Working Hard Or Hardly Working?

This guy was middle-aged and really normal, you know, the kind of guy with a pot belly, bald spot, and a desire to get back in shape. So going to the gym is the best he can do, right? One would think.
I was in the gym the other day, spending the usual 45 minutes on an elliptical trainer. At Gold's in Mountain View, California, where I work out, the cardio section is pretty crammed so I couldn't help noticing a guy on a treadmill right in front of me. He had his back to me, as all the machines are lined up to face the row of TV sets, so I could watch undisturbed and get a valuable lesson in why people don't get any results of their training. This guy was middle-aged and really normal, you know, the kind of guy with a pot belly, bald spot, and a desire to get back in shape. So going to the gym is the best he can do, right? One would think.

And That Does What?

Now, this guy started a warm-up, walking slowly for a couple of minutes while reading a newspaper. After his warm-up, he stepped onto the side-pods to get his feet off the belt, and cranked up the speed to the max. And then he went back to his reading. For ten minutes he stood, reading carefully, with his legs spread wide apart to avoid the moving belt.

Then he decided that he was done reading, threw the paper away, and stepped on the belt. He actually managed to stay on it, although with some difficulty, for almost two minutes until he realized he was about to get a heart attack and cranked the speed way down. Then he jogged leisurely for 10 minutes, sipped some sugary sports drink (that most assuredly added more calories than he burned), and went straight to the scale to see if he'd lost any weight before going home.

I'm sure he'll have washboard abs by next week. All jest aside, it is quite depressing how people with good intentions can end up with no or even negative results once they try to get a grip on themselves. But this is not only an issue for middle-aged men who have this vague desire to get in shape but have no clue of how to go about it, there's another aspect of the same phenomenon with young, fairly bright and educated aspiring bodybuilders!

The Human Robots

They follow their training schedules religiously, they drink their protein drinks every night, and makes sure to never miss an issue of Flex and Musclemag. So why aren't they growing like crazy? Well, apart from using bad form, an easy to miss but oh-so-vital factor is that they rest 5 minutes between each set, yakking with friends.

Not only do they totally lose their focus, but they also miss out on the fact that the muscles need a lot of bashing to be forced to grow.

If you generously give your muscles time to recover, and then some, between each set, how do you get the required intensity? When I was running my Personal Training business, I saw guys who were "working out" when I came, and were still "working out" three hours and three clients later!

I must admit I had a hard time taking them seriously when they later approached me in the gym's sports bar and asked why the heck they didn't grow. So, considering how many people there are out there who've seen little or no growth lately, there's a good chance that you may be one of those who would benefit from cranking up the intensity.

A Few Rules Of Thumb:

  • Try to keep the workout at or under 45 minutes. Warm-up and stretching should make it 60 min or less.
  • Most muscle groups only need 4-6 sets, except back that can take 6-10 sets.
  • 2 sets for each exercise should be enough.
  • Don't rest more than 60 seconds between sets, or just enough to catch your breath.
  • If you can get the job done with 4 sets instead of 6 (as in exhausting the muscle to trigger muscle growth), by all means, do only 4 sets and put everything you've got into them!

As a general rule, the less sets you have to do to stimulate growth, the better. Make note, however, that this principle does not apply to beginners, as you're still in the phase of establishing the neuro-muscular pathways and basic coordination. Attempts to condense the training to a few, heavy sets before you've fully mastered the basic technique is not productive and can lead to injury. Make sure that you're fully comfortable with every aspect of the exercises you're about to perform.

But What Are The No-No's?

  • Don't chat with others. If you train alone, wear headphones. If you train with a partner, pay attention to his/her set and give a spot, and there shouldn't be any time between your partners set and your next set.
  • Do NOT stare at the babe in thong or the Johnny Bravo look-alike.
  • If the machine you planned to use is taken, use another. Instead of focusing on a set program, have backup-plans and keep the focus on maintaining the muscle pump.
  • If you can physically do your next set now, but would find it more convenient to rest another 30 seconds, slap yourself around vigorously for being lazy after doing the set right away.
  • Never, EVER read the newspaper between sets!