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Sets & Reps; decide what’s good for you

Strong ˈstrȯŋ adjective Being able to move really really really ridiculously heavy things that the guy over there who is twice your size cannot.

To get strong you need to lift weights that are heavy. Heavy is a pretty relative term that’s different for everyone. What should not differ from person to person is the ability to maintain pristine technique while lifting these heavy weights. If for any reason the lift or movement doesn’t look/feel good, chances are It’s probably not.

When you choose your rep ranges for exercises, you should have a clear goal behind why you chose that rep range.

What do I mean?

Here’s a conversation I had with a female friend recently:

Her - “Hey Rich, I want to be able to do 1 body weight pull-up the end of January”

 

Me - “That’s awesome, also pretty sexy. What are you doing now to work towards that goal?”

 

Her - “I’m doing a pull-up program I got from a friend”

 

Me - “Ok, are you using a band to help with your pull-ups or are you using that god-awful machine?”

 

Her - “I’m using a band, the thickest one. I’m doing 3 sets of 15 reps 2x per week.”

I stood there in shock for a second or 2 before gathering myself and explaining what she could improve on.

Instead of telling you what’s wrong with her approach, let me guide you;

If your goal is to run a sub-5 second 40-yard dash (which is pretty fast), would you run 10 miles a day?

In short, NO FREAKIN’ WAY!

So, then why would you want to train in a sub maximal effort range to attempt a maximal effort exercise? – Now do you see what i’m getting at?

I quickly advised my friend to cut her reps down to 5 or less, then explained what she should master in order to progress to a full pull-up.

Firstly a hold at the top of the bar for a few seconds, THEN progress to what is called a ‘negative’.

The idea behind a ‘negative’ is that you can handle a lot more stress (weight) eccentrically (on the downward part of an exercise) than you can on the concentric (upward portion of an exercise). This way you can work with weights that you normally wouldn’t be able to handle otherwise.

What’s even better is now she’s working in a rep range that’s more closely related to her goals of getting strong(her).

Before we move on, let me nail down a few guidelines that will solidify your choice of sets and reps.

1-5 reps = Strength

6-8 reps = Strength/size

8-10 reps = Size/Endurance-esque

10++ reps = Muscular endurance or Super muscle toning zone (FYI – that isn’t a real zone)

Choose your goal and then narrow down what rep range you’d like to work in.

Let me mention that muscles respond positively to stimulus and grow as a result of volume. Volume is calculated by sets x reps x weight.

I’m not saying that by choosing high reps you’ll get HUGE. I’m saying that the combination of lifting heavy & hard will build more solid muscle. More weight moved will lead to more fat burnt and ultimately to you looking/feeling like a SUPER HERO.

Increasing or altering any variable of the formula is a way to sneak more volume into your workouts. Some other tricks to adding volume without playing with the sets and reps involve altering the tempo of an exercise.

For example: A 3/1/3 tempo would mean that you lower the weight for 3 seconds, pause at the bottom of the movement, and then go back up taking 3 seconds to do so.

Altering the tempo of a lift is a pretty sneaky way to add volume to your workouts. It increases time under tension, which is exactly what you’re looking for when trying to grow big and beefy guns.

T-Rex Guns

The T-Rex was famous for doing sets of curls with a tempo of 4/0/4…using an Amphicoelias torso (Amphicoleias was the largest dinosaur ever found weighing 268,961 pounds)

As I mentioned last week in the article about Metabolic Circuits, you can still lift heavy, pair exercises back to back in a circuit type fashion and make incredible gains. The trick is choosing a rep range that is both challenging and conducive for your goals.

 

Women respond differently than men to weight training. GASP!

It’s not as easy for women to pack on muscle mass than it is for us gentlefolk. That being said, the higher rep ranges stated above can be used as a guideline to create incredible movement patterns. In fact, it’s actually beneficial for women to be working in the rep ranges well below 10+ every once in a while to develop the strength needed to kick butt.

Due to the differences in testosterone levels between genders, women are less inclined to pack on muscle mass than men are.

Testosterone has an anabolic (muscle building) effect. Both men AND women have testosterone released in their bodies, the difference lies in the amount produced daily. Men produce 5-10 mg of testosterone per day, where women produce less than 0.1 mg per day.1

This explains why men see a significantly higher increase in muscle mass compared to women training at the same intensity.

If your goal is to get bigger and stronger, I would strongly recommend starting off with a rep range closer to 10.

Why? – To engrain movement patterns and get your body used to the stress of lifting.

Besides, because of the new stimulus you’ve introduced your body to, you’re going to get bigger and stronger no matter what.

Once you’ve been doing that for 4 weeks or so, you can drop the reps and increase the sets to keep progressing.

Still scratching your head?  Here’s something to get you started,

Sample strength + size workout:

DAY 1

Circuit 1

Goblet Lateral Lunge 4x6ea
TRX Row 4×10
1/2 kneeling 3x8ea
Shoulder press
Tall kneeling anti-rotation press 3×8

circuit 2

1 A. DB Bench press 4x8ea
1 L. SLDL 3x8ea
TRX Fallout 3×8

Day 2

circuit 1

Goblet Squat 4×8
Chin up 4×8
(Palms face each other)
Plank w/ 1Leg lift 3x10s ea

circuit 2

KB deadlift 3×8
Clap Pushup 3×10
Floor slides 3×15

Sample Strength Workout:

circuit 1

Trap Bar Deadlift 4×5
DB Floor Press 4×5
Reverse Crunch 2×8
Wallslides 2×10

circuit 2

DB walking lunges 3x8ea
(Goblet)
Pushup 3×8
Keiser/cable X-Pulldown 3×8
(EXP+scap squeeze
down&back)
Anti rotation press 2x8ea

Sample Power Endurance (aka metabolic circuit) workout:

RFE Split Squat x10ea
DB push press x10
Parallel Pullup x Max or more
KB Swing x10
1 A. DB unsupported Row x10ea
Keiser Diagonal Squat lift x10ea
MB Slam(JamBall) x10
Slideboard/bike x0:20s

2:00 mins rest at end of Complex & repeat x3

References (because i'm official like that):
1– University of New Mexico: The Mystery of Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy

We’ve all tried different set and rep ranges, share what has worked for you, bro.


8 thoughts on “Sets & Reps; decide what’s good for you

  1. My current workouts are circuit weight training, typically 3 circuits, repeated 3 times each with active rest (body part specific). I am female. Leg days, I do 15 rep range. other days 10 reps. If my goal is to get lean, i.e., burn fat, perserve muscle, are my rep ranges and sets appropriate?

    • There’s nothing wrong with your rep ranges, they’re pretty standard. I think you’d benefit from changing up the rep ranges a bit. You can decrease the reps to somewhere between 6-8 and up the weight as a result of dropping the reps (a smart move is to stop 1 rep shy of failure). By changing the intensity of your workout, you can guarantee your body will respond by getting tighter and not to mention stronger.

      If your end goal is to become a strong lean mean machine, then I’d suggest lowering the reps for a few weeks and seeing where that takes you (Hint: You’ll like where it takes you). The key lies in the intensity of your conditioning and clean-ness of your diet. Those two are they real determinants of how lean you will be, but more importantly how fast your body will recover from the last workout. After all, it’s not about how many days you train, it’s about the intensity and effort you put into the days that you do train! If you’re dead tired from the last workout how will you benefit from the next?

      How’s that?!

      • That sounds like a plan!!! :) My current “program” has 3 weeks left. I think I’ll finish those and then go back and do the same program with lower reps/higher weight. Sound reasonable? And yes, my ultimate goal is to be a lean mean machine :) and I workout HARD and eat pretty clean. 80% in general, but have recently cleaned it up more. Thanks for your response. I look forward to seeing the changes from your advice!!!

    • Hey Ralph,

      8 sets of 3 reps & 3 sets of 8 reps are not at all the same. I can see how you’re semi-confused though.

      On one end (8×3) you’re working on near maximal strength for a total of 24 reps.

      On the other end (3×8) you’re working at a much lower percentage of your maximum strength and still getting to a total of 24 reps.

      Remember what I said in the post? Muscle grows as a result of volume. Volume = Sets x reps x weight BUT if you want to increase strength along with muscle size I recommend you go with 8 sets of heavy 3 reps done with pristine form.
      You can even take it as far as doing 8 sets of 3 reps for the main lift (ex: Bench Press), and any accessory exercise to that main lift (ex: Rolling Tricep Extension) could handle a higher rep range and a similar overall volume (3sets x 8reps = 24 reps).

      Hope you hit your goal before the new year – That would be a nice Christmas gift :)

      Happy lifting Ralph!

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