With all due respect and admiration in my heart for all of the lovable, neurotic, OCD, and well-organized gym rats out there, your well-constructed set and rep scheme is killing your gains!
You know who you are. You’ve got your workout notebook filled with meticulously annotated charts and spreadsheets that make you look like a mad scientist taking part in some covert, new-age Manhattan Project as opposed to going to the gym to train.
Don’t get me wrong, recording your workouts can be great when done properly, but following your notes and predetermined set and rep schemes with too much rigidity may be holding you back from making the progress you want.
Here’s the thing – when it comes to making gains in the gym, there is one thing that really matters – OVERLOAD. Overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during training. The principal is about continuously increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system so that you can make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance.
Yes, you need to have a program that makes some sense, good form on your exercises, and a general understanding of muscle groups, etc., but if you’re TOO focused on following EXACTLY what’s written in your little notebook, then you may be failing to provide your body the stress it needs to achieve overload and as a result, halting your own progress.
How many of you get in the gym, get your session lined up for the day, take out your little chart, and do the exact listed exercises at exactly 3 sets of 10 reps or exactly 2 sets of 15 reps etc.? Let’s say you do a machine chest press. You select your weight and do exactly 3×10… but, at the same weight, if you had really pushed yourself, you could have probably done 3 sets of 15 reps or more. At 3×10, you did not achieve TRUE overload. You did not stress your muscles to the point that they must adapt, grow and get stronger. You made them do the same 3 sets of 10 as always, so they probably will not progress the way you want and maybe they’ll just stay the same.
So, what’s the point? The point is, if you’re looking to make progress in the gym, if you’re looking to change your body or get stronger or improve your endurance, then you must challenge yourself. Don’t worry about hitting a predetermined number of sets and reps. If something feels easy, make it tougher. Instead of doing exactly 3×10, give yourself target ranges to shoot for… “Ok, I am going to try to challenge my muscles and try to overload them somewhere between 10-15 reps during this set.” Maybe you’ll get 15 reps before you hit overload; maybe you’ll only hit 12. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you challenge yourself, overload your muscles, and your body will adapt as a result. Also, by pushing yourself in this way, you’ll learn what true overload feels like and you’ll get better at achieving it in the future. (remember: always use GOOD FORM and FULL Range of Motion)
As for your workout notebook? Use it. Write down your numbers AFTER you’ve hit overload. “Ok, today I did 3 sets of the chest press and my muscles were overloaded when I used 30 lbs. I got 15 reps in set 1, 12 reps in set 2, and 10 reps in set 3. (Chest Press 3×15,12,10 @ 30lbs)” So, instead of allowing your notebook to dictate your workout, you’re pushing yourself and achieving overload by the feel of the exercise and then documenting the results for future reference. This can be a great way to progress in the future, to compare workouts based on days, times, mood, nutrition etc, or simply making changes when your workouts no longer provide overload.
For more information on fitness programs at Dedham Health, visit our website.
-Jason L., Exercise Physiologist at Dedham Health