When you get down to it, getting results with resistance training is all about changing a set of variables in a structured way. The particulars you change – for example, reps and sets – control the amount of stress placed on your body. Ultimately, this stress dictates the changes in your body.
Training variables apply to any kind of resistance – dumbbells and barbells, bands, kettle bells, machines, etc. Just be sure you track your workouts using a log, either online or hard copy. Personally, I carry a small spiral notebook around the gym and write down what I did every few sets. If I left these details to memory, I wouldn’t know which variables I’d changed from workout to workout.
Use this quick guide to design your workouts or to simply gain awareness of what’s impacting your training. Then, as you grow more comfortable with changing them, you can think about cycling your training with a more long-term vision in mind.
Quick Guide to Variables
- Repetition: A complete movement of an exercise. Often referred to as a “rep.” How many reps you perform during each session depends on your goals.
- Rest interval: The amount of recovery time between each set. How long you rest has a dramatic effect on the results of your training . In order to replenish your energy reserves you need to rest adequately between sets; however, you don’t want to rest too long or you negate the energy expended.
- Intensity. Your level of effort. You can change the intensity by adjusting the reps and sets or the level of resistance.
Intensity can be measured against your maximal effort (your one-rep max, or 1RM) to track performance or determine the percentage of effort you should expend. For example, if a workout calls for doing squats for 10 reps/3 sets at 80% intensity, this means 80% of your 1RM. To find out your 1RM, perform a IRM test or estimate it using a calculator. You don’t have to use a 1RM to gauge intensity, however. If you’re a beginner just ensure that you’re very fatigued by the last rep (but able to eke out one or two more reps). Then increase the weight when that gets too easy.
- Tempo. The speed with which each repetition is performed. Each rep has three phases – eccentric (lowering the weight and lengthening the muscle), isometric (holding the weight in a static position), and concentric (lifting the weight and shortening the muscle). These tempos are expressed like this: x/x/x or eccentric/isometric/concentric (for example, 2/0/2).
Varying the tempo impacts your training a great deal. Check out this article to learn more.
- Exercises. The weightlifting movements you do. Obviously there are many choices, but every time you train you should ask yourself: Why am I doing this exercise? Will it get me closer to my goal? Compound exercises (such as squats) fire the most muscles and provide the best neuromuscular benefit. However, isolation movements (e.g., calf raises) can have a place in training. Total body exercises (such as a squat-to-curl-to-press) develop optimum strength and neuromuscular efficiency. Instead of focusing on how many exercises you should do per workout, learn about the appropriate number of reps (see above).
- Duration. How long you spend exercising during one session. This will depend on your fitness level and time constraints, but anything beyond 60 to 90 minutes results in rapidly decreasing energy levels. Keeping your workouts below this range will allow you to maintain strength and energy needed to perform well.
- Frequency: How many times per week you train. How to divide up your training is a common question. If you’re a beginner, three full-body sessions per week will give you great results. If you’re an intermediate to advanced lifter, you can try different training splits.
After you’ve been lifting awhile, these variables become second nature. If you do a little planning in advance, you can walk into the gym and crush it every time.
Questions? Just drop me a line in the Comments below.
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