December 19, 2010

Everything You Need To Know About Loading Parameters So You Can Create Your Own Program Specific To Your Goal

Anyone who strength trains does so with the hopes of promoting a specific response whether it is to increase strength itself, build muscle, burn fat, or any combination in between. And while each of those qualities can be developed to some degree by simply ‘working out’, to get the best response, or adaptation, in relation to the goal in the shortest amount of time possible, the loading parameters ought to be adjusted accordingly. The primary parameters in question, to which all decisions regarding program design are made, are: Tension, Reps, Tempo, and Rest.

These parameters are meaningless however, if there is no specific end result to which they are tied to. Therefore, the first thing one ought to do is have a clear and concise idea of the adaptation they desire to take place before the loading parameters used to design a program can be set.


The first parameter to which all others are based off of is tension, as it is the time under tension which dictates the training effect, NOT the amount of reps that are performed during a set, like everyone thinks. If you look at the amount of reps per set on a continuum, it’s not uncommon to associate specific strength qualities with certain rep ranges, an example looking like this:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11 – 12 – 13 – 14 – +15

Strength/power – 1-5 reps
Functional hypertrophy – 6-8 reps
Non-functional hypertrophy – 9-12 reps
Strength-endurance – 13-20 reps
Endurance-strength – +20 reps

In most cases the strength qualities that are linked to specific rep ranges are fairly accurate (assuming that the weight used makes you reach failure at a given rep bracket), but if time under tension (the amount of time it takes to perform the prescribed amount of reps for a given strength quality) isn’t taken into consideration, then solely using reps as a way of developing a specific strength quality is extremely flawed. Because load and time under tension are inversely proportionate (high load = shorter time under tension, low load = longer time under tension) it’s important to take the tempo in which the reps are performed into consideration when selecting a rep bracket.

For example, according to the rep brackets above, performing between 1-5 reps is best suited for those looking to increase strength without building muscle, while performing between 9-12 reps is more geared for those training for hypertrophy with no desire to gain strength. Generally a weight that can be lifted 9-12 times is significantly lighter (below 80% of maximum) than a weight in which only 1-5 reps can be performed (above 85% of maximum). But, what a lot of people don’t realize is that a weight that can be lifted 9-12 times in a traditional quicker tempo cannot be lifted 9-12 times at a much slower tempo, and if one were to deliberately reduce the tempo in attempt to keep the muscles under constant tension due to the positive hypertrophic effects associated with such training, they may only end up with 1-5 reps (depending on how slow they were executing the movement). Based on the rep brackets above, this would suggest that a different adaptation than the one desired would be developed (assuming hypertrophy was the goal, not strength, based on the relatively lighter weight used to reach failure at the desired rep bracket), but this just isn’t the case, and is why tension is paramount, and which all other loading parameters are built around. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to link specific strength qualities to duration as opposed to reps, an example looking like this:

0 – 10 – 20 – 30 – 40 – 50 – 60 – +70

Strength/power – 1-20 seconds
Functional hypertrophy – 21-30 seconds
Non-functional hypertrophy – 31-40 seconds
Strength-endurance – 41-70 seconds
Endurance-strength – +71 seconds

When you look at strength training through this lens, you see that 1 rep performed for 30 seconds, or 15 reps performed for 2 seconds a piece (or any of the other possible combinations that result in 30 total seconds of tension), with the exact same amount of weight (assuming you reach failure with a given weight at 30 seconds of tension, regardless of how many repetitions are performed), will place the targeted muscle group(s) under the exact same amount of time under tension, and therefore have a nearly identical effect on the end result.

Reps & Tempo

Only once you know how long your muscles need to be under tension for, based on the desired adaptive response, can you begin to assign rep brackets and coinciding tempos that align with your goal.

For example, let’s say you want to increase strength without promoting increases in bodyweight. You now know a weight that doesn’t allow for more 20 seconds of tension per set is best. The math is simple after that as 20 seconds of tension can be broken down into one single 20 second rep, two 10 second reps, three 6-7 second reps, four 5 second reps, or five 4 second reps. Mathematically you could keep the progression going, but the more reps you can perform at a faster pace, the greater the likelihood that the weight isn’t heavy enough to optimally promote the desired adaptation (although there are significant benefits to perform low reps with a relatively light weight, and executing them with an explosive tempo, which is something powerlifters frequently employ into their weekly routines, known as the dynamic effort method).

It is worth noting that the rep bracket you decide to work within is the variable that the body adapts to the fastest and therefore is the variable that needs to be changed the most frequently ensure optimal progression.

As far as tempo is concerned, it’s a variable that can really help identify if, or when, an adjustment is needed to be made within a training session. For example, the speed in which each rep is completed within a set can help gauge whether or not you using the right amount of weight given your desired outcome. If the last few reps are total grinders, than you may have been a little too wishful with your load selection, but on the flip side if the last rep is a total breeze than maybe you should’ve selected a load that provides a little more of a challenge (unless performing dynamic work mentioned above).

Tempo can also be used as a way of quantifying progression in that, if you perform the same amount of reps, with the same amount of weight, but you do it faster (assuming strength/power is the goal), then obviously you have progressed. You could also look at it as, if you perform the same amount of reps, with the same amount of weight, but intentionally take longer to complete the set (assuming the goal is to prolong the time under tension), then you obviously have progressed as well.

The tempo in which a repetition is performed can also influence muscle activation as each type of muscular action (concentric, eccentric, and isometric) has a different motor pattern in which the level of recruitment varies. This is especially important to understand if maximizing results is in your best interest. For example, extensor oriented muscles that shorten in response to pushing a weight away from the body respond more favorably during the eccentric portion of compound movements (presses, squats, etc). Therefore, to maximize muscular breakdown and produce the best result as far as hypertrophy or strength is concerned, it’s to your benefit to slowly lower the weight during the eccentric of extension oriented compound movements. Also, the heavier the weight is, the slower the eccentric action should be, regardless of the exercises, to maximize stability and thus force generation, while reducing the risk of injury.

Flexion oriented muscles that shorten in response to pulling a weight closer to the body respond more favorably by holding the weight as close to the body and getting a good isometric contraction when performing compound movements (pulldowns, rows, etc). Therefore, to maximize muscle activation and produce the best result as far as strength or hypertrophy is concerned, it’s to your benefit to squeeze your muscles as hard as you can in the fully contracted position and hold for a second or two when performing flexion oriented compound movements.

For most isolation movements, like leg extensions or calf raises, it’s just as beneficial to control the eccentric, and focus on getting a good isometric squeeze at the peak of the concentric range of motion regardless of whether or not the primary muscles involved are extension, or flexion, oriented (as long as the muscle remains under tension at the end of range).

In terms of the concentric action, regardless of the nature of the exercise, the tempo will determine how much of which muscles are activated, especially in regards to compound movements in which multiple muscle groups are involved. Obviously if the weight is heavy enough there will only be one tempo (slow), along with maximum muscle fiber recruitment, but if the weight is light enough in which the tempo can be deliberately controlled, you can perform exercises either faster or slower to ensure specific muscles are under greater, or lesser, levels of tension.

Not only are motor units recruited as needed, but muscles, in terms of which ones are activated and when, follow a hierarchy as well in that, if multiple muscles are responsible for producing movement at the same joint, the smaller ones will take on the brunt of the load unless the demand calls for the larger ones to get more involved.

Bicep/arm curls are a prime example of how tempo alters which muscles take on a greater percentage of the load during the curl. While bicep/arm curls do involve the biceps (no surprise there), the brachialis and brachioradialis are also responsible in flexing the arm, although the extent of which is dependent on the tempo of the movement. The faster the intent is to lift the weight, the more that the bigger and stronger biceps will contribute to the movement. The slower the weight is lifted, the less demand there is for the bigger and stronger biceps to contribute, and therefore as a result the smaller brachialis muscle will take on the brunt of the load. This is an example of how the body will always choose the path of least resistance, and how muscles are recruited as needed, which tempo greatly influences.

Worth noting as well is that slower tempos allow tension to remain constant which forces a greater amount of fast twitch fibers to activate at the expense of the slow twitch fibers, due to a lack of oxygen being available to them which they need to contract. So even though the biceps take on less of the load when deliberately curling slow, you can at least ensure that the fibers that are active are of a fast twitch nature by making sure that the tension remains constant.

Here are some practical examples of prescribed tempos using the example above to preferentially recruit the biceps, or the brachialis respectively, by performing the exact same exercise (arm curl), with the exact same amount of weight, for the exact same total time under tension, but yet promoting a different response.

Biceps dominant arm curl parameters:

3 x 4 w/60% of max, 2-0-2-0, 60s rest

Brachialis dominant arm curl parameters:

3 x 12 w/60% of max, 10-0-2-0, 60s rest

*Tempo prescriptions generally consist of 4 numbers, the first representing the prescribed duration of the eccentric contraction, the second representing the duration between the eccentric contraction and the concentric contraction, the third representing the prescribed duration of the concentric contraction, and the fourth representing the duration between the concentric contraction and the eccentric contraction.

The difference between both examples above is that in the bicep dominant example the prescribed eccentric tempo is much quicker (2 seconds) in comparison to the brachialis example (10 seconds), but other than that are identical as the concentric recommendation is the same for both, and there should be no stoppage between the eccentric and concentric portions of the rep. This highlights more than anything why it is crucial to consider tempo when designing a program, and how performing the exact same exercise, for the exact same time under tension, can result in a different outcome.


While tension is the determining factor to which all other parameters are based on, it’s the rest intervals that ultimately determine whether or not the training effect is maximized. Too much rest and the effect is lost. Too little rest and performance is compromised.

Aside from the immediate effects that rest intervals have on a training session, they can also be used to quantify progression. For example, by performing the same amount of work in less time, or a greater amount of work in the same amount of time, it is obvious that progression has been made.

If the goal is to increase strength/power, which is generally done by performing as much work as possible with the heaviest weights possible, the rest between sets should be long enough to allow the nervous system to recover so that efforts can be repeated successfully. If the goal is to stimulate growth/burn fat than incomplete rest intervals will more effectively increase the metabolic demand on the muscles. If the goal is improved physical preparedness for a specific sport the rest interval should mimic the amount of rest provided in that sport, or even slightly less so that the sporting event is less physically exhausting by contrast.


Regardless of your goal, the body adapts to each of the parameters over a period of time, which is why they should be changed as the body habituates if long term progression is the goal. Generally the parameters are adjusted to expose the neuromuscular system to phases of high intensities, or high volumes of work, and alternated in that fashion, examples of each are below:

High intensity emphasis, AKA intensive parameters


3-4 x per week per exercise/movement for strength
2-3 x per week per muscle group for hypertrophy


Up to 20 seconds per set but generally no more than that


1-5 reps (above 85% of maximum, ideally between 90-100%) for strength
4-6 reps for hypertrophy (80-90% of maximum)

Number of exercises

1-2 (doing the same exercises over and over will maximize neural adaptation of the movement selected)


3-6 per exercise
10-12 total sets

Rest Interval

3-5 minutes (100% neural recovery, 100% metabolic recovery) for strength
2-4 minutes for hypertrophy

Note: Repeated efforts with high intensities will generally produce the greatest testosterone response.

High volume emphasis, AKA accumulative parameters


1-3 x per week per exercise/movement for strength
1-2 x per week per muscle group for hypertrophy


20-40 seconds for strength
40-70 seconds for hypertrophy


6-8 reps for strength (75-85%)
6-12 reps (below 85% of maximum, ideally between 70-80%) for hypertrophy

Number of exercises

2-3 per session if training 2 muscle groups in the same session, up to 4 if only training one muscle group


2-4 per exercise
6-9 total for strength
9-12 total for hypertrophy

Rest Interval

2-4 minutes for strength
30-90 seconds, but as high as 180 seconds (50-90% metabolic recovery, 33-66% neural recovery) for hypertrophy

Note: Repeated efforts with minimal rest will increase lactate build up and as a result generally produces the greatest growth hormone response.

The examples above are just that, examples. They are generalized at best, although they provide a good starting point for anyone looking to put together their own program to build a combination of size and strength. Those with a very specific goal may have a completely different looking set of parameters. For example, those training to maximize motor learning will benefit from a greater training frequency, albeit at a much reduced volume, an example looking like this:

Performance/functional parameters


2-6 x per week per muscle group

Intensity and tempo

Above 85%, slow tempo as a result of the heavy weight
45-65%, explosive tempo
10-25% ballistic tempo (project source of resistance into the air)

Number of exercises

2-4 exercises


5-25 reps per exercise per session
30-45 per week in the 95-100% range
45-60 per week in the 90-95% range
60-75 per week in the 85-90% range

Rest Interval

3-5 minutes rest (limit rest with athletes to mimic sport and teach concept of producing force while fatigued)

Note: Whole body, or upper/lower splits are ideal to accommodate for the frequency needed to maximize performance. Also, due to the increased frequency in which the same muscle groups are trained, the risk of overtraining is elevated which is why the amount of reps performed per week, per exercise, should be kept under control based on intensity, and the same range of intensity should never be performed for consecutive sessions.

On the other end of the spectrum you have those who have no desire to improve physical preparedness for sport, but simply want to put on muscle mass, regardless of the fact that excessive muscle mass limits athletic performance. Too much muscle mass, coined irrational hypertrophy, is not good for athletes whose sport calls for a constant, intense oxygen supply (because of the capillary compression excessive muscle tissue size causes thus significantly reducing oxygen transport to the muscles). In this case the goal is muscle protein degradation and glycogen expenditure, resulting in protein synthesis/accretion, which is best accomplished with high volumes of work, an example of the parameters looking like this:


1-2 x week per muscle group with 72-96 hours in between

Intensity and tempo

60-85%, slow eccentrics and isometric pauses are used to increase the time under tension

Number of exercises

2-4 exercises


20-40 reps per exercise per session
5-7 reps per set for advanced lifters
8-10 reps per set for intermediate lifters
11+ reps per set for beginning lifters

Rest Interval

1-2 minutes rest, but can go as low as 30-45 seconds

Exercise selection

Different exercises, and where in sequence they are placed during a workout, carry their own set of parameters as well. A typical workout kicks off with one primary compound movement, followed by a secondary compound movement, before moving onto an isolation/auxiliary movement, with the option to finish it off with a remedial movement specifically designed to target a relatively weak area requiring stimulation. In this case it would be foolish to assign the same parameters to the compound movements performed at the beginning of a workout when you are fresh, and the auxiliary and remedial movements performed at the end when you are fatigued. This is why it is acceptable to have a different set of parameters for different exercises, dependent on which and when they are performed. Here are some examples of parameters for each exercise performed in a workout for various goals.

For those training for strength:

1st exercise – 5-7 sets of 1-3 reps
2nd exercise – 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps
3rd exercise – 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps
4th exercise – 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps

For those training for strength and size:

1st exercise – 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps
2nd exercise – 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps
3rd exercise – 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps
4th exercise – 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps

For those training for size:

1st exercise – 4-6 sets of 6-8 reps
2nd exercise – 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps
3rd exercise – 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
4th exercise – 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps

For those training for strength-endurance:

1st exercise – 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
2nd exercise – 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps
3rd exercise – 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps
4th exercise – 2-3 sets of +20 reps

The purpose of having set of parameters to abide by is to ensure that your efforts will drive you closer and closer towards your goal, but at the end of the day, your training sessions should be dictated by your experience in that very moment. Parameters are not set in stone, and just because a parameter suggests a given amount of tension, or reps, or tempo, or rest interval is best suited for your goal, does not mean there will be no benefit in terms of results should you fail to strictly adhere to each and every parameter for every single set/rep. To think that is complete bullshit, so don’t lose sleep over whether or not you lost track of how many reps you performed because you were too focused on counting out the tempo. The parameters are arbitrary and are to be used as guidelines to give you a better idea of how you should be training to promote a desired response, as well as gauge whether or not you need to make adjustments based on your current level of physical preparedness. Use biofeedback and auto-regulate by paying attention to what your body is telling you, while also understanding what your purpose is in the gym. Sometimes you may need more rest, while other times the point may be to perform in a fatigued state, so know what it is you’re trying to accomplish and go from there.

If you have any questions about loading parameters, or how to adjust them to a specific goal, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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