One of my clients recently asked a great question: “As a personal trainer, how do you know what exercises to do for your clients, how many reps to do, how many sets, etc?”
I love this question. I love it because I've wondered it for most of my life and it wasn’t until I started my personal training studies that I realized there is a science to strength training -- a science I call The Formula.
I don’t know about you, but when I first started lifting weights (college), I just kind of…walked around, found a machine, lifted a few reps, aimlessly wandered to another machine, did some reps, etc. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to do 3 machines for arms and 3 machines for legs.” I had no direction or understanding of how to use weights for optimal health and performance.
The answer to my client's question is, what you do depends on your goals. You could do what I did and wander aimlessly around the weight room doing whatever you felt like for the day and really, that's fine – it’s certainly better than nothing. But if you desire real results and make the most of your training, then you’ve got to follow The Formula.
So, what is The Formula? There are actually 4 formulas, all similar in their approach, and the type of formula to follow depends intimately on your fitness goal:
Formula: Find a weight (or body weight exercise) for which you can perform 2-6 reps max. Complete 2-6 sets resting 2-5min. between each set.
Formula: Find a weight (or body weight exercise) for which you can perform 6-12 reps max. Complete 3-6 reps resting 30-90s between sets.
Formula: Find a weight (or body weight exercise) for which you can perform 12-25 reps max. Complete 1-2 sets resting less than 30s between sets.
GOAL: General Muscle Strength
Formula: Find a weight (or body weight exercise) for which you can perform 8-15 reps max. Complete 1-4 sets resting 2-3min. between sets.
The next question usually is, how do I know when to increase the weight? That’s another great question.
When beginning this regimen, start with a heavy enough weight so that you can only perform the number of reps on the lower end of the scale. Once you reach the number of reps on the higher end with the same weight, add 5-10% more weight and start at the lower end again.
Let’s look at some examples.
Case Study #1: Marathon Runner Looking to Improve Her Time
She will follow the formula for endurance. She starts her regime performing lunges using a 5lb. free weight in each hand (10 lbs total) and maxes out around 15 reps. 6 months later, she is lifting the same weight at 25 reps – that is the sign that she should progress to a heavier weight in order to keep getting stronger. To increase 5-10%, she should exchange the 5 lb free weights for 6 lb free weights (12 lbs total) and perform the lunge routine at fewer reps (probably around 16-18 reps).
Case Study #2: A High School Football Tight-End Looking to Improve His Power
He will follow the formula for power. He starts his regime performing deadlifts at 200 lbs, maxing out at 3 reps. After 4 weeks, he is able to perform 6 reps. This is the sign that he is ready to progress. 5% of 200=210 lbs. He is now lifting deadlifts at 210 lbs at 2-3 reps.
Case Study #3: A Woman Wanting to Increase Strength to Help Prevent Osteoporosis
With a goal of strength, she could either follow the muscular strength formula or the general muscle fitness formula. Because this is her first time performing strength training, it is best to begin with the general fitness formula at 1 set. She starts off performing seated rows at 20lbs for 8 reps. Over the course of a few weeks, she increases her regime to 3 sets at 20 lbs for 15 reps. This is the sign that she is ready to progress, so she increases the weight by 5% (=21 lbs). She performs 12 reps at 21 lbs. Because she feels ready for a heavier load, she instead increases the original weight of 20 lbs by 10% (=22 lbs). Now, she is performing 2 sets at 22 lbs for 8 reps.
I hope that helps to clarify the science behind strength training. If you prefer to use exercises using your own body weight, you can follow the same idea of progression by doing the following:
· Increasing the number of reps
· Performing the exercise with a single-leg or single-arm when appropriate
· If doing isometric, increasing the time
· Performing more sets
· Decreasing the amount of time between sets
In conclusion, it’s always best to follow a plan to achieve your goals. Working with a personal trainer can help you create and learn for yourself how to develop a plan to achieve your goals. But if you prefer to fly solo for a while, The Formula is the plan for seeing real results, increasing strength, and achieving your fitness goals.