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The Lost (and Reclaimed) Art of the Finisher

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How to Use Finishers to Make ANY Workout More Effective

At the risk of repeating something I’ve said before, I want to begin this post by saying that training should be hard. It’s called “working out” because it’s work. Otherwise it would just be hanging out in the gym—which, by the way, is what I see most people doing. However, I also think that training should be fun.

And I certainly don’t think those two concepts are mutually exclusive.

One of the best parts about what I do is the opportunity to create programs that are concurrently fun and challenging. When I get e-mails about how a session from one of my programs is, “the most fun I’ve had while hating every minute of my existence” (credit to Mike from Toronto), it makes my day.

The programs I love (and the ones I write) are the kind that are always hard, if you’re doing them right. However, the problem with any program written for general consumption is that it needs to be written with moderation in mind. That is, because we know that a lot of people have the tendency to over-do it, good coaches need to pull back on the reins a bit when writing programming.

While this is good policy, it certainly creates a problem: what about the clients who can handle a bit more, or who just want to add a little extra work to the mix? For these clients, I tend to just let them have at it and tell them to feel free to up the intensity. And I always tell them as much.

Strangely, this leads to another problem: more often than not, I get a bit of push-back from clients. Well, perhaps that isn’t the right word. It’s not so much that clients argue–it’s that they display some extreme hesitance and uncertainty. I get a lot of questions like these:

“Is it really okay to add more volume?”
“Won’t cardio on off days tax my recovery?”  
“Are you sure it’s not going to mess up my program?” 
“Won’t I overtrain?”

This didn’t used to be so common; way back in the way back (I’m not sure that’s English, but I’m going with it), people didn’t seem to be so completely consumed with the more precise details of training. Now, there seems to be a lot what we can call majoring in minutia.

Not to imply that I don’t enjoy the science of the whole process, or that there isn’t tremendous value in paying attention to tempo, percentage of 1RM or any other of the infinitesimal exactitudes that can factor into designing and executing training programs. I certainly value those things, and as a coach it’s my job to use such tools to create optimal programs for my clients.

That said, it’s important to note that long before anyone knew about the specifics of contractile force, nutrient timing, and EMG studies that show which grip gives optimal lat recruitment, people still managed to build incredibly impressive physiques. Guys all the way from Steve Reeves to Arnold  followed the logical advice of “do more when you feel you can do more” and making great progress.

On the other hand, trainees today seem to be so focused on doing their program the exact right way that they often fear to include anything fun or creative or—god forbid—fun! Well, to quote the late, great 20th century philosopher Tupac: “fuck that noise.”

So, instead of worrying about whether things are going to be “ruined” by making a small tweak here and there, I encourage you to tailor any training program you’re using a bit to your liking—even my own. Chances are, you’re not going to derail the program or overtrain or complicate things in any way by adding a little spice. For most people, I recommend focusing on increasing intensity, rather than focusing on volume.

In other words, I want you to feel you the have the latitude to add whatever you need (within reason) to increase intensity, so long as you feel that doing so will help you to get the most out of each individual workout, and your program as a whole.

The thing is, there are so many ways to increase intensity—some of which I’ve covered, some that I’ll definitely get to in the future—so whether it’s a few more sets, or changing an exercise here and there, you can make some adjustments.

However, the are other ways to make chances and increase intensity and the overall efficacy of your workouts. And today, today I want to talk about one of my absolute favorites–a simple addition that is both fast and incredibly effective, and that you can immediately add to any training program, including the one you’re already using. In fact, your very next workout is going to be more effective for having read this.

So today, it’s time to have some fun, because I want to talk about Finishers. 

Now, I COULD make a joke about massage parlors and happy endings here, but I won’t. Not because I’m above it, but because it’s too damn predictable—and you know I don’t make predictable jokes. I’m just mentioning it because I know you spotted the opportunity, and I’d hate for you to think I’m suddenly too mature to be funny. Cool? Cool.

With that covered, let’s move on. Time to talk about finishers. What are finishers? Why, I’m glad you asked, gentle reader, because I love me some finishers.

Simply put, a “Finisher” is an exercise or series of exercises performed at the end of your workout specifically to make you hate your life. Okay, well, not specifically designed for that, but that is often the result. In truth, a finisher is really just a way to add some extra volume, intensity, and yes, fun, to the end of your workout.

Years ago, Arnold and his ilk ended nearly every workout with a finisher of some kind. Guys who weren’t afraid of volume spent hours trying to come up with more creative ways to spend even more time training, and finishers were part of that. Now, while I clearly don’t advocate workouts that last several hours, I do think tossing in an extra 5 minutes can make the difference between a workout that’s adequate and one that’s awesome.

Here’s a quick test: if you’ve finished a workout by doing something along the lines of calmly recording your last set in your training log and saying, “whelp, I guess I’m done,” then you need to get down with some finishers.

Put another way, you should not be leaving the gym all fresh and pretty just because the guy who wrote your program was catering to clients who weren’t as bad-ass as you are. Instead, take things into your own hands and do a finisher.

Before you say anything else, let me stop you right there: don’t worry about over-training, don’t worry about un-doing everything you’ve just accomplished by meticulously following the plan you’re on, don’t get caught up in minutia. Just get in some extra work and beat yourself up.

For these purposes, finishers are hard to beat; especially because they’re so versatile. A finisher can be anything from some random kettlebell work to practicing some unilateral exercises that you’d like to get better at, to strapping on a weighted vest and seeing how many push-ups you can do, all the way up to a planned circuit.

For finishers, I only have a few rules:

  1. It should be fast-paced.
  2. It should be brief (no more than 10 min).
  3. It should be taxing.
  4. It should be in line with your current goal.
  5. It should be something you enjoy doing (at least in theory).

One of my favorite ways to do finishers is also one of the easiest, and it’s to find an interesting way to challenge and burn-out the muscles I targeted during the workout.

Here’s a great example:

Now, obviously something ridiculous like “Monkey Pull-Ups” can’t be written into a strength training program—it’s too hard to predict the variables. But, at the end of a back workout, it’s a quick, hard and really entertaining way to burn out. Plus everyone at the gym looks at you kinda funny, and that’s a whole other kind of fun.

Another way to incorporate finishers is to practice something I’m trying to get better at. For example, when I was trying to get better at ring work, muscle-ups, etc, I just did 10 minutes and practiced as much as I could. That’s also pretty simple.

Finally, the most comprehensive (and possibly most effective) way to incorporate finishers is with a planned circuit that helps you meet your goal, but isn’t specifically part of the workout. Instead, you’d use these type of finishers as “add-ons”, which can be stacked with your current workout.

Since the most common goal of my readers is fat loss, let’s use that as an example. If you’re using a program and making good progress from it, but for one reason or another still have some time and energy left at the end of your workout, you might want to use a finisher to burn some extra calories, jack up your metabolic rate a bit further, and just make everything more effective.

In that case, you might use something like this:

  • A1) Jump Squats 
  • A2) Push-Ups
  • A3) Reverse Lunges 

For performance, you have some options; you could either:

  1. Perform as many reps as possible of A1, then move on to A2, then A3. Perform a total of 3-4 founds, resting 2 to 3 minutes between each.
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Perform A1-A3 sequentially for 10 reps of each exercise. Perform as many rounds as possible in 5 minutes, resting as needed.

Stuff like this “add-on” finisher is great, because you can really do it at the end of any workout, or as part of any program. In fact, with the exception of a series of great warm-ups, having a collection of finishers at your fingertips is probably the single most effective way to make every single workout more impactful.

That’s why I love when people take the initiative to create stuff that makes these types of results even more accessible. Which is why I’m pumped as hell about Workout Finishers 2.0, the new program from my boy Mike Whitfield.

51 awesome finishers you can add to any workout. Worth checking out.

Workout Finishers 2.0 is the new version of Mike’s hit program. This time, he’s added a bunch of new workouts, meal plans, and even follow-along videos. In other words, he stacked it out like you wouldn’t believe.

Look, I don’t wanna sell you. But, square business, it’s a good program, and it’s like 50+ workouts for 27 bucks. It’s a sick deal, and a lot of fun. And you’ll get kick ass results (while getting your ass kicked). I would highly recommend checking it out.

Final Thoughts

As I said, finishers are awesome for any number of reasons–and the greatest part is there are so many different types of finishers that it’s impossible to get bored. You can burn out a muscle, practice a movement, or even do something more structured; there’s no shortage of ways to do finishers.

Perhaps the best part of all of these different types of finishers is the surprise factor; ultimately, you never really know how much work you’re actually going to get done–it all depends on how you perform on that specific day.

Don’t get me wrong: I take exacting measure when planning both my own workouts, and especially my clients. I have records of every single rep of every single set of every single workout I’ve done since I was 17. Before I walk in the gym, I know exactly what my workout is going to consist of.

However, if, at the end of the workout, I feel like I’ve still got a little left in the tank, you’d better believe I’m going to burn it up with a finisher.

What finishers can you come up with? What kinda stuff have you ended a workout with that made you want to crawl out of the gym? Well, post below, ya masochist.

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.

  • susynatal

    Have been doing a lot of gymnastic strength work lately so I haven’t seen a finisher in a while, but my favourites include either KB or light barbell complexes, with the odd burpee here and there if I particularly am feeling like bringing the noise. Then dying.

  • Ryan Graczkowski

    Honestly, man, I get down with some hill sprints at the end of the workout. There’s a hill right outside the studio where I work, and it’s perfect for getting out and going fast.

  • Tim

    You say not to be afraid of adding more or going more intense, but when I was a client of yours, I wasn’t gaining any muscle or improving in my workouts because I was pushing too hard (I wasn’t even adding stuff to your workouts, just pushing myself really hard).

    Eventually you said my lack of progress was a recovery issue and moved things around to allow more recovery, but how can you say it’s okay to add volume or intensity to programming if it clearly can end up being too much and stalling your progress?

    • Well, obviously it’s situational. A guy like you who is already in good shape and accustomed to pushing himself is going to wind up having workouts that are more taxing.

      If I took your program and gave it to someone less fit, there rest periods would be longer, they’d life less weight, perhaps do fewer sets. All of those things would mean the workout is less taxing, and they could stand to do a finisher.

      The programs i wrote for you — particularly months 2 and 3 — were pretty huge on their own.

  • Jennifer Blake

    Favorite workout finishers: If I don’t want to think too hard about it: 5 minutes of hill sprints, sled pushes or kettlebell swings or snatches. If I’m feeling a bit crazy and slightly unhinged, it’s kettlebell or barbell complexes. I always do something though and it usually ends up being my favorite part of the workout. At the end I’ll say, “I hate it, but I love it, but I hate it.” All true.

  • Glenn

    Back doing XFLD before Xmas, just completed Strength2 workout (deadlifts, lunges, etc) after yesterday's Fast Day: you have 100 jump squats as a dynamic finisher. You, sir, are a bastard.

  • Lisa

    Great post……i have been doing them for about 3 months now, but had no idea thats what they were called. I made up my own 10 min extras just to make sure I hit the problem areas for me. I do a series of 9 to 10 exercises done at 60 sec work and 15 sec rest intervals. It totally finishes the workout and is easily modified depending on what you need. glad i now have a name for it….thanks

  • Ted

    You say 'finishers,' I say 'pukers.' Tomato/ tomahtoe. Here are some I like: Chest-decline pushups with pushup bars/dumbbells. Make sure to keep your nose out of the vomit on the last few reps even if it does smell like NoXplode. Back-Switch grip negative pullups. Use a weight, not because it is harder, but because it makes you feel like you have a pair of bull nads. Better yet, hang 2 weights from the chain and let them clank around down there. Shoulders- any isometric hold Y variant. After about 20 seconds, those 15's start feeling like monster truck tires. Quads-wall squats are Gitmo mean or jump tucks if you want some hot plyo action.

  • Mirror boxing going all out Bruce Lee style, even making those funny..watahhhh! Oh yah!

    Hitting the tire with sledgehammers…mix up the wts.

    Jump-roping interval style

    Hindu pushups or squats, go for 100 reps total or 1 set AMAP

    The holds for time sounds great, gotta add that in.

    Oh, one more. I like to flex after workouts. 5-10 mins, when beach season is near I'll get up to 1 hr. Can you say RIPPED?! Oh yah!

  • Originally Posted By RonnieDepending on the workout, I like to finish with a good jump rope session of about 10 mins which will wear most people out, or hit up the kettlebells….Another good one to try is after you workout you can do holds where say for back you will go to the pull up bar and do a pullup and just hold and squeeze your lats and all for 30secs-1min and then try to do some pullups….chest you can either do pushups and hold in the down position or flys and hold in the out position jus watch the shoulders :) there are a bunch of different holds….lots of blood to the muscle, great pump, lots of sweat, DOMS….life is grand!!! Preciate all the good work John

    Great suggestion, Ronnie! Isometric holds make for incredible finishers. I haven't done them in years, but after reading your comment they were on my mind and I just did some holds for various shoulder presses–I'm cooked. Really great stuff, thanks for reminding me of this. Well done

  • Ronnie

    Depending on the workout, I like to finish with a good jump rope session of about 10 mins which will wear most people out, or hit up the kettlebells….Another good one to try is after you workout you can do holds where say for back you will go to the pull up bar and do a pullup and just hold and squeeze your lats and all for 30secs-1min and then try to do some pullups….chest you can either do pushups and hold in the down position or flys and hold in the out position jus watch the shoulders :) there are a bunch of different holds….lots of blood to the muscle, great pump, lots of sweat, DOMS….life is grand!!! Preciate all the good work John

  • Per

    @John Romaniello – It's true, have Vinces material myself and he always favours the experience of always emptying the tank on the gym floor. And also like “if you feel that you could do a few more reps, do it!”.

    So, as you say, a finisher would definitely go along the style of Vinces training program.

    Keep kicking your friends butt Ted!

  • Ahaaa… so that's what they call 'em eh? Finisher.

    “Finish her off”… that's what I think Craig Ballantyne was thinking when he created the Kettlebell 500 and Kettlebell 550.

    Great fun… suicidal, but great fun.

  • @Ted – Well, in that case, tell your roommate that Vince and I did finishers after we did one of his own workouts.

    I will say that Vinny writes great programs – if you and your roomie still have a lot of gas in the tank, you guys can probably up the weight on some of the movements.

    Either way, I hate to speak for Vince, but I know from experience he'd NEVER tell anyone to shy away from an extra 5 or so minutes at the end of the workout.

    Glad you liked the post =)

  • Originally Posted By Henrik EberhardtHi. My favourite finisher is at least 5 sets/maximum 10 of burpees (st, (squating,jump to push up position, push up, jump to squat, explosive star jump from squat) and then 10 round-the-worlds with a bulgarian bag, both directions. so 30 movements is 1 set. If I feel less up for it I might do 8 reps in each set instead. Anyway it's perfect finsisher, and it lives up to it's name:) And, yeah it is fun. In it's own way!! :) Cheers

    Excellent set up. We do something similar, but we normally change the jumping exercise between rounds. We'll go from burpees to jump squats to jump lunges. Keeps it a bit more interesting. Your “finisher” sounds like a full on workout; great stuff!

  • Ylwa

    I've learned alot over the past t wo blog post, thanks! Finisher's is something new to me, at least doing it like this putting it at the very end. I've done burn-out exercises before, say doing some heavy machine chestpresses right before doing a dumbell/barbell chest press or similar but never like this. Have to try it of course. Unfortunetely I think I have to leave the moneky pullups for a while (I blame the fact that I'm a girl for the reason I can only do 3 full bodyweight pullups). But I'll forcere my better half to do them :).

  • Ted

    Ok, honestly, I only got half way through your post.

    Not to say I won't finish. I'm going to now, but I couldn't wait to thank you. THANK YOU. I just got into an argument with my roommate the other day because he was refusing to make our workout more intense because the program Vince outlined didn't specifically say to do so. This is EXACTLY what I wanted to hear.

  • Henrik Eberhardt

    Hi. My favourite finisher is at least 5 sets/maximum 10 of burpees (st, (squating,jump to push up position, push up, jump to squat, explosive star jump from squat) and then 10 round-the-worlds with a bulgarian bag, both directions. so 30 movements is 1 set. If I feel less up for it I might do 8 reps in each set instead. Anyway it's perfect finsisher, and it lives up to it's name:) And, yeah it is fun. In it's own way!! :) Cheers

  • Scoth

    Looking jacked in the video dude!

    I sometimes finish with a leg matrix ala Cosgrove/JC Santana – various squats, lunges, jumping lunges etc or something called the Spectrum Squat (Vern Gambetta). Makes my legs burn before doing some steady state cardio.

    Cheers Roman!

  • Originally Posted By David HarperCar push.

    Back in the day I'd finish a Sunday morning deadlift workout by pushing my wife's SUV. My wife would put the car in neutral and steer, and my at the time very young daughter would hang out the window and cheer me on. When I'd collapse at the end, they'd have a protein shake ready for me to hoover as I caught my breath. Great family fun.

    This is great stuff–not only challenging and interesting, but family fun time, as well. You're a lucky guy, David. I hope to one day have such Sundays.

    Keep'em coming guys, learning a lot

  • Ricardo

    20th century philosopher Tupac : “fuck that noise.”

    John did he really write that ? Have to read a bit of Tupac !

    Just messing with ya! Never though to do a finisher as I have never heard that expression before.

    Thanks John. Yours Sincerely.

  • Originally Posted By Randy PraterOne of my favorite finishers which I use when training clients is “Team Burpees.” My client and I face each other about two feet apart and start doing syncronized burpees. When we get to the jump at the end of each rep we high five each other. My client is so focused on keeping pace and coordinating the high five that he/she forgets how hard they are working. They can often do 8-10 more burpees than they could if doing it solo, plus it's FUN!

    This is awesome! It's like when you score a touchdown in Tecmo Bowl!

  • Randy Prater

    One of my favorite finishers which I use when training clients is “Team Burpees.” My client and I face each other about two feet apart and start doing syncronized burpees. When we get to the jump at the end of each rep we high five each other. My client is so focused on keeping pace and coordinating the high five that he/she forgets how hard they are working. They can often do 8-10 more burpees than they could if doing it solo, plus it's FUN!

  • Oops, I screwed up trying to quote your comment about hot girls walking over when you're push-up finished. ;P

  • @John Romaniello –

    Gosh that is SO true. Seems to happen to me too often for my liking.

    In any case, cool post! (And I'll have to try the monkey pull-up thing)

    I'm also tweaking the program I'm on and adding stuff at the end, especially when I feel I got some juice left. I usually go with things I want to improve particularly, such as pull-ups or shoulder stuff (these days).

    Push-ups are always a great finisher too. And there exists as many variations as there are hot girls on this planet.

  • Colin

    Personally, ive found that some HIIT on a stationary bike after a less than sapping workout really helps a lot. And peddling like a madman amongst lots of people doing nice steady cardio is quite satisfying!

  • David Harper

    Car push.

    Back in the day I'd finish a Sunday morning deadlift workout by pushing my wife's SUV. My wife would put the car in neutral and steer, and my at the time very young daughter would hang out the window and cheer me on. When I'd collapse at the end, they'd have a protein shake ready for me to hoover as I caught my breath. Great family fun.

  • Originally Posted By Tyler CarterTypo:

    “In truth, a finished is really just a way to add some extra volume, intensity, and yes, fun, to the end of your workout.”

    Fixed! Thanks for the catch =)

  • @Sam – That's a great one! There is something great about working to the point where you can't even do a single push-up anymor.

    …except when some hot girl happens to walk over in time to only see the fact that you can't do a push-up.

    Still, great suggestion =)

    Thanks for the comment, Sam.

  • Originally Posted By Brendan I guess the trick is to accept that somedays will be better than others in completing these finishers, depending on how hard the initial work out is.

    Well said, man.

    On the days you can push a little bit hard and have some fun by challenging yourself, finishers are awesome. On the other days, where you can barely stand after your squats, there's no need.

  • Tyler Carter

    Typo:

    “In truth, a finished is really just a way to add some extra volume, intensity, and yes, fun, to the end of your workout.”

  • Sam

    That was pretty cool. I didn't know they were actually called “finisher” exercises. I always just called them the “wear-out” section of my workout.

    One that I like to do is to find a spot where you have a decent amount of room and kind of do the same thing as the Monkey Pull-Ups but with push ups. Do one, then, keeping your feet where they are, take a big step left or right with your hands and change where they are, and do another one. Go from close grip, wide grip, bring your hands back toward your bellybutton, even a one handed pushup at the end if I feel like I want to fall flat on my face.

    Thanks for teaching me something new before I even really got out of bed today John.

  • Brendan

    Cool topic Roman. Sometimes I am so spent at the end of a workout that I can barely stand or raise my arms to lather up the shampoo in the post workout shower. Or it's being at the edge of or even going over to expelling everything in your gut, it all depends on the type of workout. But other times there is extra gas in the tank at the end of a workout and I find myself subsequently thinking that I didn't hit it hard enough and am disappointed as a result.

    I am looking forward to other comments and ideas of “finishers” to incorporate into my workout regimen so as to ensure that I always feel satisfied and content. I guess the trick is to accept that somedays will be better than others in completing these finishers, depending on how hard the initial work out is.