Sports scientists love to talk about ‘windows of opportunity’, which are the specific periods of time where you can alter your nutrition, training, recovery and other factors to maximise your performance or gains from the workout. There are four fundamental windows of opportunity; the pre-workout period, the intra-workout period, the post-workout period and the rest of your day.
This intra-workout period includes the entire length of time that you are working out or playing the sport. A previously less researched area in the field of sports science, there is now an explosion of studies looking at the many facets of the intra-workout period as ways to promote ergogenicity. Let’s take a look at some of the newest strategies being examined.
Tip 1 - Rest-Pause
Advanced trainers are always looking for new ways to get better results. That’s what separates the wannabe’s from the serious lifters, constant change and innovation. Many of you should know that frequently changing your workout routines is the key to keep the muscle guessing and to promote improved changes and break plateaus.
So often in the gym, there are people who look relaxed in the gym. While the occasional light workout can be beneficial for recovery, unless your muscles are on fire and you feel like you about to have an aneurysm you’re not going to make the gains that you so hope for*. Working to failure is a great way to ensure you shock your muscles our of its reverie and get some serious growth. One method that has been recently examined1, but is by no means new in bodybuilding circles is the ‘rest-pause method’. The key here is to push the muscle continually to failure for a specified number of reps.
Similar to that of drop sets, in which you drop the weight after completing a set to failure, the rest-pause method involves picking a specific number of reps and a specific weight to be used and working till failure to reach the number of reps regardless of the number of sets. The rest-pause method also involves short rest periods of only 20s of rest in between sets; just enough time to replenish yo
ur phosphor-creatine stores2. This method has been shown to coincide with greater muscular activation via EMG analysis.
Here are some of the top tips for using the rest-pause method as a training aid:
- Pick a weight that you can’t do more than 12 reps with before failure.
- Due to its demanding nature, it should be used in between other normal sets.
Tip 2 - The 3 Week Rule
For those of us who train on a regular basis, we hate the thought of an extended break period. Until of course we realise how relaxing it is and how much more time we seem to have to watch UFC or play with your PS or XBOX. Of course, the reason why we may be on an extended break could be completely out of our control, eg, injuries.
It’s important to understand though that it only takes a short amount of time to go from fit to fat3. A period of inactivity in frequently trained individuals means a shift to increased use of carbohydrates as a fuel with a decline in fat utilisation. After 2 weeks, your body begins to step up its fat storage and reduces your muscle glycogen stores.
What all this means is that in a short period of time, while your hard earned gains will mostly still be around, they’re disintegrating at a alarmingly fast rate with negative metabolic changes in your body already occurring.
Here are some tips on how to make the most out of a bad situation:
- Depending on the extent of your injuries, there is usually always something you can do. While rest is important, physical activity during periods of injury or a break can help decrease recovery time and keep you conditioned during your period off regular training.
- With leg injuries consider using novel methods of training including seated boxing, an arm ergometer, etc.
- Consume plenty of protein during this period of inactivity as it will help to conserve your muscle mass.
Tip 3 - The Intra-Set Rest
While the traditional method of resting in between sets has become a norm, there has been less research into the potential of resting in between actual reps for improvements in muscle performance and results. The closest training method would be the rest-pause method described previously, however this involved organising your sets to failure.
The intra-set rest method is more strategic and involves organised, times rest periods between a specific number of reps. I’m sure many of you would already have employed this method previously. Remember that moment when you were 10 reps into a 12 rep set and needed to pause just a little bit longer before completing the next rep? By allowing set rest periods within the set, you can help decrease losses in muscle power and/or velocity, meaning you can work with high efficacy for the whole set.
Here are some top tips on using the intra-set rest periods as a training aid:
- As with the rest-pause method, it is best to use it on machine based exercises, unless you have a spotter.
- While there are no set recommendations as to when you should rest or for how long, the best method thus far4 is to incorporate 1-3 rest periods of 12-60 seconds within sets. The more reps in between rest points, the greater the period of rest.
- For shorter periods of rest, it may be better to simply hold the weight at a contracted position, however it is important to remember to breathe. This is because holding your breath in any isometric contraction could mean a dramatic rise in blood pressure which is not something you want.
- While the evidence for intra-set rest periods is best for muscle power and force velocity production, its effect on muscle hypertrophy is still under investigation, so this method should be used every so often rather than every time.
Tip 4 - Cool It Mate
The use of cold packs or other forms of cold treatment on exercise damaged muscles has always been an interest in the sports science community. Aside from calming down hot headed bodybuilders, the use of cold treatments works by reducing internal body temperature and thus slowing down the activity of certain enzymes such as creatine kinase from initiating muscle damaging enzymatic reactions.
The research into the ergogenic potential of the rest periods in between sets has exploded in the last decade or so with interest into the length and quality of these rest periods. Recently, there has been increasing interest in the use of ergogenic aids for the rest period including cooling packs5 applied to the exercising muscle.
Cooling packs applied to the exercising muscle in between sets has been shown to increase the number of repetitions performed without significantly affecting the extent of muscle damage. The practicality of bringing ice packs to the gym may be a bit of an issue, but stands as another possible way to increase the intensity of your workouts. Plus it can double as a drink cooler.
Here are some top tips for using ice packs as a training aid:
- Remember to bring at least two ice packs as there are few instances where you will be working unilaterally.
- This method is best employed for training sessions in which the endurance capacity of the muscle is the prime focus.
Tip 5 - The Sticking Point
During most if not all resistance exercises, there exists a ‘sticking point’, which is the point in the exercise where we are the weakest. While the exact cause for it is still unknown, it is believed to be most likely due to mechanical disadvantages at that specific position. In general, this point exists about halfway between the lowest point and half of the total distance of the movement.
Often, this point is where most people tend to fail in their lifts. Working past this point is the key in building up maximal strength. Recently, a study6 was able to show that lifting weights around the sticking point can help improve strength during particular exercises.
Here are some top tips for using sticking point training as a training aid:
- A spotter is absolutely necessary for this type of training if you are using free weights and even on machines.
- Start with around 50% of the heaviest weight you generally use and focus on controlled lifting between the bottom of the movement to halfway of your usual range of motion.
- As with other novel methods of training, it is integral to use this type of training in between your normal sets.
Tip 6 - IAK
Most seasoned trainers would have heard of supersets, in which you exercise an opposing muscle group directly after exercising the target muscle group. For example, completing a triceps exercise after working the biceps.
The theory behind this particular method is that working on the antagonist or opposite muscle will stimulate the Golgi Tendon Organ, a specific part of your muscles which inhibits the antagonist and then stimulate the agonist or the targeted muscle.
Superset training is also a great way to dramatically reduce your workout times. However, this type of training can also be extremely tiring, especially aerobically. An alternative would be to isometrically7 activate the antagonists without actually lifting. This can be done easily by using a machine that exercises the opposing muscle group and setting the pin to the greatest setting. And then trying to complete the exercise. While, you may not be able to lift the weight per se, you’d be activating the opposite muscle group isometrically, hence targeting the Golgi Tendon Organs.
Here are some top tips for using IAK or Isometric Antagonist Knockout training as a training aid:
- Aim for an isometric contraction of between 6-8 seconds.
- Remember to continue breathing as not doing so can increase your blood pressure dramatically.
The intra-workout period of time is a fascinating period of time for increasing your ergogenic and recovery potential. No doubt, more and more research will be examining this specific ‘window of opportunity’, however, in the meantime, why not try the above tips to train smarter and boost your workouts.
* Only kidding, settle down.
_1. Marshall PW, Robbins DA, Wrightson AW, Siegler JC. ‘Acute neuromuscular and fatigue responses to the rest-pause method.’ J Sci Med Sport. 2012 Mar;15(2):153-8. Epub 2011 Sep 21.
2. See article on Creatine - http://www.mrsupplement.com.au/creatine
3. Mujika I. ‘From superfit to superfat.’ Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2011 Sep;6(3):293-4.
4. Hansen KT, Cronin JB, Newton MJ. ‘The effect of cluster loading on force, velocity, and power during ballistic jump squat training.’ Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2011 Dec;6(4):455-68. Epub 2011 Jul 29.
5. Galoza P, Sampaio-Jorge F, Machado M, Fonseca R, Silva P AV. ‘Resistance exercise inter-set cooling strategy: effect on performance and muscle damage.’ Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2011 Dec;6(4):580-4. Epub 2011 Aug 30.
6. Appleby B and Cormie P. ‘The change in bench pres strengthdue to 6 week high or low rack bench press intervention.’ Journ. of Strength & Cond. Resear. 2012 Feb: 26 Supp. 1: S13
7. Ebben, WP et al. ‘Antagonist knockout training increases force and the rate of force development.’ Journ. of Strength & Cond. Resear. 2012 Feb: 26 Supp. 1: S62