Want better, faster results? Don’t we all. To get this, you may be looking to important training variables such as exercise selection, sets, reps and rest intervals. However, you might not be considering another important training variable – the length of your sets. Have you ever timed your sets? How long are do your sets in the gym last? And, more importantly, how long should your sets last for you to get the best possible results? Throughout my own personal and professional journey, I’ve stumbled across some important gems that can shed light on this question and help you get better results with your training.
My Personal Story
As a young kid eager to get bigger and stronger, I read everything I could get my hands on in the pre-internet area. Not knowing what I was doing I stumbled around to many different training styles, philosophies and programs. However, I kept finding my best results when I did short, heavy sets. When I tried longer, slower, (e.g. “slow and controlled”, 2 seconds up, 4 seconds down or super slow which is 10 sec up, 5 second down) I kept getting smaller and weaker.
My Professional Story
As a strength coach, personal trainer and professor, I’ve had the chance to work with a ton of athletes, students and clients. I’ve seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also had a chance to learn from some of the best in the business. Here is what I learned.
Warning: you are about to read some big, scary science terms. Don’t be scared. I’ll keep this as simple as I can – and trust me – the application is well worth all the geeky terms.
Set Duration and Energy Systems 101
There are 3 main systems that your body uses to produce energy:
- ATP-CP System: this system provides immediate, powerful energy energy. It is really dominant for the first 10 seconds and then really dies off after 30 seconds. If you are training for strength, speed and power, this is where you want to be!
- Lactic Acid System: this system is dominant from the 30 second mark to about 3 minutes. It is often used in high-rep bodybuilding and endurance training. Running a 400 meter sprint is a great way to experience this system (and lose your lunch). Because it burns sugar without oxygen, it produces lactic acid which gives you that burning sensation in the muscles.
- Aerobic System: this final system picks up where the lactic acid system left off and provides you with a slow, steady amount of energy. If you have ever done traditional cardio, you know this system.
Set Duration and Motor Unit Recruitment
Back in the early 2000’s, neuro physiologist Chad Waterbury started sharing his work with the world on T-Nation. He preached short, fast, heavy sets which I naturally liked as it supported my own training bias. In 2013, Chad Delivered an excellent presentation at the NSCA personal trainers conference where he explained the benefits of short duration sets. If you want to see his whole presentation, click HERE.
Your body has high and low-threshold motor units. The high threshold motor units contain your fast-twitch fibers. This are the fibers that your body uses to sprint, jump, throw or to lift really heavy things. They also have the greatest potential for hypertrophy (muscle size) gains. In addition, they also are very energy in-efficient (i.e. the burn a ton of calories). Therefore, if you want to improve performance, burn fat or build muscle, you want to train these fibers. What is the best way to do it? Heavy sets, fast or high-tension sets lasting 10 seconds or less.
Set Duration and the Endocrine System
Another great coach I have learned from is Cal Dietz. In one of his lectures, he talked about monitoring cortisol levels in his athletes. Cortisol is a stress hormone that causes muscle loss and belly fat gain if it gets out of hand. He found that when sets lasted longer than 10 seconds, he saw a significant rise in cortisol levels. If you are busy and stressed, you likely have more cortisol than you want already. Long-duration sets can make things worse.
Set Duration Autonomic Nervous System
There two branches to your autonomic nervous system:
- Parasympathetic: this is your rest and recover system. This system helps your body rebuild after a hard training session and signals the release of all those wonderful hormones that help you build muscle, burn fat and have a healthy metabolism.
- Sympathetic: this your “fight or flight” system. It amps you up for a big game, a hard training session or a real-life emergency. It is important and life-saving, but too much of this is bad for your results.
About 4 years ago, I watched a great lecture by Andy O’Brien. He talked about training for people who were burned out. He explained that the best approach to restore balance was to do low volume high intensity work and low to moderate volume (i.e. short-duration sets), low-intensity aerobic work.
Set Duration and Life Stress
The last several years have been a challenge for me both personally and professionally. My wife and I have been blessed with 4 young children (7, 5, 3 and 10.5 months). This has meant great joy along with little sleep and almost no down-time. Professionally I’m juggling my strength coaching, teaching, private clients and writing.
The result of this busy phase of life forced me to figure out how to train in a way that allowed me to still make progress. I have found that by staying a little lower on the volume end than I would really like and keeping my sets around the 10 second or less mark, I was able to make steady gains. I got stronger, built some muscle and stayed lean. For “cardio”, I do some short-duration sprints (though not as often as I would like). For health, I do an almost daily brisk outdoor with my wife and kids.
Practical Application: You, Your Sets and Your Results
Next to skill and mental prowess, athletic performance is about explosive strength, speed and power. To build these vital physical qualities, keep your sets less than 10 seconds. Yes, it is fine do some longer sets when doing accessory work for injury prevention or conditioning (see below).
Building muscle is best done with a variety of rep ranges and thus set durations. There is research to support low and high reps sets for building muscle. If you have made the mistake of just being a high-rep pumper, consider adding some heavy, low-rep sets at the beginning of your training sessions. Also, be aware that while many pro bodybuilders do high-rep, long duration sets, that are also using drugs which changes the equation. By all means do some longer-duration sets, but don’t over-do them – especially if your life situation is less than ideal for recovery. Also, pay attention to how your body responds to different set lengths.
Yes, muscle building requires more weekly volume than pure strength training, but you don’t have to limit yourself to high rep training to increase the volume. You can also increase the number of sets, the number of exercises or training frequency per muscle group to accomplish this volume increase. Also, error on the side of too little vs. too much volume if recovery is not ideal for you.
As with muscle building, a variety of reps are great for fat loss. Heavy or powerful short-duration sets will get you stronger and teach you how to expend energy. Heavy training also helps you hold onto muscle. Higher-duration sets (if not overdone) can crank up your metabolism post-workout.
Endurance & Conditioning
If you want to improve your endurance, you will need to do some long-duration work. However, there are decades or research supporting the effectiveness of high-intensity interval training for improving your aerobic fitness and performance. Repeated bouts of 10-30 sec of high-intensity intervals is a great way to get in great shape!
Don’t miss out on short, intense sets. Does this mean I should never train longer than 10 seconds? Of course not. Long-duration sets can have their place – just make sure you consider your goals, your recovery ability and how your individual body responds.
Questions? Comments? I invite you to leave your questions or comments below or on my Facebook Page.