spectrum, then you need to make changes to a program after about every 3rd workout. (Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that the program needs to change. It simply means that the workout of the particular day needs to change. More on this later in the article - or, perhaps a different post if I don’t get around to everything that probably needs to be mentioned in this one.)
What follows is an example of 2 weeks of training. And, remember (this really can’t be stressed enough): this is just an example of training. If you’re a beginner, then stick with the program for another 6 weeks - in other words, 3 more 2-week cycles. If you’re advanced, then go ahead and change the program on the following 2-week cycle.
This program has you training 3 days on the first week, followed by 2 non-consecutive days on the 2nd week. I find that the majority of lifters like to train Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on Week 1, followed by Monday and Thursday on Week 2. However, a minority of lifters prefer to actually train on the weekend. I always, for instance, liked to begin my training week on Sunday. So my days were always Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday on Week 1 (I enjoyed Friday nights and Saturdays off), followed by Sunday and Wednesday on Week 2. But make adjustments as you see fit.
A change I have made here that you wouldn’t typically see in a training program by, say, Leistner or Arthur Jones is the inclusion of “light” training days. In the case of this program, I have termed these days “active recovery” workouts. Have fun on these days. Don’t take any sets anywhere remotely close to failure. Play around with light weights. Hell, if you want, drink a Miller High Life while working out on your active recovery sessions instead of a bottle of water or a sports drink of some sort. (I personally like to do this just to remind myself that the active recovery workout is no big deal. It’s simply meant to do what it says: recover from the previous workout sessions.)
One thing to keep in mind: all of the sets listed here are work sets. Warm-up thoroughly, especially before any of the “death sets”. And the older you are, the more warm-ups you need. For instance, in the first workout day of Week One - where I have a set of squats for 20 reps and a set for 50 reps - I would personally do 5 or 6 warm-up sets of progressively heavier weights before attempting that first death set of 20 reps. Second thing to keep in mind: Any sets listed as 20 reps or over are “death sets”. However, if the reps listed are lower than 20, then train until momentary muscular failure or even a little shy of muscular failure is fine.
- Squats: 1 x 20, 1 x 50
- Sumo Deadlifts: 1x20
- Chins: 2x6-12
- Bench Presses: 2x12
- Clean and Presses: 1x20 (set the bar down after the completion of each repetition, clean the bar to your shoulders, and then press overhead on every rep)
- Farmer’s Walks: 2 sets for distance
- Ab work of your choice
Day Two (Active Recovery):
- Box Squats: 2x10
- Dumbbell Bench Presses: 2x10
- Power Cleans: 2x5 (Pick a weight where you could easily get 10 to 12 reps if you so chose)
- Dumbbell Curls: 2x10
- Deficit Deadlifts: 1x20, 1x50 (set the “deficit” low enough so that this becomes essentially a combination of squatting and pulling work in one exercise - perhaps the “ultimate” lift)
- Dumbbell Bench Presses: 2x10
- One-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Clean and Presses: 1x20 (each arm)
- Barbell Curls: 2x12
- Sandbag Carries: 2 sets for distance (if possible, carry the sandbag uphill)
- Ab work of your choice
Day One: Repeat the Active Recovery Day of Week One - Substitute exercises as you see fit. Remember: this is a day to have fun, relax, and even drink a cold one while training.
- High-Bar Olympic-Style Squats: 1x20
- Thick-Bar One-Arm Dumbbell Deadlifts: 1x20 (each arm)
- High Pulls: 1x20 (I’m generally not a fan of the “quick lifts” for high repetitions - it’s one of the reason I pretty much loathe the Crossfit of the past - but I will make an exception in this case. High pulls are better than any of the other quick lifts for high rep training.)
- Thick-Bar Barbell Overhead Presses: 2x12
- Sled Drags: 2 sets for distance (I like to do one set while walking backwards and one set while walking forwards)
That’s it for the workout examples.
Remember the 5th of the Big 5 “principles” and make sure that you consume plenty of good, high-calorie foods, especially on your off days. I’m not going to get into all of the reasons here, but its even more important to consume plenty of calories on the days that you don’t train. Many lifters make the mistake of consuming most of their calories on training days, thinking that it will help fuel their workouts. But, in general, the way you feel, and the way your muscles perform, on a training day is due to what you ate the day before, not the day of training. There are some other reasons too - too many for the remainder of this article - but hopefully you get the drift.