June 29, 2010 posted by

30 Is The New 20

Today’s installment of the WFH will discuss lean muscle; the stuff women are always on about over at our message boards. Well, ladies, I’ve got something you might want hear. Any of you seriously worried about gaining too much muscle mass can fret no more. The key is to make 30 your new 20. Or maybe we should call this part II of things your trainer will never tell you.

We’re talking about repetitions, of course. If you’ve been following along you know I’m in the first phase of the Workout From Hell where each set of exercise is done to as close to failure as possible at 30 reps. This is more or less un-heard of down at your local Gold’s, and for good reason. It makes it virtually impossible to gain much size. Conventional iron head wisdom would say “why bother?” So I’ll answer the why, which isn’t going to change their minds. But it might change yours.

Let’s open with the big caveat; the reason you haven’t heard me recommending 30 reps for any Beachbody program over the years. Well, we do 30 reps for some things, mainly abs and other slow twitch areas of the body that are trained well with volume, but never for the prime movers as a sustained target. It’s because it hurts. It hurts and it takes a long time. It hurts, it takes a long time, and it doesn’t yield the type of results quickly that most people are looking for. At this point it no longer sounds like a good idea to me.

What 30 reps does is train your glycolytic energy system. As I said in an early post, the glycolysis is what allows a fast 100 meter sprinter to win at 400 meters. Essentially, it’s the system that uses glycogen and oxygen to recharge your body’s anaerobic (Kreb’s Cycle) system. I ran the quarter and we used to refer to something we called The Bear. The Bear lived in the “block house” (housed the track equipment) that was located at the last turn of the track. In the 400, The Bear attacked at the last turn and slowed you down. Unless, that is, your glycolytic system was firing on all cylinders. Then you’d kick home, passing a bunch of guys who looked like they suddenly had a bear on their backs because their anaerobic system was finished at 300 meters (about as long as you can hold your breath while sprinting) and their glycolytic wasn’t trained well enough to keep their fast-twitch muscles firing.

But life isn’t the quarter so why train this? Essentially because it’s another energy system and the more efficient your body is that better it will work in life. It will allow more progress during your other training, no matter what it is, that leads to better results long term. A strong glycolytic system would be particularly useful for the latter rounds of P90X and high-level programs like Insanity (your ability to do Insanity should improve drastically). Basically, the more efficient your body runs the better it utilizes nutrients and can improve at other things.

During 30 reps sets you can actually feel your system load change. The weight you use may seem impossibly light during the first 6-10 reps. Around 15 (or less later in the workout) you’ll start feeling it. At 20, the point where most traditional weight exercises end and about as long as your can reasonably hold your breath under duress, you’re muscles will begin to give out as you change systems. From then on it’s a fight to the finish (providing you’ve used enough weight which takes a little practice). If you do these sets correctly you’ll be dying (in my case screaming) to get your last five reps done.

There are two very important techniques to adhere to. First is form. Reps should not be rushed and form should remain perfect throughout the set. If your form falters you should stop. There is no benefit to finishing a set with bad form, and anytime you do you risk injury.

Secondly you need to breathe, perhaps both loudly and exaggeratedly. Deep rhythmic breathing is the key to every single set. Remember that you are working on an oxygen based system. The more oxygen your force into your system the better chance you are have of finishing. This seems silly when you hoisting five pound weights because you could do this easily, with no focus at all, in the beginning. But if you don’t breathe early in the set it will catch up to you and you’ll fail near the end. When you nail your breathing it makes the transition between creatine phosphate and glycolytic systems smooth. The sets then get easier and more resistance can be added on your next set.

You should not do 30 rep sets for very long. I’m doing a three week cycle and I’m tired at the end of week two. It’s hard, stressful, and you could simply not remain focused for much longer than 3 to 4 weeks. In fact, 400 meter runners spend very little time actually running 400 meters. They train both under and over and save that targeted distance for peak periods and races. It pushes your body beyond where you want it to be very often.

For anyone looking for a performance edge I would recommend a block of 30 provided you have a decent fitness foundation. You could incorporate it into any weight training program. I think a block of P90X targeting 30 would be awesome. Keep in mind is that your resistance workouts will take a long time so you’ll need to use the pause button. Also, I haven’t guinea pigged this one so, until I do, you’re on your own.

pic: i can’t say whether isabelle patissier ever did the workout from hell but climbing definitely targets your glycolytic system and she did plenty of that. the former world cup champion showing off the fashion sense that made her a late-80s pin-up girl.


  • Will block 1 reduce bodyfat? Whenever I train endurance I lose at least .5% of bodyfat so in my case going a little below 6% which seems bad to me. Any thoughts?

  • Lets get down to the nitty gritty. How do we translate this to climbing? Is it as simple as treating each move as a rep? I'm not sure…What would be the equivalent on a hangboard/campus board/a woody/steep routes?

  • I really enjoyed this blog and have used the higher reps for years. Not for this reason, just for a challenge.

  • let's get down to the real nitty gritty: where is Isabelle today, and does she have any female offspring?-Josh

  • gotta say, my poverty when I first started P90X this last fall provided me firsthand experience in this as I only had the cash to buy some 30 pound dumbells to begin with…thus I had to so often do 20-30 reps in order to get a good workout on most of my sets, and MAN it did good things…

  • Ah, Isabelle, The French climbing angel/primadonna who looked like a model and climbed like a prima ballerina and reportedly, after losing a competition to the greatest female climber of all time, Lynn Hill, said, "it's stupid to have a competition where the person who is clearly the best climber doesn't win." You've just got to love her. Or not. The camera sure did, as well as the men behind them. Last I heard she had married a French TV personality. No word on offspring but I'm certain they are tres magnifique!

  • Insane, I would not worry. Some people will drop body fat but you probably won't given you are so low. It's hard but it's also low intensity that fast-twitch muscle fiber isn't recruited and, therefore, body composition change during this phase isn't so drastic. Just potential for it. Make sure you eat enough and it'll be fine.Micah, let me think about that one a bit. If you lived in Spain it'd be a lot easier to train properly.

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  • Micah, Phil and I used to translate everything into climbing and I'm not convinced it was the best tactic. It may have been better to just get into the gym and train and then climb like mad for a while. Then repeat. However, if you are jonzing to get outside (happens to me) then it could be applied. We used to do the amount of movements we were working on at the time: power (a couple), hypertrophy (4-10) etc, and add weight on routes we knew well to accimplish failure. Of course this is much better trained in a controlled environment, like the Shed. For 30 moves, however, you need bigger cliffs than we have around here, which is why I suggest you move to Spain for optimal training. There's a reason they have more 9th grade climbers than the rest of the world combined.

  • ahhh, Isabelle….

  • Learning Spanish has been one of my training goals for a reason you know…. Thanks for your thoughts. And you're probably right. Its easy to over complicate training for climbing.And I got another bone to pick with You, Bob and the Castle crew. Why is the first time I've seen a picture of Isabelle? We need to bring back that tank top cut.

  • I enjoyed this entry a lot, probably because this is how I prefer to train. It was never my goal to push more iron into the sky. But if I don't feel like I am going to cough up a lung for the last five reps, I don't feel like I worked out. It's a personal problem I suppose. Know a good therapist? Oh, and as for Isabelle, what is it with that name and hot women? Name your daughter Isabelle, and she grows up hot. That name is like a magic bean, and up grows a hot athlete.

  • As about the only person I know who doesn't think they got a good workout unless the puke I should have known to send this to you right away.I believe the French have a law the requires anyone named Isabelle to be reviewed by the panneau de l'esthétique to determine whether or not they can keep the name. Hence all the hot Isabelle's.

  • in preparation for NYC marathon fall 2011 so about 20 weeks away – seems like 30 rep round P90x (or 1on1's) would be great – but would this fit better at beginning or closer to the end of the 20 weeks?

  • Definitely earlier!

  • Would the new BB program Les Mills Body Pump be similar to this 30 new 20 concept?

  • Definitely follows a similar construct so yes.

  • google…


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