Additional Services

Endurance Athlete Consulting covers a broad range of topics regarding human performance in sport, sport related injuries, and rehabilitation. If there is something specific you would like to inquire about, please feel free to email me at:

I am available for speaking engagements and in services regarding aspects about injury, injury prevention, training for specific competitive events, injury treatment protocols, and workplace ergonomic assessments for a healthier work environment.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Meaning Behind Sets & Repetitions

Many moons ago I knew that I would eventually own either my own fitness facility or some kind of facility in which I would be able to do personal training and incorporate a well rounded body-mind-soul-work-play life style.  This was in 1983.  It was my first year in college at Scottsdale Community College.  The corporate wellness boom was in it's beginning years.  Health clubs were popping up such as Nautilus.  But I had something much more specific in mind.  It had to have just the right balance of education, promotion of fitness, prevention of injury...

Finally, in 2002 after receiving my Doctoral Degree I opened my very own clinic!  The name of my clinic was Specialized Exercise & Physical Therapy.  The Specialized Exercise designated that each person coming in is treated with a specific or special prescription just to suit their needs.  After all, physical therapy is specialized exercise mixed with other treatment modalities, manual therapy, etc.  

I began mentoring 1st & 3rd year physical therapy graduate students.  Many of the students did not have an undergraduate degree in healthcare, exercise science, or any other experience with human performance and rehab.  And then many of the graduate students did have exercise science degrees.  But with this one topic (sets & repetitions), there was a commonality with the non exercise science background and the students with business degree backgrounds.

Now, To My Point

Part of being an intern is to become competent with evaluating, assessing & problem solving, and diagnoses.  When it came time to prescribing a rehab protocol, I made it a point with every student to ask why they prescribed the number of repetitions and sets for this person with a specific exercise.  The most common reply was of course to strengthen the muscle, improve joint glide, decrease scarring and so on.

But what I was asking is "specifically, how did you come up with the number of repetitions and the specific number of repetitions?"  There was surely a reason behind it.  Never once did any of the students understand the science behind sets & repetitions.

Here's The Answer!  (Go To The Bottom For The Short Answer)

I'll use the example of performing and arm curl or flexing, pumping, working the biceps.  There is a massive amount of muscle fibers that "recruit" or work to perform this motion against resistance.  Each one of these muscle fibers has a certain amount of "fuel" (oxygen, blood glucose, stored glycogen converted to glucose, ATP, adipose, etc.).  The fuel source depends on the amount of resistance that is being applied and for how long the work is being done.  Again, for our purposes, we're going to be speaking of the blood glucose or ATP fuel source.

So far, we have:

Muscle fibers + Fuel source

Now, let's assume that every muscle fiber in the biceps muscle fired and spent it's fuel source on just one repetition.  If this were the case, there would be no fuel left in the muscle to perform a second repetition.  This raises the question of how is it then that more repetitions can be performed?

Let's go back to the muscle fibers and recruitment.  Out bodies will only use or recruit the amount of muscle fibers necessary to complete the movement against the resistance being used.  

Now we have:

Muscle fibers + Recruitment + Fuel source

Now there's one other component that needs to be added in.  How are repetitions figured in?  There is a very strong science background with regards to the amount of repetitions for developing specific properties of a muscle.

The equation now is: 

Muscle fibers + Recruitment + Fuel source + Repetitions =

Repetitions:      3             6              8             10              12              15              20               25
Per Set 
Weight:          Heavy                                  Moderate                                  Light

Intensity:       Hight Intensity                    Moderate Intensity                  Light Intensity

Results:         Strength                              Muscle Hypertrophy                Endurance                 
               Blood Glucose/ATP                Blood Glucose/Oxygen            Glycogen/Fat Stores

Deciphering The Above Table:

The above table is a general rule to follow when wanting to develop a the type of strength that repetitions indicate.  A very high resistance is going to recruit a much large amount of muscle fibers.  A more stronger motor is needed to move the weight.  When performing this type of repetition, the fuel that is being used is what is immediately available in the muscle fibers that are working.  The muscle needs instantaneous fuel.  There's no time to use oxygen as fuel.  Using oxygen takes time to process through the "Krebs Cycle" in order to convert it to ATP.  Therefore the repetitions that you'll be able to complete will be very low.  When working the muscle to develop raw strength, the rest time between sets will be much greater.  Often, an olympic power lifter will wait upwards of 8 - 12 minutes between sets of just 3 - 4 repetitions.  This time is needed in order for the muscle to evacuate lactic acid and replenish the muscle of fuel necessary for the next set.

As you can see, when moving to a lower resistance, more repetitions can be performed.  This is because fewer muscle fibers are being recruited per repetition.  So while one group of muscle fibers are working, a separate group is resting.  When the first group of muscle fibers have depleted their fuel and are unable to continue working against the resistance, then the resting fibers take over buy not until the subsequent set.

Sets are the last component of prescribing the sum of sets & repetitions.  

From the last paragraph above, only the necessary amount of muscle fibers will recruit or work depending on the resistance.  If the weight or resistance is light, then a large amount of repetitions will be able to be performed.  This is because the fuel source for the amount of resistance or work being done is plentiful.  Eventually though, the fuel will run out and the exhaust or waste product will takes it's place - Lactic Acid or plain overall fatigue.  The muscle fiber will fatigue, and you'll have to put the weight down and rest.  When this point is reached, you've just completed one set.

So, if you want to increase the size of a muscle (hypertrophy), then using a weight in which the muscle fatigues between 8 - 12 repetitions is perfect!  A rest of 40 seconds to 75 seconds is a good rest period between sets for this type of training.  The reason why you want to perform 2 - 5 more sets with this specific exercise is to recruit the total amount of muscle fibers in the biceps muscle.  Remember, during a set of repetitions, only a specifically determined amount of muscle fibers will be working.  The rest of the muscle fibers are resting.  On subsequent sets, the resting fibers work.  Multiple sets are performed to make sure all of the muscle fibers in that specific muscle belly are sufficiently worked in order to make the desired change.

Now Our Equation Reads:

Muscle fibers + Recruitment + Fuel source + Repetitions + Sets = Desired Outcome.  

Short Answer:

Weight lifting/strengthening is goal specific.  To improve the strength or power of a muscle there has to be a large enough force and workload applied to the muscle in order to make permanent change.  By performing multiple sets, this ensures that all of the muscle fibers in a targeted muscle belly are recruited and fatigued enough so that the desired change is made.  This means that by using, for example, a 20 lb. weight and you are only able to complete 10 repetitions, then this constitutes one set of 10 repetitions.  By repeating a set consisting of 10 repetitions even if you have to vary the weight to do so, you are still sufficiently working the muscle to cause an increase in strength and size (muscle hypertrophy).

As usual, email with any questions or concerns!

Good Health To All,

Brad Senska, PT, DPT, BS, ASTYM.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Swimming and Bilateral Breathing

Many seasoned and experienced open water swimmers, triathletes, and adventure racers may already know the importance of bilateral breathing when swimming.  There are several very good reasons for practicing this breathing pattern during swim practice and especially during swim competitions.  Here is a summary of these reasons:
1. You swim a straighter line in open water when breathing bilaterally
2. You are able to see where your competition is on both sides of you
3. Bilateral breathing improves your bodies ability to use available oxygen more efficiently
4. Most important, if you have a long swim and the swim is the first event, then getting out of the water, running to the transition area, and then donning your running or cycling gear will be more fluid, coordinated, and will save you what could be enough time to put you on the podium.
Let me explain each point.  

Number 1:  
I'll use the analogy of driving a car, walking, or riding a bike.  When you look to your right, the normal response when looking to your right or to your left is to head in that direction as well.  The key to performing acrobatics, diving, or other stunts like free style ski jumping is to always look where you want your body to follow.  When I was first learning backflips and double back layouts on a trampoline when practicing for our acrobatics team, the first thing you learn is to lead with your head and eyes.  Our bodies are programmed to follow our line of sight, to follow where our head leads.  In other situations in life, this can be bad news and trouble, but in this context, it's necessary for improving your performance in open water swimming of which a transition to another sport discipline immediately follows.
In summary, if you employ bilateral breathing when open water swimming, you will swim a straighter line and not drift off course as many rookie open water swimmers do.  
Number 2:
You'll know where your competition is on both sides of you.  Knowing where other competitors are is essential especially if you're eyeing someone you've targeted to beat.
You also want to avoid getting too close to someone that may decide to take advantage of your slipstream.  Just as with cycling, speed skating, running, etc., a swimmer can slide in behind you and significantly reduce their energy expenditure in the swim leg.  Once someone does get in to your slipstream, it's very hard to shake them.  You certainly can't zig-zag around.  This would be detrimental to your race.  So, if you know that this person is someone that you are competing directly against for a podium spot, then it just may be that you've given your podium spot away.
Email me and I'll tell you how to shake someone out of your slipstream without putting yourself in the anaerobic red zone.  I'll also tell you how to maneuver around the turn buoys faster and more efficient than your competition. 
Number 3:
Bilateral breathing can have a profound effect on your bodies ability to utilize available blood oxygen more efficiently.  Because your breathing is in a controlled rhythm, this has a secondary effect on your bodies metabolism.  By practicing bilateral breathing, this causes a reduction in the uptake of oxygen.  Your body adapts to and overcomes this oxygen deficit by an increased ability of your body to grab on to un-utililized oxygen that is yet in the blood.
In addition to this, oxygen rich blood is delivered to the working muscles via increased capillary density through anastomosis.  When a muscle becomes short of oxygen and it's ability to perform work, this signals the body to produce more blood delivering capabilities to this area.  This is a process known as anastomosis.
Number 4:
Here is another analogy.  Have you ever played that game where you bend over with your forehead on the end of a bat with the other end of the bat on the ground.  Then for so many seconds or turns you spin in one direction then drop the bat, and attempt to run a straight line without falling or being penalized for going too far off course while getting from point A to point B?
The same thing happens after swimming a 1.5km swim while unilaterally breathing.  You reach the dock or shore, stand up, try to doff your wetsuit and swim cap, and all the while you're trying to run a straight line to the transition area.  But instead, your running into the aisle ropes and other people  Your vision is out of whack, and at times you're falling down because you're too dizzy.  It's extremely difficult, frustrating, and can be very time consuming when trying to focus on donning your running or cycling shoes, glasses, helmet, tuck in a goo packet, or whatever.   
This dizzy and spinning sensation can cause a significantly longer transition time than necessary.  The fluid in your inner ear has been spinning one way for the last who knows how long during the swim leg and is now mis-directing you on which way is up and which way is forward.
The way to fix this is, if you just can't get the hang of bilateral breathing over a long swim course, then switch to bilateral breathing for at least for the last 5 - 6 minutes of the swim leg.  This will normalize the inner ear fluid and straighten out your onboard GPS and guidance center.  You will save you a whole mess of time,  you'll remain upright, oriented, focused, and even at times keep you from tossing your cookies.
So, if you haven't tried bilateral breathing, give it a try in practice.  Take note the line that you swim, the tempo in breathing, the difference in coordination of your swim stroke, and then hop out of the pool and go for a jog around the block just to see how you do.  I think you'll be pleased with the result.

In Good Health & Until Next Time...

Brad Senska, PT, DPT, BS, ASTYM.