Albert Einstein famously quipped, “The important thing is never to stop questioning.” Scientists through the ages have done just that, eventually turning controversial theories into common knowledge. Once it was blasphemy to insist the Earth was round and traveled around the sun or that microscopic creatures could cause illness or that we are all nothing more than a complex collection of atoms in a tiny corner of the vast cosmos.
Yet despite Einstein’s wise words, plenty of us still hold fast to common training dictums, working out the same way day after day, month after month, year upon year. One such stubborn protocol that has invaded the training universe, a black hole from which some of us never escape? The so-called “rep range.”
If you’re like the vast majority of workout enthusiasts, when you schlep your own collection of atoms to the gym, you count your repetitions. Some will do sets of eight or 10 or will follow a pyramiding scheme in which the reps decrease as the resistance rises (or vice versa, if you want to get fancy). Whatever your aim, as a bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast, you likely have a fairly specific endpoint in mind whenever you begin a set.
Of course, plenty of science exists to recommend the use of rep ranges, which — when paired with the appropriate resistance — can help you build strength (one to six reps), muscle mass (eight to 12) and muscular endurance (15 to 30). Still, though, the question must be asked: Is there a better way? Does counting reps always make sense, in every single instance, no matter what? For example, what if, instead of counting your reps per set, you counted seconds?
Science hasn’t been silent on this subject. “Time under tension” is indeed paramount to building strength and size. In a study published in the January 2012 issue of The Journal of Physiology, researchers found that when subjects performed leg-extension exercises at 30 percent of their best effort (a light load) with a slow lifting movement — six seconds up, six seconds down — to failure, they experienced greater increases in muscle protein synthesis than when they did the same movement with quick, one-second-up and one-second-down reps. The researchers concluded that the amount of time the muscle spends under tension might be important to optimizing muscle growth.
Indeed, expert exhortations to the contrary, there’s no “magic number” of repetitions that will help you reach your training goal; instead, the real keys are to challenge your muscles and engage your neural pathways by working against resistance for an appropriate period of time.
If you find yourself often “hurrying toward the finish line,” blasting through reps just to get from Point A to Point B, timed sets could be the perfect panacea. In this entry-level upper-body workout, we’ve replaced rep ranges with 30-second sets.
During each exercise, you won’t count reps. Instead, you’ll concentrate on contracting and extending the working muscle group smoothly and deliberately through each rep. Having a partner is ideal because he or she can run a stopwatch, but barring that, you’ll want to use a timer like Gymboss (or the one on your phone) or keep an eye on a wall clock with a second hand.