Richard A. Winett
Two articles by Winett here.
Another Take on High-Rep Squatting
In his classic Nautilus Training Bulletins, published almost 30 years ago, Arthur Jones talked about the advent of his incredible new variable resistance machines and exciting scientifically based training programs.
He also made it a point to emphasize what he believed was the single best exercise and exactly how it should be performed. The exercise was the standard free-weight squat. While few of us can squat as deeply as Jones recommended -
- we can follow his other time-tested advice, which was to squat for high repetitions. In fact, for the more average person, Jones noted, it's never necessary to use more than 300 pounds on the squat, and for a very strong person the maximum is 400. The key is to use high repetitions. When you can do 15 with good form, the next goal is 20, and so on, perhaps going as high as 30 or more.
High repetition squats have been the mainstay of many programs over the years. Because you have to hold the weight on your shoulders and you quads, hips, glutes and hamstrings are so involved in the movement, squatting seems to have a good effect on the entire body. There's probably nothing magical about 20-rep squats, but when you use higher repetitions, you can use less resistance, your form is usually better, and so the movement is safer than squats performed for low reps - e.g., six to eight - with a typical rep cadence.
I have a new version for you to try.
For countless years I did high rep squats. I was quite good at it and enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the sense of mastery I got from some of my performances. I even got up to 300 pounds for 30 reps. Yet I never really did high repetition squats.
How can that be? In today's parlance performing high repetition squats requires a long TUL (time under load). I never did that. In fact, in order to write this article, I recreated my old style and cadence of doing squats. I did 20 reps in 50 seconds, or 2.5 seconds per rep. When you consider that for most sets I was so focused on moving quickly that I lost my count, so some 20-rep sets were a bit short. So with rare exception I never had a long TUL on those high rep squats.
Using a slower cadence, however, brings an entirely different experience to the exercise. No, I haven't done 20 superslow reps on the squat, but I recently did something that's reasonable. Using about an eight/four cadence (8 seconds down/4 seconds up), I worked my way up to 10 reps with 300 pounds. That's 120 seconds of TUL, and with the slower cadence and focus on form I can keep an accurate rep count. That's quite a set, and I now believe that whatever the benefits are of high rep squatting, using slower reps is a safer way to achieve them.
As with any new exercise and goal, you need to start the process at a reasonable point and increase slowly over time. I suggest starting with 6 reps using the 8-4 cadence (8040 = 72 seconds. 8 eccentric, 0 pause, 4 concentric, 0 pause), and a double-progression system. When you can do 10 reps with a given resistance and reach 120 seconds TUL, increase the resistance by about 5 percent.
With free-weight squats there's also no reason to be heroic and squat to failure. It doesn't matter that you may be inside a wonderful rack or cage, if you lose your position even slightly, you can incur a very serious injury. Do a good set, progress, but finish the set knowing you could have done one more rep.
Interestingly, I found it very difficult to progress with so much time under load. So perhaps I was never meant to be a high rep squatter in the contemporary sense. As with many other movements and bodyparts, I found I could more readily progress with sets that involved 45-60 seconds under load. Ironically, that's about the time a set of high rep squats used to take when I was doing very rapid repetitions but suffering some of the consequences, namely sore knees.
An Anthropological Expedition
During my extended vacation I train at a number of gyms. I'm fanatical about my training, but I also find it interesting to train in different places, especially since I do most of my regular training at home. In fact, I find that visiting and training in different gyms is similar to being on an anthropological expedition.
It's like entering a different culture, with its own sets of mores, behaviors, beliefs and rules. As is true of any culture, everything seems to make sense within the culture but may appear nonsensical to an outsider. Here are some observations from my anthropological tour of West Coast gyms.
In this expedition I wanted to systematize my observations across settings, and as one of my current interest is Rep Speed, I focused on that factor. I simply waited for people to start a set, checked my watch and then counted their reps. Without exception the time to complete a rep was one to two seconds. That isn't one to two seconds for the concentric or eccentric portion of the lift but for the entire rep. Of the 30 or 40 people I timed, no one took longer. The mean number of reps per set was 10, so the mean time under load (TUL) was 10 to 20 seconds. At that speed, however, a good deal of the movement is propelled by momentum, not muscle power, so TUL is really less.
The mean number of sets performed per movement was three to four, and the mean number of exercises per bodypart was also three to four. Except for two men and one woman, no one was particularly strong or had an obvious outstanding physique. So, people who have average genetic potential were performing 9 to 16 sets per bodypart. Since they took considerable time between sets, they were doing long workouts, and while I don't know how frequently they trained, a best guess is several times per week. Thus, I can assume that people are spending a lot of time in the gym, especially when you consider that they're doing long-duration, low-intensity cardio work in addition to weight sessions.
I also made an interesting observation about exercise selection. Except for one man who was using 135 pounds, I never saw anyone doing squats, either free-weight or Smith machine version, and I saw no one deadlifting.
All the gyms I visited offered a class that, from the perspective of my "foreign culture" provides no benefit and is just plain silly - a 30-40 minute "ab-burner." In the culture of the gyms the idea of spot reducing, a biological impossibility, still reigns supreme. The basic notion is that by doing hundreds of lower-intensity reps for your abs, you can both strengthen them and make them smaller through the selective loss of bodyfat. Neither is possible.
You can't strengthen a muscle by doing hundreds of low- or moderate-intensity repetitions. The human body loses fat in genetically programmed ways primarily in response to a calorie deficit. Thus, if there's a sustained calorie deficit, you'll eventually lose fat from your hips and waist, two difficult areas for both men and women, but the fact that you may have exercises those areas will make no difference. In fact, the best methodology for body composition change seems to involve high-intensity resistance training and high-intensity interval training for 15-20 minutes. If simply expending calories were the objective for facilitating fat loss, a brisk walk for 30-40 minutes would do more to spur fat loss than the ab class because it expends more calories. The fact that such classes are often taught by people who have certifications says more about the certification organizations than it does about the people leading the classes.
The same idea seems to be the reason that certain pieces of cardio equipment are popular in the gyms. Machines that emphasize major movement of the legs and glutes will help fat loss if you use them consistently because if you do the movement at a high enough intensity or long enough, you'll burn up many calories. Even so, the machines do nothing to selectively remove fat from your legs and glutes, as so many people seem to believe.
Within the culture of the gyms most of what I observed seemed to make sense. Unfortunately, from the perspective of my training culture, very little of what I saw made much sense. I predict that many of the people I saw won't be training in six months because their workouts take a great deal of time and yet are yielding virtually no decent results.
I'd say that applies to most of those I observed. One of the sobering things about entering that different culture was seeing how well a few people throve on whatever they did. I was abruptly reminded that some people are incredibly responsive to training, and it almost doesn't seem to matter what they do. 10-second sets, flinging weights, 15 sets per bodypart, training every day - it just doesn't seem to matter.
A few of the men and several women had tremendous physiques. It's unfortunate that the critical role of genetics in determining ultimate outcomes isn't appreciated in that culture. Consequently, it's the people who respond quickly and easily to training - and can do almost anything and get results - who are emulated.