July 2011 - Vol. 34 No. 9
A FRESH LOOK AT SETS + REPS
by Doug Daniels
Your set and rep selection is a cornerstone of your training, but I firmly believe most lifters use schemes that do not produce the best possible results. This month, I will take a fresh look at some of the most popular set and rep schemes to show how they can be easily enhanced to result in superior lifting progress.
To best illustrate my thoughts, I will break down a few of the most popular set/rep schemes, like the 5 sets of 5 reps, and "add weight while you cut reps." Each of these schemes can be made more efficient and, hopefully, more result producing.
I will begin with the "5 sets of 5 reps" scheme. One version of a 5 x 5 routine is to keep the same weight for 5 sets (warm-up not included): 225 x 5, 225 x 5, 225 x 5, 225 x 5, 225 x 5.
Another version of the 5 x 5 involves an increase of the weight on each succeeding set, using the heaviest weight on the last or fifth set: 185 x 5, 200 x 5, 215 x 5, 230 x 5, 245 x 5.
If a lifter trains hard on either of these versions, he certainly can improve his strength level. On the other hand, if we take a fresh look at the faults of these schemes, the same lifter can easily realize better results with essentially minor changes.
In the first 5 x 5 version, where the same weight was used for all five sets, if a lifter succeeded with the fifth set with 225 pounds, what good were the first four sets? Those first four sets really provided little challenge or benefit to the lifter. In the case of the second 5 x 5 version, the last and heaviest set was the most beneficial. The four previous sets only tired the lifter out and decreased the amount he would be capable of on the fifth and final set. These two versions are arguably a waste of time and energy. Fortunately, the solution is incredibly simple!
A much more efficient 5 x 5 version for the same lifter could look like this: 200 x 5, 225 x 5, 255 x 5, 240 x 5, 225 x 5.
Under this more efficient version a lifter would max out weight-wise on the third set with 255 pounds and then as his strength level decreases; he would drop the weight on each of the succeeding sets while maintaining a very high level of intensity. This freshened 5 x 5 workout now becomes much more intense and result producing. More weight is also lifted with the new scenario over the original, inefficient versions.
Adequate warm-up is still needed and the examples provide that without expending valuable strength and energy needed later on the heavy work sets. Some lifters may require an additional set or two of increasing sets perhaps adding a set of 135 for 8 reps. It is key to not waste your time and energy performing unnecessary low intensity, marginally effective sets and reps. Save your strength and energy for the sets that count. These are the sets that result in size and strength gains. It's like passing up the salad bar and heading for the all-you-can-eat crab legs on a seafood buffet.
Now let's turn to a typical add weight and cut rep each set scheme: 185 x 12, 205 x 10, 225 x 8, 245 x 6, 265 x 3, 285 x 2, 305 x 1. My same principle applies here also. Too many light warm-up and intermediate sets and reps result in the lifter being able to lift less on the critical top sets.
A better add weight while cut reps scheme for the same lifter would look like this: 185 x 12, 225 x 6, 255 x 2, 285 x 1, 315 x 1, 295 x 3, 265 x 5. Again, the results are a substantially higher amount of weight lifted over the workout. Just like in my 5 x 5 versions, the down sets in my example allow the lifter to maintain training intensity as his strength and energy level decreases. A real plus is the same lifter would now be capable of a five-percent higher top set! That may not sound like much, but this can really add up over a few months. My rule of thumb is to decrease the weight by five-percent on each succeeding set after the top set. This may require some minor adjustments for each individual, but this is a good number to start with.
An extra bonus is improved exercise performance. Typically, as a lifter becomes fatigued, exercise performance or form tends to suffer. Increasing your poundage while fatigued greatly increases chances for injury. By performing the heavier sets sooner and then decreasing the weights as you fatigue, intensity and exercise form remain at a high level. This is a win-win scenario.
This fresh look can also be applied to other set/rep schemes like the 3 x 10, 4 x 8, 6 x 6, etc. The weights you can use on my system may not be exactly in proportion to my examples and may require a little modification and experimentation on your part.
I firmly believe if you compare your current practices to my suggestions, you can immediately make your workouts more result producing and safer without changing your selection of exercises or any other training methods.
Several years ago I had the chance to train a pretty good bencher at my gym. By applying this principle I took him from a max of 405 x 3 to 415 x 6 in one workout! No kidding! As they say in small print on infomercials 'these results are atypical,' but it is possible. You soon may be wondering why you have not tried this before.