“Wow! So this working out thing is more than just what exercises to do and how to do them correctly. There is a lot more to it…”
Yes! Yes! Yes! There is an amazing amount of information behind how to construct and execute your program in order to get the most benefit out of every workout.
“Geez, I get way more results with you working out 3 times per week than I did when I worked out on my own 6 times per week.”
Yes again. There are many reasons why working out with a fitness professional is far more effective than working out alone. However, you can reap some of those benefits by yourself with just a few minutes of education and the discipline to put it into practice.
So let’s tackle 5 keys to unlocking your workout’s full potential.
Do a set, take a breather, do another. Do a set, check your social media and texts, then do another. Do a set, chat with a buddy, do another. Do a set, watch your heart rate, do another when it gets below 100 beats per minute.
Any of those sound familiar?
None of them are correct.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, much of the type of adaptation you get from your exercise comes from the volume and intensity of the work (sets and load) coupled with PROPER REST PERIODS.[i] In other words, if your goal is to burn fat and you rest too long between sets, you’re not getting the effect you want. If your goal is to build muscle and you don’t rest enough, you’re also missing out!
Let me break it down for you.
If you are training for endurance or the ability to utilize fat as a fuel source, your rest periods should be between 0-to-30-seconds. Longer than that and you’ll allow too much recovery for your type I muscle fibers (the ones most responsible for endurance and therefore aerobic metabolism) and therefore they will not adapt to be better.
If you are training to grow as much muscle as possible, (hypertrophy) your rest periods should be between 60-to-90-seconds. For this kind of training you are walking the line between giving type II muscle fibers (the big ones responsible for strength, power, and definition) enough rest, but not too much so they will maximally adapt. Too little rest and you will not be able to consistently move enough load to tax the type II muscle fibers, giving you mostly endurance adaptations. Too much rest and you will not adapt as much as you could. Additionally this rest period maximizes subsequent growth hormone output.[ii]
If you are training to get as strong as possible, (maximum strength) your rest periods should be between 3-5 minutes. Strength is just as much, if not more so, a neurological adaptation, which means that your rest allows your nerves to recover. When you’re moving a large amount of weight each set, resting too little (even if you FEEL ready) may cause a nerve to misfire during the lift, resulting in joint injuries or tendon, ligament, or muscle tears. Bad juju. Rest adequately so that you can give each repetition the maximum effort it deserves and you’ll be stronger in no time!
Set your timer and don’t compromise your rest periods for anything or anybody! This is YOUR workout.
Tempo is how slow or fast you do each repetition.
In order to understand tempo, you need to know that each repetition has four parts:
the concentric phase, the eccentric phase, the isometric contraction and the isometric relaxation.
The bicep curl is probably the easiest example to illustrate these parts. Lifting the bar is the concentric phase. Controlling the bar on the way down is the eccentric phase. Flexing your arms at the top of the lift is the isometric contraction. Pausing between reps when the arms are straight is the isometric relaxation.
While there are some schools of thought that advocate doing only one type of tempo[iii], the reality is that just like rest periods, doing different things with each phase can enhance your workout in different ways.
Being explosive in the concentric phase (less than 1 second) can improve maximum strength power and therefore bone and muscle density.
Pausing for a second or more in the isometric contraction can improve stability of muscles and the strength of connective tissue (tendons and ligaments).
Slowing the eccentric phase to 4 seconds can improve stabilization, while drawing it out over 10 seconds can improve maximum strength!
And shortening isometric relaxation to less than 0.5 seconds can improve endurance, improve lactic acid tolerance and increase strength and power. While pausing for 2 or more seconds between repetitions can allow you to get that last one or two repetitions worth of work in a fatiguing muscle-failure set.
Your body needs you to change it up. Since life often moves at different speeds, you should train your body to do the same!
Squat, stand, repeat! One rep down, 11 more to go! A repetition is a complete exercise movement to be repeated a number of times for the desired effect.
Charles Poliquin, one of the early pioneers of modern-day applied sports science and kinesiology, was quoted once as saying that “the number of repetitions is both the most important exercise variable and the one that an athlete adapts most quickly to.”
Not that he’s the only authority on the subject, but I’ve seen this truth brought to bare time and time again in my client’s programs.
To target endurance fibers, 12 or more repetitions are required to grow muscle. Generally, 8-12 repetitions are optimal and to get stronger, 1-6 repetitions will do the job.
Regardless of your desired goal, you should always use a load that is challenging for the desired repetition range.
You should see improvements in reps each workout. If you get to where you can perform more repetitions than your goal dictates you should increase the load!
Time Under Tension
Simply put, Time Under Tension (TUT) is how long a set lasts for you. Therefore, it is a result of both tempo and repetitions.
If you take 4 seconds per repetition and you accomplish 8 repetitions with that tempo, then that is a 32 second time under tension.
So why is TUT its own variable?
In some cases, TUT is nice way to change up the workout while ensuring that your muscles still achieve the adaptations you desire.
For instance, a good TUT for endurance is 45-60 seconds. Instead of performing 12-15 push-ups, set your timer and see how many you can knock out in 60 seconds. Then rest for 30 seconds, try to set again. Record your total repetitions achieved and do it again in your next workout. It’s fun to see yourself progress this way in just one workout!
TUT also allows a bit more focus on the actual exercise set, since you outsource the “keeping track” to a stopwatch. Instead of counting tempo and reps, you can simply focus on quality movements, what muscles you are engaging and pushing yourself under specific time constraints.
TUT is not better than reps and tempo, just different. For those of us who are in the gym often, changing things up is good sometimes! Even better, your body will reward you by adapting accordingly.
Last but not least is the number of sets performed per exercise and per workout. 3 sets of 10 is definitely not the only workout template out there.
Let me give you some guidelines around volume.
8-to-12 sets (approx. 20 minutes) is the minimum amount of volume required to maximize Growth Hormone (the trigger for all positive weight lifting adaptations).[iv]
Keep your workouts between 24-and-32 sets. Much more than this sees a drastic decrease in Growth Hormone output[v] (therefore decreased adaptive recovery).
If you are a beginner in the weight lifting world, 1-2 sets of each exercise is sufficient since your tendons and ligaments take far fewer sets to adapt if deconditioned. This will also prevent soft tissue injury during the foundation phases!
Muscular endurance is created in 2-to-3 sets, hypertrophy (growth) achieved in 3-to-4 sets, and strength in 4-to-6 sets.
Again, these are general rules of thumb that have a few exceptions. But by and large our bodies will adapt following these guidelines.
To make it simple, the newer you are to weight training and the more you’re interested in producing muscle endurance, do fewer sets per exercise. The more advanced you are and have the desire to add strength and size, do more sets.
No big deal, right?
Putting it all together
Your workout is more than just the exercises you do.
In fact, research suggests that the rest periods, reps, tempo, time under tension and volume — when combined with nutrition and intensity are more indicative of training effect than modality!
In other words, next time you’re asked about what you’re working out today, I hope you replace your standard answer with “I have a full-body, fat-burn workout planned with 26 sets of TRX at 12 reps and 30 seconds rest. Followed by 3 sets of eccentric pull-ups. Wanna join me?” Or something like that.
Be prepared for some funny looks and some killer results.
See you on the fitness floor!
[ii] de Salles BF, et al. Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Med 2009;29:765-777.
[iii] Han, Fredrick. The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution: The Slow Motion Exercise That Will Change Your Body in 30 Minutes a Week. December 24, 2002
[v] Godfrey RJ, et al. The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes. Sports Med 2003;33:599-613.