Log In

Stoppani's Six Best Solo Training Techniques

Think you can't maximize intensity when working out alone? I disagree. With these training methods in your arsenal you absolutely can.

Stoppani's Six Best Solo Training Techniques

Intensity is the key to getting serious results on any weight-training program. You know what doesn't help you get results? Excuses. Like this one: "I train by myself, so I'm not able to lift as hard as if I had a partner." Nonsense. You can hit the weights as intensely as anyone when training by yourself. Just blast some inspiring music on your iPod and utilize the following intensity-boosting techniques, handpicked specifically for the guy or girl rolling solo in the weight room.


Forced reps is typically a two-man technique, where once you reach muscle failure, your spotter assists by helping you perform the positive part of the rep. But you can also do forced reps by yourself via unilateral training (one-arm or one-leg exercises) with dumbbells, cables or machines. For example, on one-arm dumbbell preacher curls, after you reach muscle failure, perform forced reps by assisting your working arm with your non-working arm. You can also use this technique on leg extensions or leg curls by assisting with the non-working leg after initially reaching failure. Yet another example, this one for the delts, is to do one-arm Smith machine upright rows. To execute it properly, grab the middle of the bar with one hand, then assist with the opposite arm.

Forced reps have been shown to boost growth hormone (GH) levels three times more than ending a set after muscle failure. And another study reported that trained athletes using forced reps for 10 weeks lost more body fat than those who stopped after reaching failure.

Watch this video for more on forced reps:

Sample Unilateral Forced Reps Biceps Workout

Exercise Sets/Reps* Rest
One-Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl 3/8-10 1-2 min.
One-Arm High Cable Curl 3/10-12 1-2 min.
Dumbbell Concentration Curl 3/10-12 1-2 min.

*On the last set of each exercise, after reaching failure, perform 2-3 forced reps by assisting with the non-working arm.


Negatives are a great way to increase strength and size by overloading the muscles with more weight than they're accustomed to. One study showed that subjects who performed a negative-rep workout consisting of three sets of bench presses and squats increased their growth hormone levels 15 times more than when they performed the same exercises without negatives.

Just one problem for the guy or girl going it alone: Even more so than forced reps, negative-rep training is typically a two-man job, since to do it properly, you need to use a weight that's about 120% of your one-rep max. So how do you do this without a spotter? Simple: By lifting the weight through the positive portion of each rep with both arms or legs, then lowering it slowly on the negative with only one limb.

You can't do this with free weights, but Smith and other weight machines work well. To do unilateral negatives on Smith machine bench press, for example, first figure out how much weight you can press with one arm. Once you've calculated your approximate one-arm, one-rep max, add about 20% for your working weight. Grip the bar where you normally would when using two arms (outside shoulder width); provided the Smith machine is in good shape, it should move smoothly even with your hand way off center.

Unlatch the bar with both hands, then remove your left hand and resist the weight down for a 3-5-second negative. When the bar touches your chest, put your left hand back on the bar and press back up as normal. Repeat the one-arm negative with your left arm. Alternate arms every other rep until you've done 5-8 on each side.

You can also use unilateral negatives on leg day with compound exercises like machine hack squats or leg presses and/or isolation moves like lying leg curls and seated or standing calf raises.

Check out this video for more instruction on unilateral negative reps:

Sample Unilateral Negatives Chest Workout

Exercise Sets/Reps Rest
Smith Machine Negative Bench Press 3/3-5* 2-3 min.
Smith Machine Bench Press 3/8-10 2-3 min.
Incline Smith Machine Negative Bench Press 3/3-5* 2-3 min.
Incline Smith Machine Bench Press 3/10-12 1-2 min.
Cable Crossover 3/12-15 1-2 min.

*Perform 3-5 negative reps per arm as described above.


Rest-pause is a technique used as a means of performing more reps with a given weight by taking short breaks (10-20 seconds) mid-set. For example, when the goal is hypertrophy, after reaching failure you'd rest 15 seconds and continue to failure again without lightening the load as in drop sets. For building strength, a good rest-pause technique is to use a weight that normally limits you to 3-5 reps. In between each rep, rest for 10-15 seconds, which should allow you to complete more than the 3-5 reps total.

Though it's possible to use either of these methods when training alone, on certain exercises like squats, leg press, bench press and barbell overhead presses, pushing yourself to such limits could be dangerous. A much safer " and equally effective "option for solo trainers is a method called alternating rest-pause. With this version, you perform exercises that allow you to alternate arms or legs, such as dumbbell shoulder presses and alternating curls. To perform, simply do one rep with one arm, then one rep with the other arm, and continue in this fashion until reaching muscle failure. Because one arm (or leg) is resting while the other is working, you can do far more reps with a given weight than if you did all reps consecutively with one arm.

Of course, alternating rest-pauses can be done on machines, too. "Iso-Lateral" Hammer Strength machines (chest presses and rows, for example) are great for alternating rest-pauses because you can rest the weight completely on one side while lifting with the other.

Another way to use the alternating rest-pause technique is found in my Alternating Rest-Pause training program.

Sample Alternating Rest-Pause Shoulder Workout

Exercise Sets/Reps* Rest
Alternating Dumbbell Overhead Press 3/8-10 1-2 min.
Alternating Dumbbell Upright Row 3/8-10 1-2 min.
Alternating Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3/12-15 1-2 min.
Alternating Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise 3/12-15 1-2 min.

*Alternate arms on each rep.


Cheating may sound more like an ill-advised shortcut than a way to boost training intensity, but not necessarily. Seasoned gym veterans cheat on many exercises by using a little "body English" to allow for more reps to be completed with a given weight than when using strict form exclusively.

The difference between a beginner and an advanced lifter cheating is that beginners cheat on every rep, while the latter cheats only after reaching muscle failure with proper form. When you use cheat reps in the advanced manner, it allows you to take a set past muscle failure so that you can place that much more stress on the muscle and instigate greater growth. For example, on triceps pressdowns, after you can no longer perform another rep with strict form (elbows in close to your sides and movement occurring only at the elbows), allow your form to loosen by letting your elbows flare out to the sides and using your chest and shoulders to help push the weight down to force out a few more reps and take your triceps well past fatigue.

Watch this video for more on cheat reps:

Sample Cheating Triceps Workout

Exercise Sets/Reps* Rest
Close-Grip to Wide-Grip Bench Press** 3/8-10 1-2 min.
Triceps Pressdown 3/10-12 1-2 min.
One-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension# 3/12-15 1-2 min.

*Finish the last 1-2 sets of each exercise with cheat reps.

**After reaching failure using a close grip and keeping your arms close to your sides as you lower the weight, immediately rack the bar and take a standard bench press grip and perform as many reps as possible until reaching failure.

#After reaching failure using good form with the movement occurring only at the elbow, perform cheat reps by allowing your shoulders to assist the triceps " more or less a hybrid of overhead extensions and dumbbell overhead presses.


Pre-exhaust is a technique where you perform an isolation exercise (such as dumbbell lateral raises) followed by a multi-joint exercise for the same muscle group (barbell overhead press). The benefit of pre-exhaust is that, as the name implies, it exhausts the target muscle " the middle delts in this case " before the multi-joint exercise. That way, when you do overhead presses, you fail when the middle delts are fully fatigued, not when the other assistance muscles like the front delts and triceps do.

The problem with using this technique while training alone is that doing free-weight compound exercises can be dangerous when your target muscles are already exhausted. A safer and even more intense technique is pre-/post-exhaust, which is similar to pre-exhaust except that you follow the compound exercise (barbell overhead press) with another set of the isolation move (lateral raises). This way, you can safely stop short of failure on presses and still reach total muscle exhaustion by failing on lateral raises to finish the set. This technique is guaranteed to spark new growth in whatever muscle group you train it with.

Pre-/post-exhaust works especially well when training the back, as the biceps often tire out long before the lats. Pair straight-arm lat pulldowns (isolation) with bent-over or seated cable rows (multi-joint).

A word to the wise when training lower body: If doing pre-/post-exhaust for legs for the first time, choose a machine (hack squat, leg press) for your compound exercise instead of a free-weight move, as exhausted quads can hamper technique.

Sample Pre-/Post-Exhaust Shoulder Workout

Exercise Sets/Reps Rest
Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3/10-12 1-2 min.
Barbell Overhead Press 3/8-10 1-2 min.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3/to failure* 1-2 min.
Rear Delt Machine Flye 3/12-15 1-2 min.


With drop sets, you perform a set to failure, then immediately reduce the weight and continue the set until reaching muscle failure again. This is one of the easiest ways to take a set past muscle failure when training alone. Since you can no longer go on with the original weight, lightening the load a bit allows you to keep banging out reps.

Typically, I recommend dropping the weight by about 20%-30%, but this recommendation can vary depending on the individual. For example, on lat pulldowns, if you're using 150 pounds on the last set, a 20%-30% drop would be 30-45 pounds. Since most pulldown stations adjust by 10-pound increments, you'd drop the weight by 30, 40 or 50 pounds to 120, 110 or 100 pounds, respectively.

Exercises like pulldowns, in which you're using a selectorized weight stack that allows you to drop the weight in a matter of seconds with the movement of a pin, is your best bet when training alone because it keeps the time between the drop sets minimal. Dumbbell exercises like rows also work great for drop sets when training solo because you can simply grab the lighter dumbbell to do your drop set. Compare that to using a barbell, where you'd have to remove a plate from each side to do a drop set. The longer you take between drop sets, the less intense it is, which starts to defeat the purpose.

You might normally do one drop set on the last set of each exercise for a muscle group. However, you can take the intensity up another notch by doing two or even three drop sets on the last set. Those with less training experience should stick with one drop set, while those with more training years under their belt can bump it up to really hammer the muscles.

Here's a link to a video of mine on drops sets:

Sample Drop Set Shoulder Workout

Exercise Sets/Reps* Rest
One-Arm Dumbbell Row 4/6-8 1-2 min.
Lat Pulldown 4/6-8 2-3 min.
Seated Cable Row 4/12-15 2-3 min.
Straight-Arm Pulldown 4/12-15 1-2 min.

*On the last of each exercise, do 1-2 drop sets, lightening the load by roughly 20%-30% each time.

And if you're looking to reap every last benefit of drop set training, my Dropset Countdown Program in the Featured Workouts section of JimStoppani.com should be right up your alley.


Ahtiainen JP, Acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses and recovery to forced vs maximum repetitions multiple resistance exercises. Int J Sports Med. 2003 Aug;24(6):410-8.

Bamman, M.M., et al., "Mechanical Load Increases Muscle IGF-I and Androgen Receptor mRNA Concentrations in Humans," American Journal of Physiology, 280: E383"E390, 2001.

Fincher, G. E. The Effect of High Intensity Resistance Training on Body Composition Among Collegiate Football Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 18(4): e354, 2004.

Yarrow, J. F., et al. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Neuroendocrine responses to an acute bout of eccentric-enhanced resistance exercise.

Related Articles