Determining Reps and Sets for Body Weight Exercises
When presented with how-to guides for bodyweight exercises (and for any exercise, actually,) the first question from everyone is:
“How many reps do I do?”
The short answer would be: just do the exercise. Thinking about the exercise isn’t going to get you any results!
But there is a lot of thinking required to develop a long-term plan. You have to determine sets and reps, as well as time (for when you’re doing something like the plank, which involves an isometric hold.)
So here are some simple guidelines to get you started on the right track…
For Most Exercises:
The first thing you need to do is do some push ups. This is a trial run to see how many push ups you can realistically do. (Somehow who struggles to complete 5 push ups will most definitely use a different routine than someone who completes 50 push ups straight away.)
Let’s say you did 25 push ups before you felt you could not do any more.
Your first option would be to use the old school method and just do 25 push ups each day for a while, then do 26 a day, then 27, etc. You’d be doing one set of your max number of reps.
Or you can break it down into sets, which allows you to complete more reps, which yields a greater workload and (typically) more progress.
So instead of doing one set of 25, break it down into 3 sets of 10. That way you get 30 push ups total. You might even be able to do 3 sets of 15, which would be 45 push ups total.
After a couple weeks, you may be able to do 3 sets of 20, and eventually, 3 sets of 25. You can progress further by doing 4 sets of 20, 3 sets of 30, or switching to more advanced variations (such as the decline push up.)
And along the way, perhaps once every two weeks, take a day and see how many total push ups you can do in one set. That will help chart your progress, and could also be an ego boost
For Isometric (Static Hold) Exercises:
We can use the plank as an example. Again, we’ll start with a trial run. This is done by holding the plank pose as long as possible for one rep.
Then you have two main options: You could do one rep (or one rep per side) holding as long as possible, or do multiple sets.
For example, say you can hold the plank for 60 seconds max. Then you could do one 60 second rep per day, for a total of 60 seconds of workload.
Or you could do 3 sets where each rep is held 30 seconds. That would give you 90 seconds of workload.
To progress further, you would simply move on to 3 sets of 45 second holds when you feel ready. Then on to 3 sets of 60 seconds, 5 sets of 60 seconds, 5 sets of 120 seconds, etc.
If you get to 5 sets where each rep is held 120 seconds, it’s definitely time to move on to more difficult exercises like the one leg plank.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some more help on important things to know…
How do I figure out rest periods?
Rest period duration can vary as much as sets and reps, but here’s a good rule of thumb: Use a rest period that is half the work interval.
Say you’re doing 3 sets of 20 push ups, and it takes you 30 seconds to do one set. Then you might want to rest for 15 seconds between each set.
It would go like this: 20 push ups, 15 seconds rest, 20 push ups, 15 seconds rest, 20 push ups.
This is not set in stone, however. With more difficult exercises, you might use a rest interval that is double the work interval. Or you may “superset” two exercises to get more workout and more rest, at the same time. (An entire book could be filled with the different ways of organizing workout plans!)
What if I start shaking?
A good rule of thumb is: If you can no longer maintain proper form, quit the exercise. Exercising with bad form hinders rather than helps.
If you’re doing push ups and stick your butt up in the air or let your hips sag, you’re done. Same with the plank.
But if you’re just shaking a bit and still maintaining proper form, continue exercising. It’s perfectly naturally to shake a little bit if you’re really pushing yourself in exercises like the plank.
Should I do these workouts each day?
If your workouts aren’t too long or intense, you could certainly do some bodyweight exercises each and every day.
But if you are doing workout routines that last 20-45 minutes or you also incorporate weight training into your routine, you need days off. And any scheduled rest days should be rest days. (Bodyweight workouts are hard enough that they do NOT constitute a rest day.)
And if you are already using an on-bike training plan, some days you won’t be able to handle additional exercise.
So what should my routine be?
It depends. I suggest you write down your goals and then compare training programs and see which one fits you best. It helps to buy at least one book or pre-written training program to help you get started, and then you can apply the lessons you learned to your future training.
Some of my personal favorite routines come from Craig Ballyntyne’s Turbulence Training systems. A good one to check out would be Turbulence Training for Abs.
That’s a good plan, but if you want an even better, hands-on video, take a look at the Turbulence Training Bodyweight Cardio DVDs.
Another book I should mention is Built For Show by Nate Green. While the book is not geared towards endurance athletes, it contains good information, and it covers a lot of questions regarding sets, reps, and rest periods.
But like I said, don’t think too much – start working out!