One muscle-building strategy is a concept known as time under tension (TUT). The idea is that the longer you can keep tension in your muscles during a set, the more you’ll exhaust them, forcing them to grow to adapt. One way to increase TUT is by doing more reps (duh). The other is to pause an exercise at a point in its range of motion and hold it for time. With countdown sets, you accomplish both simultaneously, delivering the maximum stimulus.

HOW IT WORKS
The problem with doing high reps (12 or more, typically) is that your form tends to break down, increasing your risk of injury. It also forces you to use lighter weights, sacrificing muscular tension. With countdown sets, you can fatigue your muscles while keeping your reps low by interspersing isometric holds (pausing a movement), effectively creating a long-lasting (high TUT) set. For instance, you could perform six lateral raises and then hold your arms at 90 degrees for six seconds, then repeat, dropping the reps and holds to five, four, and so on down to one. Try this program for six weeks, and you’ll see how more tension in your life can actually be a good thing.

DIRECTIONS
Perform each workout (Days I, II, and III) once per week, resting a day between each session. Perform exercises marked with a letter (“A,” “B,” and sometimes “C,” or even “D”) in sequence, resting as needed in between. So you’ll do a set of A, rest, then B, rest again, and repeat until all the prescribed sets are done. Perform the remaining exercises as straight sets.

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DAY I

1A. DEADLIFT
Sets: 4
Reps: 5

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and bend your hips back to reach down and grasp the bar so your hands are just outside your knees. Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, drive your heels into the floor and pull the bar up until you’re standing with hips fully extended.

1B. PUSHUP
Sets: 3
Reps: Count down from 6

Lower your body until your chest is about an inch above the floor and then push back up. Perform six reps, then lower to the bottom position and hold six seconds. Immediately perform five more reps, and then hold five seconds. Continue counting down until you complete one rep with a one-second hold.

2A. LAT PULLDOWN
Sets: 3
Reps: Count down from 5

Sit at a lat-pulldown station and use the lat bar with the angled handles. Grasp the bar outside shoulder width and pull it to your collarbone. Perform five reps, then hold the bar at your collarbone for five seconds. Continue counting down to one.

2B. TRICEPS PUSHDOWN
Sets: 3
Reps: 15

Attach a rope handle to the top pulley of a cable station and grasp an end in each hand. Keeping your upper arms by your sides, extend your elbows and hold the end position for a second.

2C. BARBELL ROLLOUT
Sets: 3
Reps: 12

Load 10-pound plates onto a bar and kneel behind it with your shoulders over the bar. Brace your abs and roll the bar in front of you until you’re about to collapse. Roll back.

3. GOBLET SQUAT
Sets: 1
Reps: Count down from 6

Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest with both hands on one of the ends. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and toes turned slightly out. Bend your hips back, lowering your body into a squat. Perform six reps and then hold the bottom position for six seconds. Continue counting down to one rep.

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DAY II

1A. BENCH PRESS
Sets: 4
Reps: 5

Grasp the bar just outside shoulder width and arch your back so there’s space between your lower back and the bench. Pull the bar out of the rack and lower it to your sternum, tucking your elbows about 45 degrees to your sides. When the bar touches your body, drive your feet hard into the floor and press the bar back up.

1B. BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
Sets: 4
Reps: Count down from 5

Stand lunge length in front of a bench. Hold dumbbells at your sides and rest the top of your right foot on the bench behind you. Lower your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel with the floor. Perform five reps, then lower yourself into the bottom position and hold for five seconds. Continue counting down to one rep.

2A. CHINUP
Sets: 3
Reps: As many as possible

Hang from a chinup bar with hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing you. Pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar.

2B. LATERAL RAISE
Sets: 3
Reps: Count down from 6

Raise dumbbells out to your sides, just above 90 degrees. Do six reps, then hold the up position for six seconds. Continue counting down to one rep.

2C. SIDE PLANK
Sets: 3
Reps: Hold for 30 sec. (each side)

Lie on your right side and rest your weight on your right forearm. Stack your feet. Brace your abs and raise your hips off the floor. Hold the position. Repeat on the other side.

3A. ALTERNATING DUMBBELL CURL
Sets: 3
Reps: 10 (each side)

Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your upper arm at your side, curl one dumbbell. Lower it and curl the other.

3B. LYING TRICEPS EXTENSION
Sets: 3
Reps: 10

Lie on a bench holding an EZ-curl bar. Raise the bar over and slightly behind your head so you feel a stretch in your triceps when you bend your elbows. Lower the weight behind your head and, without moving your upper arms, extend your elbows to lockout.

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DAY III

1A FRONT SQUAT
Sets:
Reps: 5
Set a barbell on a power rack at about shoulder height. Grasp the bar at shoulder width and raise your elbows until your upper arms are parallel with the floor. Take the bar out of the rack and let it rest on your fingertips—as long as your elbows stay up, you’ll be able to balance the bar. Step back and set your feet at shoulder width with your toes turned out. Squat as low as you can.

1B. DIP
Sets: 3
Reps: Count down from 5
Use parallel bars and lower yourself until your upper arms are parallel with the floor. Perform five reps and then hold five seconds in the bottom position. Count down to one.

2A. CHEST-SUPPORTED ROW
Sets: 3
Reps: Count down from 5

Set an adjustable bench to an incline and lie down with your chest against it. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing each other. Retract your shoulder blades and row the weights to your sides for five reps. Hold the top position for five seconds. Count down to one.

2B. LEG CURL
Sets: 3 Reps: 10
Make sure your knees are lined up with the axis of rotation on the machine. Flex your ankles so your toes are closer to your shins. Bend your knees fully.

2C. HANGING LEG RAISE
Sets: 3
Reps: 10
Hang from a pullup bar with hands at a comfortable width. Contract your abs and raise your legs as high as you can.

2D. HAMMER CURL
Sets: 3
Reps: 12

Hold a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing each other. Keeping your upper arms at your sides, curl the weights.

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