Block your Sets. Unlock your Potential
Step into the matrix -
What if I told you that it's OK to take a momentary pause between repetitions if you need it?
What if I told you that you will not lose the effect of your set if you take just a few seconds to reset and compose yourself?
What if I told you that you might blast through plateaus you've been facing sooner than later simply by ensuring that all of your repetitions are of equal (or near equal) quality?
You'd likely tell me that I'm full of shit, ask me how many repetitions you need to do in order to achieve your desired result, and go back to pumping them out with as much inspiration as the music industry puts into yet another four-chord pop song.
Which means you'd just throw together repetitions in a sequence, call it a set, and move on with your life. This is fine and dandy if you don't really care about progress, quality music, or the art of mastery, but completely silly if you are looking to make actual improvements week-in and week-out.
It's not completely your fault either. In today's microwave society we are conditioned to want what we want right now, or within the next thirty seconds. We make to-do lists simply to feel the satisfaction of completing them while paying minimal attention to the quality that we put into each task. In terms of our workouts, we show up and do what we need to do, as hard and as fast as we can, and move on to the next item on our agenda.
The problem on a gross level is that we are focused on the outcome of all our actions and not the process of getting there. It is a natural human instinct to look into the future and want "to lose ten pounds" or "nail that proposal and get a bonus". There is nothing inherently wrong with the act of setting goals for yourself that are based upon the actualization of a particular criteria. In fact, it's encouraged.
In the clutter of it all, where can you focus?
However, the most successful people in any industry, any walk of life, are the ones who put additional emphasis on mastery. They don't get to where they are going by simply 'Getting things done", instead they "do things right." Whether it is wood working, building a successful brand, or improving their integrity at the bottom of a deadlift, the intent is the same.
Perfect the process, prefer the result.
In your workouts, embrace the process by ensuring every set is the best it could be by optimizing each repetition.
The block set is nothing more than breaking down a single set into bite size bits to improve performance. This doesn't mean taking extended rests to check Facebook for your friends epic political rant or to shuffle between songs. You simply take a deep breathe, refocus your attention, address the load again and continue. When done properly it will ensure that you gave maximum effort to each and every repetition in the set instead of progressively getting worse as your muscles fatigue and the finish line gets closer.
For example, a standard workout prescription for barbell bench press will have 3 sets of 10 repetitions, which provides 30 repetitions of work. Let's assume that in each of those sets you are able to perform five or six of those reps pretty well, two or three pretty standard, and the last few are a struggle.
To most this will sound like a perfectly fine plan as they'll be able to explain away the decreased performance over the course of set by attributing it to muscle fatigue. Chances are, however, that the set presented varying points of form break. Such as:
The feet danced
The shoulders protracted
The elbows flared
Tension was lost in the posterior chain and core
Sloppy bar path
All of these, as well as other issues, are all fair options for what can go wrong in a given set and contribute to an ugly performance. Instead of just accepting these flaws for what they are and moving on in an effort to simply "get more done", we look to improve the quality of the set to improve the results. We aim for mastery.
When looking at the aforementioned set you could "block" it in a few simple ways.
2 blocks of 5
5 blocks of 2
10 blocks of 1
3 blocks of 3 + 1 last rep
All of these formats are tremendous options to boost the quality of a given set regardless of skill level. In fact, I'd argue block sets are an excellent way to bypass the "I got this" mentality that comes from being relatively strong and performing a set at a sub-maximal weight.
Increased focus on the quality of the individual repetitions should lead to better neuromuscular recruitment, better muscle breakdown (in the correct muscles), and an overall safer set. These things point towards better progress, more frequent training sessions, and better mastery.
As a coach, look to block your client's sets as a tool to increase the quality of communication during a set. Instead of talking at them while they are trying to act, take the short seconds between blocks to layer on your next cue, or refine one you still want to see progress on. Use each block as a "gate" to the next series of cues and advancements in a particular exercise. For example, a standard set of ten deadlifts -
Before reps 1 to 3 - Tall chest, long spine, push the floor away
After rep 3 - Hold something in those arm pits, spread the floor
After rep 6 - Big air, pull into yourself
As repetition 9 moves towards 10 - Finish strong.
This way you aren't spending your session reciting the emancipation proclamation at your clients, which keeps them moving instead of staring at you blankly.
A coach's ultimate role is to empower a client to be able to excel on their own. This cannot occur if they do not acquire mastery of a movement pattern and its intricacies. Thus, utilizing block sets is an excellent method to allow clients to "own" a pattern instead of reciting one in your presence.
Using Block Sets for Goals
The block set can be used in any type of training program and is not limited to sets that are of ten repetitions as discussed in this blog. I only did that because math...
Here are a few examples:
In a strength program, block a standard 5 x 5 program into five sets of five individual repetitions with a typical 90 - 120 second break in between sets. Take no more than 3 to 5 seconds of reset between repetitions and look to make every single output look identical. Performing the set in this manner will enhance strength output by ensuring all of the details of a particular lift are accounted for each and every rep.
In a hypertrophy program, block your working sets into two "halves" that allow you to take a deep breathe, reset your form, and continuing pumping. Picture your standard dumbbell single arm row. Most folks start pulling on the bell like a lawnmower cord by the end of the set because their lats are fried and they are losing steam. That's cool and all, but what's cooler is to stop at rep 6, reset your core, force gas exchange in the lungs, and crush the last half.
In an endurance program, take those high repetition sets and block them on the fives or tens. Don't pause longer than one or two seconds in your transition and lose the training effect, but pause long enough to ensure every repetition gets equal attention. I personally love burn outs of up to 50 repetitions, but when I do them I am sure to pause on every tenth repetition to reset my form, take a breathe, or lower the weight to ensure I'm flinging mass through space stupidly.
Like your kids, no repetition should feel less important than the next. Utilize blocking in your next workout to boost performance, break through stubborn plateaus, and refine your craft en route to mastery. Don't "Just Do It"
Do it right!