Here’s a bodybuilding slang term that doesn’t get much attention. We hear a lot about forced reps and cheat reps, but not much about what have sometimes been labeled as bodybuilding ‘burn reps.’
Simply stated, bodybuilding burn reps are partial repetitions performed at the end of a set when contractile failure of the tissue doesn’t allow for any more full repetitions. They might sound similar to cheat reps, but they’re not; cheat reps are the continuation of a set using sloppy form – ‘burn reps’ aren’t performed with reliance on such. Both are used as set “intensifiers”, thus easily leading to a state of overtraining if not used with care and restraint. And while I’m not at all an advocate of cheat reps, I do find that a few selectively placed “burn reps” can enhance muscle building progress.
“Burn Reps” for Bodybuilding: How to do them
Bodybuilding burn reps are very similar to split reps, except they’re done as the last few reps of the final set of a bodybuilding exercise. For example, if you were working on building calves with some strict sets of calf raises – going through the full range of motion – you might perform a series of partial range repetitions (in good form) at a faster pace at the end of the final set. This creates a lactic acid build-up that can have your calves feeling like they’ve been hit with a blow-torch – hence the name, “burn reps.”
Bodybuilding burn reps are an ‘intensifying technique. For this reason, they can either lead to greater hypertrophy or they can send you right into an overtraining spiral. Therefore, they must be use selectively and sparingly.
‘Bodybuilding Burn Reps’: When to use them
I used calf-building as an example of where to use burn reps for a reason: They’re highly effective when used on exercises for building that particular muscle. The muscle fibers of the calves are so dense; they nearly demand that an intensifying technique like bodybuilding burn reps be used to adequately work them for hypertrophy.
But what of using them elsewhere? Are there certain other muscles that respond well to the use of bodybuilding burn reps?
I find the best place to use them is on some select exercises where they will less likely lead to overtraining. These tend to be bodybuilding movements that don’t lend themselves to redundancy.
What do I mean by that?
Think about exercises like ‘leg curls’ for hamstrings, or ‘bent-over lateral raises’ for the rear delts. These two muscles are almost used in total isolation when we work them. In fact, I find it to be an redundancy to perform two hamstring exercises or two rear delts exercises. Additionally, these two muscles are used so very slightly when performing other leg exercises, or delts exercises, respectively. Therefore, they lend themselves very nicely to being responsive to ‘burn reps’ without being susceptible to overtraining.
Some might argue that the front delts are as much a candidate as the rear delts based on these criteria. However, that’s clearly not the case when considering how much extra indirect work the front deltoids get from working pectorals. Likewise, the middle deltoids are pounded pretty hard by the compound movement of overhead presses along with the isolation movement of side lateral raises. Thus, I’ve found that any bodybuilding burn reps done on these movements can easily lead to overtraining.
This goes for pectorals, back, quadriceps, and arms as well. There’s certainly no rule against using ‘burn reps’ for any of these muscles, but I don’t recommend it. My experience with natural bodybuilding has taught me that there’s a fine line between extra stimulatory effects of intensifying techniques and excessive “stimulation” resulting in no growth.
Always remember: Muscles don’t grow directly from your weight workouts; it’s an indirect phenomenon. If you have a schedule of rest days between workouts that precisely recuperates the tissue torn down from a specific amount of training stress, adding intensity is likely the wrong thing to do. Thus, we’d only want to use bodybuilding burn reps if doing so will make the stress on the muscle in question commensurate with what would have it recuperate at the rate of recuperation of the rest of your muscles.
Bottom line: Bodybuilding ‘burn reps’ can be extremely effective on muscles that might be otherwise end up ‘undertrained’ if they’re not incorporated. When you use this technique, implement it with restraint and a careful eye on feedback. Then, only continue using it on movements for which feedback is showing positive effect on volume progress.