Walk into any fitness facility in any part of the world, and inevitably if you see a trainer working with a client, part of the workout will consist of the trainers standing there counting. “One, two three” or “four more, three more, two more, last one!” I joke with my clients that trainers are the only people who can count to fifteen better than any kid watching Sesame Street. Now, here’s a little tidbit for those of you that see this all of the time, and it might just open your eyes into something that will make you rethink exercise.
The amount of reps doesn’t matter.
I know immediately I’ll have a bunch of weightlifters jumping on my head who will say things like “what about power training?” “8-12 reps is for hypertrophy and 15-20 reps is for endurance” and similar things. While it is true that different rep ranges bring forth different types of stimulation, it has little or nothing to do with the actual rep range – it has to do with the load in question and the fibre type of the individual in question. And this has been backed up in studies, unlike many of the lifting myths that are out there. I’ll provide some background:
Without getting into too much detail here, Dr. Wayne Westcott (and this has been backed up by others) many years ago presented evidence of 10 different studies that basically all came to the conclusion that high repetition and low repetition training yield the same results in terms of strength gains or muscle gains. People who trained two or three times a week – same results. People who trained for 40 seconds versus people who trained for 80 seconds – same results. Young men doing either 3 sets of 10 reps or 6 sets of 4 reps – same results. 8 reps versus 20 reps – same result. And here’s really the fundamental truth behind the whole thing:
“It doesn’t matter how many you do if they all suck!”
I tell my clients constantly – we don’t train reps – we train CONTROL. I would expect that every rep is as perfect as the first one, and when you lose the ability to control the movement, then we stop because we are likely pushing your body beyond the ability it has at that time to maintain joint control. It’s as simple as that. Our goal is to keep you coming back in a better position than you were before, and your body will adapt over time with appropriate positions, motions, time, effort, and intention. Plus, some days you are going to be able to get that really heavy lift and be able to control it – some days, when you had a fight with your partner, you have two deadlines and work and haven’t eaten or slept – you’re not. It is my job to program things accordingly and make sure we take your body to suntan, not sunburn (like in my previous article). This applies whether you reach 8 reps one set, then 11 the next and then 4 on the next.
This is also why some of the workouts given in workouts like P90x, Insanity and CrossFit are ridiculous. They will ask you to force your body to perform something it lost the capability to do about a dozen reps ago and greatly increase your risk of injury just for the sake of “being hardcore” or “feeling the burn”. This is idiotic for most of the general population. Pushing your body beyond its’ capacity, especially when it is telling you that it is tired by using sloppy form and the myriad of other ways it will tell you it is pushing too hard is irresponsible to your body, not “hardcore”.
For someone like a powerlifter, they are training to lift something exactly once with perfect form. This is why they use really heavy loads because that is what they have to get used to controlling. But for the average gym goer they (hopefully) aren’t looking to lift 400 pounds. Just focus on doing a bit more than you did previously. That’s how gains are made, no matter what you are doing. Runners go up from 30 miles a week to 31. Military people go from 45 pushups to 46. That’s how we make progress and improve. Write it down and focus on trying to do a bit more than you did last time, if your body will allow it.
So to that client, why are we stopping at fifteen? Why are we not stopping at twelve or ten? It’s not like if you do 17 reps you’re magically going to poof into an endurance athlete. And if you can only do 4 you’re not going to become the Hulk. It just means that the load, rest period and intention needs to be a bit different and also appropriate for what you are trying to accomplish as the goal of the exercise.
So next time that you decide to do 3 sets of 10, just think about what I have written first. Take that first set and go until you are tired and can’t control the movement. Once you are tired, stop. If you feel you need to do more to get tired enough, do another set. Figure out what works for your body, not what someone wrote down in a book. And if you need someone to figure it out for you, that’s where people like me come in. And you won’t hear me counting.
This is designed to be a (somewhat) brief look into the complexity of your shoulder joint and some common things that I see everyday people doing that can severely impact the ability of your muscles to control the joints in question, leading to inevitable injury. We have all seen that guy at the gym who does a set of heavy bench press and then immediately grabs his shoulder and does a pec stretch, not realizing that by doing this his next set of bench presses is not only going to be harder to control, but also may have a much increased risk of injury.
When you think about your shoulder, we have no concept of how complex it actually is. A lot of bodybuilders or laypeople simply think of “delts” and that there are three of them and they move forward, sideways and backwards. Your shoulder is actually made up of several joints, many ligaments and tendons and more than a dozen muscles to help it move. It can actually reach about 60,000 distinct positions across all three planes if you give one degree of freedom between each plane. A lot of people also assume that any problem is in their rotator cuff without even knowing what it is and what it does to protect the main joints in your shoulder.
There are some common issues about the shoulder that I want to address in this article. In a follow up I will go over some strategies that can be applied with any major shoulder dysfunction:
Number One: Your shoulder is not one joint.
When people think of the shoulder, they immediately cannot think beyond the glenohumeral joint, or where the arm bone connects into the glenoid fossa (think of it as the golf tee that the ball sits in), which is located on lateral part of the shoulder blade. There are several other joints that contribute to shoulder movement. They are (in no particular order) the acromioclavicular joint, the scapulothoracic joint, the sternoclavicular joint and some also add the subdeltoid joint, which is not a true joint in a physiology or anatomy sense. Think of the shoulder as the link between your scapula (shoulder blade), your humerus (arm bone) and your clavicle (collarbone). When you want to move any of these things, you end up moving your shoulder region and firing all of the muscles around it. As I have said before, as soon as you move a joint, you use every muscle that crosses over it.
Number Two: Your “rotator” cuff should actually be called a compressor cuff.
We all likely have had what we think is rotator cuff issues at some point in our lifting careers. Personally I have dealt with probably hundreds of rotator cuff issues with clients over the years. However, there is one fundamental truth about this complex of muscles. Usually it isn’t the muscles themselves that have the issue – it is the tendons attached to them and the ligaments involved in keeping the shoulder joint strong that cause pain and limited ability to control. Tendons and ligaments only get involved when the muscles in place go beyond their ability to control force and get outside of their allowable range. So when I’m pressing, pulling, flexing or extending or abducting or adducting my shoulder, what I really need to watch out for is going too far outside of what my joint will allow. This spares the tendons and ligaments from having to take stress and possibly straining. The rotator cuff is designed to help keep the shoulder joints under control, and assist with certain movements. It is not supposed to be worked on its own (not that anything there actually does).
Number Three: The position of my hand and wrist doesn’t make a difference.
Of course it does! Maybe it doesn’t in terms of forming a really nice tricep sweep, but it certainly matters to your shoulder joints. Think about it – if you internally or externally rotate your feet during a squat, leg press or hip extension, does it feel wrong? Would you do that? Of course not. If your hand is internally rotated during an abduction movement your shoulder will allow about 60 degrees of range before your greater tubercle smashes into your acromion. Rotate it externally; you can now get up to almost 180 degrees. Why? Because the joint now allows the part outside in order to move it properly. I can take someone with shoulder issues and usually subject their joints to force with less worry simply by adjusting the position of their hand and wrist. As an addition, how many people actually worry about their wrist position? I see people in gyms constantly having no idea how much their wrists and elbows are getting negatively impacted by simple things like the wrist going into too much extension when they grip a bar.
Number Four: We all have a dominant side, and you need to be aware of it.
You have a dominant side in your upper body that you use for fine motor control through the arm. This was developed back when you were a small child and unless you have actively worked at it or developed as an ambidextrous person it is unlikely to change in adulthood. Therefore you will always have one side that gets overworked during the day with minor things like how you carry a purse, mouse with your computer and put dishes away. Your other side sometimes gets subjected to the same things (for example when you are pressing or pulling something) and simply isn’t as strong or able to handle these fine motor skills. With beginners to exercise, I almost exclusively use unilateral movements when dealing with the body simply due to the fact that one side will always be weaker and less coordinated than the other. Typically in the lower body it is the opposite side to the upper body. Over time the body learns to do the movements, but this doesn’t mean that after a hard day at work constantly rotating your shoulder with a mouse in your hand your one side is going to be very happy if you suddenly force it to control 200 pounds. Be mindful of how your joints are feeling before you fly into weights and make sure to warm your joints up properly and deload if you need to.
These are some simple things to think about when it comes to the shoulder. It is a very complex series of joints and requires a lot of care and attention when walking into the gym and subjecting it to massive amounts of force. So, to summarize:
1) Respect your shoulder area and realize how complex it is.
2) Don’t overtax your tendons and ligaments, thinking you are working your “rotator cuff” and making it stronger.
3) Watch how you are gripping things, because it makes a difference.
4) Make sure to pay attention to your dominant and non dominant sides respectively.
If you have any questions feel free to contact me, or if you have any input into the shoulder area that you think I should cover more in the future just let me know.
At an event I attended and presented at this weekend, I was watching a friend of mine compete at powerlifting. He did great considering he took 1st in his category but one thing that struck me was when he was squatting and benching, how much farther the bar was travelling than some of his competitors due to him being quite tall and narrow. This was especially true with the females, who were using a very wide grip (which is perfectly legal for powerlifting) but had massive torsos and huge legs so the bar did not have to travel nearly as far. Even the other guys were quite a bit shorter and stockier, which tends to be the trend with power lifting.
So the inner geek in me decided to do some math and see if there was a big proportional difference between what my friend did and for example, what pound for pound another competitor would do if they were simply a different shape or the bar didn’t travel as far. There’s some very interesting results, but first I’m going to embrace my inner geek and go through some very basic math and physics for you:
A Joule is a unit of energy or work that factors in weight, distance and time and gives us a formula to derive the work done moving one Newton of force through a distance of one meter. We’re going to assume that for our purposes today, the bar that they were using was travelling at the same speed for everyone. I thought about getting into acceleration and stuff like that but my head started to hurt thinking about all of the parameters. So, today let’s assume that the time taken to lift is a constant 1-second per foot of distance for everyone.
For a squat, we need to factor in the fact that the load is on the back, and that means that the weight involved is not only what is on the bar, but the bodyweight of the person in question as well. They are exerting Joules into the floor. So my friend puts 100 kilograms on his back at a bodyweight of 85 kilos for a total of 185. He drops down and then lifts it a total of three feet or one meter over three seconds.
J = 185 * 1 / 9 for a total of 20.55 joules
Competitor number two lifts the same weight – 100 kilograms, but only lifts it two feet or .66 meters over two seconds (because it doesn’t travel as far).
J = 185 * .4356 / 4 for a total of 20.14 joules
So they are roughly the same. Not a big deal in terms of the amount of force. However, when another parameter changes, let’s see what happens:
My friend suddenly lifts the bar the three foot distance, but over the same two seconds of time.
J = 185 * 1 / 4 for a total of 46.25 joules
This is 229% more power generated than what the previous person did. Simply because he lifts the bar further over the same amount of time. For the second competitor to generate the equivalent amount of Joules, considering that he can only lift the bar two feet over two seconds, he would have to lift 424 kilograms – over 900 pounds!
We can really see how factors like acceleration; displacement and velocity come into play, especially when it comes to lifting things. This is a very simple example for you not to take anything for granted when generating power on a bar or lever. That person lifting significant amounts of weight can generate a surprising amount of power, which is the whole idea behind power lifting in the first place. Hope you enjoyed this little display of how physics can be applied into proper lifting, but also consider things like how far the bar is travelling and at what speed when it comes to your own lifting.
Also, increasing your strength is a very slow process and should be. Don’t get discouraged when you see guys in the gym lifting a lot more than you are. Likely they have been doing those lifts for a lot longer, and have other factors into play (like the above) that make it a bit easier for them. Do what your body allows and is designed to do properly, and keep everything healthy to stay strong and fit another day. Think about the goal and then just keep moving towards it. Hope you enjoyed this and feel free to comment and subscribe.