3-4 exercises per body part, 3 sets of 10 repetitions per exercise, 1-2 minutes rest in between sets. Sound familiar?
It should, because this is arguably the most commonly utilised workout plan in the history of the gym and unfortunately, a frustrating majority of gym-goers will maintain this same routine until the grim reaper comes calling.
Just how long and why exactly this routine became the go-to, universal training program is only partly understood – at least in my humble opinion. The vast majority of gym-goers (primarily the male population) have a goal to increase muscle size and mass (standard hypertrophy). With that in mind, the textbooks prescribe the above routine – performing a total volume of approximately 30 reps per exercise. Next, 10 reps became the standard rep range to achieve the necessary accumulative fatigue. Why? In typical Goldilocks fashion – less than 10 reps is strength training, more than 10 is endurance.
The more I progress my own knowledge and experience, the more I’m amazed at myself that I believed the body worked in suck a black and white method - that somehow, there was a magical rep that made you cross the line from one training modality to the other, like some international date line.
I also didn’t realise that the longer you lift weights and more experienced you become, the rep ranges of the training modalities change – an advanced lifter (someone with many years of quality lifting experience) requires fewer repetitions to achieve a certain training modality.
But I’m beginning to go off on a bit of a tangent now, because my real purpose with this week’s blog is to suggest an alternative workout that most definitely does not involve 3 sets of 10 on anything.
Again, I could write a whole series of blogs on program design (and I have done fairly recently in previous EN blogs), but the most important question you need to ask yourself is “why am I doing this?” – Why am I doing this exercise? Why am I doing this number of reps? Why am I taking this much rest? Etc. Understanding, people, is critical.
A great example of this would be a recent experience of mine at my gym. I’m on shift, looking across my desk at the lifting platforms in front of me, and I see this guy standing on a couple of plates performing barbell shrugs. Now when I say standing, I don’t mean heels or toes raises, I just mean standing flat footed on the plates. Bemused and intrigued, I approach this person and ask him why he’s standing on plates, what the purpose is. He looks at me and states “I got told to do this. Doing this is better for shrugs”. I then asked him how standing on plates makes a difference, when the movement is left completely unchanged. He looks at me confused, attempts to answer, realises that he has no idea and simply tells me his “bruv” told him to do them that way.
I told him his “bruv” was an idiot, and so was he for blindly following the advice of someone who clearly should not be giving advice to others.
But again, I digress. Here’s what I would like you to consider: if you’re training for size, does that mean you’re not bothered about your strength? Because call me crazy, but the “inner chimp” part of the human psyche wishes to become stronger and more powerful than his/her rivals to survive and land the hottest mate. Now, while there may be a great many of you out there training hard to impress the babes (bless you, that bubble will burst for you too one day), when you start making strength your training priority, something very interesting happens:
As Ivan Drago said in Rocky IV, you become a piece of iron.
Strength training increases your muscular capacity to produce force(lifting at intensities greater than 80%, with rep ranges between 1-5), activating your high threshold motor units (HTMUs) that only engage when a near maximal load is applied to them. The effects of this will lead to a greater increase in muscle density rather than muscle size and a subsequent heightened state of muscle tone will result. Combine this with adequate rest and proper nutrition and you can finally achieve your secret desire to be known as “big <insert your name>” rather than just “<insert your name>”. Jacked, hench, stout, you name it.
The best way I can make you understand this is taking the concept and applying it to a car. You start off with a classic mini, and decide you want a bigger car. So you buy a Range Rover, but you take the motor from your old mini and stick it under the hood of your new Evoque. The result? An impressive looking car with the performance of Mr. Bean’s Robin Reliant – you’ve increased the chassis, but you don’t have the power to go with it, so now that extra bulk from the larger chassis has reduced your performance.
Instead, you buy an Aston Martin One-77 (my future car), although now you’ve got the muscle under the hood to match the extra weight and bulk. The result? An incredibly impressive model with sexy curves and lines with the power under the hood to go from 0-60 in 3.5 seconds. You have increased the size of your car, but not at the expense of its performance.
For me, this is the biggest whistle-blowing wake-up call I can give you. Get away from training purely for aesthetic size and non-functional muscle mass increases to functional lean muscle mass increases that are proportional to your strength. I tell you this now, if your desire is to achieve a truly powerful and muscular looking physique, 3 sets of ten on the bench is not going to get you there alone. Arnold and Franco both possessed a stand-out power-lifting and weight-lifting capability during their bodybuilding careers, and it gave them an impressive foundation of raw, dense muscle mass that they were able to subsequently refine and sculpt into champion bodybuilding physiques.
OK, OK , I hear you say, we get it. So give me an example of strength training. No problem. Try the 5x5x5 approach.
This is a great introduction to strength training. Take 3-5 exercises and perform 3-5 sets of between 3-5 reps (resting 3-5 minutes too, although I suggest you stick to between 2-3 until you hit a 90% or above max intensity. Now when I talk about reps, this doesn’t mean that you use a weight you could handle for 10 reps and just perform 3-5. We’re talking about a 5 rep max (RM). It is common place for workout programs to prescribe certain percentages (as I have alluded to) when discussing intensities (for the record, if your maximum lift in a certain exercise was 100kg, then a 90% lift would be 90kg). However, these should be used as a guide only, because your particular muscle fiber make-up (proportion of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers) may not correlate these intensities to the necessary rep ranges.
This is why using the rep max philosophy is more practical and beneficial than going by prescribed intensities. Performing a 5RM means using a load that will challenge you to complete the 5th rep, yet you can do so without an appreciable drop in execution of technique. A prescribed intensity percentage may likely result in you performing too many or too few repetitions.
Stick to bigger, compound lifts such as pressing, squatting and dead lifting rather than isolation exercises. You’ll find that your arms and abs will largely take care of themselves with the amount of stabilisation and secondary muscle involvement i.e. bench pressing developing both the triceps and biceps.
Furthermore, after performing a strength training block (typically 4-8 weeks) you’ll be able to make greater gains when returning to your hypertrophy phase because you’ve learnt to recruit and utilise more of those HTMU’s. Then, when you go back to strength training, the improved capilliarisation effects that higher rep training creates and the subsequent improved blood flow to the muscles will allow more nutrients and oxygen to be received, more waste by-products to be removed, all allowing for improvements in force production.
It’s the ‘Circle of Life’, Simba.
Train hard. Take pride. Respect your gym.