The premise of this method is simple: you’re either moving up (ascending) or down (descending) in weight during one super-long set. Extending your sets like this increases the time under tension for your muscles, which in turn forces adaptation and change.
You can increase or decrease the weight as many times as you’d like during your set, depending on your masochistic leanings for the day. Let’s use the machine chest press as an example of a moderately intense ascending set, changing weight four times. Begin by setting the weight stack with two kilo weights per side for 10 reps. After rep 10, immediately change the pin setting on the weight stack so that you’re next using 5kgs per side and go for another 10 reps. Again without resting, move the pin again setting the weight at 7kgs per side and do still another 10 reps (or as many as you can muster). Finally, move the pin up to the 10 kilo weights and rep until you can’t go anymore. For a descending set (also called a “drop set”), reverse that sequence, starting with your heaviest weight and decreasing every time you reach a point of initial failure.
An ascending set on its own serves as a good warm-up for any body part, while a descending set is a super finisher. The good news is you should only have to do one ascending or descending set per exercise and per workout to reach kaputville.
Word of caution: be aware that certain exercise techniques may upset your fellow gym-goers. Running the rack using a series of dumbbells, for example, may not be practical during the gym’s peak hours because this technique can have you monopolising a lot of gym real estate, which may not sit well with other gym members. Rule of thumb for ascending/descending sets: if your ascending/descending set will require a lot of real estate, you might want to choose another technique or train during non-peak hours when the gym isn’t so packed with members.
TRY IT YOURSELF
Pick an exercise in your next workout to try either an ascending or a descending set, such as machine chest presses or machine shoulder lateral raises or cable curls.
“This technique is traditionally done with dumbbells, but you could easily do it with a machine that you can easily adjust,” says Cari Shoemate, a personal trainer and yoga instructor based in Houston (cari-fit.com). For example, use a cable machine with a rope attachment for doing triceps pressdowns: start either with a low weight and build with each set or with a heavy weight and drop with each set.
If you want to get creative, try using a bodyweight exercise. Shoemate explains: “Try descending sets with push-ups. Using a bench and step, work your way from the hardest angle to the easiest, starting with high-decline push-ups (feet on a bench), then to low-decline push-ups (feet on a step), then regular push-ups and finally incline push-ups with your hands on a step, feet on the floor.”