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Sets, Reps and Getting Strong

www.ironmanmagazine.comOf all the many aspects of strength training, the one that seems to baffle more athletes and coaches is determining just how many reps and sets they should use for various exercises in a program. Any trainees who have laid out their own beginning programs understands the problem of not really knowing how to proceed in terms of sets and reps.

For a very long time the accepted standard for everyone lifting weight was to perform three sets of 10 reps on every exercise in the program—no exceptions. That was the formula used by Dr. Peter Karpovich of Springfield College in Massachusetts when he conducted perhaps the very first study of the effects of weight training on 600 men, aged 18 to 30.

The first instructional manual I ever saw on the subject of weight training was George Jowett’s Guide to Dynamic Tension. It had a section about using weights, but since I didn’t have any at the time, I stuck with the dynamic-tension exercises. When I did finally come across a barbell and dumbbells—when I attended medical corpsman school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, Illinois—I recalled his advice on sets and reps: three sets of 10.

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So that’s what I started with—and it got the job done on only a handful of basic exercises. I stuck with that for a long time before I tried something different. I wanted to start using more weight, especially in my presses and cleans, so I lowered the reps to six and did two extra sets. That worked, so I decided to see what would happen if I did those lifts in sets of twos, threes and even singles every month or so. That change also helped me get a tad stronger.

The data wasn’t available, so I had to find out what worked on my own. Nowadays, however, the problem isn’t lack of information but too much. So much that athletes and coaches become confused trying to figure out just how to lay out a systematic strength program. There are more experts than members of Congress, and they’re all striving to be “the voice” on the topic.

Mingled with all the experts are the team doctors and trainers who still adhere to the three-sets-of-10 concept. The rationale behind it is that it restricts the amount of weight that can be used on an exercise. Less weight means less risk of injury. While that makes sense on paper, it doesn’t in reality.

Here’s why: People just starting out on a strength program don’t have enough of a base to handle much weight—which also means that they don’t as yet have the strength to do 10 reps correctly with any weight that taxes them. Even with the basic, low-skill movements, such as the squat and bench press, their form will start to falter when they reach seven, eight, nine or 10 reps because they’re growing tired.

Another reason I don’t use three sets of 10 for beginners is that the higher reps do not hit the tendons and ligaments nearly as well as slightly lower reps. And anyone who has been involved in strength training for any length of time knows that the attachments are the keys to gaining strength. Research has shown that the best way to develop strength is to do four to six sets of four to six reps each. That has multiple benefits. With the slightly lower reps, you can concentrate on your form much better, and fours, fives or sixes will definitely hit your attachments.

My favorite is five sets of five for the primary exercises for anyone just starting out in strength training as well as for those getting back into the flow of training. I use a progressive system on which you start out with a relatively light weight and proceed on to a heavier poundage. That lets your muscles get warmed up properly before tackling the more taxing weights and gives your nervous system a chance to get more involved.

For example, a bench press progression might be 135, 175, 195, 205 and 215.

I’ll have more on this next month.


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—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit

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