What is the Bodybuilding Training Technique of 21's?

Lee Labrada Talks About Spicing Up Your Bodybuilding Training with 21's

Lee Labrada Performs 21's for Biceps
Lee Labrada Performs 21's for Biceps. Labrada Nutrition

Now, those of you that know me know that I'm a basic, "meat and potatoes" guy when it comes to my bodybuilding training. I like sticking with basic exercises. But, every now and then, you have to change things up in order to keep the workout fresh and the muscles "second guessing" you. If the muscles become accustomed to a particular workout and training environment, they will stop responding.

The idea then is to stimulate the muscles. To do this, we can incorporate a variety of methods including: changing up the number of repetitions, the amount of weight that we use on any exercise, the exercises we use, the order in which we do the exercises, and the manner in which we perform the repetitions. (Refer to this site's article on Periodization for bodybuilding)

What Are 21's?

That brings us to the subject of 21's.

I first learned about 21's several years ago while visiting my good friend, Wag Bennett, in London, England. Wag is one of the old-timers in the iron sport and has played host to every major bodybuilding champion in his home and personal gym, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to date.

Wag's personal gym is quite a sight to see. It is actually an old converted church, replete with high vaulted ceilings, gutted to make room for his vast collection of gym equipment which age spans the range from antiquity to today. In Wag's gym, you'll find every piece of equipment known to man! Or so it seems.

But I'm getting sidetracked. I was visiting with Wag when he challenged me to a leg workout in his gym. Wag asked me to load the bar with a weight that I could perform seven repetitions with.

"Are you sure that this is a weight that you can perform 7 repetitions with?" he asked with a wry smile. And I answered, "Yes."

"O.K., then. Get under the bar. What I want you to do is to go down about a third of the way and then back up, seven times.

"Easy enough," I said.

"Then, without stopping, I want you to go all the way down to the bottom squatting position and come up a third of the way seven times."

"O-O-Kay," I said, looking at him unsure of where he was going next.

"And then, I want you to come straight back up and perform seven full repetitions." He laughed.

I thought to myself, "I'll show you!" Locked and loaded with the bar across my back, I began my first seven partial reps, descending a third of the way down and coming right back up again. The 45's clanged with each rep. No problem.

I then descended to the full, bottomed-out position and began my seven one-third reps starting at the bottom position and finishing one-third of the way up. Half way through these partials, my legs started catching on fire and I knew that I was either headed straight into hell-on-earth, or a bruised ego.

I was determined to win. I was NOT about to lose face with Wag. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Wag staring solemnly at me, half expecting me to give up on any repetition now.

I began my last seven reps. About half way through, my legs started feeling "icy," a feeling I can only describe as a burning sensation of such magnitude and ferocity that your muscles start losing sensation. I thought my lungs were going to explode and I fully expected to pass out. Somehow I finished the last three, although I don't remember how. I then racked the weight and, exhausted, plopped straight down on my can. I looked over at Wag who, without breaking a smile, looked back and said, "Not bad for a Yank." Englishmen.

The Value of 21's

Using 21's is a great way to generate additional intensity in your workout, not to mention breaking up the monotony of a training routine. Because 21's force you to work at the opposite ends of the range of motion on each exercise, it will improve stimulation of the target muscle.

Something that I have found over time is that there are many people who do not use the full range of motion during an exercise. 21's are a great exercise to get you acquainted with training over the full range of motion. In my opinion, 21's work best for arms and legs.

For example, on biceps you could use 21's while performing barbell curls or preacher curls. For triceps, you could perform 21's with dips or lying tricep extensions. For legs, leg extensions, or as we've already seen, the squat.

How To Do 21s?

21's are best started at the fully contracted position, lowering to one-third of the way down, then back up. If you were doing curls, you would curl the barbell to the fully contracted position then slowly lower it one-third of the way down, then back up seven times.

Then proceeding to the "start" position (bar resting across your thighs), you curl the bar one-third of the way up.

Finally, you perform seven full repetitions.

If you're going to try this advanced system of increasing workout intensity, I would suggest you start first with lighter poundages than you're accustomed to, and then only for two or three full 21-sets.

21's generate a tremendous "burn" in the muscle. Use 21's only once or twice a month to jazz up your workouts.

Give them a try and let me know how it feels.