20 Aug Optimal Execution of Sets: Why Keeping It ‘Clean’ Will Improve Your Results & Recovery
When you’re training to improve your physique, you want your focus to be on maximising the stress on your muscles and minimising the breakdown of your nervous and endocrine systems.
What I’d like to get into this piece is how the execution of the set itself can impact how you progress, recover and feel in and out the gym.
If you’ve been following my work for while, you’ll know my training principles are heavily based around the following:
- Training with a focus on progressive overload
- Using a moderate amount of volume per workout
- Training muscles twice a week with a variety of rep ranges
What I’ve learnt through trial and error in my own training, as well as years of coaching clients in the gym and reading training logs of online clients, is that to make this style of training successful, you need to be stringent with your set execution to avoid unnecessarily running into early plateaus or burnout in a training cycle.
For the most part, it comes down to picking the right weight.
All too often when reviewing online client training logs in particular, I’ll see a set of eight being written as ‘5,2,1 rest paused’. If you’re doing this, the load is too heavy. Nothing could be worse for long-term training progress.
If you’re rest pausing your way through every set (i.e., taking long pauses in between reps to squeeze out more from the set), your progress will be cut short and you’ll have a hard time recovering.
I used to train like this all the time. I remember doing a program a few years ago where it got to the point every single set became a death set where the last 5 reps would take 10 seconds each to complete, coupled with multiple breaths in between.
It’s safe to say I plateaued very fast, got burnt out and found myself constantly nodding off to sleep from the lack of recovery.
There’s a time and place for these types of sets (think 20 rep breathing squats, widowmakers etc.), but they need to be strategically managed to avoid the drawbacks.
What tends to happen when you execute your sets like this week in, week out is your nervous and endocrine system actually overtrains before the muscles reach their own adaptive limit. If your goal is body composition, this is a disaster for progress, and will only force more required deloads.
I continued to train like this until I tried Scott Stevenson’s ‘Fortitude Training’ in 2015, where a strong focus was placed on optimising set execution to enable training a muscle group 3 to 4 times a week as required, and avoiding nervous system burnout commonly found when training at a high intensity.
Since then, I’ve found these basic rules to work well in maximising muscular stress and minimising systemic fatigue:
- If you’re doing anything less than a set of 6, you should knock the 6 reps out without having to pause too much at the top.
- If you’re doing 6 to 12 reps, pausing once for a 2-3 breaths is fine (mainly for compounds lifts, not isolation – these should always be constant).
- If you’re doing 12 to 20 reps, allow yourself 1-3 pauses if required.
Ideally, you’d want to save these rules for the last set of an exercise only.
Otherwise, you want to intentionally try and drive yourself towards that wall of muscular failure without taking any breaks to extend the set.
This is tough to begin with, because you’ll be accustomed to taking slight pauses as the reps get tough towards the end of a set. If you can fight this, the stress on the muscle, both in an adaptive sense and from a pump perspective, will be immense.
Another common set extension technique is to start altering your technique to squeeze out extra reps. This would be going beyond technical failure, and we never want that.
The most common exercise I see this butchered on is the chin-up, where you’ll start climbing the invisible ladder to add more reps to the set. All you’re doing here is engaging different muscles and using momentum – there’s no progressive overload on the muscles you want to stimulate. As a result, there’ll be no change in your physique.
Training in this manner is difficult, but your training progression will be more standardised and honest for it.
For example, if one week you’re doing a set of 10 on the deadlift with 140kg with no pauses, is it really progress if three weeks later you’re doing 150kg but need three big pauses and change in form to get there?
Another bonus to this method of set execution is that you’ll be less prone to injury too. There’ll be no change in technique, and no reps being performed in an overly fatigued state. Each set will be ‘clean’ and targeted on the muscles, and less on the joints.
Optimal set execution is an overlooked factor in correct training progression, and making overall training cycles more productive.
In summary, the key takeaways are:
- Pick the right weight for your sets
- Keep your training honest by executing your sets in the same manner as you progress in load
- Don’t extend every set in a rest-paused fashion – save 1-2 pauses for your last set if needs be
- Don’t alter your technique to squeeze out more reps
- Maximise the stress on your muscles, and minimise the load on your nervous and hormonal systems.