One of the biggest problems that strength athletes have is determining how many sets and reps they should do on the exercises in their programs. Naturally, what they do will depend to a large degree on their strength level. Those just getting started on a strength routine would not use the same set-and-rep formula as someone who’s been strength training for several years, although many basic principles apply to both.
There are lots of theories out there, and this only adds to the confusion. Strength coaches in the pros, colleges and high schools have certain views, as do those who write for the fitness publications’not to mention the huge number of personal trainers who profess to know everything about fitness. Luckily, most do not bother with much in the way of pure strength training.
The majority of those in charge of training others suggest using higher reps for a low number of sets on core exercises in the beginning stage of weight training. That notion has been around for as long as I can remember, and it comes from the reasoning that if the higher reps restrict the weight on the bar, the risk of injury is much lower. In some routines the lifter uses the same weight on all three sets. On others the weight is staggered upward slightly on the sets.
But I don’t like higher reps on core exercises for beginners, and here’s why. Invariably, their form begins to break down after the first half dozen reps, regardless of the amount of weight on the bar. They just do not have the base to maintain good form in the early stages of training. When form deteriorates, the exercise is less effective, and more important, the risk of injury goes way up.
I use higher reps in my programs, but for the more advanced athletes, not beginners.
A few years back there was staunch support for a program where the athlete did only one set to exhaustion. Others, using the same concept, used two sets, again to exhaustion. While the proponents of the system claimed they had come up with an entirely new approach to strength training, all they were doing was following the idea of Arthur Jones, who applied the two sets of exhaustion to his Nautilus equipment in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
It fit nicely in the commercial gyms because the members could get in and out in a hurry, but it doesn’t fit in pure strength training for athletes. Those using the method contend that it’s the ideal way to train athletes for competition, especially football. I totally disagree. Sporting events, including football games, aren’t conducted in this manner, with the exception of sprints, and even then the well-conditioned runner isn’t exhausted; spent maybe, but exhausted, no.
The athlete who’s able to apply maximum effort on a play, recover and do it again and again for the duration of the game will excel’not the one who can give a couple of bursts and be through for the day. Games are generally won at the end, not the beginning, and that’s how the athlete should be trained: to be able to handle heavy weights at the very end of the workout. That type of strength conditioning can’t be accomplished with a couple of sets, and besides, going to exhaustion is detrimental to progress.
I knew a couple of athletes who got involved in this kind of program. When they came back from breaks, they’d lost so much strength, they became depressed and dove back into a legitimate strength routine. Perhaps those coaches, like the gym owners, wanted to get the athletes in and out of the weight room in a hurry, but the routine doesn’t have any place in a strength program.
A method of doing sets and reps that I bet you’ve done at some time in your career is the pyramid system. In this method you start with light weights, do high reps and gradually lower the reps as the weights get heavier. You might do 15, 12, 10, eight, five, three and finish with a max single. That’s how I trained when I first started because I’d read about the pyramid system in a magazine, and it made sense. The concept behind it is that the lighter, higher reps would help warm up the muscles for the heavier attempts.
It worked well for me for a time, but then I got stuck at the top-end numbers on all my exercises. I always did high reps for my arms and calves. I knew something was amiss but didn’t know what. By accident, I found out. One day I was short on time, so instead of doing the high-rep sets at the beginning, I did only fives until the weights got near my limit, then switched over to singles. I broke my records in all three lifts that day and was elated. From then on I kept my warmups in the lower-rep range, and it worked out nicely.
Pyramiding weights taps into the energy level too much with the high-rep warmup sets. It’s true that you’ll be completely warmed up when you’re ready to try your heaviest sets, but you’ll have also worn out your muscles and attachments in the process. That’s fine if you’re not interested in moving the top-end numbers, as many are not, but if you’re seeking continuous improvement, it just doesn’t get the job done.
In the spring of 1995 I served as the strength consultant for the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian League, who went on to win the Grey Cup that season. Josh Miller, who now punts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was one of the most dedicated players on the team in regard to weight training. Since these men were pros who’d been lifting weights for many years, I seldom gave advice unless I saw someone doing an exercise in a way that could injure him. Josh’s pet exercise was the bench press, and he told me he wanted to hit 300 during training camp. I always spotted him and saw that he was using the pyramid method. Every time he benched, he topped out at the same 275 pounds. I believed he could do 300, since he was doing 255 for five reps. So one afternoon I asked him to let me select his weights and reps, with the guarantee that he would break his personal best.
I had him do 135, 205 and 225 for five, then 255 for three, 270, 280, 290 and 300 for singles. He was delighted and continued to use the lower-rep concept for his warmups from then on.
So what is the best set-and-rep formula? The answer is, it depends on the exercise and what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, if you’re in the process of rehabbing an injured area, you’ll want to keep the reps high and limit the number of sets. The reason behind the high reps is that you don’t want to involve the attachments, at least not to any large extent. Your goal is to flush blood and healing nutrients to the damaged area, and light reps for high reps fill the bill. To put an injured area under stress with heavy weights is foolish.
In the early ’60s several pieces of research were done on the subject of optimum repetitions for strength and development and reported in editions of Research Quarterly. They all concluded that the very best method of improving strength was to do four to six sets of four to six reps on any core exercise. This basic formula is effective because it involves the muscles and attachments in equal stimulation. The formula allows for some variation, but when Tommy Suggs and I developed a program around the big three, we had high-school football coaches in mind, so we used five times five. It adheres to the proven research and makes the math much easier for the coach, who may be working with 40 or more kids.
The five-sets-of-five routine is useful for any exercises involving the major muscle groups in the shoulder girdle, hips and legs, and back. It includes a wide variety of movements: back squats, power cleans, high pulls, deadlifts, shrugs, bench presses, inclines, overhead presses, plus several others. The formula is particularly beneficial to anyone just getting started in strength training, but it’s also helpful to those who’ve been lifting heavy for a long time.
Still, some primary exercises don’t fit well in the five-by-five formula. I’ll get to them later on. First, I want to mention the formula recommended for the smaller groups, such as the biceps and adductors. I use the 40-reps rule for my auxiliary movements, which include all sorts of curls, incline dumbbell presses, straight-armed pullovers, triceps pushdowns, leg extensions, leg curls and adductors. That means two sets of 20, three sets of 15 or four sets of 12. I realize three sets of 15 and four sets of 12 don’t add up to 40, but that’s just a rough guideline to help in setting up a program.
I’m often asked, Why not stick with the basic five times five for the smaller groups? Because it’s too much for the attachments. In a program where you work all the major groups with three core exercises, the smaller muscles receive lots of attention. For example, the biceps and corresponding attachments are very much involved during power cleans, high pulls, shrugs or any other heavy pulling exercise. To attack those tendons and ligaments during that session when they’re fatigued is a mistake, but you can exercise the belly muscle safely with higher reps. Once you have sufficiently stimulated the tendons and ligaments, they can’t be strengthened any further at that session. I start all beginners with two sets of 20, and as they progress and build a solid base, I lower the reps and add more sets to help increase their total workload. I use the 40-reps rule for all the leg machines except the seated and standing calf machines. On those I have the athletes do higher reps: three sets of 30 for beginners, and the advanced add more sets until they’re doing six sets of 30. The question often comes up, Is it possible to do low reps on some small-muscle exercise on occasion? Yes, it is, but the important consideration here is that the muscle must be rested, not fatigued. I’ve had athletes who want to try low reps for their curls, so I have them come in on a nontraining day and do that lift. I insist that they do one higher-rep warmup set before moving to the lower reps. That can also be done for the calves. You can try doing sets of eight or fewer, but do them exclusively on that day, not at the conclusion of a hard session. And again, be sure to warm up with a high-rep set.
I don’t use the five sets of five for my lower-back exercises, good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Why? I want to restrict the amount of weight on the bar to maintain proper form. When you use very heavy weights on the good morning, you have to adjust your hips in order to control the bar on your back. When you do that, the good morning is no longer a pure lumbar exercise. It becomes more of a hip and middle-back exercise. I do use that style for advanced strength athletes and powerlifters, but I make sure they also do plenty with the stricter form.
In the almost-straight-legged deadlift, if you use lower reps and the weights get extremely heavy, the lift converts to a regular deadlift. For both of these lower-back exercises I use four sets of 10 or five sets of eight, alternating them every other week. I don’t stay with the five-by-five on many other exercises, such as the full clean, snatch, jerk and front squat. I start the lifter out with a few sets of five, then switch over to lower reps, usually threes. I do that because they’re high-skill movements that require a high degree of timing, coordination, speed and total concentration on every rep. When the weights get heavy, it’s impossible for any athlete to be successful with five reps. It’s much smarter to do lower reps and add extra sets to accomplish your workload goals.
I include the front squat in this group, not so much because it’s a high-skill exercise as because holding a firm rack for more than three reps on maximum poundage is very difficult.
How many sets for the high-skill exercises? That depends on the athlete’s level of conditioning and how he or she feels on a given day. Even the strongest lifter can be fatigued at the end of a hard week of training. One of the jobs of a coach is to observe when athletes are overly tired and to make adjustments to their program. If athletes are scheduled to do six heavy sets of cleans, for example, but on their third set they’re showing obvious signs of fatigue, then I have them stop cleaning and do a less dynamic exercise. Doing any high-skill movement with tired muscles only promotes bad technique, and that’s not only detrimental to progress but invites injury as well.
Is there any place in a strength program for high reps in some of the primary exercises, such as squats and deadlifts? Sure, but I only insert them after an athlete has established a solid base and can maintain good form throughout the set. Several of my athletes wanted to switch to a high-rep routine prior to the season to try to improve their endurance. I had them do two sets of 20 on both the squats and deadlifts. The first set is relatively light, in the nature of a warmup, but the second set should be difficult. And I never gave them a steady diet of these. At their other two workouts during the week they did fives and threes on the squat and lower reps for their other back exercises. That way, they were able to maintain their top-end strength and also add to their total conditioning.
For the abs I’ve always recommended one high-rep set for the upper abs and another for the lower. I suggest doing one ab movement along with a high-rep set of back hyperextensions as part of the warmup and then finishing off the workout with another ab exercise. Breaking them up seems to make the athletes less miserable. When I say high-rep, I mean 200 partial situps or crunches and the same number of leg raises. Maybe not right away, but that should be your goal. Do that at every workout, and your abs will be strong and fit.
As athletes progress and move to higher and higher strength levels, their routines will change, and so will many of their set-and-rep sequences on the various exercises. That’s necessary in order for them to expand their workloads, which in turn will allow them to move to higher max attempts. I’ll go over some advanced programs in future articles.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM