Sequence and Speed
When doing a series of exercises, you’ll generally want to start with the larger muscle groups and compound movements and work toward the smaller muscle groups and isolation movements. This allows you to do the most demanding moves when you’re the least fatigued. For example, you’re less likely to lose your balance during a lunge if you do the lunges before exhausting the muscles of quads and hamstrings with machine exercises. You’ll use better form on your push-ups if you do them before fatiguing the triceps with presses or kick-backs.
The speed of the movement is also an important element of each exercise. A reasonable training pace is one to two seconds for the lifting (concentric) portion of the exercise and three to four seconds for the lowering (eccentric) portion of the move. Fast, jerky movements should be avoided. They place undue stress on the muscle and connective tissue at the beginning of the movement, substantially increasing the likelihood of an injury. Fast lifting also cheats you out of some of the strength benefits. When lifting at a fast pace, momentum (not the muscle) is doing a good deal of the work.
Sets and Reps
A set is a group of successive repetitions performed without resting. A rep or repetition is the number of times you repeat the move in each set. Therefore, if your instructions were to do 3 sets of 12 (3 x 12) biceps curls, you would curl the weight 12 times in a row to complete the first set. Then you’d put the weight down, rest a moment and do 12 more in a row to complete the second set, and so on until you’ve finished the prescribed number of sets for that exercise.
There have been studies showing similar strength gains from one, two, or three sets. Single set exercises are usually done to the point of failure, meaning to the point where you can’t complete another full repetition. This is commonly referred to as high-intensity training or HIT. Multiple set exercises are usually done with one to three minutes of rest between each set. An advantage of single set training is that it requires less time in the gym. An advantage of multiple set training is that the longer training session can result in higher calorie expenditure.
Resistance and Range
The number of repetitions chosen for each exercise depends on the amount of resistance (weight) you’re using. Maximum resistance is the most weight you can lift with proper form one time. In general, most people can complete 6 repetitions with 85% of their maximum resistance, 8 repetitions with 80% of maximum resistance, 10 repetitions with 75% of maximum resistance, 12 repetitions with 70% of maximum resistance and 14 repetitions with 65% of maximum resistance. Training with more than 85% of your maximum resistance increases the risk of injury, and training with less than 65 percent of maximum resistance decreases strength gains. So, a safe and productive training recommendation would be 8-12 repetitions using 70% to 80% of maximum resistance.
Full range of motion is an important component of proper form. Each exercise should be taken through the complete range of joint movement in a slow controlled manner, with emphasis placed on the completely contracted position. If a weight is so heavy that you have to jerk, bounce or swing to get it to the top of the movement, it’s too heavy. Your form is compromised. Full-range of motion movements contract and strengthen the muscle you’re working (the prime mover) and stretch the opposing (antagonist) muscle. This contributes to both muscle strength and joint flexibility.
Progression and Frequency
Progressive resistance is the key to any well designed strength program. This means that as your muscles adapt to a given exercise, you need to gradually increase the resistance or the repetitions to promote further gains. You should start out with a weight that allows you to do at least 8 repetitions of a particular exercise. Once you can complete 12 repetitions with that weight, you increase the weight by about 5 percent. Now, you’re doing 8 repetitions with the slightly heavier weight. Once you’ve worked up to 12 repetitions with the heavier weight, you increase it by another 5 percent (or no more than 10%) and go back to doing 8 repetitions. The idea is to keep alternately increasing repetitions and resistance, so that you continue to see results.
Increases in muscle size and strength don’t occur while you’re training, they occur during the rest period between workouts. This is when your muscles recover and rebuild, gradually becoming bigger and stronger. The recovery process takes at least 48 hours. For this reason, strength training sessions should be scheduled no more frequently than every other day. If you prefer to train more often, you should avoid hitting the same muscle group on consecutive days.