The 10 Percent Solution
A 10 percent change in your workout routine can turn into some major improvements.
By Matthew Solan
Ten percent off your next purchase? Thank you very much. Ten percent return on your quarterly IRA statement? In this economy? I’ll take it! But a 10 percent increase in your workout routine? That’s nothing.
When it comes to your workout and progress, the common mindset is that you need big changes to get big results. Think again. You can make huge gains in muscle mass, strength and endurance, blast through plateaus and hit high-reaching goals by thinking small, as in 10 percent.
“Often relatively minor tweaks in training can produce substantial gains over the long-term,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., CSCS, author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan. “This is particularly the case as one becomes a more experienced lifter, and the fine points of training therefore become increasingly important to enhance results.”
You may be familiar with the 10 percent rule’s concept. Popular among endurance athletes, it suggests you increase your weekly volume in increments of 10 percent. So if you run 30 miles this week, you should only run three more miles next week. This helps build endurance and conditioning while lowering the risk of injury from overtraining. Sound familiar?
Take the same approach and make adjustments here and there throughout your training routines — from rep speed to rest periods to weight load. “Focus on the nuances of exercise performance and program design, and you can take your physique to new heights,” says Schoenfeld.
Here are several ways you can implement the 10 percent philosophy across your training. It may not sound like much, but used the right way, a 10 percent change can add up to 100 percent results.
Fight the urge to slap on an extra plate or two. Instead of increasing your weight load, go in the other direction and reduce it by 10 percent. This way you can better utilize your weight. A perfect example is with squats. “Most people don’t squat all the way down, mostly because of their high volume of weight,” says strength coach Josh Bryant, MS, CSCS, author of Jailhouse Strong. “Without doing the full range of motion, you lose the movement’s true benefits, which is better glute and hamstring development. And by working the hamstring more directly you can reduce your risk of soreness and even injury.”
Adjusting your overall workload by 10 percent — both adding and subtracting — can also help create muscular balance. Bryant sees this problem with many bodybuilders. They hit the front mirror muscles like the pecs, quads and deltoids hard and heavy, but lighten the load for the backside muscles. “Eventually, your back will become weaker, and this is one reason you see so many back injuries with bodybuilders,” says Bryant. Yet this is an easy fix. Reduce your training volume (weight and reps) by 10 percent for your front exercises (any pressing movement: bench, flyes, etc.) and increase it by 10 percent for the back (any pulling movement — bent over rows, T-bar rows, etc.). So if you do 10 sets of pressing workouts, do nine; if you do 10 pulling sets, do 11.
Also, applying 10 percent from set to set can create more productive sessions day to day, week to week, and help to avoid plateaus.
Trainer and former competitive powerlifter Jim Wendler is creator of the popular 5/3/1 Program. Part of his multilayered regimen focuses on dialing down the load and then gradually turning it up. In this case, by 10 percent. It works like this:
Find your one-rep maximum for any big movement — overhead press, bench press, deadlift, or squat. Then subtract 10 percent of that number and use the adjusted number as your “training max.” For your weekly workouts, use 10 percent increases of your training max. Example: Your first set of five reps will be at 65 percent of your one-rep number; the next set at 75 percent, and the third at 85 percent. The next week you use three reps at 70, 80 and 90 percent, then one rep at 80, 90 and 100 percent.
The 10 percent jump between sets is not magic, Wendler says. “It is the easiest way to work up to the main set of the day. Five percent is too slow, and anything larger than 10 percent ends up being too much of an increase between sets. It allows a lifter to train — and not just ‘work out.’”
Fighting burnout? Using the 10 percent guideline for your weight load can pump up your endurance and energy. By increasing your weights in smaller amounts you can avoid burnout and workout fatigue.
During a recent 20-week phase of hypertrophy-specific training, powerlifter Steve Coyne, 22, who lifts in the 165-weight class, followed a deadlift rep scheme of 6/6/6/3/6. He started at 405 pounds and only increased his weights by 5 to 10 pounds each week in order to stay within a 10 percent overall load increase each month. By the end of the training block, he was deadlifting 535 pounds for his heavy set of three reps. But the best reward was the boost in his overall energy levels.
“My work capacity became unbelievable,” says Coyne. “Because of the slow trend of weight increase, I was able to perform longer and more efficiently. And I was not dragging coming out of the gym, struggling to get home and into an ice bath. I left standing tall, feeling good and able to do more if needed.”
More reps can equal more muscles. But don’t think of your reps as a static number. Instead use them as a means to squeeze in extra workouts without the extra time. For instance, if your normal rep total is 10 (and most studies point to eight to 10 as the ideal rep range for hypertrophy), increase it by just 10 percent, which equals one more rep. What’s one rep? Plenty. If your average workout consists of 200 reps, increasing each set by 10 percent equals 20 extra reps per session. “Over 10 days that comes out to 200 reps, so in essence you put in an extra workout without even noticing it,” says Bryant.
Pumping up the speed of your reps can lead to more muscle power — 10 percent more, in fact. A 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that performing a bench press fast (one second for the lowering phase with zero rest) resulted in a greater volume of work compared to a slower tempo of four seconds lowering and resting for four seconds. This can boost your strength by more than 10 percent, according to a University of Sydney study, which in effect means you can eventually lift heavier loads and create more muscle mass.
Of course, the speed of each rep depends on the weight being lifted, the total number of reps and the level of muscle fatigue. Usually, reps are done in a slow and controlled manner — about two to four seconds for the concentric phase (raising) and two to four seconds for the eccentric (lowering). But to get a 10 percent or more improvement, work toward moving the bar faster.
Jeremy Hoornstra is the current bench press world record holder in the 242-weight class with a raw lift of 661 pounds. In his quest to topple the heaviest raw bench press ever recorded for any weight class (722 pounds), he has adopted a 10 percent guideline — cutting his workout time by 10 percent without sacrificing effort or workload. Once or twice a week he employs a “speed day” built on chipping minutes off his routines. He has found that cutting out even one second — from racking to reps to rest — has increased both his strength and endurance.
Hoornstra has developed a speed bench drill in which his goal is to hit three fast reps in two seconds, rest 30 seconds, and then repeat the cycle for a total of eight sets. “This makes it possible to hit my stick point quicker and generate more speed so I am more likely to push through those last reps and lock it out,” he says.
Hoornstra measures his success by playing “beat the clock”: Can he complete the same workload in 10 percent less time than before? In his speed bench exercise, he has been able to squeeze in two extra sets in the same time span by shortening that sequence even by a few ticks of the stopwatch. Trying to beat the clock fuels his motivation by providing him with a short-term goal as he strives to hit the magic 10 percent mark each time. “If it takes me 30 minutes to do a bodypart workout on Monday, I’ll try to do it in 27 minutes on Wednesday,” he says. It has paid off, too. In six months, he has jumped from his own record-setting bench press of 616 pounds all the way up to his current record of 661 pounds.
“For greater muscle gain, make your workload denser,” says Bryant. This means increasing the intensity — not with more weight and reps, but rather shorter rest breaks.
Your rest period between sets depends on your goal. If the goal is to gain strength, the optimal rest range is three to five minutes. However, if you want to get bigger quickly, then you need to shrink your rest time to one to two minutes. Although it is still being debated, many studies suggest shorter rest periods cause your body to release more anabolic hormones as well as increase lactate production and blood flow to targeted muscles, all of which can lead to some level of hypertrophy, says Bryant.
He suggests sticking to a two-minute break at first and then lowering it 10 percent (12 seconds; 1:48, then 1:35, etc.) from week to week. “You will increase intensity, work harder, gain more muscle and burn more calories.” And since you do not make huge drops in time, you can still maintain proper form before becoming too fatigued.
Most guys walk into the gym and dive into the weights, but they should devote 10 percent of total workout time (10 minutes) to a dynamic warm-up to improve range of motion and flexibility and reduce risk of injury. A 2012 study in the Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research found that 10 minutes of dynamic warm-up drills improved hamstring flexibility and eccentric quadriceps strength compared to a group that did no warm-up or followed a static stretching warm-up where you stretch and hold the muscle just beyond its normal range of motion. Before you hit the weight room, hop on the stationary bike or treadmill and pedal/run at a moderate pace for five minutes, followed by another five minutes of lunges, jumping jacks, arm circles, bear crawls and high-knees.
During intensive training you need more fuel and thus extra calories. But blindly shoveling down food can lead to the wrong kind of pounds in the wrong places. Instead, make small increases that complement your rising intensity and energy needs. For example, when Coyne begins his 16-week training for his next competition, he has a baseline of 2,600 calories per day (30 percent protein, 50 percent carbs and 20 percent fat). Every week he adds just 50 calories a day to adequately feed his progressively harder weekly workouts. His goal is to increase his additional calorie intake by about 10 percent each month. “The gradual intake doesn’t feel like much, but eventually it helped my body adjust to the extra calories I need, and I don’t run the risk of adding unnecessary pounds,” he says.
Make your workout schedule as regimented as your day job. Show up just like you do for the office, and use 10 percent as a reminder of your commitment. If you train five times a week, then drop off by 10 percent, you lose two days a month.
“If you missed two days of work every month, you would get fired,” says Bryant. “Each workout builds off the other, so if you miss one, you lose that momentum.”