There’s no doubt that numbers are important when it comes to reaching your physique goals, totaling up your ingested calories and making sure you’re hitting the right rep ranges helps you to focus your efforts. Problem is, all too often trainers obsess over numbers and loose sight of their original goals.
As a result dedicated but misguided enthusiasts are left spinning their wheels and making no progress. So how much attention should you really pay to your weights, sets and reps?
It’s easy to see why people obsess over the amount of weight they lift in the gym, often you’ll hear:
‘I can bench 200lbs now’
This is understandable, after all, more weight equals more strength and more muscle right?
There is not a direct correlation between size and strength, although they are related. Take Zoe Smith, a now 18 year old female weight lifter. As you can see in the video, she can snatch her bodyweight, which is probably more than can be said of you.
This means Zoe is incredibly strong, but is she big? No. So just as you don’t need to be big to be strong, being strong isn’t a per-requisite for being big.
Of course strength does help, a trainer that can deadlift 200lbs for reps will invariably have more muscularity than one of equal height that can only deadlift 100lbs for the equivalent amount of reps.
So, it is important to have a good base level of strength, with lifts like the squat, deadlift and bench press but if you really just want hypertrophy relentlessly going after strength will mean you won’t reach your goals.
It is certainly a good idea to try and increase the weight you lift periodically, but don’t obsess over it. Why? Because you’ll eventually hit a strength ceiling or end up injuring yourself, if it’s size you want, the muscle needs to be stressed, but in a different way to the methods that strength athletes (power lifters, Olympic lifters) use .
What needs to be understood is that your muscle doesn’t know how heavy the load is, it only knows how much stress is being put on it, which is affected by many other factors such as rep speed, rest periods between sets and intensity techniques like drop sets and forced reps.
The trainer going for gains in lean muscle should focus on form, that is performing the exercise correctly, and really trying to ‘feel’ each rep, get the most out of it, don’t just go through the motions.
So weight is far from the be all and end when it comes to muscle growth, what about your set and rep schemes…
Sets and Reps
We all love talking in sets and reps, they are the currency of bodybuilding and they give our workouts structure, allowing us to set benchmarks for ourselves to improve upon. You’ll have no doubt heard all sorts of theories regarding rep ranges for hypertrophy, strength and endurance, which probably goes something like this;
Muscular endurance: 12+ reps per set (to failure)
Hypertrophy: 8-12 reps per set (to failure)
Strength: 3-7 reps per set
For all intents and purposes, this is a good guideline, so long as you understand that periodically varying your reps and sets is essential whatever your goal. If you’re looking for hypertrophy for example, a period of strength training will be essential to ensure you can increase the stress on your muscles over time by pushing more weight.
Just as I explained in regards to weight however, your body doesn’t know you’ve just done 10 reps and want to increase the size of your muscles. All it knows is that a level of stress as been put upon it. A far better way than reps to keep tabs on this stress is time under tension;
Time Under Tension
This is the length of time each set takes, and it’s a much better way of measuring the stress that reps have on the muscle because it’s straightforward and unambiguous, a set that lasts 60 seconds is just that. On the other hand ’10 reps’ to one person could last 10 seconds, while to another it could be more like 45 seconds, and that’s a big difference.
There are different opinions on this, but ideally, if hypertrophy is your goal, you want the concentric portion of a lift (the ‘up’ phase) to be as quick as possible and the eccentric (lowering phase) to be relatively slow, this will put the muscle under the most stress and elicit the best growth response. If many people slowed down the eccentric portion of their lifts they would increase the time under tension for each set and likely see some progress. Try it.
Total Workout Volume
So how about sets, are they an accurate way to measure volume, not really, a much better way is total workout volume. Why? Say you did 4 sets of 4 exercises, that’s sixteen sets, sounds good right? Kinda, but what if you spent 5 minutes resting in between each set and used minimal weight, not so impressive now is it?
The best way to judge the success of a workout is to time it, if you do identical workouts with the same weight, sets and reps but one is completed than the other, then you’ve improved on volume. To calculate Total workout volume simply add together all the weight you lifted for each set. For example if you did 4 sets of 10 squats using 50Kg that’s 2000Kg in total, compare this against a bench mark time to judge your total workout volume.
Weights, sets and reps provide backbone to your workout and allow for organization, planning and structure, ideal for any long term plan, but don’t rely on them as there are better methods for judging success.
Your body has no idea how much weight you’re lifting or how many sets and reps you’re doing, so an increase in weight, an extra rep or an additional set won’t necessarily mean more growth.
Focus on each rep individually, lifting explosively, squeezing the muscle, and then lowering in a controlled fashion. Experiment with and record rep tempo and rest periods to vary your workouts and get a better idea of how you’re progressing.