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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Grouping Weightlifting Exercises for Time-Efficiency

The usual recommended rest period between sets of a weightlifting exercise is 1-5 minutes. Short rest periods are most often used by bodybuilders, while longer rest periods are often used by athletes looking to achieve maximum strength in specific lifts, such as those engaged in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting competition. Most athletes and recreational lifters rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

Since the rest period between sets can account for the great majority of total workout time, some strength and conditioning coaches and athletes favor doing exercises in groups of 2-5, doing a set of each of the exercises in the group, then repeating the cycle 3 or more times before going on to the next group. The exercises within a given group involve different muscles. There is typically little time between sets but, because of the grouping system, more substantial time between sets of the same exercise. Such a routine has been called "multiple mini-circuits." The advantages of this type of program are that:
  • A lot of exercise can be done in a given time period
  • Each muscle group has adequate recovery time
  • Heart rate remains high, affording some aerobic conditioning
  • The body becomes accustomed to intermittent high-intensity exertions, relevant to many sports
The time-efficiency of such a workout is substantial. A typical weightlifting set takes about 30 seconds. If the trainee moves directly from one exercise to the next, there is generally only 30-40 seconds between the end of one set and the beginning of another. Thus, after becoming accustomed to this type of workout, a trainee can typically do 40-50 exercise sets in one hour, without sacrificing weight lifted or repetitions accomplished. In comparison, someone doing sets of the same exercise consecutively, with 2-3 minutes of rest in between, typically completes only 18-24 sets within an hour. Thus, performing exercise in groups allows one to either do twice as many exercises in a given amount of time or to take half the time to do the same number of exercises.

The exercises within a group use different movements and involve different muscle groups. A group might consist of:

  1. Push: bench press
  2. Pull: stack row
  3. Leg: squat
  4. Torso: leg raise
3-5 such groupings make for a comprehensive total-body workout. Done twice per week, this leaves time for a lot of other conditioning activities such as sport drills, plyometrics, distance running, speed work, and agility training.

The results of a research study by Robbins et al. (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol 24, no 5, pp 1237-1245, 2010) supports this type of training. In the study, following a warmup, 16 males performed 3 sets of bench press and 3 sets of bench pulls 2 different ways:
  1. 3 consecutive sets of bench pull beginning 4 minutes apart, followed by 3 consecutive sets of bench press beginning 4 minutes apart, for a total workout time of 20 minutes.
  2. 3 pairs of alternating sets of bench pull and bench press beginning 2 minutes apart for a total workout time of 10 minutes.
Note that both routines provided 4 minutes between sets of the same exercise. Analysis of the study results showed the two workouts similar in effect on the muscles. Both were similar in muscle electrical activity, the amount of weight lifted, and the number of repetitions performed in each set. The study also gave support for grouping more than 2 exercises together, as full recovery was not achieved with 4 minutes between sets of the same exercise.

Medical Disclaimer
This description of exercise practices and experimental results is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a recommendation. Anyone engaging in an exercise program should obtain proper medical authorization before doing so.

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