I’m a proponent of lateral thinking. It’s loosely defined as, ‘other than’ traditional, step-by-step methods’. I look for ways to apply ideas from unrelated fields onto my problems. A change of perspective can often lead to insight.
I’m an amateur biohacker, but without the obsessive data collection. I study how everything I do and eat interacts to help my body and mind function optimally, or effectively toward a health/fitness goal. I’d been struggling with my habit of organizing a strength workout around a specific number of sets and reps, something I’d been doing for decades. I wondered if the parameters were arbitrary and therefore, not ideal.
While this issue stewed in my cranial cauldron, I read articles about how the brain works, cognitive biases and behavioral patterns. They led me through various rabbit holes and eventually, to eponymous laws and then, Northcote Parkinson.
He published Parkinson’s Law in 1957 to explain how bureaucracies grow unreasonably large. His essential lament: rather than reduce the number of workers in a bureaucracy, the work expands to fill the days of the extra personnel.
Parkinson’s Law detailed the inherent inefficiency of civil service expansion and the self-perpetuating cycle of bloat, in which the number of persons available to perform a set of tasks in not required, but the system will create gratuitous activity to occupy their time.
Do preset reps limit our strength gains?
Then it struck me. I wondered if the concept of work expanding to fill a framework might explain how we limit our strength gains by training within preset rep limits; working only hard enough to meet the short-term goal.
My moment of clarity had everything to do with effort and nothing to do with Parkinson. I noticed there were days I felt I could do more, even as I put the weight down to rest for the next set. Why was I limiting myself? The question arose; do we actually work to full capacity or do we unwittingly generate just enough effort to meet the demand of the routine?
A reporter once asked Muhammed Ali how many sit-ups he could do. Ali responded, ” I don’t know. I don’t start counting till it hurts.” This is where we need to be.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t use benchmarks to judge our progress. I’m saying the daily set/rep limits may be arbitrary, and therefore not accurately reflective of our true potential.
One of the things I like about CrossFit and Tabata is the reps are not counted. You do as many reps as you can within a block of time, then move on to the next exercise. But this type of training, though excellent, does not test maximum reps possible with a particular weight. However, that’s not the point of those programs.
What I’m referring to is our sort of stuck-in-the-80s method of planning our workouts.
I realized years ago I am exceedingly average (if that’s possible). You may think that’s self-effacing or self-defeating but it’s actually positive. It means if I have an idea, it’s likely other people have had a similar idea or experience. It was a revelation that gave me the confidence to write more.
I’m guessing many of you valiant bodybuilders are still planning your routines around sets and reps. How do you know how many reps you can really do? How do you know when to move up in weight? Is there a better way to measure progress?
Parkinson’s Law states, “It is manifest there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned.” Hefferon’s Law says, ‘There need be little or no relationship between the number of reps chosen and the capabilities of the trainee’. (Hefferon’s Law? I know, cocky American)
Parkinson also said work is, “created by the mere fact of these officials’ existence.” Hefferon’s Law says the number of reps chosen is arbitrary so we will expend just enough effort to complete the set. In other words, the effort is created by the existence of the rep limits.
The capabilities of the human body are fascinating. The more I learn about the mind/body connection, intuition, self-regulation, rapid cognition and the like, the more I’m convinced we subconsciously know precisely how much effort to put out, so that we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve reached failure in time with the final rep in the set. Why do I believe this? Because, the notion that we coincidentally achieve failure just as we hit that last rep in our predetermined limit, irritates the logical side of my brain like a pokey collar tag.
I’ve experimented with this. When I let go of rep limits, I get more reps. The thing is, it doesn’t feel like quitting when I work to a preset limit. It feels as if I’m pushing to failure. But am I really spent, or am I working to the end of the set?
I’m pushing out the maximum effort, but no more than is necessary. I can feel good about my workout because I believe I went all out, although the reality is I did not work as hard as I could have.
If I am indeed average Joe, I’m not the only one doing this. I’m also not the first person to promote fewer sets to failure. But this is the first time I’ve thought about a latent restraint on reaching full potential. By setting rep limits, we unknowingly deprive ourselves of faster gains.
What can you do today?
- Experiment. Dare. Arnold Schwarzenegger advocated breaking the rules, “not the law, but the rules.”
- It’s good to shock your muscles. The next time you train, do your best not to count reps. It will be difficult, because the habit will be there, but push thru it. If you find yourself counting, repeat the number until you lose count.
- Test your rep ranges periodically and adjust accordingly. How do you know if you’ve improved if you aren’t counting reps? Find a baseline. Pick an exercise it’s difficult to cheat on, like incline dumbbell presses. Choose a weight with which you can get 10-12 reps, then go all out. Get as many as you can for one set. If you’re at 14-15 reps, increase the weight and use that weight for a few weeks. If that 12th rep almost cost you a blood vessel, then stay with it. We’re not building helicopters here. It’s training. Work hard but have fun with it.
- Remember, for building muscle, most pros agree it’s time under tension and increased work load that will garner the best results. Consider those facts as you plan and train. By working to failure your muscles will remain under tension longer. The sooner you can increase the load, the stronger you’ll get.
- Don’t impose artificial limits. You can do more reps than you give yourself credit for.
- Experimentation is vital for learning what works best for you. Don’t stick to a routine forever. A rut is a grave with no ends. Change is good. The body and mind react well to novelty.
- Remind yourself; push to failure, not to rep count.
I’m not claiming to have revolutionized the fitness world here, but if you are still devising training routines with endpoint reps and sets, you may be shortchanging your progress. By violating Hefferon’s Law, you will increase both time under tension and load, which forces muscle to grow; our ultimate goal. Parkinson was fed up with the inefficiency of ever-expanding bureaucracy. Why waste time with ineffective routines? Our objective in the gym should be to get the maximum results in the shortest span of time. Live optimally.