Recently I found myself unmotivated to finish my workout and missing the days when supersets and 9-mile runs on a Saturday morning were my idea of fun.
Before you start judging me, know that I only get nostalgic like this when I run out of carbs and have to max out a lift on a super hot day. San Diego has felt like a sauna lately and despite being of tropical blood, squatting in the sweltering heat just sucks.
Anyway, as I briefly romanticized training days of yore I thought about all the things we trainees often overlook to achieve optimal results. We argue over cleanses and whether or not kettlebell training is better than barbells or low bar squats are better than high bar when ultimately, these are nuances that don’t really matter all that much to the average person. An Olympic swimmer for example might actually need to care about the angle of his pinkie finger in the water, but for the rest of us, simply learning how to swim is sufficient. However, there are a few key components in training I find are critical for any one at any level. As far as physique changes and more generally, progress is concerned, these four training elements are ones we underestimate (but shouldn’t).
This may seem like the most obvious concept of all but it’s usually the most challenging one to hone in. Doesn’t matter if you’re new to exercise or an experienced athlete. Motivation ebbs and flows for all of us, as does our drive to stay consistent. However, exercise frequency will either make or break our results in the long-run, and is a habit we cultivate for the rest of our lives. The biggest mistake I see among newbies is diving into a new program with the drive and ambition of a coked up cheerleader – overly enthusiastic, dangerously unrealistic and short lived. Training six days a week isn’t necessarily better than a program that calls for three days of training if the former wears you out by day five. You still have to train consistently on either program to achieve results. Some days you’ll get busy, get sick or just have less motivation than others. However, the practice of showing up makes all the difference. There’s no other way around it. Find the kind of program that works with your lifestyle. If you have kids and a demanding career, a 28-day bootcamp that calls for 5-6 days of training may not be the best choice for you. The best program is the one you’ll actually do, and only then can you get better, but you also have to show up.
Volume simply refers to the amount of work done in a training session. Now before you schedule another session into your day, know that training volume is not about how many hours one spends in a single workout, how many reps one cranks out, or how much weight is on the bar. You can easily increase training volume by adding on an extra set or two each week. My personal preference for physique change is anywhere from 3-4 sets one week followed by two weeks of higher volume with 5-6 sets. This can feel very taxing on the body especially when using a lot of compound movements. However, I’ve seen great results in muscle growth and in my physique when I’ve incorporated this amount of volume in my training and I always add a deload week to recover from all the work. Experiment with volume; it’s an excellent way to fast-track results without adding on an extra day of training.
A lot has been written about the power of habits in the past few years. Charles Duhigg’s bestseller (and one of my favorite books ever) ‘The Power of Habit’ explores how habits are formed and how we can change them. However, for the sake of simplicity let’s focus on those habits pertaining to fitness. There are countless good and bad habits that impact our results and our job is to learn which ones make the biggest impact for us as individuals. And like with any new habit, tackling one at a time consistently creates progress. Don’t make the mistake of trying to overhaul every bad habit at once. This is a recipe for overwhelm. If you find yourself unmotivated to hit the gym after work, then experiment with a morning or lunchtime workout for 2-4 weeks. Or if you struggle with eating well, experiment with meal prepping on your own once a week or with a meal delivery service. See how it goes, assess if it’s working for you or not. The point is, our habits can transform our bodies and our lives for better or for worst. If you really want to change your life than look at your habits and start to replace the bad ones with positive, doable habits that you can stick with.
Tempo is a program design variable that references the speed of movement. To get a bit more granular, time under tension (TUT) is a tempo-esq variable that refers to how long the muscle fibers are under strain or mechanical tension from resistance training. A quick Google search on the topic will show you both sides of the debate – the ones that believe it’s crucial for muscle growth and ones that don’t find it as important. Like volume, TUT is another training variable we can manipulate at will. Sometimes it’s great and other times it doesn’t require a ton of focus, but it’s useful enough that I don’t want you to overlook it completely.
Let’s say it takes you four seconds to complete 1 rep of a bicep curl: 2 seconds on the downward phase and 2 seconds on the upward phase. Completing 10 reps at this tempo equals to 40 seconds of work. Studies and experts suggest that the optimal TUT range for muscle growth is anywhere from 40-60 seconds and for muscle strength and power 4-20 seconds is sufficient. It’s a variable, much like the number of reps, sets, and rest time, but not the make or break factor any novice needs to worry about. However, it’s an important variable we can consider to break us out of our rut, hone technique and build muscle or strength. Personally, I prefer to focus on volume over TUT when I train, mainly because I have A.D.D. and forget to count. However, it’s incredibly valuable for two important reasons. One, it forces the individual to slow down and focus on form and technique. This is critical for sloppy lifters who like to bang out a bunch of reps and pump their chest like a rabid gorilla at the end of a set (which by the way, doesn’t actually do anything but make you look like an a-hole). Two, TUT is a great training variable if muscle hypertrophy is like, a thing you’re into. By putting the muscle under greater bouts of strain we can create changes in muscle size without spending all of our time in the gym cranking out reps.