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Making the Case for Timed Blocks in Lieu of Sets

Updated: May 15, 2020

You ever catch yourself wondering why we program 5 sets of “X” for this, or 3 sets of “Y” for that? Yea… me too. For years I’ve wondered about empirical volume, and to be frank, there is still a hell of lot left to be desired in regard to an empirical answer. Another one of those elusive strength training questions that has a highly variable answer, depending on where you look. Nevertheless, our job is to provide the exact amount of physical/physiological stress for our athletes to create adaptation, without tipping the scales and inducing overtraining symptoms. The truth is, there are far more coaches living in the consistent undertraining realm, not providing enough for their athletes, than there are coaches creating true overtraining syndrome. The caveat to that is, undertraining is almost equally as damaging to the athlete as overtraining is. Think of it like a platoon going into combat only having trained with water guns before deployment. Yea, far from a favorable situation.

In either case, overtraining, or undertraining, the outcome is athletes not being adequately prepared for what matters most- their sport.

At least once or twice a month I carve out some time to myself to simply reflect on how my training has been going. I pull my spreadsheets out, along with my pen and notebook and just observe what I’ve been programming, how the outcomes materialized, and where I can tighten things up or optimize. I do this for every athlete I coach, as well as for my own training. I’ve been practicing this little ritual for about a year now and have made some key adjustments to my coaching and training by doing so.

There are also the happenstantial adjustments and modifications- the ones that just seem to occur serendipitously, the ones that occur without my intention or even preference, and the ones I just directly steal from other coaches I see or follow on social media. And then, there are the adjustments that are berthed purely from necessity, the ones that we have no control over, and we are simply left to “make the most of what we have”.

My schedule picked up in a major way back around November, jettisoning me from cruise control to frantic in a matter of days. Adding to that, the dreadful holiday season was approaching, and we were about a month out from launching RRSC. So to say time had seemingly vanquished would be an understatement. I was making the first real progress with my own training in longer than I can recall (or I’m comfortable admitting), and I was nothing short of pissed that yet again my lifts were going to have to be put on the backburner. That is, until I made the decision to try organizing my training based off of timed blocks, rather than prescribing sets. What may seem to possess minimal, if any, significance, has unequivocally the best thing I’ve done to optimize my training in a very long time. Allow me to explain…

Anyone who knows me personally, knows the enduring fascination I have regarding time. Make no mistake about it, training related or otherwise, time governs us all, in everything we do. Our primary responsibility is to be masters of efficiency with regard to time; doing our best to saturate every second we have now, without compromising or losing sight of the unknown amount we have left. When it comes to training, this premise is empirical, invariable, and non-negotiable.

I’m a full-blown extremist, which works against me far more frequently than it does for me. If I can “only get some” of what I want or need to get done, I’m one of those idiots who just prefers to do nothing at all. This is the part of me that really limits my progress in my own training. I generally get about 90 minutes in the middle of my day, which is exactly enough time to get a solid lift and some lunch. So, when I was hit with this schedule shift, I decided to write my own program as time blocks, and completely omitted any set prescriptions. Figuring if I strictly have an hour each day, I need to find a way to maximize it. Here’s a snippet of how this is laid out:

How it works:

I write my programs using 3-week mesocycles, more often than not. With that, I assigned a designated time block for each week that repeats itself throughout the entire macrocycle, or program. Meaning, if we use a hypothetical 9-week program, weeks 1/4/7 are 16-minute blocks, weeks 2/5/8 are 18-min. blocks, and 3/6/9 20-min. blocks. Within the workout itself, these time designations are applied to each individual training block, where block 1 is primary lifts, block 2 compound auxiliaries, and block 3 isolated auxiliaries. Recall that exercise selection and sequence should be organized in a hierarchical, or “totem pole” type fashion. Meaning the most demanding and most important exercises should be done first, and everything else follows thereafter.

Based on the way I organize training, I typically have one lift in block 1 (bench/squat/clean/etc.), two exercises in block 2 (landmine variations/RDLs/split squats), and three exercises in block 3 (triceps variations /lunges/reverse hypers). What this creates with the time block set-up is 16/18/20 minutes designated to one single lift in block 1 *most important*, split between two lifts in block 2 *second most important*, and divided among three exercises in block 3. Ultimately this equates to training sessions running 48, 54, and 60 minutes, respectively, not including warm-up and set-up.

Make sense? Perfect.

Additionally, as you can see at the bottom of the second image, there are suggested rest ranges associated with each mesocycle as well. Another tidbit I’ll throw in here is that assigning strict rest time, or what is considered by textbook to be appropriate rest times are often impractical. Again, in a perfect world, I’d mandate that my athletes take 5 minutes of rest after a set of power cleans at 90%. But unless we’re planning on never getting more than 3 sets in, or nixing any auxiliary work altogether, we just can’t rest for that long. Therefore, I assign a range giving them a minimum that I know is at least sufficient, but in reality, I’m just putting it on the athlete to simply “take what they need” and avoid limiting them with unnecessary rest.

So… what’s the point?

I’ve boiled this down to three primary points- efficiency, autoregulation, and “being the springboard”.

1.) Efficiency

I’ve already touched on how this optimizes the allotment of time we have for training. But I’ll add to that by saying that the focus of the sessions seems to be heightened as well. Again, we’re no longer working against an excel sheet or our own vigor. We’re working against the clock and our previous performances. By doing so, we’re building objectivity into our training, which more often than not creates a favorable setting. Rest time is no longer spent meandering or procrastinating, we’re now eager to get into our next set. This sets the tone for the session and in many ways creates a great high energy flow for the coach and athlete alike.

2.) Autoregulation

There are numerous ways to build autoregulation into your training model. Loosely, autoregulation is simply adjusting training variables (i.e. intensity, reps, rest time) on the fly to help facilitate a more appropriate training stimulus for that specific day. As any other strength coach can attest to, I’ve spent years putting together various excel templates in search of the ever elusive “perfect program”. No matter how many ways I tinker with things or what methods I implement, it’s never a flawless outcome. The human organism is just too complex, it’s irrational to think we can forecast human physiology (not to mention life variables) weeks in advance. With timed blocks, we do what we can, with what we have. No more, no less. We no longer feel slighted when we finish our 5th set still ready for more, nor do we feel admonished by dragging ourselves to the finish line of 6 sets. It’s a remarkably simple adjustment with enormous benefits.

3.) Be the springboard, not the barrier

This essentially goes hand in hand with the point above. As a coach, it is our fundamental duty to make athletes better using exercise as the medium. At the root of this fundamental duty is to continue to create ways to optimize training for our athletes. Rather than thinking we know exactly what our athletes need and scripting excel sheets we feel are perfect, remove the variable and let them show you what the empirical volume for the day is.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

I don’t have any data to back any of this and haven’t been able to find any studies to really illustrate this concept. So please be mindful that everything I’m touching on in this article is strictly anecdotal. That being said, I can say with confidence, that both the athlete’s I work with and my own training have improved substantially since making this adjustment. These are the four primary things I’ve noticed with this timed block set-up:

1.) Increased cardiac/metabolic effect

I’ve never been a big cardio guy, and by that I mean, anything over 5 reps for me is a cardio workout. When I switched to timed blocks, one of the first things I noticed was I wasn’t nearly as fatigued going through my sets. I believe it was around week 3 of my first timed block program where I really noticed this. I went from getting 3-4 sets in a 16-min. block to 4-6 rather quickly. Additionally, I didn’t need as much rest time between sets, what used to be 3-4 minutes of rest needed, suddenly became closer to 90 seconds-2 minutes.

2.) Increased psychological drive

With timed blocks, I’m no longer dragging myself through “5 sets of X”, while begrudgingly staring at my excel sheet. Rather, the timed blocks give me an external point of focus, or competition, to beat. Now, I look to see how many sets I got in the previous week with the same time designation and pushing myself vigilantly to beat the amount of sets. This has been my favorite part of this adjustment, it feels like this has singlehandedly reinvigorated my tenacity for lifting.

3.) Decreased wasted/unnecessary sets

We all know the days… for no identifiable reason or explanation, you just don’t have it. The days where 80% feels like a PR attempt or sets of 6 may as well be sets of 60. This is probably the most objective difference between the two program layouts. For most people, if the training agenda for the day says 6 sets, well then… we’re getting 6 sets in, no matter what. This is archaic, moronic, and most of all unnecessary. You must keep in mind that there are an unquantifiable number of variables that contribute to “how you feel” on any given day. Each day is different, and there’s nothing abnormal about it. With timed blocks, if all we have is 4 sets, then that’s all we have. No harm, no foul. Very simple way to create autoregulatory training, and as I like to say- “live to lift another day.”

4.) Increased work capacity

A bit of an extension from the first point mentioned, but another thing that has significantly increased is the amount of work, or total volume that is achieved through timed blocks. Where we all know those days where we just feel like shit and training is the last thing on earth we want to do, we also equally know those days where we feel like we can back squat a semi-truck. Well, where the timed blocks create boundaries for us to avoid performing unnecessary sets, they also provide us the flexibility or freedom to push the needle when we’re feeling it. Recall that the technical equation for work is force x distance (W=F x D). I’ll spare you the math, but the difference between consistently doing 3-5 sets and 4-7 sets aggregates a hell of a lot quicker than you’d think. All the while, we’re not promoting any sort of overtraining because we’re still going off of feel, so nothing is being forced.

Beneficial for all modalities:

I’ll wrap this all up by mentioning how this scheme works for any training mode. Whether you’re in an aerobic phase, strength/hypertrophy phase, or power phase, the timed blocks have a place. With aerobic work, I would recommend using this with a circuit-style layout. For instance, running a 6-8 exercise circuit, and providing 40/45/50 min. blocks. Keep the training intensities relatively low, rep scheme can be variable, but be sure to keep the circuits nearly identical when you go to repeat. This way, the athlete can see tangible growth from week-to-week.

The timed blocks may be best suited for hypertrophy and/or strength work, if I had to pick one training mode to apply this to. The overarching goal of hypertrophy and strength work is to create quality volume. As outlined above, this is probably the premiere advantage of using the timed blocks. Again, speaking anecdotally, I can tell you that my work capacity (total volume) skyrocketed when I was doing my 9-week hypertrophy program a couple months back. In the first mesocycle I was hitting 3-4 sets on my primary lifts, by the second and third mesocycles, the numbers essentially doubled. I added mass (~12 lbs.), and bench, squat, deadlift and clean 1-RM’s all went up 10-40 lbs. I felt like I was far more equipped to train hard as fatigue became nearly a non-factor.

For power work, all of the same advantages outlined above apply here as well. However, I’ll add with power work specifically, I feel the most effective addition I made was in block 2. What I did was add a second main lift (i.e. hex bar deadlift, push press, split squat) and paired it with a plyo. I dropped the intensity from my primary lift for that day by 20% (i.e. if my cleans for the day were at 75%, I would do my hex bar deadlifts at 55%) and cut the reps in half. What this did was allow me to hit 8, 9, even 10 sets of light, but FAST deadlifts and various jumps or throws. Again, it doesn’t seem like a major shift on paper, but once you experience, you’ll quickly realize how pragmatic this set-up really is.

A major flaw commonly associated with power work is using weights that are too heavy, and not moving them fast enough. Egoism, improper programming, or whatever else the case may be, we all tend to gravitate towards weights that don’t help with our power output. But with this set-up, it not only puts us in a much more favorable position to do true power work, but also creates fatigue which leaves us with the “oh shit, I did something today” feeling that we all like to see.

I can’t encourage you enough to give this a shot. It has helped my training immensely, and truly has reinvigorated my drive for lifting. My athletes, from all ends of the spectrum have responded tremendously as well. If you have any questions on how to arrange this or feel like you could use some input on direction, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email.

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