Q&A: Counting Repetitions Or Timing Sets For Better Form?

Question:

If I keep try to keep accurate records, such as doing a certain weight for 4 reps (i.e, 80 seconds), I tend to start getting sloppy in my form just so I can lift that weight longer or use a heavier weight for the same number of reps. I seem to get a “better” workout if I just pick a weight that I can lift for somewhere between 1 and 2 minutes and just concentrate on lifting it with the best form I can until I cannot lift it anymore. This way I just concentrate on working the muscle and not on beating my lift from before.

Some workouts I use a weight that I can do for about a minute, and other workouts I use a lighter weight that takes more like 2 minutes. I do keep mental notes on how much I lifted before so I know in general I’m increasing over time, but I find it hard to do every workout without sacrificing form. How do you keep accurate records without sacrificing form?

Answer:

Part of the reason many High Intensity Training and SuperSlow instructors switched from counting reps to recording time under load (TUL) was the belief it would encourage subjects to move more slowly and reduce or eliminate certain form discrepancies. While people do tend to move more slowly overall when being timed rather than counting reps there is a tendency to rush through harder portions of the range of motion while “sand bagging” in the easier portions to increase set duration.

In both cases the problem is focusing on the measurement – reps or TUL – rather than the real objective of efficiently inroading the target muscles and working them as intensely as possible. The solution is to not count a repetition or subtract it’s duration from the total TUL if you don’t perform it well. You’ll be less tempted to loosen your form or cheat on a rep when you know it won’t count or be added to your time if you do.

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32 Responses to Q&A: Counting Repetitions Or Timing Sets For Better Form?

  1. marklloyd July 31, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Between the continued refinement of Timed Static Contraction, and the post on the RenEx forum that even elite RenEx trainers on RenEx equipment unload here & there, I’d think that limited range reps would be a valid third consideration.

    • Drew Baye August 1, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Mark,

      That depends on the form problems. On some exercises using some types of equipment limiting the range of motion is necessary to minimize unloading. Also covered in Elements of Form in the section on Range of Motion (which I am still working on editing).

  2. Brendan July 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Great question! If I am reading your response correctly in the situation where you are performing a leg press with a 10/10 cadence. 5 reps are performed with 10/10 then on the 6th you perform the negative for 10 seconds but the positive takes 13 seconds and failure is achieved you write up 5 reps and TUL of 100 seconds?

    • Drew Baye August 1, 2012 at 11:13 am #

      Brendan,

      I wouldn’t count a rep that was too fast, but if a repetition takes longer to complete than the prescribed cadence I wouldn’t discount it unless there were other problems with the form.

  3. Steven Turner August 1, 2012 at 1:22 am #

    Hi Drew,

    This question has come at a good time.

    Recently I have being concentrating on “the real objective” and started to notice the amounts of time “sand bagging”. I am not sure if this can help but I started to not look at the previous TUL’s and just focused on the “real objective” of inroading. I now feel that I better “inroad”.

    • Drew Baye August 1, 2012 at 11:11 am #

      Steven,

      The biggest problem is mindset. If you are focused on increasing the repetition count total or the time under load you will tend to perform the exercise in a manner geared towards that. If you are focused on the real objective – efficiently loading and effectively stimulating the target muscles – you will tend to perform the exercise in a manner geared towards that. I talk about this a bit in Elements of Form.

      • Anthony August 1, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

        So just to confirm no increase in weight just a moderate weight which Will gradually result in moderate, hard,and maximal effort to resist the negative portion of the rep from the mid point in most compound moves? On a machine fly would the fully contracted position be better than mid point? Thanks again for any response.

        • Drew Baye August 22, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

          Anthony,

          I’m going to be writing an article about timed static contractions soon which will cover all of this in detail.

  4. Anthony August 1, 2012 at 6:05 am #

    Hey drew quick question about static training I know the boys jt renex are promoting it now big time and I know you have covered it in previous posts.my question is regarding positioning in the most popular exercises. I generally do 3x30second. Holds at 50-75.-100%intensity and I’m just concerned about my positioning in the range of motion. Bench press,shoulder press both done in smith machine wit stops in place its all I have sorry! Wall squat kbt pull down chin up dips are my standard routine done over 2 workouts I feel great doing static only training for city 90 seconds per movement can u please state specifically the angles to hold at. Love ur column and
    always take ur advice on board thank you Anthony from Dublin Ireland

    • Drew Baye August 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      Anthony,

      Timed static contraction should be performed in the mid-range position for majority of exercises and never at or near lockout on compound pushing movements. Rather than three separate 30 second contractions I recommend Ken Hutchins’ TSC protocol of performing a single 90 second contraction consisting of 30 seconds of moderate effort, 30 seconds at almost maximum effort, and 30 seconds of the maximum level of effort you feel safe applying.

  5. Matt McPheely August 1, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Hi Drew,
    Recently discovered your site and enjoying learning. One question: How would you maximize strength for an athlete that is required to train for their sport most days of the week? Understanding that this excess training will not lead to the optimal environment for maximum strength gain, how would the athlete minimize soreness from HIT workouts while still gaining/maintaining strength? Is there a “maintenance mode” that will lead to optimal athletic performance given those conditions?

    • Drew Baye August 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

      Matt,

      Depending on the sport and the intensity, volume, and frequency of practice it can be difficult to increase strength considerably in season. Better to focus on getting as strong and well conditioned as possible during the off season then maintain as well as you can in season. Most athletes are seriously overtrained in practice so I’d keep the volume and frequency of their strength training workouts on the low side to avoid making this worse; just doing the minimum to effectively work all the major muscle groups with an emphasis on the areas prone to injury in the sport.

  6. Thomas August 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    I like what steven had to say. I think, at least for advanced trainees who trains alone, not counting reps or TUL is a great way to go, only increasing the load when they feel ready (with the idea that it should happen sooner or later). I find that pre-workout performance anxiety goes away this way, with less chance of cheating your way into progression. This would only be for advanced, well-seasoned trainees, of course, and those without trainers who can quitely monitor progress.

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

      The key is not to stop keeping track but to keep in mind the repetition count total or time under load are measurements not goals. You have to forget about trying to do more reps, go for more time, or lift more weight and focus instead on working as hard as possible. If you do this you will get stronger, and if you get stronger you’ll have to increase the resistance just to be able to accomplish the real goal within a reasonable time frame.

      • Thomas August 10, 2012 at 9:21 am #

        Well said, Drew. Thanks.

  7. Mario August 5, 2012 at 4:39 am #

    Hi Drew, thanx for all the great info on your site.
    I heard an interview with you where you talked about how good you found rest-pause to work for you.
    I was wondering how to incorporate that a bit in my workouts.
    So I do a regular HIT set of 6-7 reps for an exercise, then wait a few secconds and go to failure again? Should I do it with all the exercises always, or just some of them sometimes. any advice? Thank you

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

      Mario,

      I don’t recommend rest-pause training. While I’ve had good results with rest-pause it is unnecessarily hard on the joints and the same results can be achieved more safely and efficiently with continuous loading if the same level of effort is applied.

  8. Kevin August 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Hey Mr. Baye,

    Do you recommend creatine monohydrate to your trainees? What are the potential benefits and setbacks of using creatine? I’ve tried it on and off over the years, and I’ve always found bloating to take place in my mid section, which makes me look fat or generally bloated. I could never seem to get that completely flat and relaxed stomach that I can achieve when not on creatine, even after a great night of sleep. I haven’t been careful enough to really evaluate other contributing factors such as diet, carbs, alcohol, etc. So, I’m wondering what your take is on this and the best way to use it if you do recommend it. Thanks!

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

      Kevin,

      I’ve seen mixed results with creatine. A few people seem to look a little more muscular when taking it regularly while others don’t notice anything at all. If you do take it I recommend sticking with the recommendation of 5 grams per day since none of the studies I’ve read on it showed any benefit to taking more than that.

  9. Craig August 8, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    I assume that “Elements of Form” will contain much of the information you’ve been putting out in these Q&A’s. So I am wondering what is the status of that book? It seems to have been awhile since you gave us an update.

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      Craig,

      Elements of form contains both a greater amount and depth of information than anything I put on the web site. I’m making decent progress on it despite being busier with clients and equipment design projects and will be sending out another update with a large quantity of additional material edited in soon.

  10. Andy August 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    since training your clients and yourself according to RenEx protocol, especially the 10/10 cadence and emphasizing the lower turnaround, are you noticing more muscle mass increases than before?
    I think you train your clients not only on RenEx equipment, so the results are more comparable to all trainees. I believe muscle hypertrophy is goal number one for most trainees and the results of a training philosophy should be judged accordingly.

    Best wishes,
    Andy

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      Andy,

      Muscle mass increases have been as good as can be expected for each subject considering their age and other factors. For male subjects new to HIT a rate of muscle gain around a pound a week for the first few months is typical if they also eat correctly.

      I’ve been using the protocol doing body weight workouts once weekly on the UXS and despite getting about half as much food and sleep as I should I’ve maintained very well. I’m looking forward to very good results when I catch up on some things and start eating and sleeping normally again.

  11. Steven Turner August 9, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Soemthing I noticed about the olympics.

    One thing I have noticed is that all the athletes when asked about their successful performances all speak about the importance of focusing on “form”, and focusing on the “process” in the pursuit of thier goals. The athletes responses remind me of your comments on teaching proper exercise, “focus on exercise form and the muscle inroading process”.

  12. Arnan August 10, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Drew,

    Just had a quick question regarding strength gains, for me to have any hypertrophy I’ve gotten to the point where I have to have a huge caloric surplus, and along with this I obviously have improvements in strength that follow’s. I know it happens, but I don’t understand how an individual can continue to have strength gains when the neural adaptations have ended (8-20wks) and there’s no surplus of calories.

    Thanks,

    Arnan Sisson

    • Drew Baye August 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Arnan,

      If you are training intensely enough your body will prioritize muscle growth over other maintenance of other tissues and utilize incoming protein and calories for that for a period of time. This is how it is possible for some people to gain muscle while reducing body fat. Obviously this is not indefinitely sustainable, however, and eventually to continue increasing muscular strength and size an increase in protein and calorie intake is necessary. This is something I plan to write about in the next few weeks.

  13. Keith August 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Mr. Baye.

    I’m on my 5th week of HIT and I’m really feeling good about it. I’m noticing my endurance is getting better. However, on my 3rd or 4th exercise, I’m drastically winded and much weaker because of it. Would I benefit with more rest in-between sets? I’m getting about 2-3 minutes, sometimes less between sets. Or, should I just keep hammering on until I’m just 100% winded.

    I watched your videos and I do cycle my body parts each week.

    Thanks,
    Keith.

    • Drew Baye August 14, 2012 at 8:36 am #

      Keith,

      Your results from training have more to do with relative effort than the absolute weight used. As long as you are still pushing yourself as hard as you can during the later exercises using less weight isn’t a problem. Rather than add more rest you should progressively reduce it from two to three minutes down to only a few seconds to improve your metabolic conditioning.

  14. Jim September 5, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Drew,

    I am a part-time superslow trainer and train myself in the same fashion. I am fairly strong I think for just turning 50. I use almost 500lb on the MedX Chest Press for 4 good reps. The other day I went in to a conventional gym with a buddy and was playing around with free weights (dumbbells). I wanted to see if I still had the same strength as I did before I started training superslow style. I was unpleasantly surprised to see I couldnt do the same number of reps or weight that I used to use. Nor could I do that many pull ups. Is that from specificity of training and/or not recovering properly, long enough given that slow method training created a deeper inroad?

    Jim

    • Drew Baye September 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      Jim,

      This is largely a matter of skill. If you were to practice with free weights for a few weeks you could quickly relearn the skills and exceed your previous weights with a conventional repetition performance. Keep in mind the better your form the less weight you will be able to lift relative to your strength, however, since good form makes an exercise harder.

  15. JLMA September 22, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Drew and every one else:

    What do you find is the most practical way or equipment to time sets and to time the 10/10 cadence when you train at home by yourself?

    A wall clock?
    A wrist watch (and, if this one, I do not see how to start the exercise at the same time I start the chronometer)?
    Mental counting?
    how?

    Thank you!

    • Drew Baye September 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      JLMA,

      For lower body exercises which can be performed hands-free you can use a stopwatch worn on a lanyard. For other exercises set a stopwatch or timer where it can be seen without compromising proper head and neck position and remember your start and end times.

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