Principles to help you overcome plateaus: Part 2
ALSO: Check out "Principles to help you overcome plateaus: Part 1"
Use the optimum number of sets
There are several types of sets. We are only concerned with regular sets, not super sets, giant sets or anything else. The quality of the set is much more important than the type of set. The number of sets you should use depends on several factors.
For beginners, I will always prescribe fewer sets, one to two per exercise. Intermediate or advanced athletes will do up to five sets per exercise. Do not take this statement the wrong way. Just because you’re an advanced athlete doesn’t mean you can take high volumes of exercise. It’s true I have prescribed up to five sets per exercise, but this is extremely rare. Most people cannot recover from this type of volume.
The number of sets performed is always inversely related to the size of the muscle you are training. Larger muscles take longer to recover than smaller ones. Larger muscles include back, chest and legs. You should perform fewer sets for your quadriceps than for your biceps. Keep in mind that you are also stimulating your nervous system when training. The larger the muscle group worked, the more your nervous system is being stimulated. Nerves take much longer to recover than muscles.
As discussed earlier, we all recover from exercise at different rates. Because everybody is unique in their ability to adapt and recover from different programs, the number of sets needs to be individualized. Without keeping a detailed journal, it will be almost impossible to determine what workouts were successful and which ones were not.
The more exercises you perform, the fewer sets you need. The optimum amount of time you should be training is between 45 and 60 minutes. Hormone levels decrease sharply after about an hour of training. This does not include warming up or cooling down. Not only do your testosterone and growth hormone levels decrease, but your cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is a catabolic (muscle wasting) compound that we naturally secrete as a result of stress. Training over an hour puts you in the best environment for destroying muscle. So if you add exercises but do not decrease the number of sets to keep you in that timeframe, you're going to have a very hard time making gains.
What were you doing when you hit your plateau? This is an extremely important aspect of determining how many sets you should be doing. And if you’re not keeping a journal, you’re not going to know. If you’re performing three sets per exercise for three different exercises and you hit a plateau, the most logical answer would be to decrease the workload because of a lack of recovery. Either drop an exercise or perform one fewer set per exercise.
Use the optimum number of reps
There is no right answer to the number of repetitions required to optimize performance. However, there are a few general principles you can follow that are based upon scientific research and mounds of empirical data.
Strength should always be your goal. I can't stress this enough. The heavier the weight lifted, the greater the muscle tension, which yields a greater growth response. But, like I always tell my clients: "Leave your ego at the door." Strength is relative. What might be heavy for one may be light for somebody else. Do not compare yourself to others. Compete against yourself on a daily, weekly, monthly and even yearly basis. Again, keeping a detailed journal will help ensure that you move in the right direction.
Strength researchers have found that when performing between one and five repetitions, you'll increase strength with minimal gains in muscle size. Performing six to 12 reps, however, will increase strength through developing larger muscles. In other words, the best rep range to gain muscle is six to twelve. Or is it?
Actually, it's a combination of the two that produces the best overall gains. If gaining muscle mass is your goal, then roughly 20% to 30% of your program should be comprised of reps in the one-to-five range. The remaining 70% to 80% should be performed in the six-to-12 range. The benefit of incorporating low reps in your program is that you'll be stronger when you finish your cycle. The stronger you are, the more weight you'll use when performing higher reps. The more weight you use, the higher the muscle tension. The higher the muscle tension…you know the rest.
When choosing a rep range, do not let the weight decide. Let the rep range determine the weight used. In other words, if you’re starting your workout cycle and you’re supposed to do 10-12 reps on dumbbell lateral raises, but you only get eight with 40 pounders, reduce your weight the next set. Trial and error is part of the process.
Use TEMPO to improve the quality of your work
There is one component of weight training that is commonly overlooked: tempo. It is widely accepted among bodybuilders and strength athletes that one should lift weights under control. Yet most of them haven't a clue as to what that really means, or how it can affect their training. Tempo is by far the least used tool by most people who weight train, including bodybuilders and strength athletes.
To understand tempo, you need to understand "time under tension,” or TUT. TUT is simply the amount of time a muscle is under tension. To develop muscle mass, the appropriate amount of time a set should last is between 20 and 60 seconds.
Tempo is the speed of your reps. It is expressed and recorded by a four digit numbers representing the seconds required to complete a rep. Example: 50X0 (five, zero, explosive, zero). Using the bench press, the first digit is the speed in which the weight is lowered (negative). The second digit is the amount of time one pauses once they've reached their chest. The third digit is the amount of time one takes to raise the weight (positive). The forth digit, if used, is the amount of time one takes before lowering the weight again. If an "X" is used, it means explosive, or as fast as possible.
When the proper use of tempo is employed, the muscles are truly doing the work. Slow speeds make the muscles work harder by eliminating momentum and bouncing. Slowing down the pace increases the amount of muscle tension and the duration of the stimulus. Tempo will also force you to pay close attention to form. However, as with any other aspects of training, it should not be used by itself.
Slower speed training should comprise most of your training. But just like you need to vary your reps, varying your speeds will also elicit a greater effect. As stated earlier, muscles require a variety of stimuli in order to adapt. Tempo is an excellent way to push yourself over your plateau to the next level.
Cycle your workouts to avoid stagnation
The average workout will start to lose its effectiveness in roughly three to four weeks. So when I prescribe workouts, I use three weeks as the length of time for mini cycles. I combine three mini cycles together to form a nine-week macro cycle. Throughout the nine weeks, the exercises or their order do not change. The first 3 weeks use a rep range of 10-12, performing two sets per exercise. The second 3 weeks use a rep range of 8-10, performing one to two sets per exercise. I usually prescribe fewer sets to larger muscle groups like legs. The third 3 weeks use a rep rang of five to seven while performing one set per exercise. This is obviously a simple explanation but I’m sure you get the gist.
All throughout the cycle, you’re recording everything in your journal so that when the cycle is over, you know where your starting point is for the next one. For example, if the cycle went well and you started your chest routine with flat dumbbell presses performing 10 reps with 80lb dumbbells, try starting your next cycle with 85lb dumbbells, and so on. The overall goal is progressive resistance.
Use proper amounts of protein to ensure recovery
Protein repairs and maintains everything in our bodies, from hormones to muscles. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids, "essential" meaning we have to ingest these for survival because our bodies cannot manufacture them. If your protein intake is low, your body will not get the essential aminos it needs from your muscle tissue. This is a big reason strict wacko vegans have a much lower percentage of muscle than meat- and fish-eating humans. And why they also have a harder time gaining muscle in the gym.
Why anyone would consciously eat a diet low in protein is beyond me. There are two things that begin with the letter "P" that I would never cut back on. One of them is protein. The other ends in “Y”. So having said that how much protein should one consume? I, along with many experts in the field, recommend one gram per pound of body weight (g/lb). However, if you train intensely, which is how you should train, you need upwards of 1.5 to 2 g/lb.
To put it quite simply, if you do not consume enough protein, you will not only put a halt to your efforts of obtaining a leaner, more muscular body; you can actually lose some of the muscle you're working so hard to get.
There is no magic
It’s not easy. There is no magic pill. There is no workout machine. There is no special herb or anything to make this an easy task. Anyone who says that a product or a workout is the end-all-be-all is full of it. When it comes down to it, you need to suck it up and make a commitment.
Whatever your goal, you must make the commitment to long-term changes. If you hit a plateau, set a new goal, chart your course, make the commitment, monitor your progress and begin moving toward your goal. Take the time and follow the principles above. Do it for yourself. Make working out and eating well part of your lifestyle. Make them as much of a priority as brushing your teeth and washing your hair.
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