Another monster topic…raaaawwwwrrr!
Workload is the amount of work you do on both a smaller scale and larger scale, short-term and long-term. Work can be measured within an exercise, a workout, weekly training, a monthly program, etc. Don’t worry because you can leave this up to your coaches. There are dozens of variables outside of exercise that affect workload. The number of days you train, workout volume, your sleep, your nutrition, your goals, exercises within the workout, your lifestyle, you training outside the gym, and so on. Ya, it’s a lot, perhaps infinite.
In this lesson we will concentrate on the workload within the workout; sets, reps, load, and rest. These are the variables that are easiest to control and are usually pre-determined. Workload in a workout takes into consideration the effects of the entire workout on the body, not just certain exercises. We could get very detailed and scientific about the effects of reps, sets, load, and rest periods (perhaps over drinks). That’s because it is science…and a lot of it.
Number of Reps
Reps are very important for a workout in determining how your body will respond physiologically to an exercise. Changing the reps can drastically change the exercise. An optimal amount of reps per exercise is about 15-24 total reps split-up into multiple sets based on training goals.
- Power (strength plus speed or max force in a short time): 1-6 reps.
- Strength (max force production): 1-6 reps.
- Hypertrophy (muscle mass): 8-12 reps (recommended for most); requires 3 or more exercises within a workout targeting the same muscle groups. Our programs meet this requirement, but keep this in mind if you are building your own workouts.
- Muscular Endurance (work capacity): 15+ reps.
- Aerobic (oxygen efficiency): If you are trying to build up your aerobic capacity, do longer duration activities of any kind that challenge your need for oxygen.
These rep ranges are not absolute, but use these numbers as guidelines to keep you working towards your desired outcome. There is some crossover and each will affect the other (e.g. having better muscular endurance improves your capacity for fighting fatigue during strength sets, being stronger improves your power, and every exercise will challenge you aerobically to some extent). Keep the reps in a workout as-is until you understand what changing them does.
Number of Sets
Let’s keep this super simple for now. 3 sets is the standard because that’s what research since World War II determined as optimal for the body to show positive changes. It has proven to be true since.
- For new lifters (or back from hiatus), we only do 2 sets for the first 2 weeks.
- For strength and power exercises that have lower reps, we will increase the sets to get more volume (i.e. 5x3 to get 15 total reps).
- Bodybuilding has a wide variety of sets; the typical 3-4 sets, 10 sets for German volume training, and many other endless combinations for you to explore on your own (ok, we may show you some).
- Countdown Sets - Start with 10 reps (or any #) of an exercise, then do 9, then 8, and so on.
- Pyramid Sets - Start with 1 rep, then do 2, then 3, then so on until you reach a certain number, then count back down.
There are infinite combinations of sets and reps out there, but regardless, the goal of sets and reps is to stimulate changes in the body.
Now onto our favorite topic, lifting heavy. Don’t be scared, heavy is relative. Load refers to the weight used (i.e. 20 lb. dumbbells) or the amount of resistance and will vary wildly from person-to-person. Your body will be far more likely to transform when selecting the appropriate load. Load selection is an important skill in strength training, but it’s not difficult.
For the first few weeks of training, your muscles, joints, connective tissue, and nervous system need to adapt to any new exercises or stresses. The connective tissue (tendons & ligaments) takes longer to adapt than muscle tissue so there’s no hurry to go heavy, there will be plenty of that in the future. You’re going to be noticeably stronger workout to workout.
Load Selection Guidelines
- Load should be dictated by reps. In other words, adjust the load so you lift the desired number of the reps. Remember that changing the reps changes the outcome.
- Choose a load that allows you to have 1-2 reps left in the tank. For example, if an exercise calls for 8 reps and you can only do 6, it’s too heavy. If a you can do 11 or more, it’s too light.
- If you do a set and it’s too easy, do not count it (you’re here to workout right?).
- If form is bad, the weight is too heavy. Every rep no matter how heavy should look just as good as a warmup rep. Getting hurt is not being strong.
- Beginners or New Exercisers: To determine load with no history or record of previous lifts, do a light, medium, and heavy set to try and find the optimal weight.
- Record your weights, at the very least, for the most important lifts. In time you’ll decide what’s import to record and what is not.
- Try to increase load by 5-10% each week until you can no longer sustain this. If you can’t increase the load, then increase reps.
- Load and reps are inversely related. As you progress thru a program, if reps go up, load may go down. If reps go down, load should go up.
Just to give you an idea of the complexity of program design, we consider volume too. For example, if I do 3 reps at 300 lbs. that’s 900 lbs. of volume. By the end of a workout you may have lifted thousands of pounds. Don’t worry about this though, just keep improving.
Ego Alert: Be sure to keep your ego in check. You don't always need to go heavier. Nobody cares how much weight you can lift so don’t risk doing too much when you’re not ready for it. Be patient and don’t underestimate the effectiveness of adding just 1 lb. to an exercise.Progress is progress. Consider that if you added only 5 lbs. a month, that’s a 300 lb. increase in 5 years and 600 lbs. in 10 years. This would likely put you on the world stage as an elite lifter.
For the bigger lifts, we can determine our weight based on how many reps we have done or how much weight we’ve lifted in the past. Rather than guessing, get a precise number. To do this we use our Load Calculator. We love this tool. It’s shockingly accurate and keeps you on track to increasing your numbers as well as for programming and choosing the proper load to lift in upcoming workouts
How to Use the Load Calculator - Lets say you lifted 200 lbs. for 6 reps last week. This week you have 3 reps but you aren’t sure what weight to lift. On the Load Calculator you would go the 6 rep column, find 200, then move over to the 3 rep column and see your weight is 217. You decide to lift around 215-220. You can also see that your current 1RM is about 235.
This is a 1-Rep Maximum. In other words, it’s the most you can lift for a single repetition. Outside of competition, it’s mostly about ego, but we’ll admit it’s exciting to know how strong you are. We test 1RM monthly in our intermediate and advanced programs. A truly maximal 1RM is very taxing on the muscles and nervous system. Testing your 1RM should be done under the guidance of a professional unless you are an advanced lifter. Side note, a good coach can improve a lifters 1RM without ever having them lift at maximal levels.
How to know if the weight is too heavy - If your form is bad, you have to strain, it hurts, or the weight doesn’t move, then it’s too heavy. It’s normal and inevitable that some days you’ll be stronger than others. Some days you have to go lighter. No big deal, do what you can. It can be a fine line between too heavy and just heavy enough.With experience, you’ll learn the proper weight to use. Remember to use the rep count to guide you and don’t let your ego infect your choices.
There’s a lot of science behind rest. We’re only talking about rest during the workout here. Most people don’t need to think about it. Just rest as needed or follow these simple guidelines:
- Rest at the end of a set.
- Don’t overthink it, go when you can go.
- Higher intensity requires more rest so if you don’t require rest then you’re probably not training at maximal levels.
- Strength & Power (less than 8 reps) rest 90s-3min on average. 5 minutes is optimal for training at near maximal loads, however, that is not an efficient use of time for workouts
- Hypertrophy & Fat Loss (more than 8 reps) 30-60s, but keep it to 90s-2min- This timeframe is shown to boost growth hormone and testosterone and provide a metabolic effect.
- A workout timer or stopwatch is a very effective tool for timing your workouts or rest periods and it keeps you from getting too much rest. Recommended: Seconds Pro App $4.99.