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Developing a Weight Training Program

How Many Reps?
Now that we've established how you should perform each rep, let's examine how many reps you should do in each set. Walking around your local gym, you're likely to hear all sorts of different theories. Odds are that few, if any, are based on fact. Many will be based on refined analytical thinking that goes something like this: Big Bob does sets of 25 for each exercise and he's bigger than anybody else in the joint. That must be the way to go. Or: I read a bodybuilding magazine that said Ms. Olympia never does more than five reps per set, so that's what I do. Again, how big and strong you get is largely a factor of genetics. Just because Bob the Bruiser is as broad as a barn door doesn't mean that you will be, too. In fact, there are guys out there who get big just by looking at a dumbbell rack.

Wander around the gym a little longer and you're also likely to hear another bit of misinformation that goes something like this: Using high weight with low reps builds bulk, but low weight and high reps helps build definition. Sometimes people will even tell you that lifting like that will actually elongate the muscle. Not so!

Here's the scoop. First of all, your muscle isn't going to get any longer by lifting weights – it attaches to a tendon, which attaches to a bone, and that's that. As for the notion that high reps will define or tone your muscles any more than low reps, wrong again. There are just no medical facts to substantiate such a statement. Too many other factors like genetics and nutrition come into play; and besides, it's intensity, not the number of reps, that makes most of the difference.

Where this supposedly correct fact came from, we don't know. Perhaps it derives from the fact that a long set often produces a burning sensation in your muscles – flashback to Jane Fonda in a leotard encouraging you to "feel the burn" – but that's just due to an increase in the lactic acid in your bloodstream, and doesn't indicate that fat is being burned. Muscles look defined when there's a minimal layer of fat covering them. It's as simple as that. So the question remains: How many reps should you do? For most exercises, a range of 10 to 12 repetitions at a three-second, pause, three-second cadence is appropriate. When you can perform more than 12 well-executed reps at a given weight, it's time to up the weight by about 5 percent. The last rep of the set should always be a challenge – a noble effort we refer to as elegant failure.

How Many Sets?
Once again, ask five different so-called experts about the optimal number of reps to do and you're likely to get five different answers. In fact, this question produces quite a bit of controversy; controversy we must add that is based on fiction rather than on fact.

Traditionally, lifters have performed two or three sets per exercise, though often you hear about people doing as many as five or six. However, if you read the copious number of studies on the subject, most of them seem to indicate that one set (yes, one set!) can be just as effective as and far more efficient than doing multiple sets. By effective, we mean that you can get every bit as strong. By efficient, we mean that you can gain that strength in a fraction of the time. If you use that extra time to do your cardiovascular training, to stretch, or to practice your sport, you're upping your fitness quotient twofold.

When Jonathan played junior varsity basketball at Hunter College, he observed many of the varsity players spending several hours a day in the weight room. While they got plenty strong, they also shot a measly 65 percent from the foul line. Those players probably would have been much better served by cutting their lifting time in half and practicing their shooting.

Now, we're not saying that you can't or won't get strong from two, three, or more sets per exercise – of course you will – just that you can probably get as strong from one set, too. Again, whether you do 1 set or 10, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the last repetition of any set should be difficult. That's why it's important to avoid what we call the magic number syndrome. This occurs when people stop at a given number of reps (usually 10, 12, or 15) even though they've got a lot of gas left in the tank. If you reach your tenth rep and you can do another rep or two without sacrificing form or safety, do it. Remember that you're not a Swiss watch but an evolving work-in-progress.


Excerpted from he Complete Idiot's Guide to Weight Training © 2003 by Deidre Johnson-Cane and Jonathan Cane. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide website or call 1-800-253-6476.


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