How can I incorporate 21s into my workouts?

December 26, 2015

Q: What are your thoughts on 21s, and do you use them in your workouts? Also, are there any other exercises I should be using this technique with, because the only way I have ever seen them done is with biceps curls?

A: If you’ve heard of 21s, you know that this means breaking a full repetition of an exercise into three parts: the top half, the bottom half and then finishing with the full range of motion for a total of 21 repetitions. Most people use this time-tested technique for bicep curls only, but there are many other applications that can take your workouts to the next level. Below are four examples of exercises you can incorporate with this awesome muscle-building technique. Give them a try and your muscles will be burning like a grill on a hot summer day.

21s with push-ups

If you have mastered the push-up and find it easy to do 15 or more reps, try adding 21s into your regimen. To get started, get into the push-up position, lower your body halfway until your elbows reach 90 degrees, push back up and repeat for seven reps. Then go all the way down until your chest touches the ground and go halfway up for seven more repetitions. Now finish by doing seven full push-ups through the entire range of motion and you have just finished your first set of 21s.

21s with V-ups

V-ups are excellent abdominal exercises because you are lifting your body weight with the top and bottom of the abdominal muscles at the same time. To perform a regular v-up, lie on your back with your arms extended above your head parallel to the floor and your legs extended and hovering off the ground with a slight bend in the knee. Now lift the arms and legs toward each other until your feet and hands touch above your mid-section with your abs contracted and your body in the shape of a letter V. Then slowly return to the starting position. To incorporate 21s start in the same position but first lift the legs only up toward your chest until they reach a 90-degree angle and repeat for seven reps. Return them to the starting position and lift the upper torso off the ground, crunching forward with your arms extended toward the center of your body for seven reps. Then finish seven more full repetitions with both arms and legs, and repeat for the desired number of sets.

21s with overhead press

This exercise can be done seated or standing, but the main idea is to break the movement into three different parts. Start with the elbows below 90 degrees and the dumbbells just above the shoulders. Lift the weight halfway up for seven reps, then fully extend the arms with the weight overhead and lower the weight halfway down for seven reps. When you are finished, lower the weight all the way down to your shoulders and lift it all the way above over your head for seven reps with the full range of motion.

21s with dumbbell squats

Stand with the legs shoulders' width apart and your hands cupped under the bottom of a dumbbell with your chest and butt out, and squat until you are 2 inches below parallel. Begin standing back up to the starting position, but only go about halfway up and then go back down and repeat for seven repetitions. When finished, stand all the way to the top of the movement and squat down halfway for seven more reps and, yes, you guessed it, now complete seven more reps with the full squat, and your legs are sure to be exhausted.

Plug any of the above 21s into your workout routine and complete three to four total sets. Remember, 21s were not meant just for biceps and can be added to many different exercises for a fresh and interesting way to spark new progress.

Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out for training tips, news and inspirational stories.


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