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How to Train On Your Cheat Days

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Making the Most of the Caloric Surplus and Hormonal Whirlwind

I spent the better part of my evening with two of my very best friends in the world: Ben & Jerry. You may have heard of them, as they are gentlemen of great esteem, and their names are whispered far and wide with reverence and awe. You see, I was strategically manipulating leptin.

Okay, that’s fat kid talk for “today was my cheat day,” a fabulous fat loss concept that’s liberally employed in the program I’m currently following, Cheat Your Way Thin. I mentioned in my last post that I’m using the program in my attempt to go from lean to super-duper lean in the next month.

One way that I’ve changed the program is that I’m working out on my cheat day—really freaking intensely. 

During the majority of the week, I’m using workouts from my own fat loss program. However 0n my cheat days, I’m using a training method known as “rest-pause” to really get the most out of each set.

What is Rest-Pause Training?

I’m glad I asked!

Rest-pause is a method of extending your sets to lift a weight for a higher total number of reps than you normally could for a single set. Unlike drop sets or strip sets, which require you to use progressively lower weight (and thereby perform less taxing work, or create less growth-inducing microtrauma), rest-pause allows you to use the same weight and get the some of the most brutal but effective workouts you’ve ever had the masochistic notion to expose yourself to.

To extend the set, you simply rest (or pause) when you hit failure.

This gives your muscles a brief reprieve so they can “recharge” and do more work. Yes, I know “Rest Pause” isn’t  a terribly creative moniker, but we fitness types aren’t always lauded for our cleverness. Myself notwithstanding, of course; I’m quite clever. And humble. And good looking. But mostly humble.

You wouldn’t believe how humble this beautiful man is.

Rest Pause results in an increased workout density and an incredible amount of muscle stress in a short time, which you know I love.

The best part is that you can utilize this technique with nearly any exercise and just about any rep range.

There are a number of different ways to do incorporate the pauses, but rather than go into all of them, I’ll just tell you the specific ways that I’m using rest-pause training for each exercise.

A Sample Cheat Day Workout

To begin with, I’m focusing on increasing the size of my upper chest (clavicular head) and my quads (mainly my VMO, the teardrop-shaped muscle located on the inside of the knee.).

On the cheat days, I’m training twice: once in the morning (9am) and once in mid-afternoon (3pm). During both sessions, I’m training chest and quads. Here’s how I incorporate rest-pause training to make my workouts more effective and allow me to take advantage of the caloric surplus and hormonal whirlwind of the cheat day (the following is is my afternoon workout).

High Incline Bench (75 degrees)

I’m training with my 10 rep max (255lb). I perform 10 reps with good form, making sure to come all the way down to my clavicle.

When I lock out, I hold the locked out position for 5-10 seconds. From there, I bang out as many reps as I can (today 8 reps).

I lock out again and hold for 15-20 seconds. I then perform a few more reps (today 4).

This time, I re-rack the weight completely, take 15 deep breaths and un-rack, working to failure once more (today it was 9 reps). All told, this is one set. I do two of these sets.

Leg Extension

In all honestly, for hypertrophy purposes, I often like training with machines.

I know, some people are going to hate on me, but they work great in conjunction with the big movements. In the case of the leg extension, I like to pair it a closed kinetic chain exercises with open kinetic chain exercises, so this works great with the squat.

I used my 12 rep max on the leg extension here, aiming for a full 1 second contraction at the top of the movement. At 12 reps, I unhook my legs, rest 5 seconds and repeat.

Overall, I got 30 reps on my first set, 22 on my second, and a quad pump that’s screaming for attention.

The Takeaway

Now, I know it sounds brutal—and it is—but it’s also very effective.

Compare my first set of Incline Press today as an example to a traditional model where I would perform 3 sets of 10 reps for 30 total reps.

Even if I take a “short” rest period, which—when working with maximal weight—would still be about 120 seconds, the proposition looks bleak. Let’s say each rep, performed with a 2-0-2 cadence, takes me 4 seconds. Each set takes 40 seconds, for 120 seconds of work time, separated with 240 seconds of rest.

It’s not hard to see how rest-pause is a great way to increase density.

Between workouts like the above, and the already kick ass workouts in Final Phase Fat Loss, in combination with a slightly modified Cheat Your Way Thin eating program, I have every confidence I’ll meet my goal of getting to a lean 191lb in the next month.

I’d love to write more, but I’m going to finish off this pint of Chubby Hubby and hit the sack, so I’ll leave it to you.

Agree? Disagree? What are your experiences with rest-pause? Better yet—let’s hear some of the more advanced training methods you’ve used to either pack on size or shred down.

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • Miguel

    Hi Roman, loved this post! It's pretty much what I'm doing right now and also what i want to achieve with this program! Trying to get super lean while simultaneously (hopefully) gaining a little muscle by utilizing the cheat days to their full potential.

    And my question is regarding just that. I often find myself doing my heavy training the morning of my cheat day because of my schedule. You pointed out that you do one of your workouts in the morning as well, but isn't the whole point of heavy training on cheat days because of the caloric surplus of the day? So how can I get the most out of heavy morning workouts on cheat days since it is BEFORE eating much of the calories and nutrients that will be ingested that day? Would eating some quality slow releasing carbs and protein about an hour before be enough, or would you even go as far as eating a big meal before bed? As I said, I would like to see if I can GAIN some muscle on this program at the same time, so I definitely want to take advantage of my cheat days, and your expertise on this as well!

    Thanks for the awesome post Roman, I will definitely be trying out the rest-pause method on my next cheat day! Keep em coming bro!

    ps. Would combining CYWT with your FPFL program help me to get even better results? I noticed you kind of mixed the two systems, I would be very interested in doing that if it's not too confusing to try and do both!

  • Tyler Carter

    Thanks for the tip; I've incorporated tactile stimulation and to-the-neck incline presses into my workouts for the past few weeks and I can already feel progress!

  • Robert,

    Great post!

    What I'm doing specifically is what I'd call “rest-pause sets” – that is, applying the rest-pause concept to be applied to an entire work set as an individual unit, rather than between each rep. In the past, I've done exactly what you described – and as I mentioned I still do it that with with certain exercises. However, for me in particular, I found it was only really effective with a weight I could use for 4-6 reps. With my 10RM, I was able to get 20 reps (on a bench press) without much trouble, resting about 5 seconds between each. I just found it not to be challenging in the way that it used to be when I first started utilizing it early in my training career.

    In the case of the method that I described, we are (as you mentioned) condensing post-workset rest time and plunging headlong into the next few reps. However, this is considered part of the same set.

    I used myself as an example, which may be misleading. Most of the time when people do this, they are only able to eek out 2-4 more reps after the first mini-rest. The fact that I got 8 or 9 is really just because I use this method often and I'm conditioned to be efficient at it.

    Consider also that I haven't had a rest period longer than 2 minutes since 2003–I have a high work capacity to begin with, and I've trained in a way that maximizes that (at least at 'higher' rep ranges).

    So, for someone like myself, performing 10 reps, then 9 reps, etc with 'mini-rests' is all within a single set. Then, a full rest period, and another set that is similar.

    I prefer this method over resting between individual reps because I find it more fun and challenging, as mentioned. Given the set up, I don't think it's a huge enough modification to necessitate a completely different moniker, but I can see how I definitely should have explained further–if only to avoid confusion.

    Thanks for bringing it up =)

    In terms of your arm training program, happy to hear you're getting good results. When you're all finished, I'd love to hear about the experience and your specific results.

    Thanks again for an awesome post, and I'm really glad you enjoy the blog!

  • Robert Wells

    Perhaps I'm misunderstanding something, but to me, what you seem to be doing isn't so much rest-pause training as just drastically shortening your rest periods between sets? I mean, a typical lifter may take a weight he can do around 8 reps with. He does his first set, gets 9, rests 120 secs, gets 8, rests 120 secs, gets 7. It sounds like you're saying, you take a weight you can do around 10 reps with, get 10, rest 15-20 secs, get 8, rest 15-20, get 5. As shown here, I mean, your # of reps suffers. Your equation for having done more work only seems to come out right when a lifter is lazy and is taking unnecessarily long breaks?

    This, and once again could be misunderstanding what you're doing, does not appear to be rest-pause training at all? Or at least is such a modification of it that it no longer resembles the original concept. I mean, I understand that decreasing rest-time can increase workout intensity, but it does not accomplish the same goals as rest-pause training as it is typically performed.

    From my understanding (will admit I'm not a fitness professional), the idea behind rest-pause is to increase density by allowing you to lift heavier weights for more repetitions. By taking a “pause” between individual reps, say of 5 seconds initially and with the upper end being 15 seconds, you allow yourself to do more reps with that weight then you could if you performed a straight set. This brief pause allows your muscles to recruit phosphates (this is supposedly one reason why creatine helps you get more reps) for the next rep. So, where you would normally get 10 reps with your 10rm, you now get 16-17 reps with only marginally more time involved. This becomes even powerful if you work with 4-8rm, as you can easily get quite a few more reps by using these small pauses.

    I just don't understand how taking a “pause” after a full set of 10 to failure with your 10rm is anything other than a shortened rest between regular sets? Unless this is in fact what you are promoting, shorter rests between sets to increase intensity?

    As always, I really enjoy your blog and LOVE your ideas about specialization. Am using an arm program based on your ideas for that to great effect.

    Best

  • I love rest pause training. I too used it in DC training and had some great results. It definately puts a strain on your CNS and is important to not go too crazy with it as you will find yourself over trained. I found that combining these 3 days of intense rest pause training with some carb cycling (lifting days being high carb) made for great strength gains and some decent size over the course of 12 weeks.

    Great Article Roman!

    btw – the pics from the last photo shoot are pretty tough lookin!

  • @Robert Wells – I normally rest around 5 seconds or 5 deep breaths in the beginning, and then increase as needed. Once I need more than 15 seconds of rest, I terminate the set. I use that same protocol with clients.

    Regarding your other question, both methods are valid. Resting between singles winds up extending the set a bit longer, which I don't care for. It DOES allow you to use heavier weight, however.

    I've done that method with my 5RM and kept sets to about 20 or so reps.

    It's harder to do if your triceps fail quickly with heavy weight (for a bench press).

    Pausing between reps is a great system for something like box squats.

    Really, it'll vary exercise to exercise.

  • Originally Posted By Mathieu

    As for the non-workout days, should I really eat exactly the same amount of calories? I have a tendency to want to lower the surplus a little bit. Also, should I eat carbs even on those days, or would it be best to make them low-carb?

    What about having any kind of “cheat” day? (I tend to separate meals w/ fats as opposed to meals w/ carbs). Would it be pertinent to have such a day to up the leptin (and minimize fat gain), or is it a non-issue on a muscle-building diet?

    Thanks a bunch!

    Mat

    Mat – for non-workout days, I do have my muscle-seeking clients eat a surplus, but not as high on maintenance days. Normally, about 75% of the workout day caloric surplus.

    So if you maintain at 2500 calories, and I have you eating 3250 to gain mass on workout days, that's a surplus of 750 cal; on non-workout days we'd use 75% of that surplus, or 560 calories, for a total of 3060.

    Regarding cheating – in this instance, not really effective. I've batted it around a few times, but always come to the same conclusion

    Cheating works for fat loss because operating in a caloric deficit, which lowers leptin levels, making fat loss more difficult. When you cheat/overfeed, leptin upregulates and the rate of fat loss increases.

    Given that you are eating in a caloric surplus (a goor portion of which is carbohydrates) leptin levels never drop; so cheating or overfeeding won't help you lose fat–in fact, you're likely to gain more.

    I generally separate meals into P+C and P+F as well – I'd say keep doing that.

  • Robert Wells

    Second question. A lot of advocates of rest-pause training prefer to take short pauses (5-10 seconds) between single reps for the whole set for max reps as opposed to your method of performing near max reps, pausing, then performing max reps, ad nauseum. Any reason for the distinction/preference? Looking to try this method today on close grip bench and pullups (doing an arm specialization cycle, props to you and your t-nation article for the program) and want to know which method I should try and how many total sets you recommend? Your current method seems to dictate two total sets. Thanks!

  • Robert Wells

    How much rest between rest-pause “sets”?

  • Very interesting input for the muscle-building advice. I've been using a similar strategy thus far, so this is reassuring. Only thing is I really feel like I'm eating like a pig and per your input I find I might need to still up the calories a bit more. Oh well XD

    One gosh-darn thing is still a big question mark for me, and so far i've been pretty much doing what I thought would be ok. As it happens, now i'm pretty clear on the eating strategy on workout days.

    As for the non-workout days, should I really eat exactly the same amount of calories? I have a tendency to want to lower the surplus a little bit. Also, should I eat carbs even on those days, or would it be best to make them low-carb?

    What about having any kind of “cheat” day? (I tend to separate meals w/ fats as opposed to meals w/ carbs). Would it be pertinent to have such a day to up the leptin (and minimize fat gain), or is it a non-issue on a muscle-building diet?

    Thanks a bunch!

    Mat

  • @Aash – Firstly–congrats on getting down to 8%, Aash. That's a hell of an accomplishment, and I know the first time you get there it's the best feeling in the world.

    Sucks that you had a less than stellar first 'bulking' experience. Mine was like that, as well.

    What I've learned over the years is that I no longer need to take in a tremendous caloric surplus to put on mass–to be honest, I think that's sort of an 'old school' method. While it certainly works, we've found much better ways other than stuffing yourself all long.

    For putting on mass, what I now do with my clients (and myself) is to take in calories at about a surplus of 600-1000 calories, depending on a few factors. Those factors would include: number of muscles being targeted for growth; overall goal; current training age; current level of leanness.

    For the past few years, we've focused on creating that surplus by adding extra calories to the meals immediately surrounding the workouts. So, rather than eat 2000 extra calories of milk, cheese, meat etc throughout the day, we instead focus on just taking in 1000 extra through shakes and para-workout nutrition supplements.

    Between 60-70% of the caloric surplus is met in this way.

    The other 30-40% is split between two solid food meals surrounding the training sessions.

    Of course, it should be noted that we (or, at least, I) loosen up my diet around dinner time quite a bit, in terms of food choices. When i'm trying to put on mass, I'm much more likely to go out to eat, etc.

  • Aash

    And btw, i think its really awesome how you've overcome bad genetics. I know how bad it can be.

  • Aash

    Hey John,

    I too am following the CYWT program at the moment and actually will try incorporating this on my cheat days. But i have another question for you today. You mentioned earlier that u were a fat kid, guess what, i was too. Although i did get down to 8 % bf earlier this year, while trying to bulk i gained more fat than muscle even though my diet was absolutely clean. No cheats whatsoever. I was eating carbs at 2g/lb pro at 1.5/lb and fat at .5g/lb. Anyways i was wondering what does your bulking diet look like? could you just give me a breakdown of your macro ratios ? I would REALLY appreciate it man. Thanks!

  • Fred

    Well, I would say that some of the workouts in your bodycomp blitz are the toughest I've encountered, and I regularly wanna shot myself in the face while doing them. But the rest-pause might be taking it one step further. I did something similar when I was coached by Will, my PT, a while back, especially the combo of the squat and the leg extension. Brutal. And very effective.

    Would love to get more tips on wicked rest-pause training strategies.

  • @Ylwa – Great question. With descending pyramids, you are alternating with another exercise (5 squats, 5 overhead press, 4 squats, 4 overhead press, etc etc). You have a greater amount of time to rest and recover, because you are working non-competing parts.

    Rest-pause is just the one exercise, so even though you are resting, it's a significantly lesser time period.

    Descending pyramids increase your overall work load in a given time split over various muscle groups. Rest-pause increases the density for just one muscle.

    So, with DP you might wind up doing more total work in that 4.5 minute span, whereas R-P you'd get more work for a single muscle group.

    They have similarities, obviously, but the differences I just listed generally make R-P a slightly better choice for growth, whereas RP, especially with 3-4 exercises at a time, are much better for fat loss.

  • Ylwa

    This is a new one for me, I haven't tried rest-pause myself before. But it sounds brutal and painful, so I should love it. At first glance I personally think it sounds alot like what you're aiming for with descending pyramids. Using active rest so you can lift a heavier weight more times. How is rest-pause different from descending pyramids in terms of muscle stress and tissue growth? Other than the obvious rest moment of course.

  • Originally Posted By SteveAre you tracking or estimating the calories you are consuming? If yes, are you maintaining a calorie deficit or a surplus on your non-cheat days? How much of a deficit do you do on your non-cheat days?

    Thanks

    Steve – I am taking in 2400 calories on non-cheat days. Of that, 1200 is from protein (300g). I take in about 100g fat and 25g low GI/GL carbs to make up the rest. I also get 50g carbs during my para-workout shake, which also makes up part of the total protein.

  • Originally Posted By EI am presently 290 lbs and 6 feet in height. I have already started going to the gym like 3 times per week and I am changing my eating habits. In truth I build muscle and lose weight that way. Do you have any suggestions for someone just starting out?

    E, it sounds like you're on the right track. The main thing you have to do is just learn, learn, learn. Read everything you can on diet and exercise, getting you information from as many sources as possible–this blog, others like it, and all the books you can get your hands on.

    In terms of what you should be doing for training, stick to the basics: full body workouts, 3-4 times per week. Focus on eating 5-6 small meals per day from good sources. Lower carbs, high protein. That's really as exacting as a beginner needs to get.

    Just keep checking back in, and post any questions you have.

  • @Per – That was my post on CB's blog. For anyone who hasn't read it, in the post I put forth that for a multitude of reasons, guys should be training heavy at least once per week. By “heavy” I mean lifting near maximal loads, with reps of less than 5.

    To answer your question, you could certainly use this method, but I wouldn't make it a daily thing while dieting. If you were training and eating for growth, I'd say you could absolutely use rest-pause twice a week: once with heavy weight/low reps, and once with higher reps, like I detailed above.

  • Steve

    Are you tracking or estimating the calories you are consuming? If yes, are you maintaining a calorie deficit or a surplus on your non-cheat days? How much of a deficit do you do on your non-cheat days?

    Thanks

  • Sam

    This kind of workout sounds right up my ally. I've been exploring different techniques to really hit my muscle groups hard lately. I started off doing low weight-high reps, then decided that I wanted to gain some mass. Currently, I'm doing something called “21's.” I'm actually only doing “15's” but I figured that the heavier weight would work better. It hits my muscles harder then everything else I've tried but it still doesn't make me sore enough for my liking. (Reading that back it sounds kinda nuts…)

    Anyways, how often can I do these during the week? I usually work out 3 days with 2 or 3 days of cardio.

    Thanks a lot John

  • E

    I am presently 290 lbs and 6 feet in height. I have already started going to the gym like 3 times per week and I am changing my eating habits. In truth I build muscle and lose weight that way. Do you have any suggestions for someone just starting out?

  • Ralph

    My experiance is that after reading this that I am most definitely a lazy bastard and I should just bite the bullet and have you train me. (but I'm broke as hell LMAO.) FWIW, You rock! (sorry about adding the exclamation mark at the end of you rock….I just couldn't resist.)

    Ralph

  • Ronnie

    I have used rest-pause before when I did the DoggCrapp workout where you use restpause sets along with holds and widowmaker, which caused me to explode up in size and strength, my diet wasn't the greatest but I didn't gain too much weight.

  • Per

    I have no doubts that this kind of exercise is quite draining even though it won't last that long in minutes. Is it too taxing or contra productive to do “all” the major muscle groups in one session this way, like squat, deadlift, benchpress, bent over row and military press?

    Am thinking about one of your entries (may have been on CB's blog) about lifting heavy at least once a week and the possibility to use a training session like the one above to accomplish this for the major muscle groups. Or is the volume a bit too high with this kind of training to qualify as “heavy”?

  • Per

    @John Romaniello – I guess a smith-machine or a focused spotter could come in handy when aiming for the adams apple with the bar.

  • Try to focus on building your mind-muscle connection. During the set, close your eyes and try to think of actively recruiting the upper pec. Literally flex and squeeze throughout the entire range of motion.

    Another thing you can do is use tactile stimulation: have your workout partner or a random spotter rest his fingers lightly on the upper chest; this creates a reaction by which those fibers will be preferentially recruited. On top of which, it makes YOU more aware of that area, helping to increase your ability to further engage those muscles.

    Also, with the incline press: try bringing the bar a bit higher. Rather than your clavicle, bring it a tiny bit higher, towards your throat. This went a long way for me in terms of teaching the clavicular head to fire.

    Finally, there are a number of great exercises that could try. The squeeze press, for example, is a great chest builder.

  • Tyler Carter

    I, too, find it very difficult to increase the size of my upper chest. I find it hard to “feel” my chest on floor presses especially, and my shoulders fatigue first on incline presses. Any suggestions?