Routine questions people regularly ask me are, "What is the best set and rep scheme", "How should I arrange my sets and reps", "How do I know how much weight to use on my sets", or "when should I add weight", and "how many sets and reps should I do?". Those are questions I will answer in this article. First I'll discuss some general theory and at the end I'll give you several examples of how you can incorporate the info.
First off there really isn't a "best" set and rep scheme. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on the goal.
Defining Your Rep Range
The rep range you use is up to you and your goals. The principles I discuss in this article apply to any and all rep ranges. Having said that here are some general guidelines:
0-3 Max and Relative strength
3-5 Max strength/low end hypertrophy
5-8 Best combo of max strength and hypertrophy
6-10 Good strength, better hypertrophy
10-15 Excellent hypertrophy, average strength, lots of fatigue
15-20 some hypertrophy, lots of endurance, tons of fatigue
The reality is it is possible to get plenty of strong doing sets of 6-10 reps and plenty big doing sets of 1-3 reps, as I discussed in The Myth of Non-functional hypertrophy and The Myth of Relative Strength.
What about number of sets? Well when you get down to it there are really 2 primary set and rep schemes - volume based and intensiveness based.
If you've been around a while you've probably heard the maxim, "You can train hard or you can train long but you can't do both." That quote sums up the difference between volume and intensiveness. Volume based schemes use more sets and tend not to be maximal. Intensiveness based schemes use less sets but sets tend to be maximal. Keep in mind "intensiveness" is technically different than "intensity" although many people use the terms interchangeably. Intensity is simply how much load your working with relative to your max. If you have a 100 lb bench press and are lifting 60 lbs your intensity is 60%. If you're working out with 90 lbs your intensity is 90%. Intensiveness is how much psychological and physical effort you're exerting. The lifter with a 100 lb max bench press lifting with 60 lbs could actually put more effort into his set than he could lifting 90 lbs, so it's possible to have high intensiveness and low intensity and vice versa.
Getting back to volume and intensiveness, which is better? Well they both have their positives and negatives.
The Intensive Method
I like to refer to intensity based schemes as schemes that utilize "the money set method", because the focus is on workout to workout progression in either sets or reps for relatively few sets per workout. The money set method is a method I talked about several years back in the ultimate split article and also a method used by Dante Trudel (DC Training), Jason Feruggia, and Jim Wendler. It has some philosophical roots in the old high intensity (HIT schemes) promoted by Arthur Jones back in the 70's but the modern practical implementation is substantially different. The idea behind money set methods is the strong emphasis on making gains in either weight lifted or repetitions each and every workout. How much overall work you do isn't much of an issue or a focus - making some sorta progress is. The number of sets per workout tends to be low, sometimes as few as one work set per muscle group. You monitor strength gains by increases in reps or weight lifted and the focus is setting PRs on a very regular basis - ideally almost every workout. Let's say you do one set of bench press per workout increasing an average of 2 lbs per week. In 50 weeks you'd have put 100 lbs on your bench. That's the basic idea behind the money set method. By narrowing your goal down to relatively few exercises and few sets with a focus on setting Prs on a regular basis you can't help but progress.
The volume method is pretty much the antithesis of the money set method. Here instead of trying for 1 all out gut busting set you do several sets short of full effort, typically with more exercises. A general recommendation for volume training is to keep each set 2 reps shy of failure, most of the time. You might occassionally hit failure on some sets but it isn't really sought after. A typical volume method set and rep scheme would be 5 x 5 with a weight you could do 7 times or 4 x 8 with a weight you could do 10 times. The first 2 or 3 sets will be submaximal but the last set or 2 will be tough. The only real difference between the 2 is the volume method has you going at less than 100%, at least initially.
Most workouts written by trainers are inherently volume oriented unless otherwise indicated. If a trainer writes a workout calling for 4 sets 8 most people will do 4 sets of 8 with a given weight and most sets will be a rep or 2 shy of failure. Say a workout calls for 4 sets of 8 reps on bench press and our lifters max is 225 for 8. what most people do is something like this:
135 x 10
205 x 8
215 x 8
220 x 8
225 x 8
So 4 sets of 8 with one set approaching failure.
The thing about keeping most sets shy of failure is it allows you to get a lot more quality work in. The bad thing about it is you're rarely ever truly training at 100% so you may not learn to train truly hard. A lot of people that train volume tend to lift the same weights and do the same reps workout to workout, week to week, and month to month, because the focus on improving workout to workout isn't the same. There's some truth to the mindset that you'll instinctually hold back earlier in a workout if you know you have a lot of work and sets to do.
The Importance of Learning To Truly Train Hard
There is one other thing that in reality makes most workouts inherently volume oriented: You see - most people can't truly train hard and use workouts like the money sets optimally from the get go because they haven't taught themselves how. True money set training fosters an inner mindset and attitude that will rapidly increase the rate and extent you are capable of fatiguing ourself on a set to set basis. With one throw an olympic shotputter is capable of generating lactate levels throughout their body that would take most athlete minutes of activity to emulate. The more explosive the athlete the greater the ability to generate short term muscular fatigue. THAT ability to generate full and intense muscular contraction is a trait that is improved with true money set training. If you ask the average person to do a 100% maximal set of 6 or more reps they may go after it hard but they'll most likely be able to repeat that set 2 or more times. If you have an advanced trainee with lots of high intensive experience try this they likely be able to wear themselves out with one set. There are exceptions with lower rep sets becuase they don't create the same amount of muscular fatigue, but for sets of 6-20 this holds mostly true.
If you're REALLY doing money set training you shouldn't be able to duplicate a truly maximal effort more than once or twice in the same workout.
What method you choose depends on your training status, your goals and even your personality. It's generally accepted that at least some volume training is better for beginners and it's definitely better for muscle growth. Money set training is better for neural end immediate strength gains. It's also in my experience significantly better for low level intermediate trainees because it helps teach explosive oriented mental focus and effort. However, it can't be done each and every workout because it'll burn you out mentally.
In reality the best approaches are combined approaches.
Throughout the rest of the article I'll talk about how to implement and combine both approaches.
First lets take a closer look at the practical applications of money set training:
Practical Implementation of Money Sets
The idea is you have at least 1 "money" set each workout where you go all out and your goal during that 1 set is to do either more reps or lift more weight than you did last time. However, this DOESN'T necessarily mean you only do one set and you can certainly do more than one exercise but you'll have relatively few sets each workout that really count.
Let's say you're doing squats and you want to hit one money set for somewhere between 5-10 reps. Your last workout you did 250 for 6 reps and you want to improve upon that number. Your entire squat workout might look like this:
45 lbs x 10
135 x 5
185 x 5
225 x 5
250 x 8 reps (or as many reps as possible)
The idea is you do enough warm-up or build up sets to get fully prepared for that one maximal run at a PR. If you felt you had more in the tank you might give another run at that 250. Also, notice how there are several warmup sets but the reps are kept lower to avoid excessive fatigue from building up.
Would that be the only thing you did that workout? Typically not. You might do one or 2 more money sets of a different exercise and you could even add some submaximal assistance volume work, but the rest of the workout wouldn't really count towards your progress one way or the other. It's the money set(s) that count.
Importance of Productive Warm-ups
One mistake a lot of people make with the money set method is not doing enough warmup sets or creating too much fatigue in their warmups. Take a look at my Warming up for weight training article for more info on that topic. If you warmup properly and are as fired up as you should be it's really difficult to do more than 1 or 2 truly maximal sets per workout for each muscle group, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It's an advantage because it keeps your focus where it should be - training hard while adding weight or reps to foundational exercises. It's a disadvantage because it inherently limits your volume. There are ways around the limitations though as I'll discuss later. One other thing: This type of training is often associated with training to failure and people often use less than questionable form. But the reality is you should terminate each set at the first sign of failure. Do as many reps as possible WITH GOOD FORM.
Progression with the money set method:
There are a couple of different ways to progress with money sets. Some people like to vary the reps each workout. This is an option Jim Wendler utilizes in his 5-3-1 workout. Here is an example of his weekly set and rep scheme:
Wendler likes to use submaximal percentages working up to a max set for each main exercise over 3 sets:
week 1: 75% (of 1 rep max) x5, 80%x5, 85%x as many reps as possible
week 2: 80% (of 1 rep max) x3, 85%x3, 90%x as many reps as possible
week 3: 75% (of 1 rep max) x5, 85%x3, 95%x as many reps as possible
Week 4: 60% (or 1 rep max) x 5, 65%x5, 70%x5 (deload)
You increase the weight by 5% for 3 workouts followed by a deload week.
You might have a bench workout on monday, a squat workout on tuesday, a military press workout on thursday, and deadlift workout on friday. After each main exercise you'd also do an optional 5-10 sets of submaximal volume assistance work. So, on your bench press workout you might add on a few sets of submaximal 6-12 rep dumbell presses and a few sets of triceps and biceps. For your squat workout you might do an extra 3 sets of 8-10 submaximal front squats and glute-hams. On your military press workout you might do 3-4 sets of 8-10 flat dumbell presses, and the same for a bicep and tricep exercise. On your deadlift workout you might do a few sets of submaximal lunges and glute hams.
The 3 to 5 rep progression
Another option for progressing in the money set method (that also works for progressing with volume oriented training) would be to use what I like to call a 3 to 5 rep progression. It's very simple. As soon as you add 3 to 5 reps to your existing best effort at a given weight, add weight and start over.
For example let's suppose I'm doing weighted seated dumbell press and want to hit a money set somewhere between 8 and 12 reps for this exercise. I work up to a max set of 8 with 100 lbs. The next workout I'd try to beat 8 reps with the same weight. As soon as I can hit 12 reps with that weight I'd go up in weight again. Here's an example of a progression:
workout #1: 100 x 8 reps
workout #2: 100 x 10 reps
workout #3: 100 x 12 reps
workout #4: 105 x as many reps as possible (start over)
It might not take me 3 workouts to go from 8 to 12 reps. It might only take me one. Regardless, as soon as I get that 3 or 4 rep increase I'd add weight and do as many reps as possible with it.
The rep range is also variable. You can use this progression scheme performing reps of 1-3, 3-5, 5-8, 8-12, 12-15, or 15-20. The general idea is the same regardless of whether you're using lower or higher reps.
One other thing important with money set training are periodic unloading periods. You can't continually go all out all the time. Taking a built in submaximal effort week will increase your success long term. There are a few ways to do this. You can simply back off for a week every now and then, stopping each set 2 weeks shy of failure. Jim Wendler has a deload week every 4th week where he recommend you work up to 60% of 1RM x5, 65%x5, and 70%x5
You might not need a deload week that often but if you go 2 workouts in a row without any progress taking one would be a good idea. Some people can handle 6-10 weeks hard training before they need a break. Others might need an easy week every 2-3 weeks.
Combining the Approaches
Now that I've talked about the difference between volume and intensive methods I'll talk about combining them: One word of caution:
Many people already attempt to combine volume and intensive based training and that's a big part of why a lot of people fail. You can do a lot of sets, or you can train really hard. But you can't do both. If you're going to do a lot of sets the majority of those sets should be kept short of failure.
The typical Monday evening "pack" of guys at the gym who do the same 16 set chest workout every monday and fail to improve should immediately come to mine. Not only do they do a ton of sets but they take every set to failure, do forced reps on most exercises, and rarely make gains.
Money set/volume method
This is an option that works extremely well for combination strength/size. Here you'll have 2 workouts per week per muscle group. One is volume oriented and the other is intensive oriented. The first workout you'd perform a money set variation such as 1 x 5 building up to a maximum set of 5. The 2nd workout you do 5 x 5 with the same weight each set. Using the squat for example on Monday you'd work up to 1 money set of 5 and the other workout you'd do 5 sets of 5 with a weight you could do 7 times. So you get volume one workout and intensity the next. This workout works extremely well for intermediates who want to bring up a lift while packing on some size. It'll work for any lift or combination of lifts and is very versatile.
Descending reps method
The descending reps method can be either a volume or money set method depending on how you do it. The idea is the reps will start off low and get higher as the workout progresses. when performing money sets it's difficult to do many quality sets. However, if you go from lower reps to higher the lower reps actually potentiate the higher reps, so you can do more qualit sets per workout. A money set variation of the descending reps method might look like this:
1 x 3, 1 x 5, 1 x 10
Here you build up to a heavy set of 3. Strip some weight off and do a lighter set of 5. Followed by a set of 10.
One of my most productive training phases of all time was a variation of the descending reps money set method. Each workout on squats I'd do one maximal money set of 5-8 reps followed by one money set of 15-20 reps. In about 4 months I'd put a good 50 lbs on my squat max and several inches to my puny legs. At the end I was squatting 225 lbs for 20 reps which was a substantial achievement for me. A typical workout went like this:
45 x 5
95 x 5
135 x 5
185 x 3
225 x 3
245 x 3
265 x 5 (felt easy so I went up another 5 lbs)
275 x 5 money set max #1
225 x 15-20 money set #2
Each week I'd try to add either reps or weight to one of those 2 money sets.
A volume variation of the descending reps method might look like this:
2 x 3, 2 x 5, 2 x 8
Here you'd keep each set a couple of reps shy of failure while doing multiple sets.
You can also use the descending reps method over a course of a workout. Say you're doing 2 exercises per body-part. The first exercise might be a descending reps money set method. The 2nd exercise will be a volume variant with slightly higher reps. Here is a sample upper body workout:
Incline DB press 1 x 6-8, 1 x 15-20 (money sets)
Weighted dip: 4 x 8-12 (each set 2 reps shy of failure)
Mid grip pullup: 1 x 5 weighted, 1 x as many reps as possible with bodyweight
Chest supported Row: 4 x 8-12 (each set ~ 2 reps shy of failure)
Preacher Curl: 2 x 8-12 (each set ~2 reps shy of failure)
Decline tricep extension: 2 x 8-12 (each set ~2 reps shy of failure)
You can also combine the descending reps method into a combination of money set and volume. when you do that it becomes what I like to call the Max/Submax method
This is a combination of the money set method and volume method I like to use for particular lifts. This is one of my favorite set and rep schemes for intermediate to advanced athletes interested in strength. A workout might look something like this:
1 x 3 @ 100%
3 x 3 @ 90% of 3 rep max
What this means is you work up to a 3 rep money set (or 100% effort). You'd then subtract 10% weight and do 3 more sets of 3. You can use any rep scheme you like but I prefer to use singles, triples, and fives with this scheme. The great thing about this is it allows you to get more volume in than normal with weights at around 90%.
So, what are some examples of how to implement these set and rep schemes into a complete routine?
Here are a couple of examples:
For most people with a year or less of solid training experience I like a simple combination method. You'll do 4-5 exercises per workout and 3 sets of either 5 or 8 reps per exercise - your choice. Start with the bar and perform sets of 5 or 8 reps and continue to add weight each set until your form towards the end of a set starts to get a bit shaky. Consider that your first work set. Then do 2 more sets with the same weight. As soon as you can get all 3 sets of either 5 or 8 perfect reps with a given weight you increase the weight by 5 lbs the next workout. Here is an example of a beginning lifter using the squat:
45 x 5
95 x 5
135 x 5
185 x 5 (form gets a bit shaky towards the end)
185 x 5
185 x 4 (oops - missed a rep. No big deal. Try to get that extra rep the next workout then move up 5lbs the following)
You'd do the same thing with a few more exercises each workout. You'd have 2 different workouts and alternate back and forth between them on an every other day basis with weekends off. Athletes will have a little plyo work mixed in. The workouts might look something like this:
Knees to chest tuck jump 4 x 8
1/4 Jump squat with barbell 3 x 5 with 45 lbs (reset after each rep)
Squat 3 x 5
Deadlift 1 x 5
Bench press 3 x 5
Pullup or chinup 3 x as many reps as possible (add load when you get an average of 10 per set)
Lateral barrier jump 4 x 8
1/4 Jump squat with barbell 3 x 5 with 45 lbs
Bulgarian split squat 3 x 8
Military press 3 x 5
Pullup or chinup 3 x as many reps as possible (add load when you get an average of 10 per set)
If you go more than 2 workouts in a row without any progress in repetitions or poundages reduce the weights by 10% and work your way back up. Most people can follow that basic scheme for ~6 months and make continual and steady gains. You'd only need extended warm-ups for the squat, bench press, and military press.
For intermediate and advanced athletes there are a multitude of options available but I often use some form of a money set method such as The Ultimate Split type setup or a combination method like the aforementioned Max/Submax method or Descending reps method. Plyo and performance movements can be added on to virtually any scheme in the same manner as I discussed in the ultimate split article. Have one lower intensity movement efficiency exercise and one power/performance movement. Stop when your performance drops off.
Hopefully that gives you some new ideas on how to implement and manage set and rep schemes. Good luck with it!