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Workout Tip: Using Turnaround Times

Using turnaround times instead of set rest breaks adds an extra dimension to your training, allowing simple manipulation of density.

A Simple Way to Manipulate Training Density

When we talk about variables that you can manipulate in your training, volume and intensity come up all the time and are fairly easy to manipulate.

  • If you want more volume, train for longer, do more sets of an exercise or more reps of those intervals you're doing.
  • If you want more intensity, train harder, lift more weight per rep or do your intervals at a higher heart rate or power output.

What many people find harder to manipulate is density of training. In fact, many people don't even realise what this is, or that it can be manipulated fairly easily.

Density can be simply defined as how much work you fit into a period of time and is most easily manipulated by shortening your rest breaks. For example, you might start doing intervals of 30s on, 60 seconds off. After a few weeks, you might find that the rest interval is too long and you might then shorten it to just 45 seconds, and later 30 seconds. This would make your workout more dense.

Using the approach above is effective, but there is a more effective way of increasing density and that's by using turnaround times instead of fixed rest breaks.

Using Turnaround Times

I first experienced turnaround times as a swimmer. One of our most common workouts was 40 x 100m swimming on 1:30. What this means is that we would start every rep when the pace clock hit 1 minute and 30 seconds. The rest period was whatever was left when we touched the wall at the end of the rep.

On the face of it, this is very simple but there are some nuances that make it more effective than simply taking 10 seconds rest after every rep.

  • If you take a rep too easy, don't get enough rest because you only just make the turnaround (anyone who swims can tell you that 200m with no rest is far harder than 2 x 100m with 10s rest).
  • If you swim too hard on a rep, you also don't get enough rest because there isn't enough time to recover from pushing yourself into the red.

Because of the two items above, by using turnaround times you learn good pacing, getting just enough rest to allow you to complete the set.

It's fairly easy to see how this might work for other cardiovascular training, like running track intervals for example, but how might it work for lifting?

Using Turnaround Times for Lifting

It's not significantly different. If you think about a set of deadlifts, there are a number of ways to do them: touch and go, taking breath between lifts and a full set up before each rep. On the latter two, it's more than possible for there to be a fair amount of variability between how long sets take. 

5 x 100kg Deadlifts in 20 seconds is different to the same in 40 seconds. If you were to use a set rest period, lifting 3 sets each on 20s today and 3 sets each in 40s next week, you have two workouts with different densities. If, instead, you did all sets on a turnaround of 3 minutes, the workout densities would be very similar. It's a very simplistic example, but I hope it makes the point.

In the CrossFit world, you'll see such sets referred to as EMOTM (Every Minute On The Minute).

Density is important because it's part of the measure of your work capacity. And in the real world, work capacity matters.

Another benefit of using turnaround times is that it keeps you on track time-wise. If you write a workout to be 45 minutes, it will last 45 minutes because you're not tempted to take "just a little more rest" here and there, leaving the gym half an hour late or skipping half your planned session.

What not give it a try in your next workout or when you plan your next block of training. It's been a staple of mine for many years now and I very seldom use set rest periods any more.

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Will Newton


In over twenty years of coaching, Will has coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. His interest in getting the best results for athletes who compete for the love of the sport, rather than as professionals, drives him to find the most effective ways to get results.

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