Man lifting a barbell doing a strength and muscle workout

The 7 workout variables for a fat-burning and muscle-build session

Build the bigger, stronger and leaner body you want by understanding how the seven key workout variables combine to create the ultimate weight-lifting workout, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey

Each weight-training workout you do is made up of a combination of different elements. These elements are better known as “workout variables”.

There are seven key workout variables: exercise selection; exercise order; sets; reps; tempo; rest period; and weight selection.

It’s progressive changes to these workout variables that makes each training session that little bit harder. Why? So you keep making progress and get to the finish line looking and feeling better than ever!

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The 7 key workout variables

Hit the link to go straight to that section and find out more about that workout variable

1: Exercise selection The different exercises or lifts you perform in a workout, which determines which muscles you train in that session
2: Exercise order The order in which you perform the exercises in an workout
3: Sets The number of times you perform a group of reps (short for repetitions)
4: Reps The number of times you perform an exercise without stopping for rest
5: Tempo The speed at which you perform each rep
6: Rest The time you have to recover between sets and and between exercises
7: Weight The amount of resistance you lift for each set

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Workout variables: progressive overload

The most obvious workout variable that changes from session to session is exercise selection. Why? Because the moves you do determines which muscles you work. Weight is another important variable to change. In an ideal world you’ll lift slightly heavier weights for the same move with each passing week. The key to building your best-ever body is to keep pushing your muscles a little harder as you get fitter and stronger.

The importance of each workout variable

However, all seven training variables are important and have a big role to play in the success of your transformation. That’s because they are all inter-linked, and the setting for one variable has a direct impact on the others.

For example, the number of reps in a set will determine how heavy a weight you can lift. A high-rep set of 12 or 15 reps means you’ll need to select a much lighter weight than if doing a set of 5 reps.

Similarly, a tempo of 2011 means you’ll need to go lighter than when doing 1010, because slower reps take longer to do and place more tension on your muscles, which will fatigue them faster. And a short rest period between sets means you can’t lift as heavy, because your muscles don’t have enough time to fully recover.

Here’s how the seven workout variables in more detail, how they work together, and why each one is so important.

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1 Exercise selection

This workout variable determines the muscle group or groups that you work in that session. All of the New Body Plan fat-loss training programmes use one of the following approaches.

Total-body sessions

A total-body session is a workout in which all of your major muscle groups get trained. Most bodyweight workout programmes use this approach, typically in a circuit-style workout, because they are very effective at raising your heart rate to burn the maximum number of calories. These total-body circuit sessions can also using weight-training kit, including dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells.

Upper-body and lower-body sessions

A plan based on doing upper-body sessions and lower-body sessions is a very popular approach when following a dumbbell training plan, or a programme using barbells or gym machines.

An upper-body session targets the chest, back, shoulders and arms. A lower-body session hits the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. This upper-lower body-part split strategy is a great approach for people new to lifting weights because it works all the major muscle groups and burns a lot of calories.

Complementary muscle group sessions

A more advanced approach to lifting weights is an exercise selection strategy that combines “complementary” lifts. That’s when you work different muscle groups that move in similar ways in the same session.

A prime example is pairing the chest and triceps together in a workout. That’s because the movement pattern for both muscle groups is a “pushing” action. For every chest and triceps move you “push” the weight away from your body.

Another classic example is a back and biceps combination, and these two muscle groups are often trained together because the movement pattern is a “pulling” action. For every back and biceps move you “pull” the weight towards your body.

Opposite muscle group sessions

Another more advanced exercise selection strategy combines “antagonistic” exercises that work opposing muscle groups, such as in a chest and back session, or a biceps and triceps workout.

It might also included working unrelated muscles groups, such as combining the legs and shoulders together into one workout. These approaches are effective in working multiple muscle groups hard in a short amount of time to force them to grow bigger and stronger

Single muscle group sessions

Another advanced approach, which requires training up to five or six times per week, is to focus  your training time on a single muscle group per session. This allows you to target each muscle with a lot of training time to grow the biggest possible muscles.


2 Exercise Order

The order in which you perform the exercises is very important. That’s because it has an impact on the training stimulus you place upon on your muscles, and your body.

Exercises can be performed individually in straight sets, in pairs in a superset, or in a group of three in a triset. Groups of four moves are called giant sets, while five or more moves together are moving into circuit-session territory. Each set strategy has a different impact on your muscles, and therefore your results.

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3 Sets

A set is the number of reps you do iwithout stopping. Three of the most common set strategies are straight sets, supersets and trisets.

Straight sets

With straight sets you do all the sets of the first exercise, numbered exercise 1, then move on to exercise 2. You follow this pattern until you’ve done all the sets of the final lift of the session, at which point the workout is finished. Straight sets allow you to lift the heaviest weights, because you can focus on one exercise at a time, and typically get more rest between sets.

Supersets

In a superset you do a set of the first exercise, called the A move, then a set of the second exercise, called the B move. There may or may not be a rest period between the A and B moves, but there is always rest after the B move before you return to the A move and repeat the superset.

Once you’ve done all the sets of both the A and B moves the superset is completed. You may have to lift lighter weights in supersets, especially for the B exercise, than when doing either the A or B move as a straight set. That’s because there’s typically less recovery time between exercises and sets to fatigue your muscles faster.

Trisets

In a triset you do a set of the first exercise, called the A move, then a set of the second exercise, the B move, then a set of the third exercise, the C move. There may or may not be a rest period between the A and B moves, or the B and C moves, but there is always rest after the C move before you return to the A move and repeat the triset.

Once you’ve done all the sets of all the moves the triset is completed. You may have to lift lighter weights in trisets, especially for the B and C exercises, than when doing each move as a straight set. That’s because trisets are designed to fatigue the  muscles thoroughly, so you don’t get much time to recover between exercises.


4 Reps

Short for repetition, a rep is the completion of a given exercise through its entire range of motion from the start (or top) position to the end (or bottom) position and back to the start again. Your target number of reps per set has a huge influence on your weight selection. That’s because too heavy a weight means you won’t be able to do all the reps, or at the stated tempo.

As a general rule, lower rep-sets (under five) done with heavy weights build strength or power. Rep-counts in the eight to 12 range are geared towards building muscle, known as hypertrophy.

Sets with more than 12 reps improve muscular endurance, but also have a role to play in hypertrophy because they fatigue a lot of muscle fibres.

Training variables: rep ranges explained

1 to 5 reps
Training aim: Increasing muscle strength and power
Weight: 85-100% of your one-rep max for the lift
Muscle response: Low-rep sets of heavy weights build strength and power. That’s because they recruit and fatigue your fast-twitch muscles fibres, which are responsible for muscle explosiveness. This rep range also improves the communication pathway between your brain and muscles. That helps them contract faster and with more force to make them stronger and more powerful.

6 to 7 reps
Training aim: Optimal compromise between increasing muscle strength and size
Weight: 75-85% of your one-rep max
Muscle response: Sets in this rep range will still work your fast-twitch muscle fibres and improve the mind-to-muscle communication connection. But performing more reps will also fatigue more muscle fibres more completely to result in improvements in both size and strength.

8 to 12 reps
Training aim: Increasing muscle size and improved strength
Weight: 65-75% of your one-rep max
Muscle response: The most effective approach to build lean muscle is for each set to last between 40 and 70 seconds. Sets in this rep range – when combined with a controlled tempo – will allow you to hit this time target with a weight that is heavy enough to fatigue the muscles thoroughly, but not so heavy that you can’t do all the reps, or maintain correct form.

13+ reps
Training aim: Increasing muscle endurance and improved size
Weight: 60-65% of your one-rep max
Muscle response: Using lighter weights combined with a high-rep range recruits and fatigues your slow-twitch muscle fibres. These are primarily responsible for muscular endurance. Sets in this rep range also improve the ability of these fibres to deal with a build-up of lactic acid and other waste products that accumulate during lifting, which cause that “muscle burn” feeling. These sets also drive a lot of blood into the muscle, making it swell up and cause a muscle “pump”, and so also have a role in increasing muscular size.

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5 Tempo

Tempo is the speed at which you lift and lower the weight for each rep. It is often the most neglected training variable. But it’s one you can’t afford to ignore if you want to build a better body. The more time you spend on each rep the harder your muscles work to manage and control the load. This period of muscle workload is called “time under tension”.

The longer the time under tension, the greater the damage done to your muscle fibres. Your body must then repair this damage and rebuild your muscles bigger and stronger. Another benefit of using tempo correctly is injury prevention. Slow and controlled reps keep tension on the working muscles. Fast, explosive or uncontrolled reps can shift stress to your joints, ligaments and tendons, which risks injury.

To know how quickly you should perform each rep, every exercise in every New Body Plan is given a four-digit code.

Training variables: tempo explained

Here’s what each of the four tempo numbers mean.

•The first is the time in seconds you lower the weight (lengthen the muscle).
•The second is the time inseconds you pause in the bottom position.
•T
he third is the time in seconds you lift the weight back up (contract the muscle).
•The fourth is the time in seconds you pause in the top position.

In the example of a dumbbell bench press with a tempo of 2010, you’ll lower the weights down to your chest (the bottom position) in two seconds with no pause at the bottom. Then press it back up in one second (to the top position), with no pause at the top.

For a dumbbell biceps curl with a tempo of 2011, you’ll lower the weights down in two seconds, with no pause at the bottom. Then lift it back up in one second, with a once second hold in the top position where you squeeze your biceps hard.

For exercises with a tempo of X you perform the rep explosively, so as quickly as you can whilst maintaining correct form.


6 Rest Period

Rest is the amount of time in seconds you rest between sets, and between exercises. The duration of your rest periods is one of the most crucial workout variables because it has a big impact on your how you lift. Why? Because when you lift weights you push your muscles out of their comfort zone to make them grow them back bigger and stronger.

But there’s only so much work they can do before the muscles’ energy stores are depleted. This ends their ability to do additional reps with good form. Resting refuels your muscles so they can start lifting again.

Rest period timing

Not resting for long enough between sets and exercises means your muscles don’t have enough time to recover to perform the next set or hit the rep target. Too much rest means you lose your training focus and fail to stay in “the zone”.

You’ll therefore fail to place a sufficient stimulus on the muscles to force the growth response you want. In some supersets and trisets there is deliberately zero rest between exercises. That’s because the aim is to fatigue as many muscle fibres as possible to shock your muscles into growing back bigger and stronger.


7 Weight Selection

This workout variable is the one on which most people fixate. It goes without saying that the weight you lift for each move has a big impact on your results. The weight should be heavy enough to make you really work for those final few reps of each set, without compromising your form. Here’s everything you need to know about how to pick the perfect weight for each exercise.

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