One of the reasons why the human race has been so successful is because we are good at making life easier for ourselves. We invented farming in order to have food more readily available. We created houses to keep us safe and warm at night. We created cars to get us from A to B easier, and washing machines to do our washing for us. Our natural instinct is to make everything as easy as possible, conserve energy, and minimise effort.
This instinct also applies to our workouts. Sometimes a client will perform an exercise incorrectly even though they know how to do it properly. Ever found yourself arching your back to crank out that last repetition of an overhead shoulder press? That is your body doing all it can to make the lift easier and achievable.
Rather than approaching an exercise with the idea of it being a set number of reps which you have to perform as easily as possible, you should approach it as a set number of reps in which to fail! You should try and make the exercise as hard for yourself as possible. After all, you do not get results from completing a magic number of repetitions; you get results from exhausting the muscle to failure. This is particularly important for building muscle and/or reductions in body fat.
Most people will have the mind-set of doing all they can to make the 12 reps as achievable as possible: whether it be by going faster or using the wrong muscles to assist. Instead, they should look at it as having 12 reps to reach failure. If you found the 12th rep comfortable then the set was not effective. In fact it could be argued that 11 reps with a failed 12th rep is better than 12 completed reps, as the first scenario showed that you really pushed yourself.
In order to make each rep as difficult as possible (and therefore as effective as possible), there are two key but often under used techniques:
Time Under Tension
A tip to maximise the benefits of each rep is to adjust the tempo. Unless you are training specifically for power, many gym goers are guilty of lifting too quickly, therefore robbing their muscles of valuable stimulation. The more time the muscle is under tension, the harder it has to work.
Consider this: you lift an 8kg dumbbell once out in front of you and hold it there for one second. This would stimulate your muscle far less than if you were to hold it out in front of you for 4 seconds despite the number of repetitions being the same.
Moving quickly takes advantage of using momentum which takes the strain off the muscles (and in many cases puts it on to the joints, tendons and ligaments). The harder the muscle works, the more damage is caused to that muscle. As a result, the muscle has to work harder to repair, thus increasing your metabolism post session – ideal for fat loss.
So what tempo should I use? There is no magic number and you can experiment with different tempos. Your trainer should usually guide you as to what tempo to use, but normally it is something like: 1 second lift, 1 second pause/contract, then 2 seconds lower.
Going back to creating as much stress to the muscle as possible in order to maximise results (without causing injury!), you should aim to contract your muscle(s) with each rep. Try this: stand up and imagine you are holding a pair of dumbbells by your side. Perform 10 slow reps of bicep curls but keep the arms as relaxed as possible. Easy? (If not please sack us!). Now try another 10, but imagine you are lifting the heaviest weights possible. With each lift squeeze and contract your muscles as hard as you can as if you are showing off your biceps on the beach! Go slow. I bet after 10 reps the arm is feeling a little more tired and ‘pumped’. Now imagine if you used this technique with real weights. Your muscles would be far more fatigued than usual. Contracting your muscle(s) will cause far more fatigue and damage, causing them to need more energy and calories to repair post session. For those wanting to build muscle and/or lose fat, this is an absolute must.
Client A squats a 50kg bar for 10 reps. With each rep he almost drops down and ‘bounces’ quickly back up. Each rep takes about 1 second so the muscles are under tension for 10 seconds in the set. Client B squats a 45kg bar for 10 reps. She spends 2 seconds coming down, pauses at the bottom for 1 second whilst squeezing her quads and glutes; then controls it back up, taking 1 second. Each rep takes 4 seconds meaning her muscles are under tension for 40 seconds per set. Despite lifting less weight, client B has fatigued her muscles much more and has put less strain on her joints. If performed correctly you may find yourself reducing your weights by up to 70%. It may not look so impressive when you are lifting smaller weights with a slower tempo whilst maximising the contraction and it is even going to be much more painful. However, you will get more out of it in the long run and your joints will thank you!