Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine - Part III: Understanding the Role of Workload, Density and Intensity

Image 1: Simply copying Arnold's routine would probably be a bad idea, but copying the way he played with workload and density to achieve maximal intensity would be.
After reading Part I and Part II of the "Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine" on the last weekend and a whole week to think about your first / new own workout program, you should by now know
  • how often and on which days you train (cf. part I), and
  • what type of workout you perform on a given day (cf. part II)
Those of you who have not already done that may want to check out Adelfo's latest "own" workout plan, the details of which he explained in the last installment of his weekly guest-posts here at the SuppVersity, so that you get an idea of what I have already hinted at in the last installment: Despite that the number of possible workout regimen you could come up with is literally endless, your knowledge about your goals, your past training experiences and your personal preferences should always be reflected in your program design.

The logical next step: Set and rep prescriptions for your workouts

It goes without saying certain decisions you may have made in the last week will make at least part of the considerations regarding the total number of sets, the number of repetitions per set, the time-under-tension (TUT), the rest times between sets and many of the related, less important parameters obsolete. If, for example, you decided on a similar routine as Adelfo's week 1 EDT + 5x5 combo, you would not have to care about either the number of sets or reps, because both "workouts" (in this case the term refers to a the whole concept) include detailed prescriptions, i.e.
  • "perform your superset for 20min with as many reps as you can" (EDT), and
  • "do 5 sets of 5 reps to failure" (5x5)
While it would certainly be possible to modify these prescriptions that would leave you with something I like to call an XY-esque, as in EDT-esque or 5x5-esque workout. In the end, though, it does not even matter if you want to modify an existing routine to suit your current goals or come up with a new one, without at least a cursory understanding of the implications the number of exercises, sets, reps, TUT and weights you use will have on your results, it is pretty likely that the latter will at least be suboptimal - if not completely absent.
Tip #1: It is very well possible to modify any detailed workout prescription to suit your individual needs. Whenever you do that, you should yet keep in mind that whoever came up with the original workout probably had his reasons to incorporate for example 10 sets of 10 reps and not 10 sets of 3 reps. Or put more simply, if you change fundamental variables of a given routine - in the example at hand this would be using a strength specific rep-range in a workout routine that was designed primarily for hypertrophy gains - it usually is more prudent to start building your own routine from scratch instead of making one modification after the other to end up with an at best "suboptimal" routine (in many cases you will end up with a non-functional mutant, though).

Learning from the bros and checking with the pros

I guess, many of you will already be familiar with the most commonly cited principles of workout programing and in case you were expecting me to come up with revolutionary insights into what you may call the "workout 101", you have obviously overlooked that they were and still are the ones 90% of the successful weight lifters and bodybuilders adhere to.

Image 2: Unlikely that you won't find the information on the left somewhere in this incarnation of the Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding (img MuscleMag International). Why? The answer is simple: They work - as long as you choose and combine them correctly.
If you take a look at the inferior and oftentimes non-existent results many of the trainees have, although they know many of these "fundamentals"
  • in and out of the gym in <60min
  • less than 18-20 sets total
  • 10-15 sets for the back and leg muscles*
  • 6-9 sets for chest and shoulders*
  • 4-8 sets for arms*
    *the numbers apply to bodypart split training
  • 3-5 reps for strength
  • 6-12 reps for hypertrophy
  • 12-25 reps for strength endurance (+conditioning)
it does yet become obvious that there is more to getting stronger, building muscle and improve your conditioning than the knowledge of these simple rules.

And as awkward as it may seem, my personal experience tells me that in 75% of the cases, where trainees are not satisfied with the results their workout programs are generating, the underlying reasons is not following the rules. In that, I have found that the "in and out of the gym in <60min" rule and the "less than 18-20 sets total" rule, as well as the "6-9 set for chest and arms" and "4-8 sets for arms" rules appear to be among the favorite "does not apply to me" rules for the average trainee
Tip #2: Even though the most fundamental contributer to continuous progress is having a sound workout program, sticking to the plan is a very close second. And both, coming up with a new plan every week and just doing more than your plan prescribes are the worst enemies of your progress.

Pull the trigger and leave!

The reason for the widespread ignorance towards these rules is the very human misconception that more was always better. To understand why this is not the case, it may be useful to read up on the underlying physiological processes of skeletal muscle hypertrophy and increases in contractile force in the respective parts of the Intermittent Thoughts on Building Muscle series, here at the SuppVersity.
Figure 1: The intricacies of skeletal muscle hypertrophy. For all the details check out the preliminary summary of the Intermittent Thoughts on Building Muscle (click here to be redirected)
If you take a closer at figure 1 and remember what you have learned in the course of the series, it should be obvious that working is at the heart of all those processes that will make you stronger and more muscular, but its role is not that of a driving force, but that of a trigger.And just as you probably do not push the "on" button on your computer ten times to accelerate the time it takes for the system to boot, you should leave the gym at the very moment, where the signaling cascade has kicked in.

The primacy of intensity and how it relates to workload and density

Of the many factors which will determine how "long" it will take to initiate this cascade, the training workload (often also referred to as "volume"), the density and the intensity are not only the most important ones, they are also the ones you can deliberately control. "Optimal" results thusly requite that you align these factors with the ones you cannot manipulate directly, such as your age, your overall health, your current training status, the time you have to spare, etc. to match your current goals.
    Image 3: German Olympic lifter Julia Rohde - do you still believe lifting heavy will make you "bulky"? (img
  • Workload: Of these three variables the training "volume" is probably the most straight forward one, as it can be measured simply by the workload. Even if you are no physicist you should be aware that the work (w) is the total amount of force applied to the weith (F = mass x acceleration) times the way (S) you are moving it (W = F x S). In other words, if you carry a 50lbs stone 100m exerting the force of F = 50lbs * 10m/s² (where 10m/s² is the acceleration due to gravity), you have performed the same amount of work as someone who carries a 5lbs stone in his pocket while walking 1km. It should be obvious that this measure alone is of little value and I do still see people training set after set, staying in the gym for 2 hours, performing twice or thrice the amount of "work" I do and still stagnate in terms of strength and size gains.
  • Density: If we use the previous example of carrying a stone, and think of ten steps you take as one rep, then the density of your "workout", i.e. carrying the 50lbs stone for 100m would be 10x higher than the one of the other person, because - if we assume that you walk at the same pace - you will be ready in 10x shorter timespan than the person who carries the 5lbs stone for 1000m.
  • Intensity: Contrary to what you often see in the "intensity" column of many workout programs, the weight (often expressed relative to your one-repetition max, the 1RM; or as the maximal amount of weight you can lift for X repetitions, the 12RM, 6RM, etc.) is not the single determinant of the intensity of your workouts. A workout with little to no rest periods, light weights, high reps and a medium amount of sets can be as "intense" as one of Metzner's HIT workouts where you warm up for two sets perform one all out set and head home. 
The last example, which revolved around the notion that a Metzner HIT workout could be as intense as a more medium workload, high density workout actually brings up an important point: Regardless of what your goal may be - you must always train intense!
Tip #3: Planned periods of light lifting after likewise planned periods of deliberate overreaching (we will get to the issue of periodization in a future installment), aside, you should always try to do the one rep more or add another of those ridiculous 2.5lbs plate to the bar. If you do not push yourself, you cannot expect to push the envelope on the way you look and perform.

Science says: Many roads lead to Rome

With "intensity" being a prerequisite and goal-specificity (re-)emerges as the fundamental determinant particularly in view of the number of reps and sets to perform. Against that background it is also less confusing that you will find scientific evidence to support almost every of the initially mentioned pieces of common wisdom. In 1999, for example, Weiss et al. confirmed the common wisdom that a low (=4x 3-5RM) rep-scheme produces favorable increases in squat performance (strength) compared to 4x 13-15RM or 4x 23-25RM routines. Now, was this a result of the heavier weight alone? No, it was the mere consequence of the specificity of the program - after all, the performance on slowly performed leg-extensions was slow-velocity (~1-2s concentric and 1-2s eccentric phase) was maximal in the 13-15RM group (Weiss. 1999). 
Tip #4: Although this is somewhat of an anticipation, the intensity principle and its dependence on volume and density do also explain why most trainees see success with higher rep work in their ab routines. While you can argue that this is a consequence of the physiology of the rectus abdominis (click here to read about the most effective exercises in the SuppVersity EMG series) and the way it is used in the exercise most trainees perform, i.e. the crunch. With the minimal range of movement and the low weight, density, i.e. short to non-existent rest periods and high reps (like walking 1km vs. just 100m in our previous example) are a must to achieve the intensity that is necessary to pull the "growth trigger".
In tomorrows direct follow up to this third part of the "Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine" we will take a look at three concrete incarnations of this principles with some guidelines how to adapt total workload and density to allow you to train, recover and grow at full intensity ;-)
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