Great sets make great workouts. The more shapely, smooth and safe one’s sets are, the more structurally sound they will be, like good engineering foundation to a building – the better one’s workout will be. Simple right?
Not so fast. Lets break it down.
A great workout needs to transcend ego training. It needs to rise above fear but stay within the safety umbrella. It needs to progressively take you beyond your tolerance levels. Your self-imposed limitations. It must, within the limits of personal experience in the gym and domain knowledge, allow the person to feel what I call the ‘essence’ of each exercise. The aim of a good workout is to gain as much as possible as economically as possible, within a specified time-frame.
A set could be short, right and nice. Some people prefer that.
A set is a little miracle and a critical link to a successful workout. A miracle because of the way it makes you feel, when you do it right and nice. A number of repetitions make up a set. A set in weight training refers to the way we move a weight from somewhere to somewhere else. It metaphorically tells a short story – of what is, of what happens, of who did what and of what is done, when it is done.
All sets have a definite finishing point. It carries a trainee from calmness to acstacy, from being dry to sweaty and pulsating. From nothing to something.
A set in bodybuilding is as critical to a workout as a river is to a whole catchment. Namely, everything. The part serves the whole, it is what the whole comes down to. You see, sets alone or sets of exercises laid out in no particular order may get you sweating and burn calories but does not fit in to an organized pre-designed plan: 2 sets of 10 reps of squats. 45 reps of dead-lifts. Huh? Why? For what purpose? What goal?
Oh, I get it. Sets are part of a story.
I like to think of a workout that a person carries out is a short-story. His/her story through physical expression. Meaning needs to arise. How does meaning arise? It may happen because a suitably experienced personal trainer puts the sets and exercises into an order that allows meaning and purpose. Why do we need meaning/purpose (refer to my previous blog: don’t be a rudderless ship for some insight).
There is in each and every one of us humans, an innate need for story, for storytelling, for relationships between disparate things. For causality. We all like to make sense of and recognise patterns in everything in life, including the performance of sets of exercises in the gym. A set in a workout needs to be structured with the correct number of repetitions, weight, tempo to allow the gym trainee to see and allows us to discover meaning to patterns – and for storing and repeating them in body, mind and spirit for the future.
When you see the interrelationship, when you observe and feel the connection between the set and the workout – it is like pure art. It is like beautiful music. Like sex. What you get is sets performed – simple, compound, complex and compound-complex. Interspersed with rest periods and water/liquid breaks/chat breaks/toilet breaks.
Like sex. Orgasmic, really.
Even when you think you understand the interrelationship between the set and the workout. You don’t. You realize you don’t understand the chemistry and mystery behind it that give meaning because every time you perform each set, keeping all variables constant, the feeling and result is different.
How is that so? One can learn patterns by which this simple-complex system, the set, works. But how you get different results, different effects from the same cause is as mysterious as the soul of a man or woman or the origins of the universe. It comes down to the different mental states people are in at any point in time. A mystery at the best of times.
A set as I like to define it is a “15 to 45 second focused moments”.
People can understand a whole workout program without ever knowing the ‘essence of the exercise’ when performing a set. I have seen this in people who have trained with weights for many, many years. When you perform sets of exercises in the proper manner, you have rhythm and when you do it well enough you not only get meaning but you make music. It is music in motion! Great sets make great workouts.
Great workouts include long and short sets. Long and short ‘focused moments’. Complex and simple and complex-simple.
Workouts of the rich and famous have gotten ridiculously short and everyone seems to be after the shortest workout in our every-increasingly busy, instant gratifying western societies. Workouts that include only short sets for an even shorter workout is to say the least, hypocrisy personified. People want to get all the health benefits of working out but don’t want to put in the work. Everyone wants to know how much less and less they can get away with fewer exercises when the are in the gym.
“Here it is”, an newspaper article or tv broadcaster would say “get the body you want by only spending 5 minutes in the gym once a week”. How ridiculous is this? Do you think Michael Phelps got the results he desired by spending only 5 minutes in the pool? Do you think Tiger Woods got the results he got by spending only 10 minutes out on the golf course? There are many more examples in every field in life. They got that way because they spent countless hours deliberately practicing certain habits within a structured and planned program over many years. Not 5 or 10 minutes!
Well I have news for you. There are many ways to perform a set, and a serious gym enthusiast should employ most of them, if relevant. Just as a golfer would use different golf clubs for different strokes, a gym trainer would use different sets. Some of your sets should be short – yes; some should be long; some may even be what I call a ‘midget-set’ – a sub-set of a set. Each set has a unique tempo to it depending on where they fall in the workout and purpose.
The point is to mix them up.
Mix them up within an overall workout goal and plan. You need meaning and purpose in your workouts to get the most out of them. Mix them up, like an ecosystem or local community, a workout thrives on diversity and mastery of execution. Just like a democratic society.
You see, I have had many, many workouts and have done many, many sets and spent many, many hours in the gym with deliberate practise over the last 23 years or so. One thing struck me as odd and interesting – some workouts took less than twenty minutes and were very short, some took almost all morning. Usually, these long workouts happened because I did not have any particular time set in mind to do them. Instead, I made a conscious choice to take the time. In the shorter workouts, I didn’t take the time. I got lost in the workout, enjoying the highs and lows of each set, sculpturing away.
Each workout still done with pleasure.
Each set and workout had no fixed intrinsic amount of interest. Instead each set and workout were interesting and pleasurable as long as I chose to focus and give my attention to them. Its similar to a surfer being out in the surf or a golfer out on the golf course for hours trying to hit a small ball in little holes. Or a swimmer doing laps in the pool or a person knitting a patterned jumper or a man spending hours servicing his car. Or a tennis player playing tennis. Why do they do it? How long?
Same answer as each of these activities would give – as much time as you care to give it. Not an infinite amount of time, but more time than you first imagined.
So, put away the clock and time-piece and lose yourself in your sets – your workout. “Feel” each repetition of each set of each workout. Make the last rep as good as the first. Give more meaning and purpose to your workouts.
Make music. Allow yourself to make music with motion. Find your rhythm.
Give each type of set a chance – a voice, sometimes without the constraint of time. Give your least favourite exercises a try – an avenue to be heard.
You may just like what you see and feel (and hear).
This is what I call a democratic workout. Try it sometime.
Until next time,