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The 50-Rep Workout: Build muscle with a counter-intutive workout

What if you worked out hard…without working out hard? Former Naval Special Warfare member Craig Weller introduces us to “Eustress Training” and shares a ridiculously simple (and awesome) muscle-building workout.

Enter Craig

Let’s say you want to build a muscular, athletic body — the kind that looks strong and powerful and also happens to be strong and powerful.

And let’s say you don’t want to use every piece of equipment in the gym, do lots fancy math, or pretend that phrases like “mega ratchet super pump set” actually mean anything.

You’re a guy who wants to get in, work hard, and get the hell out to go live the rest of your life.

If that’s you, I’ve got a workout you should try. (It’s also a program I use for guys who go through Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and other elite special operations forces. Guys who need to be cool and calm when shit starts to get stressful.)

The 50-Rep Eustress Workout is ridiculously simple and ridiculously effective. It’ll make you look better. I’ll make you feel better. And the only equipment you need is a barbell and maybe a squat rack.

Cool?

Cool.

 Preparation

1. Do a thorough warmup.

Try the S2B Ground Zero mobility circuit.

2. Pick a heavy full-body movement

Here’s a brief list to get you going:

  • conventional deadlift
  • sumo deadlift
  • trap-bar deadlift
  • front squat
  • back squat
  • maltese falcon squat
  • zercher squat

(Yes, I made one of those names up for my own amusement.)

3. Do 4 warm-ups sets.

Start off light and ramp up to a semi-heavy weight.

This is where a little trial and error comes in. (Don’t worry – it’ll only take you a minute to figure out and adjust.)

If you can normally deadlift 315 pounds for one rep, start light and work your way up to about 65% of that. For instance:

Warm-up set 1: 135 pounds for 3 reps
Warm-up set 2: 165 pounds for 3 reps
Warm-up set 3: 185 pounds for 3 reps
Warm-up set 4: 205 pounds for 1 rep

(Fancy Math: 315 × .65% = 204.75 pounds.)

4. Keep the bar loaded with 65% of your one-rep-max.

If you finished with 205 pounds, you’ll stick with 205 pounds.

Execution

You’re warmed up and the bar is loaded. Now what?

Well, now you’re gonna do 50 sets of one rep each, resting as long as you need between each set.

The catch? You have to make it look and feel easy.

Your heart rate should stay low (about 150 beats per minute, if you’re measuring it), you should breathe exclusively through your nose, and every rep should feel fast.

Remember, you’re trying to stay calm throughout this entire workout. The goal is to train hard and efficiently without overloading your nervous system or freaking out.

No stimulants, no aids like belts or wraps, and no psyching yourself up like you’re about to punch a Nazi in the face.

Just lift the weight calmly.

Rapid Fire Q and A

So, wait. I just do an exercise for 50 reps? 

Yep.

Should I push to get 50 reps no matter what?

No. Your goal is 50 reps, but if at any point your technique begins to suck, you lose range of motion, or you feel like the reps are incredibly difficult, you should stop there and go home.

The point is to train while in a heightened state of eustress. That means staying fresh and calm throughout the workout. Grinding reps and over-the-top grunting will zap your energy. Which you don’t want.

How long should I rest between each set?

Rest as long as you need to to feel recovered. Try taking big, slow breaths through your nose and focus on bringing your heart rate down as much as possible between sets.

How do I progress from workout to workout?

There are a few ways to use progressive overload and push your body to work harder and better. The next time you do the workout, try:

  • adding more weight to the bar (225 pounds instead of 205)
  • doing 5-10 more sets (60 reps instead of 50)
  • doing the same amount of reps in less time (35 minutes instead of 40 minutes)
  • changing the exercise slightly (sumo deadlift instead of trap-bar deadlift)

How often should I do this?

It depends on what program you’re currently following. If you’re not doing anything right now, I see no harm in doing this type of training two or three days per week as long as you pick different movements that don’t compete with each other. (For example: deadlift, chin-up, military press.)

If you’re already following a good workout program, I recommend doing one of these 50-rep sessions every week or two, especially if you have one exercise you want to get stronger on or if you’re just looking for something fun to try.

Is this just for lower-body exercises?

Not at all. You can do this with chin-ups, pull-ups, rows, military presses or even bench presses. If you’re doing a bench press, use a power rack and lift off pins from the bottom so that you don’t have to worry about racking the bar. That also works well for front squats.

Don’t go nuts on the pushing movements, though. If you really, really want to do a bench press, make sure you have at least two other workouts where you’re doing exclusively pulling exercises. Your shoulders will thank you.

50 reps? Are you fking nuts?

Nope. The benefits are huge. I’ve even done some workouts with over 100 reps.

About the Author: Nate Green is the Program Director for Scrawny To Brawny. You can find him on Facebook or Google+.

  • Simon

    Is there any scientific research to support this kind of workout or is it just a theory at this stage? It sounds like it might have merit, but there is a lot bro science floating around that sounds smart but really isn’t.

    • darius

      Ever heard of grease the groove? Similar principals. This workout is rest based, and also teaches the cns to perform better, also never get into the fatigue/bad form/just one more rep mode.

    • Craig

      Simon,

      Yes. The physiology is pretty straightforward and the psychological side has a substantial pile of research behind it as well. You can check out my T Nation articles on ‘Heart Rate Variability Training’ and ‘Combat Psychology and Sports Performance’ for a much more in depth look at the science behind this sort of thing.

      Joel Jamieson’s book Ultimate MMA Conditioning also has an excellent explanation of energy systems and includes a detailed description of several somewhat similar methods, notably HICT or High Intensity Continuous Training.

      Lastly, the results I’ve had (along with a few other coaches whom I know use similar methods) speak well enough for its effectiveness. For example, these are the numbers from a young man training for Naval Special Operations who reported back on his performance recently:

      500 yard swim: 8:271.5 mile run: 8:483 mile run:18:526 mile run: 40:58Pushups: 92Pullups: 22Situps:123Power Clean: 125kgx2(275lbs)Front Squat: 140kgx3(308lbs)Power Snatch: 90kgx1(198lbs)Over head Squat:90kgx5(198lbs)Height: 6’4″Weight:225

      Those numbers are extraordinary for anyone, let alone a man standing 6’4″ and carrying 225 pounds.

      • http://www.facebook.com/simon.papworth.75 Simon Papworth

        Thanks craig I will check out your T-Nation Articles, and yes that young man has very impressive endurance.

        Would you say this helps more with mostly just performance? Or does it have merit for hypertrophy also?

      • Craig

        It works for hypertrophy. A high volume of heavy squats and deads is one of the best things you can do for that. Work your way up through the progressions so that you’re still recovering from sets in the 75-100 range with a higher percent of 1RM and you’ll do well. Don’t jump straight into that. Start with a few easy ones, and go by how you feel. It won’t take too long to make rapid progress to where you’re doing workouts with 100 heavy deads that don’t hit your CNS.

  • Birk

    Hey Craig,

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

    I have a humble question. Would it make sense to kinda do this 4 times a week with altering the exercises.

    Ex. –
    Monday – Squats
    Tuesday – Bench Press
    Wednesday – Off
    Thursday – Deadliftis
    Friday – Pull-ups

    and then maybe alter further more with different weeks ?

    M: Front Squats
    T: Incline Bench Press
    W: off
    T: Stiff leg deadlifts
    F: Chin-ups

    If I feel that that it is not enough, should I increase to 100 reps or should I increase the weight more?
    Ectomorph over here

  • Craig

    Birk,

    If you were to build a program around this sort of thing (I typically use it as one component of a multi-faceted program) you could do something like that.

    I have to add the caveat that movement quality must come first and it’s important to pay attention to the guidelines and cut the workout if you lose speed, range of motion, technique or breathe control. Monitoring your autonomic tone via something like an HRV tracker would be a good idea as well.

    The outline you’ve got there is workable, but I’m quite leery of bench press movements and prefer a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of pulling to pushing, and an equal mix of horizontal and vertical planes.

    With your layout, I’d either switch out the incline bench presses with chest supported rows or make Tuesdays a split day and do slightly lower volume (that’s flexible and will depend on how well you tend to recover – 50 reps may work fine) for both a push and a pull.

    So, week one Tuesday do 50 reps of chest supported rows followed by a rest and then 50 reps of bench press. Week two, 50 reps ring rows followed by 50 reps of overhead barbell press.

    Put a little time into accessory work as well, based on individual postural needs. In general you’ll want to add some hip mobility and unilateral work, spinal stability stuff and in most cases additional external rotation work for your shoulders.

  • Kenny

    Pull-ups are my weakest exercise so i would love to try it for this. Any tips on how I would do the warm up for this? Would doing cable pull-down work?

    • Craig

      I’d just foam roll your upper body, spend a little extra time on your lats and pec minors (use a lacrosse ball for that), run through some t-spine and pec (major and minor, depending on your posture) mobilization work, do a few general upper body movements like hand crossovers, T pushups and scap pushups and then do some band activation stuff like pull aparts, no moneys and pulldowns and you should be good to go. Shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes or so.

  • Aaron Avery

    Awesome.

    Thank you for posting. Since coming home from Route Clearance in 2009, I’ve had sandy private parts in the gym. I’m hoping to correct some “injuries” (I’ve got all my limbs, so I’m good to go) with some old-fashioned focus and determination. I can’t work out with the intensity that I did a few years ago, but hopefully this will give my routine a greater measure of discipline and enjoyment. Thanks again.

    -Aaron

  • Mike

    50 reps per workout with 65% of 1RM, and only one exercise? This, 3 times a week?

    I want to give it a shot but my instinct tells me the volume is waaay too low to see any kind of progress, particularly in terms of hypertrophy?! What am I missing?

    • craig

      There’s likely to be a little trial and error for each person depending on where strength levels are at. If you’re actually turning this into a whole program you’d want to try something with a little more frequency like what Birk is talking about below. Read my response there. Upper body days can be combined into push/pull so that you’re doing two separate lifts. You’d probably want to add in some accessory work each day as well.

      I don’t typically use this method exclusively. It’s built into a more varied program. That’s how I’d recommend using it. In conjunction with a more typical program, add 1-3 days of heavy volume on a lift that matters like squats and deadlifts. If 50 reps at 65% is an insufficient stimulus, add weight, reps or both the next time you do it.

      65% isn’t a lot when you deadlift 315 as a max, but if your pull is in the 5-600 range like some of the guys I work with it adds up.

      I’ve done this a few times with 325 for 100 reps and trust me, it’s plenty of volume for a day. For lower volume workouts in the 50-ish range I often use closer to 70-85% but I’m accustomed to that kind of work and prefer that people work up to that gradually, rather than going for broke on day one. When I start people on this sort of thing, they start lighter and in the lower volume ranges. Progression. It’s a thing.

    • http://www.scrawnytobrawny.com/about#nate-green Nate Green

      Hey Mike –

      I’m sure Craig will chime in here, but I know he regularly uses 75-85% of his 1RM for reps of 50 or so. I think he saves the 65% of 1RM for 80 – 100 reps.

      But since I don’t think most guys would be smart to jump straight to that, Craig and I both agreed 50 reps with 65% was a good starting place.

      As always, experiment and test. You’ll find out what works well for you.

      -Nate

      • Mike

        Thanks Nate and Craig for your fast replies! I will definitely give it a try and experiment!

      • Mike

        I gave it a shot today using pull-ups. I don’t know what my 1RM for pull-ups is, so I just did unweighted PU (I can perform around 10 of them in one set). I ended up doing 60 of them in around 40mns, trying to follow Craig’s method. I could have done more but didn’t have much time and wanted to do some lower back work + face pulls as well ( BTW, the face pulls definitely got my heart rate up, is that a no no? or does the heart rate prescription not include assistance exercises?)

        The 1 rep at a time method does seem to work in the sense that you end up doing a lot more reps for an exercise at a given weight than you’d normally do. Here I did 60 pull-ups, whereas in an normal work-out I’d usually be happy with around 30 (like 5 sets of 6). And yet the 60th rep (almost) felt as easy as the first one… So you definitely don’t feel drained! I was actually feeling pretty energized afterwards.

        The not-so-cool part is that it’s pretty boring, if you work out by yourself.

        I’ll keep using this method the next few weeks (only three times a week I think, on other days I already swim and play tennis) and report back on progress in terms of strength and body comp…

      • Craig

        That’s kind of the point. You can add a lot of volume and drill a large number of high quality reps while still being fresh when you hit the gym again the next day. As for the boredom thing, it’s a bit of an issue, especially if you’re training by yourself. Especially with upper body stuff. If you get into heavy high volume with squats and deadlifts the workout in itself stays pretty engaging.

        I was doing a short ladder of pullups (1-5 rep ladder, seven times, rotating through grip styles every ladder) that totaled 105 reps of pullups and to somewhat break up the monotony I was doing a set of five light overhead squats at the end of each ladder. The OH squats help groove that technique and aid in thoracic extension and keep the lats mobile while somewhat breaking up the monotony.

  • http://www.facebook.com/princeofcats Nick Summy

    I find this interesting but am confused as to what sort of benefits it provides. 50 reps of 65% of your 1RM does not seem very difficult. Do the benefits carry over to other forms of weightlifting? This kind of reminds me of the article on t-nation about the 1000 kb swings per day. The guy did the breathing ladders and concluded that they were too efficient for any results. Thoughts on that?

    • Craig

      Same as the other responses found here. It depends on your conditioning level and strength level. Try it once at the levels specified, and if it feels like you can easily handle more, add weight or volume the next time or increase the density by doing the same work in less time. Keep in mind that this is self-regulating and you should be moving as fast as possible within the constraints. Knock out those fifty reps with only two or three breaths of rest in between each rep and get it done in 15 minutes or so and see how you feel. It’s not hard to add some weight and try it again if the first 50 reps isn’t sufficient.

  • Patrick

    Should reps be done explosively? IMO explosive reps looks ande feel easiest.

    I’m thinking this might work well for days when you are too fatigued for heavier loads. When I get off work my body feels wrecked and sets of 5+ at 80% feel like max effort attempts.

    • http://www.scrawnytobrawny.com/about#nate-green Nate Green

      Yep – Do them explosively.

  • Craig

    Guys, something that’s occurred to me as I go through these comments is that one benefit of doing workouts like this is that you can train with high frequency and get in a much higher total level of volume over the course of the week. This, for me, and a lot of my SOF prep guys, means 1-2 workouts per day for 5-6 days per week of training.

    I’d recommend adapting this into your usual program and experiment with the progressions in order to see how much extra weight you can move while still recovering well and feeling strong the next day. It’s not a quick, magic fix. It’s a capacity that takes time to develop, and with time it works quite well to add strength, work capacity and muscle.

  • evafitness.wordpress.com

    hey this is awesome! I totally want to incorporate this into my training. i’m just looking to change things up after doing 6 weeks of Big 3 reverse pyramid training 3x’s a week + 2 days of running – I often just go back to doing a rotation of P90X while I’m looking for a new program. I’m a dancer and a stunt woman and I’m looking to really maximize strength. I’m especially looking to get max pull ups – I can do 10 at the moment but need to do more for fitness tests. Could I throw one or two days of of 50 rep training into a normal 2 day split? Would you normally do this for just one type of movement per training session or do you do 2 or 3 in one day (seems time consuming but I’m curious)

  • evafitness.wordpress.com

    ah, silly me, just read more of your comments where you answer my questions!!! Thanks for the info – you’ve got a new S2B fan, even if I am a girl :)