This article will give you a short overview of basic variables which we consider when designing and adapting training programs and workout routines.
Sit Back, Breathe Deeply
The focus will be on explaining what does a particular variable indicate in one’s training and how it is measured. Rules which they obey, optimal ranges and tweaking will be covered in separate articles. Afterwards, I’ll explain my stances on using a strict, numeric model while creating routines and how does it hold its value even as programs get more and more individualized.
This is a long and complex article, and you might need to get back onto it more than a few times for most of it to sink in, but it’s well worth the effort, both for explaining the terminology used in more serious and advanced writings of the sort, as well as to help you with your own training. Thank you for your patience!
The Basic Five Variables
Intensity – training intensity is put first since it determines the lot of your routine. Another thing which we have to deal with in the very beginning is definition of it.
Unlike the vast majority of writings, which tend to attribute some purely subjective meaning to training intensity (mostly related to perceived effort or the usage of shock techniques), all the relevant literature defines training intensity as percentage of 1 rep maximum (RM) used on a given set (and, generally, this means all the sets of a particular exercise). In a way, this does indeed show how “hard” a set will be, since there’s a lot of difference between pumping out a 15 rep set at 60% and grinding a heavy triple at 90%. However, do note that this measurement is objective – higher 1 RM percentages (higher intensity) will always be perceived as much harder work.
The most important thing about intensity is that it partially defines the number of reps. We can narrow this down, and say that intensity limits the number of reps you can do. Let’s explain it. There are lots of tables on the Internet which relate the used 1 RM % to the maximum number of reps you can perform with it (an example is table at ExRx.net). These numbers do differ among various authors and researches, but not enough to make it a problem. So, most of them say that if you use 70% of 1 RM, you can do 12 reps with that weight before reaching positive muscular failure. How exactly does this relate to your set-rep scheme depends on your preferred training style.
For example, if you use straight sets, and aim for doing 3 sets of 12 of an given exercise with the same weight on all the sets, you’ll start off with intensity lower than 70%, since that would make you hit failure on the first set, thus compromising subsequent ones. On the other hand, if you use, e.g., reverse pyramid training, you would indeed use 70% on first set and hit failure upon reaching about 12 reps, but would have to back off with weight (usually about 10%) for the subsequent set(s). So, the take home lesson is that intensity dictates the maximum number of reps you can hope to achieve for a particular exercise.
A minor notice – the values in these tables are for men only. Women are known to be able to do more reps on a higher 1 RM %. For example, if a man moves 90 kg for a set of three, he can most likely hit 100 kg for a single. However, if a woman lifts 90% for a three, she most likely can’t get 95 kg for a single. Or, to put it into a different perspective, at intensity of 70%, a man might be able to do 12 reps, but a woman might be able to do 17.
Volume – volume is the total number of reps done on an exercise, a muscle group, a training session or during a microcycle. Alongside intensity, it’s the most basic training variable since both of them basically define how your muscles are exposed to stress during a training session. These two have to be set in order to start thinking about other variables and their derivables.
As I noted, volume can be calculated on various scales, all of which are almost equally important. For example, it’s equally important to make sure that you’re getting enough volume on a particular exercise (by doing, let’s say, 4 sets of 6 reps), as it is to get enough volume for a muscle group during a training microcycle (e.g., 60 total reps for calves a week).
Volume by exercise is obviously what defines the set-rep scheme, and the inverse relationship between the two. If it’s known that optimal volume for exercise lies between 20 and 30 reps, than 4×6, 5×5, 3×10 and 2×12 are all good set-rep schemes. Do notice the importance of intensity when viewing this – it’s intensity that limits the maximum number of reps per set, hence dictating how the set-rep scheme will arrange itself. Volume per exercise is what basically defines the number of sets to be completed.
Volume per microcycle defines the total number of exercises you’ll do, and volume per session defines the number of exercises done on a particular session, that at least should be clear. If you aim for 100 reps a week for your back, you’ll most likely have 4 exercises, and if you have 2 weekly back sessions, you’ll do 2 exercises for the back on each one.
While staying relatively close to the surface of training knowledge, I will note that the usual high-volume approach endorsed by many bodybuilders, and extremely low-volume approach such as those of HIT Jedis, are both flawed. Some work has to be done, but doing 10 exercises per bodypart is even worse than not doing enough. Again, if proper training is used, based on compound movements and getting progressively stronger, it becomes impossible to do as much work, so that’s not really such a big an issue.
Frequency – frequency is the number of times a particular exercise/movement class/muscle group is trained per microcycle. I’ve been talking about microcycles before, but I’ll like to explain them now, just to make my terminology perfectly clear:
Let’s say I do 3 workouts a week, which I then repeat the next week. This is my microcycle, one week long. You can cycle 4 different workouts over 10 days, which will then be your microcycle, whose length is 10 days.
My periodization could be alternating between accumulation and intensification phases, with each phase lasting 3 microcycles. In this case, 3 weeks, either done on accumulation or intensification scheme, is my minicycle. If no periodization is used when a routine is programmed, minicycles become obsolete.
Four microcycles (Acc-Int-Acc-Int) + one week of rest after them constitute my 13 week mesocycle.
Four mesocycles constitute my 52 week long macrocycle, which tends to correspond with one full year.
This may sound complicated now, but there’s a reason for thinking in such a way, especially when long term progress is planned. The microcycle is still the most important component. Basically, frequency of training structures your routine out. Once volume and intensity is decided, frequency splits and groups exercises, assigns them set-rep schemes and so forth. This is a delicate variable which can make or break your training. You can read more on frequency in this article.
Rest time – rest times indicate how much does one rest after performing a particular set. It is measured in seconds or minutes, with the former, naturally, being more precise.
The basic function of adjusting rest times is managing fatigue. In other words, rest times regulate how much will your next set be influenced by the previous one, and, cumulatively, by all the other sets done before it. This is also a complex issue, highly entangled with all the other basic variables, but it can, for the majority of training cases, be reduced to a simple, yet somewhat vague rule that rest times should be adequate.
Fatigue is a part of hypertrophy mix, and some of it is needed to trigger muscle growth. Therefore, resting 10 min between sets isn’t the best idea since none of it would be accumulated (among other reasons, such as decrease in preparedness for the set, etc.) However, fatigue is much less important than having a quality progressive set, in which you move a challenging weight using good form. In the long run, it’s the weight on the bar and overall tonnage resulting from increasing it workout after workout that will make you big, not the fatigue. I’m saying this because all the time I see generic 1 min rest intervals being stamped on exercise, be it a triple on deadlifts or a 15 rep pump set of pushdowns. Adequate rest time for a triple on deadlifts (presuming it’s indeed a 3 RM or close to it) would be 3 minutes at least, a much often closer to 5 mins, while with the pushdowns it won’t matter much if you rest 45 sec or a minute.
A final note – accumulating fatigue throughout a training session is again a complex issue, since most proper training programs will have a good deal of one’s body trained each time in the gym, so, for example, there could be situations in which you put a 10 min rest inside a routine to separate first part of routine (e.g., squats and glute-ham raises) from the second part, which has chins and rows in it.
Tempo – tempo is the cadence at which each rep in a set is done. It’s also the most unknown and unused training variable, which, again, results in bad training routines – just as you can’t put a generic rest time of 60 sec on each set or generic frequency of once a week for every session, you can’t say “do every exercise with slow form on both positive and negative” or “do an explosive positive and controlled negative all the time”. These are generalizations which take a lot from a training routine.
Tempo is usually designated by a four-number label, such as 30X1. The first number is the duration negative (eccentric) phase of the lift, second is the pause at the bottom (stretched) position, third is the duration of the positive (concentric) phase, and the last number is the pause in the top (contracted) position. X means that “as fast as possible”, or “explosive”. If this particular tempo designation would be applied to a set of squat, it would mean that you’d unrack the bar, go down for 3 seconds, immediately explode back up, and pause for one second at the top.
Tempo is highly dependent on a particular exercise, intensity, number of reps in a set, proximity to failure and overall fatigue management, both inside a session and between different sessions.
The next four variables are called “derivables”, since they are calculated from the basic five ones. They’re not as much a goal in workout design, but a consequence. This means that if you, while designing workout routines, pay close attention in balancing the basic five, the derivables will sort themselves out. Surely, you can have a goal of creating a workout which is, let’s say, extremely dense, or of extremely short duration, but again it’s necessary to dismantle this goal into basic variables and start the routine design from there.
Tonnage – tonnage is the total weight lifted during a training session. It is calculated by multiplying the number of reps on each set which weight used on it, and then sum all the sets in a session. So, if you did a 20 rep set of squats with 100 kg and a a 5×5 of bench press at 50 kg, your tonnage for that session would be 3250 kg. A more appropriate term would be “grammage”, but this would make the measurement seem overly metric, and, after all, most training sessions do indeed throw around tons of weights.
As such, tonnage serves two purposes. The first is to track progress of a particular trainee – generally, if your tonnage increases on the same sessions, you’re getting stronger and therefore bigger (do note that tonnage is the consequence of adhering to progressive overload principle, and not the drive behind it – never bump the weight up for the sake of it, always keep good form and progress in lifts). The second usage of tonnage is to compare different lifters who do a same routine. If one lifter moves 1500 kg of weights during a session, and the other moves 5000, than the other is much stronger and most likely much bigger as well.
Two questions usually arise about calculating tonnage. The first is should be warmup sets be calculated into tonnage? In my opinion, yes, since the primary purpose of tonnage is to track your own progress. Your warmups will generally be constant, until you usher another warmup set, and then another one, none of which interferes with seeing yourself progressing by observing the tonnage variable. The other question is more complex, and deals with the issue of calculating your own bodyweight into the tonnage by on exercises such as pullups or dips.
Again, in my opinion, you shouldn’t do it, since 1) you can’t always decide how much bodyweight are you moving in an exercise, the example being pushups and inverted rows, and 2) this would imply you to add your bodyweight to exercises such as squats and calf raises, which is anything but common practice. For these reasons, my workout tracking software, Wlogger, counts movements done without external weight separately into the tonnage variable. I do recognize that this might not be the best solution, but it gets the job done. After all, your bodyweight will never increase so rapidly to disrupt the progress monitoring process.
Time under tension – TUT is basically a measurement of how much time (in seconds) were your muscles exposed to external loading. You basically get it by multiplying the duration of each rep (done by summing all the tempo numbers) with total number of reps, done either in a single set or for all the sets of an exercise, with former being of more importance for seeing if your muscles have been loaded for sufficient amount of time, while the latter is used to calculate workout duration.. So, if you did a set of 10 using a 2120 tempo, you’d have 10 × 5 = 50 sec of TUT on a given set, and if you did 3 sets of that exercise with 10 reps each, you’d get 150 sec TUT on the given exercise.
TUT is a controversial variable, although the controversies stem from trying to view it as a basic variable instead of a derivative of those. You see, muscle needs to be exposed to external loading for a particular amount of time to maximize hypertrophy. Because of this, throwing reps around at supersonic speed or doing just 2 reps per set doesn’t really do any good. However, if we try to look at hypertrophy by observing the TUT alone, some weird scenarios which fail in real life appear desirable as well. For example, they say you need 40-70 seconds of TUT to trigger hypertrophy. Just going by that logic, you could do 5 reps on a 5050 tempo and satisfy the equation, although such superslow training doesn’t really yield results. Likewise, doing a set of 50 reps will make the TUT, but won’t make you grow. A proper TUT is a consequence of properly balanced basic variables of intensity, volume and tempo, and, as such, only serves to indicate if something is wrong, and never to be a starting point for adjusting all the other variables.
Duration – this is a no-brainer, the duration of your training session. It is gotten by summing the TUT and all the rest times. And, like all derivables, it’s also something that you really don’t have to worry about. Just look at how workout duration is calculated – both of its components, the TUT and rest times, need to be finely tuned for a routine to work in the first place, therefore, a proper workout duration is merely a consequence of proper planning.
There is, of course, the obvious fact that the more exercises you do, more TUT and rest times you have, hence your workout duration increases as well, and workouts which last too long (over 1-1.5 hrs) are associated with rise of catabolic hormones in the bloodstream which denies the very purpose of bodybuilding training. This, however, really isn’t a problem. As I like to say it, you can’t deadlift for an hour. You can even curl for an hour, if you wish to do some proper work and not pump your reps out until you’re using pink dumbbells and are unable to brush your teeth. A proper workout, based on compound movements, doesn’t permit placing as many exercises to make the workout last so long.
Some people have a weird habit of starting to calculate their workout duration after warmups. Surely, the 10 min pre-workout general warmup isn’t part of it, and neither is the post-workout stretching and cooldown. But as soon as you start your first warmup set of your first exercise, the workout timer starts ticking. Otherwise, you have a ridiculous situation of not counting in the warmup sets for the first exercise, but warmups for subsequent ones are counted it (most people who do this, however, don’t know how to train and don’t do warmups at all).
Density – denisty can be viewed in two ways. First is by dividing the tonnage with duration, resulting in something like 1 kg/sec (this is quite high density). The other is to divide session volume by duration, resulting is, e.g., 6 reps/min. Like all derivables, density serves the purpose of minoring one’s training. It doesn’t have defined constraints and is totally a consequence of a unique training program. A higher density isn’t necessarily better than lower, and vice-versa, although it can be used to differentiate between programs of various intensities.
There is no point for me to repeat that which I had said while describing tempo and rest time variables – your workouts need to have some density, i.e., you must have a certain speed at which you move your workout – sitting around at the gym is useless, but so is rushing one’s workout. There are certain ways to train which utilize density as a primary measurement of progress, but these are better left off for purposes of advanced trainees and some sorts of specialization routines.
Another Numerical Variable Worth Mentioning
Compound to isolation ratio – as its name says, this number describes the percentage of compound or isolation exercises which you use in a routine. It can be calculated in a few different ways which basically show the same thing – you can divide number of compound movements by total number of exercises, divide number of isolations by total number of exercises (equivalent to 1 – comp/total), or even divide the number of isolations by compounds. All these methods give you a percentage. For the first example, the larger the number is, the better, and for the last two, it’s better for that number to be smaller.
This, however, doesn’t mean a thing. Any well-designed routine has this covered, and the number is pretty much useless to determine anything other than the fact that, e.g., a routine that has a result of 0.5 is horrendous since half the exercises done are isolations. Other than that, there are no simple nor correct boundaries for it. As noted, it’s important for the majority of your exercises to be compounds, but there are isolations which are necessary, either for the general population or for a particular trainee (I’ll do an article on that as well).
So, yeah, this is something that can be calculated as well, but it’s mostly a waste of time since its repercussions are obvious immidiately after looking the writeup of a routine.
Is Bodybuilding Science?
Well, simply put, it’s not. A good deal of it is based on science, but individuality of training programs and elements of anecdote present in it make it more of a lore. I do, however, still see a model based on variables which we examined beforehand as superior to usual routine designs which lack them in their basis. And here’s why.
I read somewhere how chess should be played: by the book in the beginning, like a wizard in the midgame, and like a machine in the finish. Bodybuilding is, at least in my opinion, pretty much like that.
All beginners grow on pretty much identical routines, and this stage of muscular development is easiest to forsee and control, besides the fact that it is everything but individualized. Their exposure to stress can be expressed in clear, universal numbers: intensity of 60-75%, average volume of 25 reps per exercise on three weekly sessions with about 2 minutes of rest between sets, which are carried out in the so-called “learning tempo”, where the trainee is taught to be explosive at the positive and control the negative. The derivative variables are of little importance here, as simple, linear progression occurs regularly so there’s no need to monitor them.
Then, at one point, you become an intermediate lifter who has to personalize his training to reap as much as he can from it. This phase is tricky and requires lots of improvisation and experimenting to find out what works exactly for you. Of course, the most basic rules always apply – get stronger on compounds while training about thrice a week, but exactly what exercises you’ll do, how often and in what rep ranges is what’s difficult to figure out. There are people who grow like crazy doing 3 sets of 10 on the bench press, while others can’t progress on it if they go above 6 reps. Again, these things are highly individualized and hence nearly impossible to reduce to simple rules. Yet, it’s here that training variables get most of their usage.
Simply put, variables are here to help you monitor and adjust your training. Say that you’re experimenting with changing the pace of training to see which style works better for you. It might not seem so, but there is a difference between saying “I worked out with a bit slower pace than last week” and stating that your density has reduced by 10% since you had slowed down tempo to this value or rested this much more between sets. And this difference is so big that an entire world can fit in it. Numbers are objective and immutable, and thus give you absolute control over your training. Training instinctively, without a plan and a log book to track training sessions, produces results so rarely that you have more chance to get rich on a lottery than getting much bigger on an instinctive “plan”.
Getting more advanced implies that you have figured out what works for you, and from that point on training becomes fairly easy. Intensity most likely increase, volume and frequency drop, but at this point it really doesn’t matter, since planning training for advanced bodybuilders can get so complex that the very basic variables tend to be of minor concern since their general rules stop applying to a particular trainee.
There are five basic variables used to program weight training routines – intensity, volume, frequency, rest times and tempo. They’re highly entangled and can be modified in numerous ways, which ultimately leads to the variety and complexity of training programs which a skilled programmer can produce. Variables which are derived from them mostly serve to oversee one’s progress and changes done to a routine, and not to plan the routine itself.
And while bodybuilding isn’t (and can’t) be based on strict rules and numbers, the methodical, systematical approach based on manipulating objective variables, instead of subjective impressions, random changes in routines, and perceived effort, is the best way to go for any athlete, as it allows you to have your entire training under maximal control, making the process of finding your ideal training bracket much easier and more solid.