Set and Rep Schemes in Strength Training (Part 1)

TAGS: Sets and Reps, Mladen Jovanivic, efs, elitefts.com, strength training, Elitefts Info Pages

Training Objectives -> Training Parameters -> Variations & Progressions

Regardless of your training objectives (increasing strength in specific lifts, increasing strength overall, bulking up, leaning out, rehabilitation, maintenance, etc), key training parameters (intensity, volume, frequency, density) could be varied and progressed on different time scales.

Certain variations and progressions in training parameters are more suited toward different training objectives, but there exist commonalities between them that we will focus on in the current article.

Training parameters usually involve intensity, volume, frequency and density that could be analyzed and varied on different time-scales, and taking all of them into account would demand a whole book. Hence, the aim of the current article is to provide an overview of the common variations and progressions in intensity and volume only by manipulating set and rep schemes on different time-scales (single workout, week, training block). I know this sounds like a mouthful, but in the next couple of pages everything will be perfectly clear.

Understanding “Intensity”

Depending on whom you ask, there are couples of definitions of training intensity. To cut the long story short, I will present what I think to be pretty neat way to understand training intensity and reconcile different definitions and opinions. In my opinion intensity has the following three components.

All three represent inter-related components of training intensity. I love to call it Intensity Trinity.

Now you have the tool to answer questions such as “What is more intensive – lifting 90% for 2, or lifting 75% for 10?” Hint: one involves higher load and another involves higher exertion.

Understanding Load/Max Reps Relationship

All lifters are familiar with the fact that they can only perform certain maximal number of reps with certain load on the bar. If we express load on the bar as percent of maximal load that could be lifted (% 1RM) and we assume maximal exertion on the last rep (no reps left in the tank) we get load/max reps relationship. There are numerous tables that quantify this relationship, but for the purpose of this article I will use Dan Baker’s table for experienced lifters.

Using this table one can know how many maximal reps can be performed using certain load (% 1RM) and also, one can predict maximal load that can be lifted (1RM) using maximum performed reps and reconverting factor. For example, if one performs 10 reps with 225lb, his predicted maximum is 225 x 1.33 (reconverting factor), which is around 300lb. Please note that this table is different for different lifters and lifts, so take this as a rule of thumb and try to create your own table[1].

 Understanding Load/Exertion Relationship

Load/exertion relationship is another crucial concept for understanding strength training. From load/max reps table we know the maximum number of reps that can be performed using different loads. This of course represents maximal exertion. What we want to do next is to quantify relationship between load, number of reps and exertion level (expressed as reps left in the tank).

The following table is one such solution using mentioned load/max reps from Dan Baker. I simply call it load/exertion table.


[1] Creating your customized load/max reps table involves testing max reps with at least three different loads (e.g. 3RM, 6RM and 10RM) and using linear regression to populate other rep slots. The process is quite simple, but it would demand another article and how-to in Excel.

Even if you see two tables, this is only one table organized in two ways for easier utilization. For example, if one plans using 75% of 1RM but is not certain what number of reps should be performed for a given exertion level, table on the left can give him answer. On the flip side, if one plans doing 5 reps per set, but it is not certain what percentage of 1RM to use for a given exertion level, table on the right can give him answer.

The load/exertion table represent crucial concept for understanding different variations and progressions (or set and rep schemes) we are going to cover.

Understanding Load/Velocity Relationship

Suppose one performs single repetitions across range of loads (e.g. from 30 to 100% 1RM) with maximal effort. The higher the load, the lower the achieved velocity of the movement in the concentric range.

What is interesting is that load/velocity relationship could be modeled with simple linear model (a.k.a. a line with slope and intercept) and remains very stable across time. In plain English, what this means is that 80% of 1RM will have very similar velocity no matter the change in 1RM (increased or decreased). Along with that, velocity associated with 1RM (e.g. 0.15 m/s for bench press and 0.3 m/s for squat) is very similar across subjects with different 1RMs and very stable across time (if one improves or decrease his 1RM).  This opens up great number of options for coaches.

 Understanding Velocity/Exertion Relationship

Suppose one performs reps to failure across different loads (e.g. 50, 70, 90% 1RM) with maximal effort. There are couple of VERY interesting concepts emerging.

First one is that velocity of the last rep in a set to failure (regardless of load use) is very similar, if not the same as velocity associated with 1RM. In other words, the last rep in 10RM set will have very similar velocity to 1RM rep.

Second one is that velocity associated with “reps left in the tank” (exertion level) will be very similar across loads. In plain English, my 8th rep with 10RM load (2 reps left in tank) will have very similar velocity to my 4th rep with 6RM load (2 reps left in tank).

Load/Velocity and Velocity/Exertion relationships and hence profiles for each athlete represent novel and very powerful concept that is utilize in velocity based strength training – a way to prescribe, monitor and auto-regulate strength training.

These two relationships are of not great importance for the current article (since we are going to cover set and reps schemes with traditional approach to strength training prescription).

Understanding “Traditional Approach”

Traditional approach, as I love to call percent-based approach involves prescribing strength training using percentages and known (or estimated) 1RM of the lifter.

The whole process goes like this: athlete knows his 1RM in particular exercise or he tests it either using 1RM test or reps-to-failure test and estimate 1RM using reconversion factors (see load/max reps table). The he uses percent-based programs (e.g. 5x5 with 75%) and coverts percentages to absolute loads (e.g. 5x5 with 120kg). And then he goes lifting for couple of weeks. Then either increase 1RM for some small amount (e.g. 5lb) or test it either with 1RM test or with an open set (basically reps-to-failure, usually done on the last lest inside the training program/cycle). Rinse and repeat (or switch to another program).

Without going into too many details, there are a lot of problems with this approach. There are solutions as well.

The biggest problem is lack of adjustment for different rates of changes for different lifters. Another problem is lack of auto-regulation on a daily basis, for both good and bad days.

One of the simplest solutions is prescribing ranges for either load or number of reps. For example, instead of prescribing 5x5 with 75%, one could prescribe 5x5 with 70-80% or 5x4-6 with 75%. This takes into account good or bad days and reduces daily expectations and anxieties of the lifter for hitting certain numbers.

A bit more complex solution is using subjective feedback for exertion level for each set. This involves prescribing exertion levels, and omitting either load or number of reps. Mike Tuchscherer, world class power lifter, developed the whole system revolving around RPE (rating of perceived exertion) which is an easy way to quantify exertion level (RPE10 = no reps left in the tank, RPE9 = 1 rep left in the tank, RPE8 = 2 to 4 reps left in the tank and so forth).  So, instead of prescribing exact load and reps, one could prescribe load and exertion level (3 sets with 80% @RPE8) or number of reps and exertion level (3x5 @RPE8).

More attuned lifters can use this subjective feedback (rating of perceived exertion) to auto-regulated for good and bad days and adjust for individual rates of change in the strength. It takes time and hard work (and a lot of trial and error) to develop such knowledge.

The novel method involves using velocity-based strength training prescription and control. Describing this approach is beyond the scope of this article, but in short it revolves around prescribing initial rep velocity and velocity stop, instead of %1RM and number of reps.

Even with all these flaws, traditional or percent-based approach is still the most dominant approach to strength training. It was important to introduce the above relationships between load, exertion and effort, along with the problems of percent-based approach to get the big picture, but for the rest of this article we will focus on common variations and progressions (set and rep schemes) under percent-based umbrella in part 2.

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