If you’re relatively new to the gym, then you may have wondered why there are so many people standing around, essentially doing nothing, during strength workouts. It may also perplex you as to why we allow 20mins to get through just a few sets of a few reps. You may “finish” your sets far ahead of everyone else, and then just sort of keep lifting things because it looks like that’s what everyone else is doing, and if it only took you eight minutes to do your stuff, then the more advanced athletes must have finished even sooner than you! This post is going to take away some of the mystery in terms of why we rest, how much we rest, and how to structure your sets so that you get the most out of your workout.
To explain how you should structure your sets and use the time you are allotted wisely, we are going to take use following workout:
Back Squat 3RM
So pretend you’re in class. The coach just finished demonstrating the movement, told you that you have 20 minutes to complete this, and sent you on your way. Ok, now what?
The first thing you need to do here is grab a barbell and set your squat rack. On any strength workout, it’s important that your very first set is always done with the empty barbell. We recommend 5-10 reps with the empty bar, maybe more depending on how familiar you are with the given movement. For the back squat, grab a bar, set your rack, and then get 10 reps completed right away. This is not only warming up the specific muscles required for the squat movement, but also your entire central nervous system (CNS). The way your body communicates with the muscles is an extremely important component that requires warming up, and that’s one reason that we always start with the empty barbell.
Ok, so now what? Well, if you know what numbers you’re trying to hit today, then we can reverse engineer our sets for the day. If, for example, you have a 1 Rep Max squat of 200lbs, then our goal for the day would be to work up to a weight that is somewhere in the ~90% range of our 1RM. Based on that 200lbs theoretical max, you would be aiming for 180lbs for your 3 Rep Max. So now we have to figure out how to increase the weight on our bar intelligently, and use the time we have to ensure that we have time to hit all our sets, AND that we have time to rest as we need.
On max out days, you’ll generally see a bunch of percentages written on the whiteboard to help you to structure your sets. It might look something like this:
60%/3, 70%/3, 80%/3, 85%/3, 90%/3
Now if we plug in our numbers based on our 200lb 1RM, we get this:
120lbs/3, 140lbs/3, 160lbs/3, 170lbs/3, 180lbs/3
That gives us the specific numbers that we need. We will consider these our “work” sets for the day. Now remember that we just did the empty bar for 10 reps. Jumping from 45lbs (or 35lbs if it’s the Bella Bar), to 120lbs is a pretty big jump, so we’re going to throw in one or two more warm-up sets to make that jump to our work sets a little easier. So we might want to add the following:
Ok, now we know every set that we need to do today. Right after the initial empty barbell set, you would load up your bar to 85lbs, hit that set, and then load up to 105lbs as soon as you can, and hit that too. Because these weights are low percentage-wise, our bodies won’t really need rest or recovery between them. Then we get to our work sets, and here is where rest starts to not only become important, but imperative in making the weights that we want to make.
At this point, it’s important to know that every single cell in every single human is fueled by something called Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP for short. It’s essentially the currency for any movement that you want to do. There are different ways that your body can produce ATP, and we won’t get into that now, but all you need to know right now is that ATP is crucial to lifting heavy things.
I want you to think of ATP in terms of big gold coins. You’re sitting there with your bar on your squat rack, and you have 5 gold coins in your hand. The more weight that you want to lift (relative to your max), the more gold coins it’s going to cost you to lift it. So our 60% will cost you two gold coins to lift the weight. You hand over your coins to the coach, and then you’re able to lift the weight. Now here’s the crux of this gig - every minute that you rest, the coach will give you one coin back. So after you’ve given the coach your two coins for that 60%, you’ll get them both back if you wait two minutes. 70% is a little heavier, so it’s going to cost you three gold coins to lift that weight. But if you wait three minutes after the lift, you’ll get those three coins back. Your sets in the 80% and 90% range will cost you between four and five gold coins depending, and so it’s at this point that you’re going to need to wait and rest five minutes before attempting those really heavy sets.
Now, if you spend four coins on a lift, and then only wait for two of them to come back to you, it’s almost guaranteed that you will fail the next set. Afterall, if a lift costs four coins, and you don’t have four coins, then you’re probably in trouble.
This is essentially what’s happening in your body. Any time you’re up in that 80%+ range, you are using the bulk of your body’s ATP to perform the lift, and you absolutely MUST rest adequately before you can attempt a heavier lift. This is the entire reason that we allow 20+ minutes for your sets on strength days.
Based on all of this, your 20mins might be arranged like this:
45lbs x 10
105lbs x 5
120lbs x 3
Rest 2 minutes
140lbs x 3
Rest 3 minutes
160lbs x 3
Rest 4 minutes
170lbs x 3
Rest 5 minutes
180lbs x 3
If you do the math, there is 14 minutes of simple rest in your 20 minutes strength session. The other six minutes will be spent loading and unloading your bar, and of course, actually lifting the damn thing.
Now this is obviously just one theoretical template, it’s not The Only way To Structure A Set. Things change slightly if your max is 400lbs, or if it’s 100lbs. Things may be a little different if you’re sharing a bar with someone and you have to rest a little more between your earlier sets. But the general concept of resting will always stay the same. The heavier that bar gets, the more rest you will need between sets.
Now there will come a point where your gold coins take longer to be returned to you, and then there comes a point where they stop going back to you at all, and you’re left with two or three coins in your pocket total. That’s when you know your strength work is done for the day, and it’s time to begin your recovery (eating and sleeping). But that’s another conversation for another day.
So be smart with your coins. Spend them wisely, and make sure you wait for them to be returned to you before you try and use them again!