Smart lifters know when they’ve reached a certain point in their training. Heavy weights aren’t as effective at building muscle anymore, and the reward they offer isn’t worth the risk of injury. That’s when they start relying on techniques like paused reps, 1.5 reps, and slow negatives, which make light weights feel more challenging and force you to dial in your lifting technique.
The less weight you use the less you’ll risk breaking form and getting injured, and the more efficiently you can perform an exercise the more you’ll get out of it. The countdown method, as popularized by Ben Bruno, a Hollywood trainer to celebrities and pro athletes (benbruno.com), hits the mark on both of these points dead center.
How To Use The Countdown Method
“Countdowns are iso holds interspersed throughout a set,” says Bruno. Iso holds are isometric pauses—statically holding the weight in a position where the greatest stress is placed on the muscle. Here’s how it would look for a set of lateral raises.
Do five reps and then hold the top of the last rep—where your arms are extended 90 degrees from your body—for five seconds. Then do four reps and hold for four seconds. After that, do three reps and three seconds, and so on down to one. Bruno usually has clients count down from four, five, or six, which ends up being 10, 15, and 21 total reps, respectively. The number you choose to perform should be based on your strength and experience level. If you’re new to iso holds, start with sets of four countdowns and build up to six. About three sets should do it. Because they’re exhausting, use countdowns toward the end of your workout, not prior to your heaviest lifts.
Where exactly you hold the isometric depends on the exercise. These are some of Bruno’s favorite moves to countdown.
Hold the bottom position where your chest is about an inch above the floor.
Lower your body until your upper arms are parallel to the floor and hold.
Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor and hold.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor and hold.
Extend your hips to lockout (the top of the movement, where your hips and torso are parallel to the floor) and hold.
Row the weight to your sides and hold the position with your back muscles fully contracted.
And if you’re really brave (or crazy), try countdowns on single-leg squats, as Bruno does here:
Countdowns can be effective for most exercises, “but don’t use them on anything that puts your lower back in a precarious position,” says Bruno. He uses them occasionally for deadlifts, but says you probably shouldn’t as the position you have to hold—suspending the weights an inch or so above the floor—is too dangerous for most people’s backs. Bentover rows would be a bad idea for the same reason.
Bruno uses countdowns to give the muscles more time under tension with textbook form. The holds force you to control the weights you’re using and eliminate momentum from your reps, so you lift using muscle strength and not body English. Countdowns are tough enough using light weights, so the lack of heavy weight also saves your joints, which is particularly useful if you’re an older lifter or are coming back from injuries. In fact, in some cases, you don’t need any weight at all.
“Countdowns are great for people who travel and don’t have access to equipment,” says Bruno. Pushups and Bulgarian split squats done countdown-style offer a near full-body workout.
“I also like that it breaks up the monotony of the iso holds,” says Bruno. Instead of performing one isometric hold of 15 seconds, as some lifters do, you can do five seconds, then four, three, and so on, while the reps you do in between train the muscles through a full range of motion. Shorter holds ensure better form.