How do you measure the effectiveness of a good workout? What values do you attempt to quantify to determine how much progress you can make? For most people, it boils down to reps. "I did four sets of 10." Total reps are great to keep track of because training within certain ranges tends to produce certain results. But few people give regard to the proper weight loads in these ranges and fewer still acknowledge what is at play on a deeper level: time under tension.
Time under tension simply refers to the amount of time that your muscles endure a particular load. But by taking the exact same load and performing reps faster or slower, you can drastically change the impact of that exercise. While books have been written on this stuff and the physiological effect of time under tension, we'll break it down to the basic fact that reps can be manipulated...or ignored. That's right, we said it. Every once in a while, instead of focusing on how many sets and reps you do, focus on time. Doing so can provide welcome changes to your physique, not to mention a respite from your very vanilla attachment to traditional sets training. Here's one approach.
MAX REPS FOR TIME
Pulling a page from the Crossfit manual, one good way to challenge a muscle group is to simply attempt max reps for a given time. You think you've mastered the 135-pound front squat? Great. Let's see how many you can do in a minute. Then, for your next leg workout, attempt to break that number.
By simply increasing the amount of reps you perform in a given time, you provide a drastically different stimulus for change and growth. And before you point out that you can do 20 reps and that high-rep sets are for endurance, consider a recent study that found that high-rep work -- when done to failure -- had the same effect on hypertrophy as heavy, low-rep sets. And doing anything under a load for a minute straight will also provide a metabolic charge for anyone also hoping to burn some fat.
If you fail before you hit the minute mark, simply pause for a count and get right back into it -- this method is simply about max work for the given time.
To introduce yourself to max reps for time training, just try it as a finisher. After all of your normal bodypart work, pick a weight that you can safely handle for 15 reps (to near failure) and perform reps for 60 seconds. Aim to beat that mark each workout, or add weight and time each week to keep setting the bar higher.
Advanced Training: Your explosive energy stores last for about 15-20 seconds and you don't need weights to find that out. Try performing an explosive, bodyweight-only exercise for max reps for 20 seconds. Moves like jump squats, tuck jumps, speedskaters, plyometric push-ups, box jumps and sprints work well for these types of sets. Build power and work capacity by increasing the number of reps performed from workout to workout.