Overview of the Process

In the first article of this series, Set and Rep Schemes in Strength Training, I wrote about the relationships between load, exertion and effort. Understanding these concepts and their relationships is helpful in programming the variations and progressions in rep and set schemes. In this article, I will discuss the process used to program your training, evaluate proper set and rep schemes, and look at load-exertion levels.

Training objectives will demand certain training parameters, within which we can employ various progressions and variations, which are what we call set and reps schemes.

The whole process looks like this:

This is the simple process that outlines the planning and programming of training. It is definitely not linear as depicted, but involves a lot of feedback information to redefine certain components based on real life results, hence the importance of monitoring and measuring.

On the following table there is example breakdown of these processes for an intermediate powerlifter.

This is just an example without too much detail (especially in training parameters and progressions), but I hope you get the picture.

As alluded to in the beginning of this article, 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. Thus, regardless of what you are training for (training objectives) there exists certain set and rep schemes (progressions and variations) you can employ on different time scales.

I will be relying on various writings by Dan Baker, Ashley Jones, Joe Kenn and others in this classification and terminology. Please see references for further details.

Workout Set and Rep Schemes

Within this time frame, set and rep schemes refer to one exercise and one workout. Here are couple of variations that are frequently done in strength training.

There are always problems with terminology, but I used names preferred by Ashley Jones and Joe Kenn. Certain variations are more suitable for certain periods and objective than others. Certain variations progress on Load/Exertion by keeping reps the same and progressing in load and exertion, some vary reps and keep the same exertion, etc.

One can also use different set and rep schemes for the same objective at different training phases (e.g. plateau load in accumulation phase, step load in intensification phase). The options are endless. The key is having the objective in mind, but still providing certain variability to avoid boredom or provide stronger stimuli. Certain athletes will prefer certain variations. For example, I hate plateau load option — I can do a lot more work with wave approaches with same “mental load.”

Weekly Set and Rep Schemes

The next progression and variation time frame is one training week (or microcycle). Depending on number of training sessions in a week and training frequency (how many times we hit training objective, body part, muscle, biomotor ability) we devise different variations. In the table below, based on work by Dan Baker, we can find different variations for two sessions hitting the squat pattern (this could be any other movement, body part or training objective).

Two frequent applications of weekly variations is the Hard/Medium/Easy approach of Bill Starr and the Maximal Effort/Dynamic Effort (ME/DE) of Westside.

With higher frequency of workouts, one can chose different combinations of the variations. Certain variations are preferred based on fatigue cycles during the week (biology), priorities (objectives & biology), constraints (context), or even preference.

Depending on the workout set and rep schemes selected, weekly variations can have much more variety (e.g. weekly variations for plateau vs. step loading).

It is also important to say that not all exercises should follow the same variation. For example, lower body movements can use variation five or six, while upper body can use one or three. This depends on the objectives, individual characteristics and preferences.

Training Block Set and Rep Schemes

This is what Dan Baker calls “Different Cycle-Length Variants or Patterns of Periodized Strength Training.” Other coaches recognize it as periodization schemes. Unfortunately, most confuse training objectives (e.g. strength, power, hypertrophy, lockout strength, grip strength, hole strength, etc.) and training blocks set and rep schemes. For the sake of this article, I will assume the same training objective(s) are being used over the training block. Because of this, I will only focus on set and rep schemes.

This will let us avoid confusing set and rep variations with training objectives emphasis (e.g. undulating periodization sometimes call for weeks of 4 x 10, 4 x 6, 4 x 8, 4 x 4, and that approach not only provides variety, but also hit different training objectives like hypertrophy and strength). It is important to differentiate ‘attack’ training objectives (parallel, sequential, undulating, whatever fancy name there is today) and block set and rep schemes variations aimed at ‘attacking’ the same training objective.

On the following table there are frequent variations utilizing different ‘progressions’ on load/exertion table.  Don’t mind the names, but try to get the underlying principles in load progression and variation.

There are many more progressions and variations, but these are the common ones that are utilized under the same training objective. Don’t get hung up too much on this table, but use it as an example. The table refers to plateau loading in the workout, but the principles could be applied to all other workout set and rep schemes.

Please note that there could be different progressions for different training days (e.g. in weekly variation, day one could progress using traditional and linear progression, and day two could progress using rep accumulation) and even different exercises (e.g. main lifts could use different progression than assistance). This makes an infinite number of combinations to choose from. Again, for certain objectives, or even exercises, we could prefer one block progression over another.

Hopefully this article provided an overview of “traditional” (percent-based) approach to strength training, with its different processes, different reps and sets progressions, and variations on workout, week and block time frames.

Load-Exertion Levels

[Click on charts to enlarge]