To fully stimulate a muscle, you must challenge it across its entire contractile range. Just doing a full range of motion (ROM) in the big lifts won’t achieve this. Moving through a full ROM is very different to being challenged over a full ROM. You see, muscles need to be worked in the mid-range, lengthened, and shortened positions. While compound lifts do provide the most bang for your training buck, they do not overload a muscle in all three of these positions—no single exercise can.
Exercises do not require you to produce a constant force at all points throughout the ROM. Changes in the length of the lever during an exercise mean that force differs across the ROM. For example, when doing a DB lateral raise there is no tension on the lateral delts at the beginning of the lift when your arms are by your side. This is because the lever arm is practically non-existent. At the top of the movement, however, the lever is much longer and the challenge to the muscle in this position is far greater. This is an example of an exercise which overloads the shortened position as it gets hardest as the muscles are close to fully contracted.
To further illustrate the point let’s take a look at the biceps. Elbow flexion would have to be performed in, or near, full shoulder flexion to create the opportunity for full biceps shortening—think high cable curls. Conversely, training the biceps in full shoulder extension is required to create the opportunity to challenge the biceps from their fully lengthened state—think incline DB curls.
The Role of Full Contractile Tri-Sets
To train a muscle at all points along its strength curve requires at least two and often three exercises. Steve Holman’s Critical Mass: The Positions-of-Flexion Approach to Explosive Muscle Growth book on training worked on this basis, with three exercises performed per body part, every time that muscle was trained. Training in this manner can be quite time consuming.
You do not have to perform exercises for all three positions within one session. If you train a muscle several times a week then, you can distribute these exercises across multiple sessions. Again, this strategy relies on you having the luxury of enough time to hit the gym most days of the week. This is not a luxury we all have, all of the time. Travel, work, family, and study commitments often limit our gym time.
Most of my clients have hectic work schedules which mean they cannot live in the gym. Their training has to be streamlined and efficient. They want a maximum return on their training investment and can often only spare 45 minutes three times per week. I’m sure you can relate to times in your life when you have been incredibly busy and your ability to train 5, 6, or even 7 days a week has been compromised. A busy work life is not an excuse to stop progressing in the gym. It just requires you to have a smart program and to make every rep of every set count.
That is where Full Contractile Range (FCR) tri-sets come in. FCR tri-sets are an extremely effective strategy for the time limited trainee. They allow you to hit the target muscle through its entire contractile range in minimum time. To create a FCR tri-set you simply pick three exercises for a muscle. Each of which challenges the muscle at different points throughout its ROM. You need one which targets the mid-range, another for the shortened position, and one for the lengthened position.
Here are some examples for each muscle group:
Back Squat (Mid-range)
Leg Extension (Shortened)
Sissy Squat (Lengthened)
Bench Press (Mid-range)
Cable Fly (Shortened)
DB Flye (Lengthened)
Pull Ups (Mid-range)
Machine Pull-Over (Shortened)
DB Pull-Over (Lengthened)
45-Degree Back Extension (Mid-range)
Gironda Leg Curl (Shortened)
BB Curl (Mid-range)
High Cable Curl (Shortened)
Incline DB Curl (Lengthened)
Close Grip Bench (Mid-range)
French Press (Lengthened)
Face Pulls (Mid-range)
Bent Over DB Flyes (Shortened)
Cable Rear Delt Flyes (Lengthened, if positioned with cable at a 90 degree to arm at start)
When programming sets and reps for these tri-sets, I tend to limit it to a maximum of three times through each tri-set per session. The stimulation and fatigue created with these tri-sets is quite substantial. You get a lot of work done in little time and completely fatigue the muscle. These tri-sets should be attacked ferociously. Don’t hold back. The whole point of this strategy is to stimulate the muscle quickly so you can get in and out of the gym asap and carry on with your hectic schedule.
How to Use the FCR Tri-Set Method
In general, you should place the compound movement first in the tri-set. These exercises are the ones which carry the greatest risk of injury through form breakdown. It is wise to be fresh when hitting squats, bench press, pull ups, etc. to minimize injury risk. Secondly, placing a large load through the musculature is fundamental to your progress. It allows you to create the highest amount of mechanical tension. Compound lifts are the most effective at achieving this so placing them first in the tri-set makes sense.
Because the first exercise is a large, compound lift in the mid-range I suggest using relatively low reps (by bodybuilding standards). Sets of 6-8 are my preference. I tend to favor following the mid-range exercise with a shortened position challenge. The focus on these exercises is to fully contract the muscle, feel it working and get a good pump. Holding the peak contraction for a two-count is a smart move on these. Finally, choose a lengthened position exercise. Stretching under load is a powerful hypertrophy stimulus, and doing this with a fully pumped muscle works wonders. At this point your muscles should be screaming and the number of reps you achieve will largely be down to your mental fortitude. With that said, pick a weight you think you can get 8-10 reps on.
As with every rule there are exceptions. For example, I have seen better results getting the hamstring fully shortened first by using standing or Gironda leg curls as the first exercise in the tri-set. Some muscle groups and/or exercises lend themselves to slightly higher rep ranges. Think quads and rear delts. Thus, I often use slightly higher reps on leg extensions and machine rear delt flyes.
To put that all together here are some of my favorite combinations:
A1 Front Squat 3×6-8
A2 Leg Extension 3×10-12
A3 Sissy Squat 3×8-10
A1 Incline Bench Press 3×6-8
A2 Machine Fly 3×10-12
A3 Low Incline DB Flye 3×8-10
A1 Pull Ups 3×6-8
A2 Straight Arm Pulldowns (Torso Upright) 3×8-10
DB Pull-Over 3×8-10
A1 Standing Leg Curls 3×6-8
A2 45 Degree Back Extension 3×6-8
A3 DB RDLs 3×10-12
A1 BB Curl 3×6-8
A2 High Cable Preacher Curl 3×6-8
A2 Incline DB Curl 3×6-8
A1 Close Grip Bench 3×6-8
A2 Rope Pressdown 3×8-10
A3 French Press 3×8-10
A1 Face Pulls 3×8-10
A2 Machine Rear Delt Flyes 3×10-12
A3 Bent Over DB Flyes 3×8-10