July 13


Workout Variables | How Sets, Reps, Rest and Load affect Results

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As a follow up to my article on creating your own weight training workout plan, I've written this essential guide to workout variables. Below is everything you need to know about the components of a strength training program. Once you have this foundation of training knowledge, you'll be able to reach your resistance training goals safely, effectively and efficiently.

If you haven't read part 1 yet, discover some basic principles of program design.


Workout Variable #1 | Amount of Weight, or Resistance, to Lift

I'm often asked "How much weight should I lift?" While these clients have the right idea, it's really the wrong question. Effective strength training isn't about how much weight you lift. Instead, it's the number of repetitions you perform that is key.

Is that it, just how many reps? Well yes, and no. By this I mean you should work within a specific framework, or rep range so that you work the muscle until fatigue.

If you're just starting a strength program, it's unwise to test how much weight you can lift. Your ability to lift the most amount of weight is generally referred to as your 1-repetition maximum, or 1RM for short. For a given exercise, this is the amount of weight you can lift just one time.

Testing your 1RM involves a high-risk, maximal exertion and performance situation. When starting out, this is generally a bad idea.

Generally, it's better to err on the side of caution and lift too little weight rather than too much. In doing so, you'll safely be able to determine a good starting point. For example, if you are able to perform more reps than your target rep range, it's easy to reduce the reps on your next set by increasing the weight.

Ideally, an appropriate resistance is the weight that fatigues your muscle within the target rep range.

Workout Variable #2 | Number of Repetitions

In gym jargon and workout terminology, "rep" is short for "repetition."

You complete a rep of a strength exercise when you return to the starting position. For example, in a barbell back squat, you start standing tall. Next you sit down and back to the extent your strength, mobility and anatomy allow. At this point, you drive yourself back up to the starting position. That is, standing tall once again. In essence, you've completed one rep of the exercise.

In short, for general health and fitness improvements, most people should perform 6 to 20 reps until the point of fatigue.

What do we mean by fatigue in a strength training workout or weights session?

At this point, if you're new to resistance training, you might be thinking "what's fatigue?" It sounds hard, and a little bit scary. Another term we might use is "muscular failure" which might sound even worse!

Muscular failure, fatigue or exhaustion means that somewhere between 6 and 20 reps, you'll reach a point where you can't do another rep with good technique.

Should everyone work to fatigue when lifting weights?

All things considered, the answer is generally yes, everyone! However, this doesn't necessarily mean every workout, for every exercise, in every set.

In the same way, we need to remember that the point of fatigue will be different in different people. If you're just beginning an exercise regime, you might aim to reach fatigue only after 15 reps or so. That way, you're lifting a relatively light weight. Training with this load will give your muscles, tendonds, and ligaments a chance to gradually adapt and strengthen. In doing so, they'll become better equipped to respond to the demands that your resistance training plan will place on them. For the purpose of safety and consistency, we want to prevent ourselves doing too much too soon.

Repetition Ranges and Workout Progression

Once you've been training for around 4 to 6 weeks at 15-20 reps, you might then want to aim for 12 to 15 reps. That way, you'll continue to see significant changes in the strength and size of your muscles.

In due time, you'll then progress to 6 to 12 reps so that you can maximise your gains.

By and large, you'll have to increase the weight you lift as you progress to fewer reps in each set. After consistent training over a period of around 6 months, you might start to think about periodising your weights program. In doing so, you'll open up further opportunities to work over the entire rep ranges of 1-20 reps in designated training phases.

Muscular strength benefits occur at the lower, middle and higher end of this repetition range. From time to time, it's good to mix up your training and work through different rep ranges. In the long run, it's better to avoid performing ALL of your strength training at lower reps.

Since muscular strength and endurance training is anaerobic, it should last only around 30 to 90 seconds. Consequently, we want our targeted muscle groups to fatigue (or fail) within this timeframe. Certainly, we don't want sets extended upwards of 2 minutes if we're looking to maximise strength and hypertrophy.

Rep range ultimately determines the length of time the set lasts

Generally, between 6 and 20 repetitions performed in a controlled manner (4 to 7 seconds per rep) should fulfil this time parameter. In doing so, you'll produce significant gains in strength.

At this point, let's go back to the question of how much weight to lift. It's still the wrong question, but by know we should be clearer on why that is.

In essence, pick enough resistance so that your muscles fatigue within the given rep range.

Regardless of whether the target is 15-20, 12-15, or 6-8 reps, you'll find that different people will have to work with different amounts of weigh to attain the desired result.

For example, let's imagine two people performing biceps curls side by side. Although both fatigue at 15 reps, one is using 12.5kg dumbbells and the other is using 6k dumbbells. Nevertheless, both are working at the required effort. As a result, they'll both see significant gains in their strength.

As you get stronger, the number of reps you're aiming for doesn't necessarily change. Rather, the resistance you need to fail within that range changes. To put it another way, you'll be able to lift more weight for the same number of repetitions.

Workout Variable #3 | Number of Sets for Each Exercise

By set, we mean a designated number, or range, of reps. For example, every group of reps you perform to fatigue is a set.

Now conventional wisdom says you have to do 2 or 3 sets, unless you've been strength training for a while. Additionally, you'll have to spend more time in the gym if you want to do more.

Early research indicates that there is little difference in results between training with 1, 2 or 3 sets. That is, in beginners.

In any case, there is only minimal additional increase in muscle size or strength for each subsequent set. Surprisingly, those new to exercise will see 80% of the gains they'll ever get by doing just one set to fatigue.

Do people get more results if they do more sets? Yes, but it is a case of diminishing returns. That is to say, the additional benefit of each extra set it smaller and smaller.

Training with multiple sets for each exercise has been show to be better than single sets in regular exercisers. However, single set training (i.e. performing just one set for each exercise) is still an excellent choice to gain significant strength in beginners.

In other words, you may not need to perform more than one set of each exercise to meet your goals.

Eventually though, after a few months, you might have to commit more time to your gym sessions if you want to take your strength to the next level.

At first though, one set of an exercise can get you strong, achieve results and minimise the time you have to spend in the gym.

Workout Variable #4 | Number of Strength Training Workouts Each Week

We can refer to the number of sessions you complete each week as your training frequency.

On the whole, an average person needs to strength train at least twice per week to get results. Additionally, there should be at least one day of rest between weights sessions.

Provided that you're just starting out a strength program, that's all you really need. Research from the American College of Sports Medicine supports this.

However, after a few months of regular strength training, you'll probably have to work out 3-4 times per week. This will allow you to continue to develop gains in strength and muscle size. On the other hand, if you're only looking to maintain what you already have, a couple of workouts per week will do just fine. In this situation though, it's important that we ensure the intensity of each workout remains sufficient. Certainly, having a goal of maintaining strength doesn't mean you can take it easy. Although fewer workouts may be necessary, you still have to train effectively to stimulate each muscle group properly.

Workout Variable #5 | Length of Time Between Weight Training Sessions

While it may be true that the length of time between sessions is related to the number you complete each week, it remains a separate workout variable. In this case, we can adjust the length of time between each gym workout in accordance with our strength training goals.

Having a day off between strength workouts still makes sense if you're training all major muscle groups in each workout. However, if you use a split routine, give a muscle group at least a day of recovery before targeting that same body part again.

Adequate recovery is essential to avoid injury and give your body time to recover from each workout. Although you may enjoy the challenge and buzz you feel from lifting weights, your body is asking for a chance to grow stronger.

If you continue to push and push and pound your body into submission, something will break. Instead, gain the optimal training benefit from your dedication and hard work by scheduling adequate rest.

Workout Variable #6 | Number of Exercises in Each Strength Training Session

As a general rule, choose a minimum of 8 exercises which target all of your major muscle groups. In effect, you gain equal development of all opposing muscles. In doing so, you should end up with a balanced physique and well-performing body.

As an illustration, consider if you were only to perform biceps curls and chest presses. This unbalanced weight training approach will ultimately negatively affect your posture. Certainly, choose more than 8 exercises if you wish. However, you'll likely find that about 8-10 exercises is enough to get the job done. Additionally, your workout won't take too much time either.

Workout Variable #7 | Workout Duration, or Length of Your Session

Following on from number 6, we can also vary the length of each of our workouts.

If you're following the guidelines above, only a 20 to 30 minute strength training session is sufficient. This will allow one to two sets of 6-20 reps, performing each to fatigue, for every major muscle group. If we consider we only need to do this twice per week as a minimum, anyone should be able to fit this in.

More time spent training doesn't necessarily mean better results.

Thus far, we're describing a "minimalist" approach. The main takeaway I want you to have, if nothing else, is that you don't have to do a lot to gain brilliant results.

This is great news if you're a distance runner, university student or busy parent. There are still ways to strength train even if you're low on free time.

If you've previously heard that strength training takes too much time and is hard, you've heard wrong!

Workout Variable #8 | Exercise Order

In general, it's best you perform exercises for larger muscle groups first, early in your session. Afterwards, you then progress to the smaller muscle groups.

For example, you might work the muscles around your hips and butt before targeting your calves. Similarly, it's a good idea to hit the chest and back before you fatigue your shoulders and arms.

This makes sense, because smaller muscles are often links in the chain which contribute to a bigger movement. For example, your triceps and shoulders assist your big chest muscles in pushing the bar up in a barbell bench press.

If they are already exhausted, these smaller muscles can no longer help out. As a result, they'll become the weak link. By the same token, if you fatigue your quads before you squat, it's unlikely your butt will get a great challenge. Due to the front of your thighs being tired, they'll give up long before your glutes do.

Additionally, we should consider safety. Complex exercises using multiple muscle groups often require larger, heavier weights. If you perform them with already tired muscles, you might get into difficulty.

Then again, there are times when you may take advantage of this approach. After training for several months, you may need to train differently and change your approach. If you always train the same way, you may limit the results you can achieve.

Once you are more advanced in your strength training journey, you may look at changing exercise order in terms of muscle priority.

In other words, you might start your session with training whichever muscle or muscle groups you want to emphasise that day. For example, if you feel that your shoulder strength is lacking, you make start your workout with some isolation exercises specifically for your deltoids. That way, you can focus all your energy while you are fresh on any particular muscle group you fancy. However, it's worth considering whether you then might have to avoid complex or compound movements using that same muscle group later in the same workout.

When you adopt a Whole Body Approach (working all muscle groups in your body with 8-10 exercises) it doesn't really matter which exercise you start with.

Completing a total body workout each time you strength train is a good idea as it helps save time. Split routines, where different body parts are trainined over 4 or more days take a bit more of a time commitment.

Additionally, mixing up your full body workouts by starting on a different muscle group each time is a great idea. In essence, it adds an extra dimension to the training demands you place on your body. Furthermore, it allows you to keep working out while one body part recovers as you train the next.

You can think of this approach as a form of active rest. You're effectively using recovery time between sets by training a completely separate muscle group or body part.

Workout Variable #9 | Rest Between Sets

When time is of the essence, you can minimise down time and rest periods by switching from upper body to lower body and then from front to back work. That way, you can finish your strength workout in little more than 20 to 30 minutes.

The order in which you switch is generally not important. Instead, the critical point is changing to an unrelated body part so the original muscle group can rest.

In general, 30 seconds to 2 minutes is a good guide to recover from an exercise performed to fatigue. That is, if your goal is to actually allow a full recovery before you target that particular area again. For instance, there are cases where you may choose to target muscles repeatedly without adequate rest. Generally speaking, this would bring performance benefits in the sports realm and suits more experienced exercisers.

You can save time in your workout by hopping all around the body, targeting continually different muscle groups.

Mostly, people have a finite amount of time they can dedicate to their gym workouts. For this reason, this method can work well to let you maximise the time you spend working out.

How Do I Know When to Increase my Weights?

Whenever you can easily complete more than your designated rep range, it's time to move up. Add enough resistance so that you can drop back to whichever rep range framework you're working in. However, be careful not to add so much that you can't then complete the minimum number of reps.

Depending on how you progress in your program, it might be appropriate to change to a different rep range entirely. Accordingly, the move can be in any direction, up or down, depending on the intention of your program.

By progressively increasing how hard you work, you'll keep boredom at bay, your muscles guessing and the results coming.

Paul Stokes Perth Personal Trainer Sports Nutritionist Group Fitness Instructor Massage Therapist

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs.

He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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