I have been asked some questions about a few things lately. I will cover as much here as possible. What is the optimum number of sets and reps for me to use? What is Time Under Tension and how does it relate to my training? If I do my lifts super slow will this allow me to grow?
Sets and Reps
To cover the first question, it depends on your training age. I have found that as our training age increases so does the changes we need to incorporate into our training. You may have started out doing 8-10 reps, and now it doesn't seem to make a difference anymore. I feel as we grow in our training our body needs a different type of stimulation. I would say after 3-4 years of training that 4-6 reps may be more optimal. Here are the number of sets to use that are most useful though for most trainees.
When training for strength: Use 3-5 reps, with a long rest period involved maybe anywhere from 2-3 minutes.
For a normal hypertrophy (muscle growth) routine: Use 8-10 reps with a shorter rest period of around 45-60 seconds.
For endurance: Use higher reps of say 12 and up, rest for a period of no less then 30 seconds.
Now each way really does have it's own use. A lot of trainees shy away from using anything but a hypertrophy routine. That is really not necessary, using a strength routine would be a great way to break any possible plateau you may think you have run across. (Read my article about plateaus for more info.) I also like to see trainees use a high reps in their routine to help with changing. Listen I know it sounds silly but I will tell you that through my trial and error I have found that incorporating each of these into my routines I have never hit a standstill in my training and neither has any one I have trained. It has been proven that a mix will keep it fresh. Don't fall into the mistake of doing only one type of training.
Now for sets I see everyone does 3 sets of whatever exercise they plan on executing. Why? There is no set law that states 3 sets are the magic number. I have had guys use as little as 1 set for each exercise. Such as 1 set of flyes followed with 1 set of declines, etc... I believe that variety is the key here. We do not get enough variety in our workouts. For example do you do any kind of low reps with maximal weights at all? I incorporate this type of training into my routines every 6 months for 4 weeks or so. This allows me to get stronger, which in turn means I can lift more weight, which means I can grow more by stimulating more muscle fibers. I don't understand why this isn't done more often. I guess it is due to the old beliefs that float around out there. "But if I work high reps I won't be getting the bigger body I want." Let me tell you a secret, did you ever stop and realize that most bodybuilders are lucky to make it to the mail box before they end up wheezing out of breath. I remember one guy on the forum telling about how he tried to jog a few blocks and almost passed out from it. Listen up, you need to have the endurance training in your routines. Without it you may get bigger but you also will find it feels like you are having a heart attack just going to the corner store.
Time Under Tension
Let's look at Time Under Tension, or T-U-T . Time under tension is a way to regulate the amount of time placed on the muscle for maximum growth and damage to it. There has been some debates as to the best time. Time under tension is usually written with a number. Anyone who ever got a routine written from me knows this and has seen it. I will write numbers that are like this: 5012 for 8 reps. This would mean that the time to lower the bar (this would be the 5) would take 5 full seconds.The next number will mean that you take 0 time to rest at the bottom, and the 1 means raise it for a count of 1. The last number stands for the amount of time used to pause at the top of the movement.
There is a magical number to use for all this. If your goal is to be bigger then the number should be at least 40 seconds for the entire set (that means the least amount of time for it, you could use a maximum of up to 70 seconds for this also). Now remember it will also have a lot to do with your muscle make up. Lets say you are doing 1 set of 8 reps, that means you should take at least 40 seconds to do the 8 reps. Broken up that would mean each one rep should take 5 seconds to execute. So therefore it could be 3 seconds to lower the weight and 0 for pause, 1 sec to raise and 1 sec to rest at the top of the movement. If you used 60 then it would mean 7 seconds per each movement (up and down), broken up it would be 4 down and 1 pause, 0 raise and 2 top pause. For strength the magic number would be 20 seconds (this is tops for the entire set), you can figure this one out. Remember to lift slowly for the lowering phase and explosive for the raising part if going for hypertrophy. For strength I like to use the same speed for the lower and the raise. I am not going to try to explain it all here but this is basicly a guideline to use. If, when doing a workout, you find the weight is too heavy to lift after a few times then reduce the weight and keep the reps the same.
One thing I like to mention is the importance of variety. It must be used, otherwise the body will grow used to what ever you give it. The body is a wonderful thing, it is a master at adaptation. It will get used to your every move and stance. It will soon become so good at knowing where and how you will do something, that less and less muscle fibers will be recruited. This is one reason behind the high rep and strength cycle followed with a mass cycle. It will be soon a problem to get a burn or a even a pump once this occurs. But it can all be changed by doing something else. Now I am talking about placing your feet differently or the grip on the bar you use, or even the weight you use, (this is why I attempt to increase 4 pounds each time I workout a body part while using the same routine for 4 weeks). Now it really doesn't take too long for this to happen either, somewhere around 4-6 weeks. I recommend to change it up if every 6 weeks if you are a new trainee, or every 4 weeks or so if you are a seasoned trainee. Once you feel the pump is fading then it is time.
I hope this has shed some more light on this thing called bodybuilding and maybe you have learned something useful out of it. Until the next one keep pumping and stay cool!
If you have any questions I can help with feel free to e-mail me @ firstname.lastname@example.org.