Great training results starts with great program design. When it comes to designing an effective program, set and reps are two very important training variables. However, you need more than just the right amount of sets and right number of repetitions. You also need to do your sets and reps in the best way for your needs and goals.
Note: unless otherwise indicated, sets are written as reps x weight. For example: 5x135 = 1 set of 5 reps at 135lbs.
Method 1: Straight Sets
This method is also known as sets across. With this method, you do your warm-up sets and then all working sets are done at the same weight and reps.Therefore, you will have hard, but not maximal sets (with a possible exception of the last set).
Warm-up sets and then 3x5 (3 sets of 5 reps) with 225
This is a great way for beginners and intermediate trainees to make long-term steady gains. You start your work sets fresh and ready and can use a respectable weight. It can also be used for more advanced lifters on their accessory work. It is also great for technique work when doing skilled lifts if the reps are low (e.g. power cleans: 5x3)
This method can be difficult for advanced lifters to use on big lifts. A hard work set on a big lift can take so much out of an advanced lifter that it can be difficult to repeat this for multiple sets.
Method 2: Traditional pyramid
This method involves a change in reps and weight each set.
Ascending pyramid: 15x95, 12x135, 10x185, 8x225, 6x275 (this is the most common pyramid version)
Descending pyramid: warm-up sets and then: 6x295, 8x254, 10x225, 15x185
Full pyramid: 15x95, 12x135, 10x185, 8x225, 6x275, 8x225, 10x185, 12-15x135
This method has been used successfully in bodybuilding for a long time. It can also be time-efficient as the warm-up is built into the workout. For older lifters or those with a lot of training mileage on their bodies, this method ensures that you cranky joints and connective tissues are really warm and ready to go before the big weights come.
This method has been harshly criticized by strength coaches because it you end up producing a lot of lactic acid and fatigue before you get to your big, heavy sets (note this is not the case with the descending pyramid). As a result, you won’t be able to lift as much weight when it really counts. If you are training for maximal strength, this is not the best way to get it. Also, Coach Charles Poliquin points out, with so many different loads your body doesn’t know what to adapt to.
Method 3: Working up
This method is similar to the pyramid method, but the reps stay the same while you increase the weight.
3x45, 3x95, 3x115, 3x135, 3x155, 3x175, 3x195, 3x205
This is a great way to get lots of quality reps and practice technique in before your big weights. It is great for advanced lifters on main lifts. It also results in fairly low volume of high intensity work makes it great for building strength without size and for peaking.
This method does not provide a lot of volume at a heavy weight. While you may do a lot of sets, only the last few may be at a level sufficient enough to create overload. This method may fail to deliver long-term sustainable results and require more frequent rotation of exercises.
Method 4: Back-off sets
This method involves heavier sets followed by lighter sets – similar to pyramid training. However, the lighter sets and higher reps are done after the heavy work (similar to descending pyramids). This arrangement allows you to do the heavy sets when you are fresh. This allows you to take advantage of what exercise scientists call post activation potentiation. Once your nervous system gets used to the big weights, you throw in some lighter sets which feel extra light and you also perform great on these sets.
Strength/technique back-off: 1x5 (work set), 1x5@90% of last set (reference: Pavel’s Power to the People)
Endurance/hypertrophy back-off: weighted chin-ups: 2-3x5 followed by 1 set of max reps at body weight only
Note: you can also do multiple sets at a lighter weight with the same exercise such as used in the stage system made popular by Eric Cressey (e.g. 3x3 followed by 3x6)
This is a great method to get some quality heavy sets in at a hard training weight and then continue working with technique, hypertrophy or endurance sets.
This variance in load may still not be the very best for strength development compared to just heavy sets.
Method 5: Total reps
With this method you switch your focus from sets and reps to total reps. I first learned about this Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding where we advised doing 50 total pull-ups in as many sets as it took. More recently, trainers such as Chad Waterbury have re-popularized this method.
do 25 total reps with a 6 rep max load. Your sets may look like this:
Set 1: 6 reps
Set 2: 5 reps
Set 3: 4 reps
Set 4: 4 reps
Set 5: 3 reps
Set 6: 3 reps
This method ensures you get a specific amount of volume that is important for your specific goal (total number of reps can vary depending on individual capabilities and goals). It lets you get a lot of high-quality work in make makes every set count.
If you go too hard and start grinding reps, it can take forever and burn you out quick. Work with your body on this one.
Method 6: Timed sets
This method ignores reps and focuses on doing the most amount of quality reps possible in a given amount of time. It tries to create a desired training effect based on keeping the muscle under tension for a given period of time based on your goal.
Strength/power athlete: max reps in 10 seconds with a heavy load
Bodybuilder: max reps in 40 seconds with a moderate load
Makes sure you have a time under tension that is appropriate for your desired training goal.
If the wrong loads or time is used, things start to fall apart.
Method 7: Wave-Loading
Wave loading is like a mini pyramid that you repeat this 1-3 more time times.
Functional hypertrophy wave: Wave #1: 7 reps x 200lbs, 5 reps x 215lbs, 3 reps x 230, Wave #2: 7 reps x 205lbs, 5 reps x 220lbs, 3 reps x 235.
Strength wave: Wave 1: 3x300, 2x320, 1x330, Wave 2: 3x305, 2x325, 1x335, Wave 3: 3x310, 2x330, 1x340
This method takes advantage of post-activation potentiation and if done properly allows you to lift more weight in subsequent waves. It is fun and refreshing to have the variations in loads and reps.
It takes time. Also if you have to be careful and not get too greedy with weight increases on later waves. If you get too tired in earlier waves, you won’t have success in later ones.
How about you?
What set and rep methods have you found helpful? Please share your comments below or on my Facebook page.