One of the most common questions asked is this:
“What sort of sets & reps should I do for XYZ?”
It has and will always be asked because people want to find that magic/perfect answer that will allow them to make the fastest progress with the least possible effort. However, the answer will usually stay they same as well. What is the answer?
Or does it?
If you read enough and look in the right places you can find your answers, so long as you read objectively and understand that what ever your reading is only a snippet of the bigger picture.
The answer for building strength (motor unit recruitment) with additional hypertrophy is what we will look at today.
There are many fine books out there on the science and principles of training. They all have various things in common, one in particular being that Overload must be achieved through optimal stimulus that is specifically relevant to the goal. However due to the law of accommodation the original stimulus you expose yourself to eventually yields diminishing returns because your body always finds a way of becoming efficient and adapted, this is where you need to increase the stimulus to once again initiate this process (training facilitates an increase in protein synthesis meaning more potential growth, but that’s a topic for another day).
This is not a new concept, your body will adapt and progress, thus you will have a higher starting point for your next cycle of training. While you may have to drop some sets/reps to start again it will allow for recovery/adaptation so you can keep moving forwards. Think two steps forwards one step back.
Each time you subject your body to overload and recover/adapt from that overload you will be able to do more because of an increased tolerance/baseline (Strength, CV etc). In short the more you do the more you need to do to keep progressing or in fact maintain what you have. The old adage of ‘Use it or lose it’ is actually true, while it might not be in the form of muscular atrophy there will some motor pattern recruitment degradation which means you won’t recruit as many fibers in one go and lift less overall.
So what does that have to do with answering the question of the optimal set/rep range? Well thanks to a great many people who were diligent enough to record hundreds of athletes training routines spanning 50+ years, we can see a general pattern and what is more effective, in a general sense based on that particular mesocycle. A good book for your reference is the Science & Practice of Strength Training By Zatsiorsky & Kramer if you wish to know what I am basing this post on (it’s been a while since I read it, hopefully I won’t be too far out with the numbers.).
There are some factors you will want to keep in mind before we go on:
– Loading (weight on the bar)
– Number of Reps performed
– Volume (total amount of weight lifted overall with X weight)
– Density of Workout (sets performed in 1 hour)
The information I am basing this on was one that followed the Olympic Weightlifting teams in their run up to the 1972, 1976 & 1988 games. Their average reps in the assistance lifts – Squat, FS, Deadlift, RDL, Pressing, Rows etc (not the competition lifts of Clean & Jerk/Snatch) fell in the range of 2-7 reps with the most frequently used being 5-6, their average sets in this was logged at 24-26 (weekly for each cycle). The athletes did use 7+ rep ranges but the total sets were a lot lower, this was down to the overall mechanical/movement/muscular fatigue occurred that may impact the frequency of their training. It seemed that the average of 25-50 reps per session for assistance exercises was the norm. This was not on one exercise but across all exercises for the lower or upper muscle groups respectively.
When it came to their loading 35% of the total load was set at 70-80% of their respective maxes, then 26% in 90% and 24% in 60-70%. When you look at the overall they spent 59% of their time training in the 60-80% loading rage, this would be because of the ability to recover not only physically but also neurologically from this amount of load. When you take your loading to 90%+ you will find there is a heavy demand on the CNS and also the mind as well. The total volume for the 60-80% would be made up of multiple sets of 4-7 where as the 90+ would be 1-3.
*When strength training you want to recruit the maximal amount of fibers possible to elicit the largest response, put simply. This will help you make the most potential progress, provided you adequately recover and have optimal nutrition (while some functional overreaching is good, too much will result in burn out, no progress or potentially regression. It’s all about finding that balance in the most amount of work you can recover from while still increasing your work load over time.).
So what can you take away from this to help you build strength and size? Based on the higher end numbers, because no one really want to lift light weights, these are some guidelines to follow:
– Loading – 70-80%
– Reps – 4-7
– Sets – 6+ (25-50 total reps per session will influence this)
– Density – You may start with 25 reps for a total at 6x4x80% done twice per week being enough to elicit a positive adaptation while recovering, the density can increase by adding sets for example and building to 50 rep total 12x4x80%.
These are by no means rules that are set in stone, however they have been proven to work in the past. If you are looking to build a solid performance based foundation. For the average person I would advice at least 72 hours between sessions such as these. you might end up with something that looks like this:
Monday – Lower – squat, block deadlift, lunge,
Tuesday – Upper – press, pull up, bench press, row, dip
Wednesday – Off or CV
Thursday – Lower – deadlift, front squat, loaded carry
Friday – Upper – incline press, chin up, behind neck press, row, curl
Saturday – Off or CV
Sunday – Off/Foam Rolling
*You will do well to pick exercises that will give you the most band for your buck – large compound movements.
Use these guidelines and find the most you can do while still recovering and adding more. You can push typically hard for around 3 weeks, then you need to drop it back. This can mean lowering the volume/intensity to your original starting point before you undergo a new 3 week accumulation phase (remember the intensity will be higher than your first phase – eg phase 1 100kg 6×4 to phase to 105kg 6×4).