Every gym has them: die-hards who seem to live, eat, and drink in the free weight room. After a while you recognize their faces. Just how many hours do they spend pumping iron? Such fitness zealots might cause you to second-guess your own routine. If these die-hards workout for, say, four hours a day, seven days a week, how often should you workout? The answer to this question might surprise you; relatively infrequent but intense strength training workouts are all that is required.
Novices do many things incorrectly during workouts; improper lifting form, dangerous, explosive lifting, and over-stretching before strength-training workouts are a few infractions. One of the most frequent violations is overtraining. You hear it all the time from strength-training gurus: don't overtrain, it's dangerous. But how can you know if you are overtraining? How often should you visit the gym? How many days of rest should you take between workouts?
The answer might involve a paradigm shift for you. Before you can determine if you are overtraining, you must have accurate records of your workouts. You must know if your body is getting stronger with each workout, or if your performance has stagnated. Unfortunately, it's difficult to determine your performance when using traditional reps and sets to measure your exercise. With a standard routine of three sets of eight reps per exercise, you can only gauge your performance by evaluating how much weight you can lift; are you lifting more now than you lifted last time? If so, in theory, your muscles are becoming stronger. But what if you could zone in on a precise way to measure each muscle group's progress from workout to workout? Would that excite you? It should.
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Measuring precise strength gains lies in a concept called time under load. Logging your time under load for each set of exercise allows you to determine, within seconds, if your muscles are growing stronger, or if your strength gains have stagnated. Determine your time under load by starting a stopwatch at the beginning of a set, performing exercise until you reach muscle failure--the point at which you cannot move the weight another inch--then stopping the clock. The end time on the stopwatch is your time under load. It doesn't matter if you hit muscle failure at the beginning, at the end, or in the middle of a repetition. You don't have to count your repetitions. The number of reps is not important if you lift using a slow, controlled cadence and clock your time under load.
With the habit of logging load times for each set of exercise, you can know if your muscles have grown stronger or if your performance has plateaued. For example, during workout one, you perform the bench press with 180 lbs. and hit muscle failure at 120 seconds. On workout two, after 48 hours of rest and recovery, you lift the same 180 lbs. and hit muscle failure at 124 seconds. It took 4 seconds longer to hit muscle failure during workout two. Therefore, your chest has become stronger; your muscles can handle the same weight, 180 lbs., for a longer period of time -- 4 seconds to be exact.
If you choose to perform more than one set of exercise per muscle group, it is especially important to record load times for the first set of exercise for each muscle group. With these records, you can accurately determine if you are overtraining. Now for the rule of over training: if load times for any two muscle groups decrease two workouts in a row, add a permanent rest day between workouts. For example, if, during workout one, you see a decrease in the load times for both the biceps and the calves; and, after 48 hours of rest and recovery time, during workout two, you see a decrease in the load times for both the triceps and abdominals, it's time to add a permanent rest day between workouts. Your rest and recovery time should increase from 48 to 72 hours.
As your body strengthens, you will gain lean muscle mass. This means there will be more muscle to damage during exercise and, hence, more time between workouts will be required for muscles to fully heal and become ready to lift at optimum performance. Additional rest days between workouts should be permanent. By allowing your muscles to fully heal between workouts, you will see consistent strength gains from workout to workout with limited stagnation.
To sum it all up, when you see those hard-core gym rats lifting for hours and hours in the free weight room, you can rest assured that you are experiencing the same strength gains they so diligently seek with half the time in the gym. The secret lies in tracking your time under load and calculating your body's precise rest and recovery time requirement. This begs the question: what should you do with all that extra time? Try reading a book or going to a movie. Do anything but hamper your strength gains by overtraining your body.
This is only the beginning. Much more information about this and other strength-training subjects can be found in my book, Total Human: The Complete Strength Training System, available at www.totalhuman.com, or wherever good books are sold.
- Craig, Nybo
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