When I first started training, my concern was ensuring that I was always prepared to give my all for the first big heavy set of the day. I would rest and eat well for it, ensure that I was warmed up, get my music going, and give it my all. I was my strongest for this set, and was able to push the heaviest weight I could.
The side effect of this is that it meant that my remaining work in the workout was going to suffer. If I really gave that set my all, I could count on going through the motions on the assistance work, if I even managed to get that far at all. Sometimes, the first set would be so grueling that it turned out to be the ONLY set of the day. 20 rep squats can do this to you easily, as can a really good and heavy deadlift single.
"Good work Dave. Now lets hit some squats, GHRs, reverse hypers, ab wheel, and hamstring curls if we have time"
As I progressed through my training and began to use my training volume, I discovered another great location to put in my greatest effort: the absolute LAST set of the day.
The premise and execution are simple here. When operating on the very last set of the day, there is nothing to save yourself for. You can totally give your all and throw everything you’ve got at the set, and once you have enough energy to limp out of the gym, you are done with the workout. This is far more beneficial to a trainee compared to having to wait long enough to recover from a killer set before moving on to the REST of the workout, as you greatly reduce your training time.
Surprisingly, doing this for a half hour between sets does not keep your heart rate up
Secondly, making your last set of the day the biggest after an already grueling workout has a built in self-limiting function that can ensure a somewhat safer “balls out” set. When you try to push yourself when you are at your freshest, it means you will be handling incredibly heavy loads (for your body at least), which in turn means that the consequences for making mistakes are drastic. When you train at the end of the day, your muscles are already exhausted and your strength is reduced, meaning that, even though the set thoroughly kicks your ass, the weight isn’t as heavy as it could have been. Having this mental assurance can also mean that you will be less afraid to keep pushing through a tough set compared to when you’ve got a heavy weight on your back and the fear of consequences on your mind.
What is most interested is the fact that you are achieving the same ends of a heavier weighted workout with a lighter weighted workout through this method. The pre-exhaust principle shines through from back in the golden era of bodybuilding, and you are still able to thoroughly trash your body with a weight that you would typically consider to be “light”.
In applying this approach, I find it beneficial to pick a lift that essentially summarizes the training of that day. If you were training the squat that day, you could do a 20-30 rep set of squats, front squats, safety squat bar squats, box squats, belt squats, etc. If it was bench, you could do bench, incline bench, dumbbell bench, floor press, dips, etc. You can throw in drop sets, circuit work, forced reps, any intensity amplifying movement you desire. The sky is the limit here, because once this set is done, so are you.
What is also interesting is the ability of this set to transfer to your training. With understanding that there are many types of strength in this world, one must also understand that there exists the strength that is available to you when you are freshest, and the strength you have when you are absolutely depleted. Being able to use heavier and heavier weights on this last set of the day is absolutely improving your maximal strength and allowing you to develop the tenacity necessary to remain strong even when physically exhausted. Anyone who participates in any sort of athletic event knows what an absolute boon this is.
Being able to fight like the left when you're on the right will terrify your opponents
If you try this yourself, check your ego before you start. Do not be afraid to start with a weight that seems comically light to you, because at about rep 26, suddenly, the joke is over. Start light and build up gradually overtime while still developing your strength through the rest of the workout, and you will most likely start to see some very positive results in both size and strength.