Navigating Lifting Jargon
If you don’t know why most training programs prescribe 3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise, please read.
Fitness information is often confusing and convoluted.
While many principles and techniques have been well studied, there are plenty that remain inconclusive.
While the general rules for what is effective in the gym are straightforward, there are infinite ways to implement them.
While most people can benefit from a general lifting program, there are reasons to try new formats and approaches.
There are a lot of people who make money from selling fitness programs.
And there are a lot of reasons to buy said programs. But one of them should not be because you think they have magical knowledge that you don’t have and thus you need their program to be successful.
I post my full workouts, with sets and reps detailed, as my way of rebelling against a fitness industry that has thrived on secrecy and misinformation.
I want everyone to feel welcome in the gym.
I want everyone to know that the strength, physique and mental fortitude they desire is within reach.
I want everyone to feel equipped to make the gains they want to see in themselves.
I want everyone to have a basic working knowledge of how fitness is achieved.
Apparently this is the hill I am willing to die on.
I say basic knowledge because as with most subjects in life, the more you learn, the more you realize there is more to learn.
I’m not advocating for everyone to spend their life studying strength and conditioning science.
But with a little bit of knowledge, you can go far. And more importantly, feel empowered to achieve your goals.
So with that preamble…
In 2018-19, I really hit a strength plateau, especially with my squat. I just could not add weight. I tried taking a break from CrossFit to just do strength training. That didn’t work.
I got a personal trainer, and while my physique improved, my squat wasn’t moving up a ton.
Then there was 2020.
With few exceptions, I didn’t have access to heavy weights from March to November… I saw a squat rack once in seven months.
So in November 2020, The Pleasant Box was taking shape and I decided to learn how to program for myself.
I’m embarrassed, but willing, to share that most of the terminology confused me.
Even though I had been lifting for 10 years.
What is the difference between strength and hypertrophy? Which style of training should I use? Can I combine them?
Here are some term that describe physical attributes that can be improved via lifting:
Strength: increasing the ability of a muscle to produce force
Hypertrophy: increase in muscular size achieved through exercise
Power: the ability to overcome resistance in the shortest period of time
Muscle Endurance: ability of a muscle to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended period of time.
Ok ok we’re getting somewhere. Next laundry list of questions.
What style of lifting gets me stronger? What style helps me look good? What style is best for longevity? How does strength training differ from bodybuilding? Why does CrossFit work since it’s so different from all of the other “traditional” forms of weightlifting. How do you pronounce hypertrophy?
Let’s level set on a few more terms:
Resistance Training: Use of resistance to muscular contraction to build the strength, anaerobic endurance and size of skeletal muscles. Also called strength training or weight training.
Strength Training: Involves the performance of physical exercises that are designed to improve strength and endurance
Bodybuilding: a sport involving strenuous physical exercise in order to strengthen and enlarge the muscles of the body.
Powerbuilding: a combination of two different training styles: powerlifting and bodybuilding. It uses three compound exercises — the deadlift, bench press and squat — to build strength, while bodybuilding exercises help grow muscle size and definition.
Powerlifting: a sport involving three tests of strength: the bench press, squat, and deadlift
Olympic Lifting: a sport in which athletes compete in lifting a barbell loaded with weight plates from the ground to overhead (Clean & Jerk and Snatch)
You can see why it’s so confusing!
What I’ve learned is there are different programming techniques for each goal or sport, but as with the terminology above, there is a lot of overlap.
If you are searching for general strength and physique benefits, a blend of lifting techniques is great.
The general guidelines stipulate that:
To build muscle strength, do sets of 1-5 reps at 85%+ of your max.
To build muscle (hypertrophy), do sets of 6-15 reps at 65%-85% of your max
To build muscle endurance, do sets of 15-100 reps at bodyweight–30% of your max
However, it’s best to visualize these guidelines as a spectrum where each category blurs well into the next.
Hence the number 10 being in a good sweet spot.
But there isn’t anything sacred about 10 reps.
It could be 8, 9, 11 or 12. It could be more if you only have access to dumbbells. It could be less because you lift a bit heavier.
Over the last 15 months, I’ve written five major lifting programs for myself. Each one lasts about three months. I make small changes month to month, but mostly there is a deliberate choice of exercises, sets and rep scheme that carries me.
Let’s focus on the squat. That pesky lift that was very stuck for me.
I tried cycles where every week I squatted for:
3 sets of 5 reps
5 sets of 3 reps
Twice per week with both 3 x 5 and 5 x 3
1 heavy set of 20 reps
Tempo squats (slowly lower down, pause at the bottom for 3 seconds, explode up) for 3 sets of 6 reps
4 sets of 5 reps, then reduce weight (~12%) and do 3 more sets of 7 reps.
Across all of this, I discovered that I make the biggest strength (and booty) improvements when I increase my volume or when I slow down the reps.
I’ve also found success in focusing on making all reps at a given weight look good and feel smooth before moving on to a higher weight. While this means I don’t get to add weight to the bar every week, I am (at last) seeing strength gains faster.
A smoother rep is a form of progressive overload and when I finally embraced that, I started winning. In fact, I’ve already added 10 pounds to my 5 rep max squat this year and I still have another 3 weeks left on this cycle!
This is me. You might be different. My point is simply that there are good guidelines, but there isn’t one way, and progress takes time.
Three (working) sets of 10 is a very reasonable place to start.
It is my hope that anyone reading this is a little less confused. However, despite this newsletter being very long, I don’t feel like I’ve said it all.
Please let me know if you have questions by replying or commenting.