March 23, 2014

How To Make Every Set You Do As Productive As Possible

What are you going to do? And, how are you going to do it?

“Productivity can be defined as applying the most amount of effort, to the best of your ability, in the allotted time that you have. Being that time is as precious a commodity as there is, and the one thing you can’t buy, or ever buy back, it’s important to realize that there’s an allotted time in which you have to perform a given task, so it’s of paramount importance to give your absolute all when performing that task, because just going through the motions is the most disadvantageous thing you can do. Often, when you do something wrong the first time, you have to go back and do it right the second time, whereas if you did it right the first time, you never have to do it again. If you want to be successful in any endeavor, you have to realize that you’re going have to give it your absolute all, and put in your heart and soul to any task that you do, no matter how large, or how small that it is, and that you’re going to be the best person you can be while you’re doing it, and that you’re going to do it right. The difference between being successful is doing every single task right, and being unsuccessful is doing it wrong. The ability to break through all mental barriers to get to where you want to be is the difference between being successful, or not. It’s about effort, and doing the activity right and giving it your all through every single task that you do, because time is so precious, so you have to do it right.”

That was paraphrased from a popular motivational video on YouTube, and are words I use as a driving factor in doing everything I do to the best of my ability, and this especially applies to training. More than anything, results are a reflection of effort, and doing things right. While you can get results with effort on its own, irrespective of how you do things, or by doing things right, without putting in your best effort, the combination of the two will yield the greatest return per investment of time.

Don’t quit! You’re already in pain, you’re already hurt, get a reward from it!

I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who strength train fit into the, ‘just going through the motions being the most disadvantageous thing you can do’ category, described in the opening quote. The reason for this is not so much that I don’t think people work hard in the gym, but that I know they don’t. There’s a big difference between putting in what you think is enough effort, and actually giving your all, and even though someone may think they’re working hard, or giving as much effort as they can, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Why do I think this? Because more often than not a set ends when one can no longer perform another concentric repetition. And how is that not giving a full effort, you may ask? Because there are many ways in which a set can be extended, and with just a little bit more effort, you can get a lot more results. Actually, to be fair it’s not ‘just a little bit more effort’, it’s a lot, and it’s hard as hell, but the way I see it is by the time you’re finishing a set, you’re already hurt, and in pain, as your muscles feel as if they’ve been set on fire, so don’t quit there, keep going and get a reward from it!

Time is money

When you put time into something, whether it be a certain activity, or another person, what you’re doing is giving away a piece of your life that you’ll never get back. If view the way you live your life through this lens, it will surely influence not just what you do, but how you do it as well. I mean, why would anyone want to give away a non-refundable portion of their life for a minimal return? (Yet people do, ALL THE TIME)

For me, I know that before I even pick up a weight to perform a set, that if I want to get the most return for my investment of time, I can’t simply stop and put the weight down just because I’m in a little bit of pain. The pain is the starting point, and when the fun begins. I recall Arnold speaking about Muhammad Ali, saying that he (Ali) didn’t actually know how many reps he did, because he only began counting, once his muscles started to hurt/burn.

If you had one shot, to build as much muscle as you ever wanted, in one set, would you capture it, or just let it slip?

Any set can be extended/enhanced with the use of the following methods:

Forced reps – assuming you perform very strict reps, one way to push beyond failure is to use a little body English to help get the weight up when you can no longer perform anymore proper reps. If you start too heavy though, and can’t perform any strict reps, then the whole set is pretty much ‘forced’, and your options to push beyond failure would be any of the following methods listed. For movements where it’s impossible to use a little body English to ‘cheat’ the weight up (ex. squat, bench press), a partner can be used to assist with completing a few more reps. With the assistance of a partner, ‘negatives’ can be used to maximize the use of forced reps by lowering the weight as slow as possible on your own, and then have the partner help you raise it as fast as possible. Entire sets of negatives can be performed as well with the safety of a (good) training partner.

Rest-pause – upon reaching failure you have two options as far as rest is concerned: complete, or incomplete. Complete rest means waiting the full scheduled duration of time until it is time to perform your next set. Incomplete consists of waiting just long enough to tack on another rep, or two, to the last set. There’s no limit to how many rest-pauses you can do following a set either. For example, you could start by performing as many reps as possible, wait 10 seconds and get two more, wait 15 seconds and get another one, wait 20 seconds and get another one, then take 25 seconds, well you get the picture.

Drop sets – every method on this list can be performed using the same weight, except this one. Upon reaching failure, to extend the set, simply put the weight(s) down, take some weight off the bar, or pick up lighter dumbells, or lower the weight on the machine/cable stack, and keep going. There’s no limit to how many drops you can do following a set either. For example, you could start by performing as many reps as possible, drop the weight and perform as many reps as possible again, and continue in that fashion until satisfied (3 drops is hard, 4 is killer, 5 is just plain insanity).

Mechanical drop sets – to be clear, there’s no actual ‘drop’ in weight, but rather a modification to improve leverage which enables you to prolong the set by getting more reps, and increase the volume and time under tension, that the muscle is exposed to. Nearly any exercise can be modified so that more reps can be performed for the same general muscle group without having to set down the weight by simply adjusting the way in which you execute the movement.

1 ¼ reps (double contraction) – the manner in which you perform your reps can be modified as well to enhance the time under tension a certain range of the lift experiences. Generally speaking, if you want to bring up the development of a certain bodypart, or improve performance of a certain exercise, increasing the volume for the muscle, or most challenging range of an exercise, is the factor that will make the biggest difference. By performing a double contraction in the range of the lift that is most troublesome, you increase the amount of volume for the problem area, without adding additional sets on to the workout (which is the greatest contributing factor to overtraining). When no further double contraction repetitions can be performed you can easily switch to performing normal full range reps to prolong the time under tension and get more reps.

Tempo contrast (slow to fast) – this can only be done with a submaximal weight in which you can control the tempo of the concentric. If the weight is too heavy, it will move slow, regardless of how much force is applied, and you don’t have the option to start slow and transition into pushing harder to speed up the tempo. However, you choose a light enough weight, you can start by performing as many reps as possible, as slow as possible, and as you fatigue, start to speed things up. Attempting to lift with more force/velocity will lead to an enhanced level of motor unit recruitment, and therefore assist in performing more reps.

Partial reps – performing a full range of motion is always ideal, but when a full range is no longer possible due to fatigue, continuing the set by performing reps through a partial range can extend the time under tension, and maximize the burn. Hence why these are often referred to as ‘burns’.

Isometrics – upon completion of the last rep, simply hold the weight in place for as long as possible to prolong the time under tension. This is the same as the 3 point isometric, except instead of pausing at three different ranges of motion, you pause at only one (generally the range in which the most tension is placed upon the muscle, which more often than not is mid-range).You could also start a set by holding a much heavier weight in place for as long as you can, and then perform as many full range reps as you can (you may need to reduce the weight if you perform a max duration isometric first though). The benefit to the isometric being performed first is that a heavier weight can be held for longer periods of time than would otherwise be possible.

3 point isometric pauses during the final rep eccentric – muscles are at their strongest eccentrically, followed by isometrically, and then concentrically. This means that, even though you may not be able to ‘lift’ a weight, it does not mean that you can’t hold it in place to prolong the time under tension at the completion of a set, or even lower it slowly. Upon reaching concentric failure, to increase the time under tension, you could hold the weight in place for as long as possible, then slowly lower a few degrees and pause again, and repeat the process as many times as the range of motion will allow. Generally pausing at three different joint angles (start, mid, and end range) is suffice.

Like many of the methods, a single set is not limited to the use of only one method. Depending on your goal, as well as pain threshold, you could chain together several methods on to the end of any set to make your set as productive as possible, the only limitation being your creativity.

Would you like to super size that?

Here is a menu of combinations of the methods above for those looking to take their training to the next level:

Combo #1 – forced reps/partials + rest-pause + drop set
*comes with option to repeat sequence, or tack on a finisher like partials, isometrics, or 3 point isometric before and/or after the drop set

The goal here it to prolong the set as long as possible, then take a brief rest, and keep going. When it’s no longer possible to perform any worthwhile reps, reduce the weight and keep going!

Combo #2 – tempo contrasts and/or double contraction + partials, isometric, or 3 point isometric + drop set
*comes with option to repeat sequence

The goal here is to start by performing reps in the most challenging way, and to prolong the set by tacking on a finisher at the end, then reducing the weight and continuing.

Combo #3 – mechanical drop set + forced reps/partials + 3 point isometric, or isometric
*all methods are performed in sequence before the mechanical change in positioning, with option to repeat sequence

The goal here is to start by performing the set in the most challenging way and prolong the set as long as possible, then make a mechanical adjustment allowing you to keep going.

The goal always is to perform as many reps as possible with the heaviest weight possible, which is why reducing the weight to perform a drop set is usually the last of the methods to be used, but that doesn’t mean it’s less effective by any means. After performing a drop set you’ll always have the option to repeat the entire sequence of methods that preceded it (good luck with that).

The ends justify the means

Aside from death, time is the one thing we all share in that we all have the same amount to work with, regardless of who you are, what you have, or who you know. How you choose to use that time is ultimately up to you, but realize that what you do with that time, and how you do it, will ultimately determine what you get back (return on investment).

When it comes to being productive, and maximizing your time in the gym, realize that you’re already there when you decide to pick up a weight, or perform a certain exercise. Since you’re there anyway, and the exercise you’re about to do will take anywhere between 10-60 seconds, why not give it your all, and attempt to break through all mental barriers? Is stopping when you’re in pain really applying the most amount of effort, to the best of your ability, in the allotted time that you have? Is it worth having to go back and do something right the second time, that you could’ve done right the first time? The pain you feel during a set is temporary anyway, and subsides within seconds of putting the weight down. But you’re ability to push through the pain will be the difference between getting the most return (results) per investment of time (time in which you will never get back anyway).

For the record

Taking a set beyond failure is very demanding, both physically and mentally/neurologically, and therefore the volume of work should be dramatically reduced to avoid overworking the body’s ability to recover. However, because the effort is greater than it would normally be if the set ended at concentric failure, you don’t need to ‘go back and do it right the second time’. Therefore only 3-8 total working sets, divided between 2-3 exercises per bodypart, with enough rest to ensure maximum effort can be put forth for every set, is needed. The total working sets per bodypart can be divided into two (2-4 sets), or three (1-3 sets) weekly training sessions should you choose to train more frequently. Either way, make sure to allow at least 2 non-consecutive days of rest, or you may end up losing time, instead of saving time (which is the whole point of putting forth extra effort), due to the extra recovery needed to recover from the extremely hard work.

If you have any questions about ways in which you can maximize productivity in the gym, feel free to contact 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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