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by Casey Viator
There’s a lot going on when trying to accomplish a perfect set. It’s more than a simple act of going from the starting position of an exercise through the range of motion to the top of the movement and back to the straight starting position. It’s the way you do the set that makes all the difference in the world between mediocre development and eye-catching winning muscularity.
The set is the basic element of all training. Without proper performance of reps in a set you will never get the most from the many different training systems. The word “repetition” is used to describe the number of times you perform the motion of a particular exercise. A “set” is a series of reps. If you lift a weight up and down through a particular range of motion, say 10 times, then you have done a set of 10 reps. If you do three sets of 10 reps, you can write it down as 3 x 10.
Repetitions are most effective in the 8-12 range. For muscular development per se, more is not better, nor is less. In fact, the maximal benefit from any weight training exercise you will ever do can occur with 10 reps, provided they are done in strict form.
First of all, you should perform an exercise through its entire range of motion, from full extension to full flexion. A fully stretched muscle contracts with greater force than one partially relaxed. When you do a biceps curl for example, your arm should be straight at the start of the movement. When you do triceps curls, your arm should be fully bent at the start of the movement.
In these movements, the biceps and triceps muscles are fully stretched in the starting position. Peak contraction of the biceps and triceps occurs with a full flexion at the elbow. Brace yourself at the start of any exercise. Put your body on alert. Squeeze the handle of any piece of exercise equipment hard when starting a set. That initial act alerts the muscles to the task ahead. It also locks my mind in on the action and prevents injury that may occur from lack of focus.
You have to be particularly careful when doing machine exercises because the isolated movements don’t permit the rest of your body to get set as it does with free weights. You lose your balance factors with machine movement. For example, when you do standing squats with a barbell across you shoulders, you use your entire body to make any compensating corrections.
When you use a supine squat machine, you must align your torso with the movement, otherwise you may suffer an unexpected pressure on your spine. So put you entire body on full alert when you start any machine exercise. Many trainees make the mistake of using body English (or swinging), to hoist the weight. This creates momentum that causes the weight to glide past the mid-point of a rep, limiting the resistance on the muscle.
The muscle being worked must work against the resistance through the entire range of movement for best gains. If you have to jerk the weight to get it started, it’s too heavy. Only when the muscle is properly loaded with the right resistance, will it respond with enhanced tone and development. Proper form is more important than the amount of weight you lift.
Do the rep in a controlled fashion, not too fast and not too slow; a five second rep up and five seconds down. This is usually the best pace for most regular exercises. Sloppy, jerky reps in squatting, for example, put stress on the knee and lower back, ligaments, and tendons and increase the risk of injury.
Most bodybuilding machines are designed to work against gravity. The positive movement, or the concentric contraction or flexion, makes the weight rise. The negative movement, the eccentric action, lowers the weight. Both parts of the reps complement each other and should both be performed with equal intensity.
Employing the negative rep is a way to build strength, especially in your weaker body parts. Have a partner help you raise the weight to the top of the exercise movement. Then lower the weight on your own power, for 8 seconds, resisting all the way to the bottom of the exercise. The negative rep is a popular method for developing the strength areas in chin-ups and dips. Negative reps can cause some muscle soreness, so you might have to wait a day or two before doing them again.
There is also the forced rep, a positive rep performed with the assistance of a training partner. When you have gone to failure on an exercise, a partner applies upward pressure on the bar as you continue to push to complete the muscle contraction. This mobilizes muscle fibers that might otherwise have remained dormant during the action.
Breathing properly during a set is also important. Try not to hold your breath for any length of time during an exercise. Breathing should be normal and involuntary. Top bodybuilders eschew controlled breathing patterns, as they are too distracting and too unnatural. If left alone, your breathing rhythms will adapt to each exercise, usually.
Concentration is also vital for the perfect set. Results come quickly if you keep your mind on your exercise at hand. Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed a private world of concentration years ago when he said, “I think of my biceps filling a room when I’m doing biceps curls.” Most of the pros agree that controlled reps are vastly more effective over high rep casual exercises. The ability to grow rapidly always comes from controlled training. Following these steps will help you achieve this quickly.