There are many factors to consider when programming a training plan for a client or personal use. Generally, newer gym-goers will stick to the 2-4 set range with 8-15 reps per set at a moderate-high intensity. This is a great starting point to begin building muscle and strength, although the initial spike in results is not sustainable. At the point when your body adapts to the same routine, it may be time to learn how to progress to goal-specific training.
In order to reach a specific goal through training, it is important to understand how slow progression and adaptation will get you there. Common goals include: balance, endurance, aesthetics (muscle mass or weight/fat loss), strength, and overall power. The manipulation of training variables will translate into different adaptations for specific goals; however, there is an order to these training adaptations, as they intertwine and build off of each other. Therefore, a beginner may experience better results by first building a foundation in order to progress toward their goal.
For the purpose of this article, the focus will be directed toward the variables associated with completing an exercise in each phase. Those variables are listed below:
- Repetition (rep) - the action of one complete exercise movement
- Set - a specific number of reps completed consecutively and without rest
- Tempo - the speed (seconds) at which one rep is completed, usually broken down into 3 phases (numbers)
- Eccentric (1st number) - the phase of contraction involving the elongation of the muscle
- Ex. lowering into a squatting position
- Isometric (2nd number) - the phase of contraction where the muscle length does not change
- Ex. bottom and top of squatting position
- Concentric (3rd number) - the phase of contraction involving the shortening of the muscle
- Ex. standing up from a squatting position
- Intensity - percentage of weight in relation to one’s 1RM, or maximum weight one can lift in a single repetition
- A contributing factor in the determining reps performed in each set before exhaustion
These stages are based on guidelines composed by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and may vary slightly depending on the organization.²
Similar to building a house, the foundation is everything. Stabilization endurance is also known as the proprioception training phase.² The objective of this phase is to correct exercise form and increase muscular endurance, while progressively working toward exercises with less stabilization. Building stability and proper form will prepare the body for movements specific to performance, as well as higher loads endured in later phases.
- Sets: 1-3 sets
- Reps: 12-20
- Tempo: 4-2-1
- Intensity: 50-70% 1RM
After developing proper lifting mechanics, it’s time to add a little more weight to the mix. This phase will act as a smooth transition from endurance training to strength training. It is meant to acclimate the body to higher loads and volume, while continuing to work stabilization. Supersets are commonly used here to incorporate the two types of training. Higher intensity and volume with lower rest intervals in this phase prove effective in those looking to burn more calories and shed some extra pounds.
- Sets: 2-4
- Reps: 12-15
- 2-0-2 strength exercises
- 4-2-1 stability exercises
- Intensity: 70-80% 1RM
This phase is geared toward building muscle mass. At this volume and intensity, the muscles will undergo enough acute stress from tension and metabolic byproduct buildup that it will be forced to adapt to the stress. During recovery, symptoms of DOMS signal damaged muscle in need of repair. With proper recovery and nutrition, the muscle fibers will grow in size to withstand stressors that caused the damage initially. To put this into perspective, think of pulling a car with a string (smaller, untrained muscle) as opposed to a thick rope (bigger, trained muscle). The string is more susceptible to breakage under tension; therefore, the muscle will respond by growing into the ‘rope’ that can handle the tension with more efficiency. That being said, bodybuilders will typically hover in this training stage in order to transform their muscles aesthetically.
- Sets: 3-5
- Reps: 6-12
- Tempo: 2-0-2
- Intensity: 75-80% 1RM
Simply having muscle does not mean that a person is strong, however, the two do coincide.³ As previously mentioned, muscle hypertrophy builds the size of the muscle fibers, enabling them to handle higher loads. Strength training works on a neuromuscular level by training the ability to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible during a contraction.⁴ Imagine two cars with two thick ropes (muscle fibers) attached: car A (untrained muscle) and car B (trained muscle). Car A has one person pulling a rope, while car B has 2 people pulling both ropes. Car B will have an easier time moving (lifting the weight) than car A simply due to the amount of people recruited to pull the ropes. Therefore, strength training helps recruit more muscle fibers to pull the weight; thus increasing strength.
- Sets: 4-6
- Reps: 1-5
- Tempo: Fast, but controllable
- Intensity: 85-100% 1RM
Training for power is commonly thought of as specific only to athletes. Although training for explosive strength is a huge part of athletic training, this phase is also appropriate for functional movements that we perform on a daily basis. Training for power typically involves decreasing the weight in order to train for speed. With training, muscles will adapt to contract faster and at higher forces.
- Sets: 3-6
- Reps: 1-10
- Tempo: explosive speed
- 85-100% 1RM for strength
- 30-45% 1RM for power
Learning progressions are an important part of reaching any goal. Building a foundation in proper form, balance, endurance, metabolic efficiency, and muscle fiber size/recruitment, will make it easier to adjust training, reach future goals, and reduce risk of injury. Sets, reps, tempo, and intensity are just some of the factors contributing to an athlete’s programming; but it’s a good place to start for beginners.
To reiterate, these are guidelines inspired by the National Academy of Sports Medicine.² It is important to note that results are a combination of many factors expanding further than sets, reps, tempo, and intensity. If you are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of your training, be sure to seek advice from a trained professional. Professionals have extensive training and knowledge of various training models that may better suit athletes at an advanced or elite level.