If you’ve read my articles in IRONMAN, you know I’m a big proponent of basic, brief and intense training sessions, especially for building muscle mass. That kind of training has proven over the years to be extremely effective for a large majority of lifters. I’ve also touted another form of training for people who are looking for a combination of size and raw strength: high-set, low-rep lifting.
Unfortunately, most bodybuilders and powerlifters perform far too many sets and reps. When you lift with high sets and high reps, you’re asking for trouble. Such training does at times produce a large amount of muscle mass, especially in steroid users, but the mass never develops in proportion to strength’and muscle without strength is nothing but an out-and-out joke. As for drug-free lifters, high-set, high-rep training can wreak havoc on cortisol levels, which is definitely not what you want if you plan on ever putting an ounce of muscle on your frame.
High-set, low-rep training is another story entirely. It can produce phenomenal strength and size gains as no other type of training can. If you doubt it, then consider these examples of bodybuilders, powerlifters and strength athletes who achieved awesome results with it.
Charles Poliquin. Strength coach extraordinaire Charles Poliquin has said that he never really got his arms to grow (that’s right, his arms) until he began to use a high-set, low-rep training regimen. The numerous sets are the key, he says. In fact, Poliquin, who sports a very large pair of guns, says he averages three reps per set.
Brooks D. Kubik. Author of the popular strength-training book Dinosaur Training and a former national bench press champion, Kubik says he got the best results in terms of both size and strength when he performed numerous singles on one exercise. For example, he often performed 20 sets of singles on the bench press with about 85 percent of his one-rep max. He also likes to use the same type of training for the squat.
Doug Hepburn. Considered by many, including himself, to be the strongest man who ever lived, Hepburn was a colossus whose specialty was the bench press. For training the major lifts, he’d work up in singles until he reached a weight he could handle for three to eight singles. Once he could get eight singles with the weight, he’d add poundage at the next workout. After the singles he’d do five sets of five reps on the same exercise. His reps never went higher than five, and he had tremendous strength and mass combined.
Pat Casey. The Babe Ruth of powerlifting, Casey was the first lifter to bench-press 600 pounds, the first to squat 800 pounds and the first powerlifter to total 2,000 pounds. He enjoyed training the bench press with lots of singles’on either flat-bench presses, bottom-position benches or midrange partials’followed by heavy sets of threes. Afterward Casey would perform more reps for a pump, but the foundation of his training was based on high-set, very low-rep work.
Magnus Samuelson. The World’s Strongest Man winner for 1998, Magnus takes an old-school approach to strength training in that he trains much like Hepburn and Casey. On all his major lifts (squats, deadlifts, benches and overhead presses) Samuelson performs five sets of singles, starting with something heavy but not too heavy and working up until he reaches about 95 percent of his max. After that he performs three progressively heavier sets of fives until he reaches a near-max set of five reps.
Lee Priest. Probably more familiar to IRONMAN readers than the others, Priest is one of the few modern-day bodybuilders who adhere to this type of training. He believes in both extremely heavy weights and lots of sets, averaging about 20 sets per bodypart and four to six reps per set. By now you should be getting an idea of how effective this type of training is. Once you try any of the following routines, you’ll probably never go back to any other type of training again.
Probably the most popular form of low-rep training among old-timers, this approach is highly effective at making a muscle neurally stronger. I believe the best way to incorporate singles is the way either Doub Hepburn or Brooks Kubik does it. On your lift of the day start off with a weight you absolutely know you can get at least three singles with. Remember, it’s better to start off too light than too heavy. Make sure you warm up sufficiently for the lift using very low reps. Then, after about a five-minute rest, go directly into the singles. Perform a single, rest five minutes and then do another single. If you manage to do eight singles, stop performing the lift, add 2 1/2 to five pounds at your next workout and start the progression all over again.
If your goal is simply to be stronger, then end the workout at this point. If you want muscle mass to go along with the strength, rest five minutes and perform three to four sets of three to five reps, taking minimal rests between sets.
Here’s a sample workout that incorporates this approach to training.
Day 1: Chest and arms Bench presses 3-8 x 1; 3 x 3 Use the method described above. Incline dumbbell presses 5 x 3 Barbell curls 3-8 x 1
Use the technique you used for the bench presses but eliminate the triples.
Close-grip rack lockouts 3-8 x 1
This exercise will give you even more triceps involvement than regular close-grip benches, plus it takes the chest out of the movement so you don’t end up overtraining your pecs.
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Legs
Squats 3-8 x 1
Do these as described above. Do not substitute another exercise for regular squats; they can’t be beat as an overall mass booster. Also, don’t sell yourself short by doing a partial or parallel squat. Go rock-bottom for the best benefits.
Front squats 5 x 3
In order to get maximum quadriceps involvement, use these instead of the regular squats for your follow-up triples.
Day 4: Back and shoulders
Weighted wide-grip chins 3-8 x 1; 3 x 3
Close-grip bent-over rows 5 x 3
Use an underhand grip in order to get more lat recruitment, as opposed to midback, in the exercise.
Standing military presses 3 -8 x 1
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Cycle begins again
After four to five weeks on the above program, if you want to try something new, keep using the routine but incorporate Kubik’s approach. Drop the poundages you’re using by about 10 percent and try performing 15 to 20 singles on all the major exercises.
Accelerating Low-Rep Training
This approach to high-set, low-rep work is becoming popular among strength coaches in various sports, powerlifters and Olympic lifters. It only makes sense that bodybuilders should start taking advantage of it as well.
Powerlifting supercoach Louie Simmons uses a form of it to achieve the awesome results he gets with his lifters. Another proponent is strength-and-bodybuilding coach Charles Staley. His method is similar to what I prefer when it comes to building muscle mass. It’s probably the method that would be preferred by most IRONMAN readers as well.
Basically, in accelerating low-rep training, the force produced by each rep is more important than the number of reps performed in each set. You do more sets to compensate for the lack of volume. For example, let’s say you can perform 10 reps on the bench press with a weight that’s approximately 70 percent of your one-rep maximum, and you set about to do exactly that at your next workout. After your first set you rest several minutes and then perform another set of 10 reps, just barely getting all 10. After a few more minutes you perform a third and final set, and this time you also manage, but only barely, to get 10 repetitions.
That’s a total of 30 reps. Now, what if I told you that the better way to get those 30 reps was to perform 10 sets of three with the same weight, accelerating as fast as possible on the positive portion of the rep, instead of three sets of 10. With 10 sets of three reps you lift the same total workload, but each rep is much more productive because you can put maximum force production into each and every rep. That’s what builds raw strength in addition to muscle. The three-sets-of-10-reps system might build muscle, but it also makes you very slow. Accelerating low-rep training builds explosive power and gives you the same hypertrophy response as you get with the high reps, if not better.
You may be scratching your head a bit at this point, but don’t worry. Give the following routine a try, and I promise you’ll be a believer.
Day 1: Chest, lats and shoulders
Bench presses 10 x 3
Use 70 percent of your one-rep maximum, taking no more than one minute’s rest between sets. Use about a two-second negative, pause on your chest for no more than one second and then explode to lockout.
Wide-grip chins 10 x 3
Stay with 70 percent of max, as described above, and perform each set with the same rep cadence.
Dumbbell bench presses 5 x 5
These sets should be heavy. Rest two to three minutes between sets.
Bent-over rows 5 x 5
Use the same scheme as described for dumbbell benches above.
Seated behind-the-neck presses 10 x 3
Again, use 80 percent of your one-rep max.
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Legs, hips and lower back
Squats 10 x 3
Deadlifts 10 x 3
In case you thought the first workout was easy, you’ll be feeling the pain after this one. Use 70 percent of max on both exercises. Perform a set of squats, rest one minute, perform a set of deadlifts and so forth. Never take more than one minute between sets.
Hack squats 8 x 2
Since squats don’t work your lower quadriceps very hard, perform these as well. Once again, use 70 percent of max.
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Arms and calves
Barbell curls 10 x 3
Lying barbell extensions 10 x 3
Use approximately 70 percent of max on each exercise. Make sure it’s 70 percent of a no-cheat maximum on the curls; in other words, what you can curl in strict form. Perform a set of curls, rest 30 to 60 seconds and perform a set of extensions, alternating back and forth between the two until you have completed all 10 sets of each exercise.
Standing calf raises 10 x 3
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Cycle begins again
The 3x3x3 Method This approach will probably seem a bit more conventional to most bodybuilders and, thus, easier to get used to than the other two methods. The premise is quite simple. Perform three different exercises for each muscle group for three sets of three reps each. If you haven’t been achieving any results with the more popular, high-rep approach to volume lifting, this method may be just what you need.
It also enables you to use more exercises for each bodypart and will probably result in the most muscle growth if you’ve already used the high-set singles and accelerating low-rep approaches for a few months.ALL
Here’s a sample workout.
Day 1: Chest and shoulders
Pause bench presses 3 x 3
On your first exercise do three progressively heavier warmup sets of three reps, followed by your work sets with an all-out weight. Pause on your chest for two seconds on every rep.
Incline-bench presses 3 x 3
You shouldn’t need more than one warmup set before your work sets on this exercise.
Dumbbell bench presses 3 x 3
Seated behind-the-neck presses 3 x 3
Perform at least two warmup sets.
Standing dumbbell presses 3 x 3
It’s always good to integrate some type of standing exercise into your shoulder training. It helps to build more functional strength along with large muscles.
Dumbbell lateral raises 3 x 3
Day 2: Legs
Bottom-position squats 3 x 3
Set the pins in the power rack so you have to start the movement from a rock-bottom position. After the first rep lower slowly and pause on the pins before beginning the second rep. This exercise will probably damage your ego the first time you try it, since you’ll have to use so much less weight than you normally handle. Don’t let that discourage you. You won’t find a more productive exercise.
Front squats 3 x 3
Leg presses 3 x 3
I don’t generally recommend this exercise, since it has zero carryover effect for your squats or for building real-world strength; however, it’s good at targeting the quadriceps.
Standing calf raises 3 x 3
Most people don’t train their calves heavy enough, so you should get a burst of growth from training them this way.
Seated calf raises 3 x 3
Donkey calf raises 3 x 3
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Back
Wide-grip chins 3 x 3
Most lifters should have to use some weight strapped to their waist in order to train heavy enough on this one.
Close-grip bent-over rows 3 x 3
Use an underhand grip on these to maximize lat involvement.
Seated pulley rows 3 x 3
Day 5: Arms
Barbell curls 3 x 3
Why is it that very few lifters still do curls with a straight Olympic bar? It’s a shame they don’t, because this exercise is about as good as they get.
Lying dumbbell extensions 3 x 3
Dumbbell curls 3 x 3*
Close-grip rack lockouts 3 x 3
EZ-curl bar curls 3 x 3
Straight-bar pushdowns 3 x 3
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Cycle begins again
There you have it: Three very good routines for adding a combination of size and strength that use low reps and multiple sets. Of course, there are many variations on the idea, but these are a good foundation to start with. Give them an honest try, and you should be hooked. IM