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How Many Sets and Reps?

There are so many different views on training that I am confused. Is it best just to stick with eight to 10 reps?


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Q: There are so many different views on training that I am confused. Is it best just to stick with eight to 10 reps?

A: When it comes to lifting weights, the first question bodybuilders ask is, “How much?” The second question, which influences the first, is “How many?” The accepted wisdom of a few years ago dictated eight to 10 reps; however, just as a lot of people believe that old adage about needing eight glasses of water a day (which, by the way, has never been scientifically proven), everyone accepts that “magic” number range without questioning who arrived at it or how.

First of all, there is no magic number. As you’ll learn, repetition protocols should change depending on the condition of the athlete, the nature of the exercise and the goal. Learning a little about the principles behind repetition prescriptions will give you a better idea of how to get the most out of your workouts.

The amount of weight you lift in relation to your one-repetition maximum determines how much tension a muscle produces. The preponderance of credible research and empirical evidence shows that the level of tension imposed on a muscle is a critical factor in getting a strength or growth response.

The number of reps you select will influence all other loading parameters—sets, speed of contraction, rest intervals and even exercise selection. The bottom line? Strength researchers have found that reps in the one-to-five range maximally increase strength with minimal gains in muscle mass, and reps in the six-to-15 range maximally increase strength through muscle-mass gains.

Extreme muscle is one of the primary goals in bodybuilding, but that doesn’t mean that bodybuilders should never perform low reps.  When you come off a cycle of low-rep training, you will be able to use heavier weights. Heavier weights create a higher level of muscle tension, which in turn leads to a greater growth response. Mike Payette, a former Mr. Canada I trained who went into professional wrestling, performed 40 percent of his exercises in the four-rep range.

Prescriptions for Increasing Muscle Mass and Relative Strength

One of the most controversial topics in resistance training is the optimal number of sets you need to perform to increase muscle mass. There are the low-set proponents, such as Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer, and the high-set proponents, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Cutler. Both camps are right! What counts is the proportion of high-set work to low-set work through a sound, periodized approach to training. That said, we can make some useful generalizations. The following are several effective set-and-rep prescriptions for increasing muscle.

Intensity: 60-82 percent

Repetitions: 6-20 RM

Sets: 3-6

Rest intervals: 2-4 minutes

Concentric tempo: 1-10 seconds

Eccentric tempo: 4-10 seconds

Total set duration: 20-70 seconds

Total exercises per workout: 6-12

Strength coaches often encounter the difficult problem of designing training programs to improve an athlete’s strength without significantly increasing lean body mass. The type of strength they want is called “relative strength.”

Relative strength is especially important in sports that involve weight classes, such as boxing, wrestling and weightlifting. Athletes in these sports must be as strong as possible at the lightest bodyweight possible. Relative strength is also important to athletes who require strength without excessive muscle mass, such as skiers, cyclists, figure skaters, gymnasts and bobsledders.

Despite being relatively light, the skiers and bobsledders I coach often have leg strength comparable to elite weightlifters and bodybuilders. Felix Belczyk and Cary Mullen are both World Cup medalists. Belczyk weighs 191 pounds, and Mullen weighs 200 pounds, and both have front-squatted 352 for three reps. Ian Danney of the Canadian bobsled team has front squatted 451 pounds, all the way down, and he weighs only 180.

The neuromuscular basis of relative-strength training involves performing brief but maximal voluntary contractions to improve the neural drive to the muscles. The great voluntary effort associated with such training recruits the highest-threshold motor units so as to make use of their greater strength and rate of force development. Near-maximal and maximal weights must be used. The following are several effective set-and-rep prescriptions for increasing relative strength.

Intensity: 85-100 percent

Repetitions: 1-5 RM

Sets: 5-12

Rest intervals: 4-5 minutes

Concentric tempo: 1-4 seconds

Eccentric tempo: 3-5 seconds

Total set duration: under 20 seconds

Total exercises per workout: 6-12

Relative strength produces minimal increases in size, so bodybuilders should not use those methods except as an occasional means of introducing variety.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.StrengthSensei.com.   IM

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