One of the most common discussions I hear in the gym is about how many repetitions are going to be performed on a given exercise and how many sets to complete.
‘Let’s go for 10 reps’
‘We need to keep our reps above 20’
That’s what I hear on a daily basis. I question the rationale behind these specific variables, as it seems most gym goers are just pulling numbers out of thin air.
What are reps?
Repetitions or ‘reps’ in its abbreviated form is the number of times you lift a weight.
The general misconception in weight lifting is that 8 reps will make you big, 10 reps will keep you strong and anything above 15 will tone you up.
It is not that simple.
The truth is that the number of repetitions is just a means to an end.
The science of strength training
There is a science behind strength training and reading the works of strength and conditioning experts like Tudor Bompa and Charles Poliquin will illustrate just how much detail goes into designing a resistance training program.
Most of us are on the tired program of 8-12, 10-15 and 15-20 rep ranges and have been using that formula for years!
The most important factor to consider is time under tension or TUT.
This is the real secret to achieving your goals with weight training. TUT is the amount of time the muscles are working and is dependent on our objectives.
Time Under Tension
If we wish to improve strength and power then TUT is 4-30 seconds, for sculpting and shaping our body (hypertrophy) TUT is 30-70 seconds and to increase muscular endurance TUT should be 60-100 seconds.
With this in mind, let’s use a typical example found in the gym.
A man who wants to get bigger muscles picks up a heavy pair of dumbbells and performs 8 reps of the Bicep Curl exercise with a tempo of 1 second up and 1 second down.
This is a total TUT of 16 seconds and is not enough time to achieve the desired response.
Another example is the woman who wants to tone up her legs so aims for 20 reps or above on the Leg Press machine. This is in fear of bulking up.
She performs them faster than you can blink and manages only 20 seconds of TUT.
Again, this is only targeting strength and power and falls too short for any muscle shaping benefits. You need a bare minimum of 30 seconds.
You should be able to see from these two examples how most people underestimate the importance of time under tension and place all the emphasis on the number of reps.
The most effective way to train is to maintain the correct TUT for each exercise.
Simply choose the amount of time you need to keep your muscles under tension and then decide on the rep range, you can calculate the tempo by dividing the TUT by the number of reps.
Tempo of the Exercise
Beginners should start with slower movements like 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down and progress to slightly faster speeds like 2 seconds up, 2-second hold and 1 second down.
Based on the tempo you can then calculate the number of repetitions.
So, if you are performing a Bicep Curl and your main objective was hypertrophy I would aim for 10 reps making sure the tempo was 3 seconds up and 3 seconds down.
Simple math tells you this is 60 seconds TUT and is perfect for achieving your aim.
Sets are also critical. A set is the group of consecutive repetitions.
There is an inverse relationship between sets and reps.
The more reps you perform the less sets you should do and the less reps you carry out the more sets you need to include.
The Rest Interval
Resting time is also important when it comes to designing a resistance training program.
Pay attention to how much time you taking between sets because again it is paramount to your desired objectives.
Most weight lifters either rest too little or chat too much in between sets and lose the training benefits.
Use a Stopwatch when lifting weights
Next time you are in the gym, rather than thinking up numbers on the spot, grab a stopwatch and refer to the guidelines below and maximise your workout.
If you feel like you need to take your training to the next level, then you need to be taking a scientific approach to your workout routine.
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