Weight Lifting Routines

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Weight Lifting Routines

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Amount of Sets

The number of sets you perform depends on:

1. Your training experience.
2. The number of muscle groups trained per session.
3. the size of the muscle group being trained.

1. If you are a beginner, you should follow a muscular endurance programme, performing only one or two sets of each exercise and only one or two exercises per muscle group. For example, you could perform one set of bench presses and one set of dumbbell flyes for the chest muscles, and you would train all major muscle groups in your workout, making a total of 15-20 sets. If you are an advanced weight trainer, you can perform more sets of each exercise and more exercises per muscle group. For example, you could perform three sets of bench presses, three sets of dumbbell fires and three sets of incline dumbbell presses for the chest. In this case, you would train only one other major muscle group, making a total of 18 sets in your workout.

2. If you are training only one or two muscle groups in a workout, you will be able to perform more sets than if you are planning to train three or four. For example, if you plan to train your chest and back, you could perform nine sets for each muscle group as shown above, making a total of 18 sets in the workout. If you plan to train your chest, back, shoulders and arms, you would reduce the total number of sets per muscle group to, say, five sets for your chest, five sets for your back, five sets for your shoulders and three sets for your arms, again making a total of 18 sets in the workout. Typically, a workout designed for muscle growth (hypertrophy) would include fewer muscle groups (1-4) than a workout designed for muscular endurance which may include every muscle group. In the latter case, you would perform only 1-3 sets per muscle group.

3. The larger muscle groups (such as legs and back) generally require more sets (e.g. 8-12 for the advanced weight trainer) than the smaller muscle groups (such as arms), which require fewer sets (e.g. 3-8 for the advanced weight trainer) to achieve sufficient stimulation.

Single Sets or Multiple Sets?

There is controversy over the benefits of single set v. multiple set training for achieving maximum stimulation. Some people claim that performing a single set of each exercise produces just as good gains as performing several sets. This opposes the majority of the research, which suggests that you do need to perform multiple sets to achieve the greatest gains, and that only beginners would benefit from single set. For example performing three near-maximal sets without going to failure has been shown to increase strength better than one maximal set going to failure. The discrepancy lies in the quality of the repetitions and the distinction between the warm-up sets and working sets. Advocates of single-set training ignore warm up sets that could be regarded as working sets by the advocates of multiple-set training so it is not strictly single set training. The ultimate aim, however, is to overload the muscles, so wheather you achieve that on your first or tenth set depends on the quality of your set - how strict your form is and wheather you reach true failure.

Rest periods between workouts

Rest between workouts is as important as the training itself. This is when replenishment, recovery, adaptation and growth take place. Let's take a look at what happens.

During and immediately after a workout your body is in a catabolic state (i.e. breaking down proteins) and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are high. As you start to recover from your workout, levels of muscle­promoting hormones such as testosterone gradually rise, the damaged muscle proteins are replaced with new muscle proteins, and glycogen stores are also restored. Clearly, these processes take time. It is only after completion of the recovery process that the muscles can grow and strengthen. If you attempt to train your muscles before the process is complete then you will experience only minimal growth or none at all. In other words, training before you have fully recovered is counterproductive.

The rest period you need to leave between workouts depends on the intensity and duration of your workout, your training experience and your diet.

Training intensity and duration

The greater the intensity of your workout, the longer the recovery time required before your next training session. There is no easy or accurate way of predicting your recovery time between workouts. In the laboratory, scientists can measure the blood levels of muscle metabolites such as 3-methyl histidine and
creatine phosphokinase, but this is clearly not a practical solution for everyday training. Instead, a certain amount of guesswork is required as you have to judge the 'feel' of your muscles. When your muscles have regained their pre-workout capacity - measured by testing your strength - you have probably recovered. Obviously, if your muscles still feel sore, stiff or weak, then they have not recovered. If you find yourself stronger and able to work out harder, then you know your muscles have fully recovered.
In practice, upper-body muscles can recover more quickly from heavy workouts than lower body muscles. Also, it takes longer to recover from compound exercises than isolation exercises.

When does detraining begin?

It is a myth that loss of strength and muscle mass begins within 72 hours of a workout. Since it may take several days for compensation to occur following a heavy workout, it would not be possible for decompensation to begin in this short time. For this reason, many experienced weight trainers train only major muscle groups once a week. Indeed, many weight trainers have experienced dramatic increases in growth using this method.

Training experience

The American College of Sports Medicine recommend that beginners train two or three times a week on non-consecutive days. As you become more experienced and better conditioned, you can increase your workout frequency to four or more times a week.

As a general guideline, beginners should leave a minimum of one day and a maximum of three day's recovery between workouts. Experienced weight trainers will need to leave 3-7 days between training the same muscle group due to the greater workout intensity. However, you can train four or more times a week by using a split routine - that is, dividing your major muscle groups into two or more separate workouts. That way, you can still allow a minimum of three day's rest between training each muscle group.

Your Diet

During recovery, your muscle glycogen stores are replenished (for more information on glycogen replenishment see here) and muscle tissue repaired. The time it takes to replenish muscle glycogen depends on the severity of depletion and the amount and timing of carbohydrate intake in your diet. On average, this takes between 24 hours and three days. You also need to ensure you consume enough protein to provide the raw material for new muscle growth. An inadequate intake will result in slower repair and growth and so your strength gains will be compromised. On the other hand, an excessive intake will not further enhance muscle growth or strength. For more detail on diet, carbohydrates, proteins...go to our Diet and Nutrition section.

Training Intensity

Training intensity serves as the major stimulus for muscle growth in your weight lifting routine. By increasing your training intensity, you provide a bigger stimulus for muscle growth. You can increase the intensity by increasing the amount of weight, amount of sets or repetitions, and the number of exercises, or reducing rest intervals between sets. The exact combination you choose depends on your goals - do you want to gain strength, power, size or muscular endurance? Each requires a different way of training. The table given below gives guidelines for the number of sets and repetitions, weight and rest intervals commonly prescribed for strength, power, muscle size, muscular endurance, and weight lifting training programmes.

Sets, repetitions, weight and rest interval guidelines for different weight training goals.

Training Goal Number of sets/exercise Number of repetitions Weight (% 1RM) Rest interval Training tempo
Maximum strength 2-6 <6 Heavy (>85) 2-5 min 1:2
Power 3-5 1-5 Heavy (75-85) 2-5 min Explosive: 1
Muscle size 3-6 6-12 67-85 30-90 s 2:3
Muscular endurance 2-3 >12 Low (<67) <30 s 2:3

Note: The training tempo is the number of counts for the concentric (lifting) action, followed by the number of counts for the eccentric (lowering) action. Eg - 2:3 is 2 counts concentric, 3 counts eccentric.

Weight lifting for maximum strength

Maximum strength is best developed using heavy weights and low-repetition sets. The consensus guideline is to perform 2-6 sets of 6 or fewer repetitions for the compound exercises. Only 1-3 sets are necessary for isolation exercises. Clearly you should select a weight that causes you to use maximum effort for that set - that is, reach the point of failure on the last repetition (between 85-100% 1RM). Your rest intervals between sets should be 3-4 minutes to allow sufficient recovery. Maximum strength workouts are centered on the compound exercises such as squats, bench presses and shoulder presses.

Weight lifting for power

Power is developed by performing an exercise very quickly or explosively. It can be developed with plyometrics and speed drills, as well as weight lifting exercises. For example, squat jumps and alternate leg bounding (plyometrics), 40 m dashes, shuttle runs (speed drills), power cleans, power pulls or any compound weight-training exercises (e.g. leg press, squat) performed explosively would all be suitable methods of developing neuromuscular activity and power. Power exercises would be suitable for intermediate and advanced weight trainers, Olympic lifters and athletes who use power movements in their particular sport. For example, basket­ball, football, sprinting and most field athletic events (such as the high jump and long jump) involve explosive activities, so power training would benefit your performance.

However, only experienced weight lifters and athletes should use this type of training as it could be dangerous if attempted using imperfect technique by the beginners. It is important that the weight is kept under good control even when it is moved rapidly. The consensus guideline is 3-5 sets of 1-5 repetitions. using moderate (75-85% 1RM), rather than maximal weights. Slightly lighter weights allow you to perform the exercise with maximum speed and therefore generate the greatest power output: output almost doubles when reducing the weight from 100% 1RM to 90% 1RM.

Weight lifting for muscle size (hypertrophy)

Weight lifting for muscle size (hypertrophy) requires a higher training volume compared with pure strength and power training - in other words, more repetitions, sets and a greater cumulative amount of weight lifted per workout. The consensus guideline is a moderate number of repetitions (6-12) and 3-6 sets per exercise performed with a moderate to heavy weight (67-85% 1RM) and short to moderate rest intervals (30-90 seconds). You can expect parallel increases in both muscle size and strength with this type of weight training programme. For overall size development, your programme should be based
around compound exercises that stimulate the large muscle groups (e.g. squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, lat pull-downs), More advanced weight trainers and bodybuilders use 2-4 exercises per muscle group, including at least 1-2 compound exercises, They use a split training system , allowing them to train with high intensity.

Weight lifting for muscular endurance

Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to sustain sub-maximal force over a period of time. This type of training increases the aerobic capacity of the muscles rather than muscle size and strength, and is developed by using a higher number of repetitions (12 or more) per set and minimal rest intervals between sets - typically less than 30 seconds. The weights lifted are lighter and fewer sets are performed per muscle group, usually 2 or 3. Therefore, the intensity is very low and the overall volume is high.

This type of workout is suitable for beginners but also for advanced weight trainers wishing to improve this aspect of their fitness. Most circuit weight-training programmes, which alternate upper and lower-body exercises or opposing muscle groups and limit rest intervals to 30 seconds or less, would promote your muscular endurance.

Fast or Slow?

Perhaps the most important principle for stimulating muscle growth is the time that the muscle is under tension - i.e. the time your muscles are actually working. For example, if you blast a set of ten repetitions as fast as possible, your total time under tention will be just a few seconds. This is not sufficient to cause your muscles to grow, regardless of the amount of weight you lift. Typically, the time under tension should be 30-70 s. Anything more or less would be counterproductive and result in very little gain.

The way to achieve the correct set duration is to adjust your training tempo. Foe Eg, if you are working in relatively low - rep ranges (say, 6-8), you will have to adjust your training tempo - particularly on the eccentric (lowering) part of the movement - in order for that set's time under tension to reach atleast 30s. If you are working in a higher rep - range (say, 10-12), the training tempo should b elittle quicker so that you won't exceed the 30-70s time under tension range.

Pyramid Training

Pyramid training is a form of multiple set training in which the weight is increased in each set and the repetitions are reduced. This allows you to warm up a muscle group gradually, and prepare it over the course of a few sets to cope with heavier weights by the end of the sets - hence allowing the muscles to achieve greater overload, and hence allowing you to develop greater size and strength. Select a weight that will enable you to reach near or complete failure at the end of each set.

Find out more... at our next page which is all about advanced weight lifting routines.

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Guide to Weight Lifting Routines