Training Variables: The Smart Way to Lift Weights

Since the beginning of time, bro scientists have claimed to be the only ones who hold the secrets for building a head-turning physique. As they passed bro wisdom down through the generations, it’s taken on a life of its own. Many gym goers have fallen prey to bro science. Shunning cardio to make ‘gainz’. Overdosing on protein powders. Or even winding up in hospital after shooting up with coconut oil!

If you’ve ever been confused by all the bullshit advice or just hit a plateau in the gym, this post will help. It’s all about training variables—the basic building blocks of programs—that you can tweak to train smart and hard. Learn them and you’ll be head and shoulders above all the bro scientists.

If you’d like a brief history on the origins of bro science, check out this video.

Rest Periods

Your rest periods between sets aren’t the time to chat about your revolutionary protein powder made from organic Nigerian dwarf goat milk. The time you take to rest has a big impact on muscle tension and metabolite build up—crucial elements for the scientific adaptation of beast mode. If you don’t structure your rest periods properly, you’re shortchanging your results.

Rest periods are generally split into three categories:

  1. Short periods of around 30 seconds.
  2. Moderate periods between 1-2 minutes.
  3. Longer periods of 3-5 minutes.

If your goal is metabolic conditioning to maximize calorie burn or increase lactate threshold, keep the rest periods around 30 seconds. If you want to build muscle, rest between 60-90 seconds. If your goal is Hulk-like strength, rest for 3-5 minutes to allow complete recovery before maxing out that deadlift.

Tempo

Tempo is the speed of each of your repetitions. By changing tempo, you can increase or decrease the amount of time a muscle is under tension.

Repetition tempo is usually written as a three-digit number (e.g., 4/2/1). The first number always represents the eccentric contraction—lowering portion of the lift. The second number represents the isometric hold. The third number represents the concentric contraction—lifting portion. If you apply this to a squat, the descent would take 4 seconds, there would be a 2-second isometric hold in the bottom position, and standing back up to the start position would take 1 second.

Muscle damage is greatest during the eccentric portion of the lift. By slowing down (e.g., using a 2-3 second tempo) you maximise muscle development. If you don’t resist gravity, you’re missing out on more than half of the muscle building benefits.

Here are some tempos you can use for different goals:

  • To build muscular endurance, use a slow tempo like 4/2/1.
  • To build muscle, use a moderate tempo like 3/0/1.
  • For strength and power work, move the weight as explosively as possible—written as x/x/x.

Intensity

Intensity is the amount of weight lifted, not how hard you’re working (or grunting) to squeeze out another rep. It’s generally measured as a percentage of your repetition maximum (RM). Your RM is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a given rep range with good form. A 1 RM is the weight you can lift once but not a second time. Your 10 RM is a weight you can lift 10 but not 11 times.

Your training intensity will determine the rep ranges you use. These can be split into three approximate categories:

  • Low rep range of 1-5 using around 90-100% of your 1 RM is best for increasing strength.
  • Moderate rep range of 6-12 using around 65-85% of your 1 RM is best for building muscle.
  • High rep range of 15+ using around 60% of your 1 RM is good for muscular endurance.

Volume

The one-hit wonder Pump Up The Volume had the recipe for getting jacked:

Yo all you homeboys out in ‘Bronx, this one’s for you!
Pump up the volume
Pump up the volume
Pump up the volume
Get down
— MARRS

So how do you pump up the volume and get down whilst building slabs of muscle? Well, training volume is the total amount of work performed during a specified time. It’s usually the number of reps multiplied by sets during a workout. If you do three sets of squats for 12 reps, your total volume is 108 reps. Up the sets or reps and you are increasing the volume and taxing the body more.

Generally speaking, multiple sets per exercise work better than single sets to failure. How many should you do? It’ll vary depending on your program, but 2-4 sets is a good range to shoot for.

Frequency

Eastern Bloc scientists working in secret underground facilities found the ideal training frequency to be 440 hertz—the pitch of the note ‘A’. To tune your body into this frequency, you’ll need a tuning fork or instrument tuner. Kidding. Just wanted to see if you’re still with me?

Training frequency is how often you train. As a general rule, three days is the minimum effective dose to build muscle or lose weight. Training more can speed up results. But if you train too frequently, you’ll cut into your recovery and results slow down or injury sets in.

Allow for 24-48 hours between sessions for recovery. If you’re training the same body part (e.g., legs) allow at least 48 hours between sessions. If you work a muscle too often, you’re breaking it down faster than the body can rebuild it. When the muscle can’t keep up with the needed amount of protein syntheses, overtraining is likely.

Frequency is usually determined by your training program. If you train using full body workouts, you’d only be able to fit in three workouts a week without cutting into recovery. If you use a split routine that works upper and lower body on different days, you can train a body part twice a week. For example, training Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday alternating upper and lower body workouts.

Exercise Selection

Australia vs. New Zealand. Ali vs. Frazier. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera. Free weights versus machines. These are some of the most heated debates in the history of mankind. And, as with most debates, we find the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle (with the exception of Australia vs. New Zealand. Let’s be real. Aussies win out every time).

Muscles have different attachment sites and some are segmented into different heads. Because of this, it’s important to use a range of exercises that work muscles and joints from different angles.

Some purist will tell you all you need to do is barbell compound work. If you’re a power or Oly lifter, this makes sense. But for building muscle and overall symmetry, no single exercise can maximise muscle development. You need a variety of movements that work the body through different ranges and planes of motion. Simple changes like hand position on the bar or foot position during a squat can be enough to change the stimulus.

Exercises can be split into two categories: multi-joint and single-joint. Multi-joint uses two or more joints for a movement. For example, a back squat uses the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Whereas a biceps curl uses only the elbow joint. Build a combination of single- and multi-joint exercises into your routine to look like Thor or Wonder Women.

Always program your larger multi-joint exercises first. These are the most taxing movements, so hit them when you’re fresh.

Effort

Exercise is a stressor. Think of it like tuning a guitar. If you overtighten the strings they break. If there’s not enough tension, it’s out of tune. Get them just right, and you can sing the streets a serenade.  

To build muscle you need to stress your body through progressive overload. The body will only grow and adapt when pushed passed its current ability. This doesn’t mean you should train to failure on every set. That’s a sure-fire way to overtrain. On the other hand, you also don’t want to take it too easy. So how do you gauge your level of effort? Use the below rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale.

 
RPE Scale-1.png
 

I like to think of the RPE scale like this: at an RPE of 6, you have 4 reps left before you can’t lift the weight anymore. At 7 you have 3 reps left. At 10 you can’t lift it anymore—the muscle hits failure. This makes it easy to test and establish your RPE.

Now that you’ve got a way to measure effort, how often should you train to failure? There’s no one right approach. Some lifters can tolerate more than others. The best way to structure this is to progressively build up your level of effort. For example, if using a four-week training program, you could start at an RPE of 7 and build up to a 10 by week 4. You’d then back off and cycle through again to reduce the chance of overtraining.

How to Use Training Variables

Generally, you want to change one or two variables at a time. For example, you could increase your RPE each week by increasing the load. Keep in mind that some training variables are directly related. If you use heavier weights (increase intensity) your volume (sets and reps) has to come down. Rest periods will also change depending on the load used.

When changing training variables, progressively build up to your maximum. Say you’re trying to build strength. You wouldn’t start off a program lifting your 1 RM. You’d build up to it using a progression that increases load and decreases volume over one training cycle. For example:

  • Weeks 1-2: 3 sets of 6 reps (6 RM)
  • Weeks 3-4: 3 sets of 4 reps (4 RM)
  • Weeks 5-6: 4 sets of 3 reps (3 RM)
  • Weeks 7-8: 4 sets of 1-2 reps (2 RM)

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) Pick one training variable and change it up in your current program. Start out with an easy change. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what approach gets you the best results. Is it short rest periods? Heavier weights? Lightsaber training?

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