What are all the training variables?
I know you have hear about about training volume. You have also learned about manipulating heavy weights and light weights, and probably rest periods. But what are all the training variables available to you to optimize your training results? Not only that but how do you now bring all these strength training variables together for your programming design? This is a common question for many so to learn more, you should read on.
Several well-researched methods exist to examine our muscular responses to stimuli. Although you likely are aware of some of these, you may not know them all. There are many ways you can make modifications to continue your growth or get you out of a plateau. This article will lay the groundwork for you to understand what you can manipulate. Each topic below will provide more details on all of these subjects. This way, you can spend time focusing on those that resonate the best with you.
There is no right or wrong way to make changes to your workouts as many of these variables carry their specific benefits. You can certainly also consider changing more than one at a time. Several variables automatically change when you change another. For example, if you lengthen your rest period lengths, your volume should go up. It can also go down based on shorter rest periods used. If you want to understand exactly how you respond to each of these changes, the recommendation would be to change each one separately. You could then assess your results, examine which worked best for you, and continue to progressive overload. Just remember that several of these variables, when modified, will also have an impact on the others.
One of the highest manipulated variables to improve muscle hypertrophy or strength gain is to increase volume. While there are certainly times to reduce volume, those are usually left for periods after overreaching, recovery, or during a deload. This would allow for future periods of stimulus that we normally talk about in increasing volume for additional growth. Volume is expressed as the number of repetitions (repetitions x sets) completed in a workout. While the evidence is still out on exactly how much volume to complete in any given workout session, a general recommendation is between 10 – 20 sets in a week.
What also needs to be contemplated is your actual volume load or sets x reps x load. Not only do sets and reps count toward volume but also does the load used. Over time, workouts favoring higher volumes result in optimizing hypertrophy, so long as you avoid overtraining and injuries. While considering this, gradually increasing volume to fall between your minimal effective volume (MEV) and maximal recoverable volume (MRV) is optimal for your hypertrophy gains.
If you have ever felt that you cannot recover from your daily workouts you should consider modifying training volume down accordingly. Some examples include; you’re sore for days on end, weights are not going up and you cant get unstuck. Volume load is unique to each of us as this is impacted by our; sleep, nutrition, stress, and experience levels. Performing weekly sets to totals between 10 and 20 are ideal but they can be spread out throughout the week. Increased frequency, which is the next variable on the list, addresses this.
Another variable that is commonly manipulated in weight training is training frequency. It is a very useful tool to modify your weekly training volume and programming periodization. While maintaining a target number of 10 – 20 sets per week, you can spread this over 2 or even 3 sessions. This can help improve recovery, reduced soreness (or overtraining), and increase your muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. After completing a certain number of sets, research indicating approximately 10 sets, the quality of your sets begin to significantly degrade.
Increasing frequency and reducing individual workout sets in a given exercise bout can decrease Central nervous System (CNS) fatigue. This will assist in avoidIns exceeding MRV. Modifying training frequency is a great strategy to maintain, or even increase, your current training volume for future gains. All while not adding more work into one individual workout session. Split routines can also be modified to further address training frequency and work performed per muscle group. If you have not tried spreading sets out over multiple workout sessions, you should give this a try.
Likely the second most common variable changed by exercise enthusiasts is exercise selection. This is sometimes done for the mere sake of keeping things interesting. But this can be a great way to improve muscle stimulus. By varying the exercises performed in your resistance exercise, you can target different muscle fibers. The benefit to this is working all parts of a muscle. Your exercise choices help to target different aspects of our musculature, which can, in turn, optimize hypertrophy. Our selection contributes to the degree of hypertrophy for specific muscles by designing a program that can target as many muscle fibers as possible. If you consistently only perform Flat Bench Press and neglect incline pressing, there are muscle fibers you are not targeting. When Lat Pulldowns make up the majority of your back regimen, you are missing out on training a large majority of the 56 muscles in your back.
If you want maximal strength or muscle hypertrophy, you should change your approach and methodically incorporate at least some variety. This does not mean you need to perform side-lunge, dumbbell curls, into a squat jump to make gains. This process entails looking at what exercises you are performing and what are your lacking muscles. This way you can make educated modifications and find other exercises you can incorporate into your training blocks. You can also always keep your main lifts in your workouts so you can track your progress. Considering different exercises for supplementary work is a great approach to improve both hypertrophy and strength. Tracking progress is important to ensure our workout design is performing as intended. Or to make appropriate changes when it is not! Methodically incorporating exercise variety via multi-joint, isometric and machines is likely critical for optimization.
Muscle action Can be manipulated to promote anabolic responses. So what are the different muscle actions;
- Concentric Portion – the action that causes tension in your muscle as it shortens (as you push the barbell up in a bench press).
- Eccentric Portion – the action that occurs when the length of the muscle increases (as you go down in a squat). This is an eccentric contraction.
- Isometric – the action in which the muscle is contracted but no movement is happening.
Our eccentric strength generally exceeds concentric strength. The difference can be anywhere between 20 – 50% and allows you to use heavier loads on eccentric portions of a lift. Why this works as a training variable is because concentric and eccentric portions of a lift both recruit muscle fibers. They Each do this in different ways and stimulate distinct adaptations. There is still much debate on this topic and better research continues to come out. As it does, better recommendations will come on how to incorporate both into your programming. Using both as a stimulus can ideal to maximize hypertrophy. Not only can you manipulate the actions but the time in each action or the Time Under Tension (TUT).
Repetition duration is described as the tempo or the duration of your concentric, eccentric, and isometric portions of a lift. Expressed in 3 digits (2-0-2) the first represents the concentric portion, the second your time between transition (pause), and the third being the eccentric time. The above example represents a 4-second repetition. There are many variations you can incorporate into your workouts to modify adaptations. Tempo can be manipulated and is also determined by the load used and your fatigued state. If all else is equal and you increase the loads you are using, your time under tension will likely be increases during a single repetition.
Pause reps are often used to help with sticking points of a lift. This technique also allows you to train with lower weights and still maximize muscle growth. If you are considering longer eccentric portions, with higher weights, having a partner or spotter is critical. If you want to perform slower repetitions but with lower weights, this is also a strategy you can assimilate into your programming. Research has shown little differences between repetition durations lasting between 1 second and 6 seconds. Combining different times under tension (TUT) could enhance hypertrophic responses. Using lower weights with longer repetitions is also a common practice in injury recovery.
Rest Interval Length
The time you rest between sets, while thought of as a way to either increase reps on your next set by resting longer or shorter periods to get workouts done quicker, is another variable to modify training stimulus. Most rest periods are thought of as being either short, 30 – 60 seconds, moderate – 1 to 2 minutes, or long – 3 minutes or over. It is no surprise that longer rest periods will help you perform more reps. Additional reps means higher workout volume but this is also at a workout duration expense. Manipulating inter-set rest can work wonders on maximizing training intensity and increasing the number of reps performed on future sets. Most research has pointed to ~2 minutes rest as optimal for hypertrophy gains and to strike a good balance on rest, volume completed, and keeping workouts at a modest duration.
According to most resistance training guidelines, putting multi-joint exercises early in your workouts is optimal than performing them later. This is based on the idea that multi-joint performance will be impaired when smaller muscles are fatigued from single-joint exercises. Research has not demonstrated a hypertrophic benefit in controlled studies, up to this point. Meaning, when training for hypertrophy specifically, and not strength, you have flexibility in your exercise ordering. What you should be doing is performing lagging muscle groups first as evidence indicates a hypertrophic benefit going this route.
Scheduling or programming muscles that need more attention earlier in your workouts allows you to expend the highest energy on them. Prioritizing lagging muscles first is also a strategy for new stimuli. If you historically have certain muscle groups that seem to grow no matter what you do, or what order you do them in, you could move these to later in the workout. You could also look to reduce the number of sets on your strengths and increase the muscles that are tougher to grow. We all have our top-performing muscle groups and those that lag and we know what they are. Modifying your muscle group order can be a better way to bring those lagging muscles up-to-par with the rest.
Range of motion
When comparing partial and full range of motion, studies and literature show a hypertrophic benefit for training through a full range of motion. This has been replicated in both upper-body and lower-body muscles and through a large variety of exercises in numerous analyses. This should not be a surprise as muscles are activated differently, throughout a full range of motion wherein a limited range, fewer muscle fibers are activated. Only doing a portion of an exercise movement limits the activation of certain portions of a muscle. There can be benefits to partials, especially for weak points of a lift and to consider shorter ranges.
Full ROM should make up the majority of your sessions but incorporating some partial range of motion can also provide unique benefits. If getting stronger in one portion of a lift could increase your volume or allow you to incorporate an increase in weight, then you should consider incorporating this into your routines. One of my favorite ways to do this over the years has been by performing 21’s. This is an extremely popular biceps exercise. This is where you perform 7 reps in the lower portion of the ROM, 7 reps at the top portion and then 7 reps over the full ROM. Sounds cool right?! Give these a try and see if incorporating this strategy into some other exercises benefit your gains.
Intensity of effort
Exercise intensity during a training bout is certainly something you can manipulate to improve muscle mass and muscle strength and it is typically measured by how close to your 1RM you train. Expressed in percentages of 90% of 1RM or 70% of 1RM, which are some common examples, and there are certainly others and working up to 100% have shown to provide similar benefits, for hypertrophy. While the word is still out on whether training to failure is necessary, studies have routinely shown that training to within 1-2 RIR creates the same results as training to failure. Leaving reps in reserve will not exhaust the muscle and leave reps for future sets of an exercise bout. Training to failure is likely more critical for those with several years of lifting experience to create the stimulus for muscles to respond.
There are multiple ways of manipulating different variables to keep your results moving forward and you should, at some point, try these out. See which ones work best for you and use them more often. This also creates an environment to discover those that work best in helping you reach your goals and with the time you have allocated to your workouts.
You can modify one at a time, incorporate a couple of these or also look at advanced techniques to take your training volume to a new level. You might want to also have some fun and try some new things. Your workouts should work for you and not the other way around. Incorporating some or all of these strategies should help you in those endeavors.
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