There's more than one way to lift a dumbbell don't you know? Get to know your EMOMs from your AMRAPs with this expert guide. Your workouts will thank you for it.
The “3x10” mantra for sets and reps is as old as time itself. Since man first raised a weight in vain – or vanity – this simple routine has become the basis upon which every workout is built. We call this “straight sets” – using the same weight for every set. It’s simple to follow, easy to understand, and provides just enough stimulus to spark strength gains.
However, religiously adhering to straight sets can quickly erode your gains, leading to training plateaus that can undermine your progress. That’s when it pays to learn some more advanced reps and sets combinations that will help take your strength and conditioning to the next level.
A staple of CrossFit boxes, these require you to perform a chosen number of reps of an exercise at the start of each minute, for a given number of minutes. With the above example, you would complete 10 press-ups at the start of each minute for 10 minutes in total. The faster you complete each block of 10, the more time you have to rest.
“It’s simple and effective,” says Foster, “but, mainly, it keeps you honest with rest periods. If you work more explosively and complete your reps quicker, you earn more rest to recover. If you work at a moderate intensity and take longer to complete the exercise, you'll have less recovery time.”
Everybody and anybody. “You can use EMOMs for metabolic conditioning, like interval training with sprints or burpees, or for volume-based strength sessions,” says Foster, like the above press-up example.
“For strength EMOMs, choose a low rep range aiming to work a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio,” says Foster. “For cardio EMOMs, choose a rep range that keeps you working for 45 seconds, with 15 seconds of recovery.”
Supersets mean you perform two moves back-to-back with zero rest in between. In the above example, that means 10 reps of biceps curls straight into 10 reps of triceps extensions.
“Ideally you want to work opposing muscles so that one muscle group is resting while you target the other,” says Foster. You can take this one step further with “giant sets” where you combine three or more complementary exercises without rest.
They save time. By working two muscle groups back-to-back, supersets have the double advantage of reducing overall training time, while increasing aerobic demand on your cardiovascular system throughout the workout.
“Supersets are all about chasing gains for the time-poor,” says Foster. They are a mainstay of strength-based training programs, yet they can also improve aerobic fitness. While different muscles might be working for exercise A as for exercise B in a superset, the cardiovascular system will be under the pump throughout.
“Use them sparingly – especially when lifting heavy,” says Foster. With big compound movements, like back squats or deadlifts, you’ll need time to recover before the next set. Supersets are a better fit with isolation moves for agonist and antagonist muscles, like the biceps and triceps, or hamstrings and quads.
Time under tension reps introduce the variable of tempo – most commonly on the eccentric, or lengthening, phase of an exercise. The goal is to keep the working muscle under tension for as long as bearable to stimulate muscle growth, also known as hypertrophy.
In the above bodyweight squat example, the tempo, written as 3210, means you lower for the count of three seconds, pause for two seconds, drive up for one second, pause for zero seconds. That’s one rep.
“Playing with tempo allows you to introduce progressions – especially if you don’t have access to heavier weights when working out at home or on your travels,” says Foster. In the above example, each set lasts for a full minute, whereas with standard tempo squats of one second down, one second up, the muscles are only under tension for 20 seconds.
When performed for hypertrophy, TUT reps are a relatively advanced option, but they are equally useful for newbies, helping make a simple bodyweight squat or press-up harder so your gains don’t plateau.
“You can use TUT reps with any muscle group or exercise,” says Foster. Just beware that any extra time spent in the eccentric phase of a move is likely to increase the severity of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) for 24-48 hours after. Exercise with caution.
Drop sets are savage, a combination of supersets and TUT reps. Pick a weight, lift it until failure, then immediately grab a slightly lighter weight and again lift it until failure, before repeating that process one more time with an even lighter weight. For example, 14 lateral raises with a pair of 10kg dumbbells, 11 at 8kg, nine at 6kg. Those deltoids will light up.
“Like TUT reps, drop sets promote muscle growth,” says Foster. “They also result in a serious pump.” You can take drop sets one step further with “partial” or “half reps”. Here, as fatigue builds, you reduce the range of motion of an exercise to keep the muscle working, even if you can’t muster the full rep.
“Due to the sky high volume and intensity involved, drop sets are ruthless at busting through training plateaus,” says Foster. They’re pretty handy for that pre-beach muscle pump too.
Given how drop sets mean you’re flirting with failure with each set they can be especially taxing on your central nervous system. “Save them for your last set of the day,” advises Foster. And avoid operating heavy machinery for at least a couple hours.
As the name suggests, this method is designed to shock the target muscles into growth. First you perform six reps to create mechanical tension in the target area.
With minimal rest you move onto 12 reps of a complementary exercise to cause microtears in the muscles, encouraging hypertrophy. Finally, you round off the set with 25 reps of another move to build strength endurance and flood the muscles with blood.
Combining three complementary exercises in this fashion challenges the target muscles and joints with varied stimulus and varied volume, ensuring they have no option but to adapt. Typically, this means they get bigger and stronger.
“The shock method is for anyone wanting to build muscle,” Foster says, simply. However, it’s a fairly advanced technique and you’re better served opting for TUT reps first to get your joints and ligaments used to this type of intensity and volume.
“This training method is best suited to short training blocks of six weeks or so, rather than to be used continually,” warns Foster. With the above example, Foster will rest for four minutes between rounds, repeated three to four times per workout, once or twice per week. Presumably followed by a long lie down.
Another core component of CrossFit (and HYROX), AMRAPs are as much a mental challenge as a physical one. “They can get very meditative,” says Foster. The goal is to complete as many rounds – or reps – of a circuit as possible within a given time cap.
In the above example, that means running 1km, completing 20 thrusters, rowing 500m, then ticking off 20 push presses on repeat until 30 minutes elapses. The harder you push, the better your score.
“AMRAPs are great for improving aerobic capacity,” says Foster. That means your ability to use oxygen as an energy source during sustained bouts of exercise, which are the bedrock of fitness for any activity.
“Anyone wanting to step up their cardiovascular fitness, expand their lung capacity, strengthen their heart, lose weight, or test the boundaries of their mental fortitude,” says Foster.
“Always attack an AMRAP with a clear strategy in mind,” says Foster. Remember, it’s just you against the clock so don’t go out all guns blazing. Pace yourself and build into them so you can finish as strong as you started.
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