by Christian Thibaudeau T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
While there's no one best set/rep scheme, there are plenty of great ones to choose from, all time-tested and proven to work.
Methods like 10 x 1, 5 x 2, ramping up to a 3RM, 3/2/1 waves, and 1/3 ratchet loading, among others, work great for pure strength gains.
For gaining both size and strength, schemes like cluster 5's, 5 x 5, and 1/2/4/6 are extremely effective.
For pure hypertrophy, 4 x 8, 10/8/6/20, and Gironda's 6 x 6 have been around forever and continue to pack on muscle.
"How many sets and reps should I do to get the best results?"
I hear that question every day. People all want a cut and dried answer so all they'll have to do is follow it and make uninterrupted progress. Sadly, it's not as simple as that. There is no one "best" sets/reps scheme. And sometimes a little detail like doing one too many sets in a certain intensity range could absolutely kill your progress. However, while there are no best schemes, there are several great ones. Here are 22 of them. All of them will work if you respect the given guidelines and train hard.
1. For Pure Strength Gains
Ramping up to a 3RM (60-90%): The principle of ramping is fairly easy to understand. You start with a moderate load and gradually build your way up to the heaviest weight you can lift for the chosen rep number. It's as simple as that.
Understand, though, that ramping works optimally with low reps. Ramping is based on one simple fact: Every time you do a set, two things happen. First, you potentiate/activate the nervous system, which increases your performance potential for subsequent sets. Second, you create fatigue (neural and muscular), which decreases performance potential. The key with ramping is creating more activation with as little fatigue as possible. Activation is linked to force production, so you can amp up the nervous system either by lifting heavy weights or accelerating the weight as much as possible.
Here are the guidelines to follow when ramping (regardless of whether it's to a 1, 2, or 3RM):
Only do the chosen rep number on all your sets, even the lighter ones.
Treat every set as if it were a max effort set. Warm-ups do not exist with ramping. Each set is a "practice set" leading to the max effort. Every set should be done with 100% focus and trying to push or pull as hard as possible on the bar.
Do not use too many sets as you work up to your RM as you want to avoid excessive fatigue. I used to take up to 12 sets to reach my top weight, but later found better results using only 5 or 6 sets to get there. Don't go too low, either, or the large jumps will create an inhibitory effect instead of a stimulating/confidence-building one.
Start with 60% of RM when you ramp. When ramping to a 3RM, you'll normally reach a point that's approximately 90% of your max, so make jumps of about 7-10% per set. It might look something like this:
180 lbs x 3
200 lbs x 3
220 lbs x 3
240 lbs x 3
260 lbs x 3
270 lbs x 3
You want to rest long enough to prevent fatigue from hurting your performance, but not so long that you lose the neural potentiation effect. Two minutes between sets works best for most.
Ramping up to a 2RM (60-92/95%): This is the same as ramping to a 3RM, but you use sets of 2 instead of sets of 3. While ramping to a 3RM is my new favorite form of ramping most of the time (it builds strength with much less negative impact on the nervous system), ramping to sets of 2 is something that I often use to learn to demonstrate strength without the huge toll that a 1RM can take on my body and nervous system.
Ramping up to a 1RM (60-97/100%): In the past, ramping to a 1RM was my favorite way of ramping, but over the long haul I found that it can be brutal on neural recovery. Neural fatigue is odd in that you rarely notice it. You begin to feel a bit less motivated or energetic, but not enough to think that there's something wrong. Then you can get used to being in that situation and "a bit less motivated/energetic" becomes your normal state. You're probably functioning at 80% efficiency but don't even know it! But trust me, ramping to a 1RM is at least 2-3 times harder to recover from than ramping to a 2 or 3RM. While ramping to a 1RM is a very effective way to peak strength, it shouldn't be used for more than 2-3 weeks in a row.
10 x 1 @ 90%: This scheme will allow you to gain strength as well as the skill to be able to demonstrate it. While you can build strength using lower weights like 80%, it's the 90%+ lifts that make you good at demonstrating maximum strength. I find that you can get maybe 3-4 lifts in the 95-100% range (more than that and you risk neural fatigue), but you double that number by simply going down to 90-95%! And, truth be told, you can build just as much strength using weights that are 90% of 1RM as you can using weights that are 95-100% of your 1RM.
5 x 2 @ 90%: "Hard doubles" are a great way to build strength. Even if you're using the same percentage and do the same total reps as for the 10 singles (90%), I find 5 hard doubles easier psychologically. It's hard to maintain focus and intensity over 10 sets, even if each set is very short. You also recruit more motor-units doing hard doubles than singles at the same intensity level. The reason is that you do create some fatigue with the first rep and are forced to recruit some more motor units to be able to perform the second rep. Ten singles is very effective for advanced lifters with lots of heavy lifting experience because they're generally able to recruit more motor-units in that first rep. Intermediate lifters will get better results from the doubles because they can't recruit as many fibers in the first rep and need the second to get complete stimulation.
3 x 3 @ 90%: "Hard triples" is similar to the hard doubles in that you use fatigue from the first reps to increase motor-unit recruitment as the set progresses. I find that 3 x 3 (90%) is a good way to train for strength if you have little experience in maximal lifting. Intermediates will make great gains too, but for advanced lifters it might be a bit too demanding because they are so efficient at recruiting muscle fibers (and because their max is higher, 90% of 500 pounds is more demanding on the body than 90% of 200 pounds, even if "relatively speaking" the intensity is the same).
Advanced lifters can still use it, but doing 5 doubles would work better in most situations. The advanced lifters who will benefit the most from hard triples are those who are strong, but not explosive. Naturally explosive lifters are the best at recruiting fast-twitch fibers and will quickly lose strength from rep to rep. It's not rare to have an explosive lifter fail to get 3 reps at 90% while a strong but slower lifter can bang out 5 reps with that weight.
3/2/1 waves (88-97/102%): This is quite possibly the most powerful loading scheme you can use to build strength. I know some experts have spoken out against it, but I've seen it work too many times to listen to "theory" and disregard reality. Heck, even Ilya Illyin, arguably the best Olympic lifter at the moment, uses this scheme in his training. It has a profoundly stimulating effect on the nervous system, but it can also be draining because of the high neural output.
Basically, you perform "waves" of 3 sets on an exercise. The weight is increased on every set during a wave while the reps are decreased. For example, a wave might look like this:
315 lbs x 3
325 lbs x 2
335 lbs x 1
Rest your normal length between each set.
If you can successfully complete a wave without missing a rep, you're allowed to start a new wave. The new wave uses more weight than the preceding one. Normally I recommend starting the wave with the load you used for the second set of the preceding wave:
325 lbs x 3
335 lbs x 2
345 lbs x 1
If you can complete all the reps in that second wave, you can start a third wave:
335 lbs x 3
345 lbs x 2
355 lbs x 1
Stop the exercise when you can no longer complete a wave.
Note that the first wave is conservative while the second one is more challenging but one notch below your maximum. The third wave, of course, leads to a 1RM. Being able to complete 4 waves would lead to a PR. For example, if your 1RM on a lift is 350 pounds, your waves might look like this:
310 lbs x 3, 320 lbs x 2, 330 lbs x 1
320 lbs x 3, 330 lbs x 2, 340 lbs x 1
330 lbs x 3, 340 lbs x 2, 350 lbs x 1
340 lbs x 3, 350 lbs x 2, 360 lbs x 1
On any given day you should be able to complete 2 waves. Completing 3 waves is a very good session while completing 4 waves is an amazing workout. Completing 5 waves means that you underestimated the weights to use!
1/3 Ratchet loading (80-90%): This is also a form of wave loading, but uses waves of two sets. The difference is that the same weight is used for both sets in a wave (in 3/2/1 waves it is gradually increased), but the reps increase. The first set is designed to potentiate the nervous system and get used to the new weight; the second set is a more demanding effort. Normally we use three waves (for a total of 6 sets), but we sometimes do four waves on a particularly good day. The waves are as follow:
Wave 1: 80% x 1 Rest 90 sec. 80% x 3 Rest 120 sec.
Wave 2: 85% x 1 Rest 90 sec. 85% x 3 Rest 120 sec.
Wave 3: 90% x 1 Rest 90 sec. 90% x 3 Rest 120 sec.
Wave 4: 92-95% x 1 Rest 90 sec. 92-95% x 3
This is a good way to build strength as you practice performing a lift with heavy loads while not being as hard on the nervous system as 3/2/1 waves.
2. For Gaining Strength and Size Equally
Cluster 5's @ 88-92%: Clusters are an advanced method to build size while getting a lot stronger. They consist of doing 5 repetitions with a load you would normally use for 3 repetitions (88-92%). You accomplish that by taking pauses between every rep. The length of the pause can be as short as 5 seconds and as long as 20 seconds. The goal is to get all 5 reps in, so you might start with shorter breaks early in the set and then extend them as the set (and fatigue) progresses.
The short break is enough to replenish some ATP in the muscles, recharge the nervous system a bit, and get rid of a possible metabolite accumulation, but it's not long enough to get rid of all the fatigue from the previous rep(s). This results in you being able to use a bit more weight than you normally would for 5 reps while still being forced to recruit more motor-units from rep to rep due to some fatigue accumulation.
5 x 5 @ 75-85%: Among strength athletes, the 5x5 scheme has been one of the longest standing training methods. The Russian squat strength programs from the 70's used it, Hatfield's powerlifting peaking cycle used it, Bill Starr's "The Strongest Shall Survive" program used it, and Mark Rippetoe's "Starting Strength" plan and the "Texas Method" used it. The 5x5 method is probably responsible for more muscle and strength being built than any other approach!
There are many variations of this approach, from doing all 5 sets of 5 with the same weight to gradually working up to 2-3 max sets of 5 (with 2 sets being a bit lighter) or using a fixed weight for one workout (same weight for all the sets), but alternating heavy (80-85%) and lighter (75%) days. They all work! Simply keep the reps at 5 and the load between 75 and 85%.
5/4/3/2/1 (80-95%): This is one of my favorite schemes because it's based on a psychological trick that gets you more mentally involved in the workout with every single set. You basically remove one repetition while adding weight on every set.
For low-rep guys like myself, this method is fantastic because the decreasing rep pattern makes you believe that each set is easier than the one before, while the added weight makes it harder. I find my performance to be better with each passing set and it always leads to a solid performance. This is the scheme I use when I'm not really "into it." You can finish it quickly and it'll give you a good amount of strength and size stimulation. While sometimes you can end the 5/4/3/2/1 with a true 1RM, I find better results being a bit more conservative as it will stimulate gains just as much while having less of a negative impact on the nervous system. A typical workout would look like this:
5 reps @ 80%
4 reps @ 82%
3 reps @ 85%
2 reps @ 87-90%
1 rep @ 92-95%
5/4/3/2/1/1+ (80-105%): This is the advanced version of the 5/4/3/2/1. You perform the first 5 sets as described above, but after the first single, you continue doing sets of 1 until you hit your max for the day. It could look like this:
5 reps @ 80%
4 reps @ 82%
3 reps @ 85%
2 reps @ 90%
1 rep @ 95%
1 rep @ 100%
1 rep @ 102-105% (attempt at a new max if you're feeling strong that day)
Be careful using this one. It's tempting to always go for a new max, especially since the 5/4/3/2/1 countdown makes you feel super strong, but going for a 1RM too often will drain the nervous system and you'll quickly hit a wall and stop progressing. Only go for a maximum when you're almost certain of hitting something big.
1/2/4/6 (80-92%): This is the opposite principle of 5/4/3/2/1. You start with the lowest reps/heavier weight sets and work your way up in reps while decreasing the load. The benefit is that is that you amp up the nervous system prior to doing the highest reps set(s), which will allow you to recruit more fast-twitch fibers on the volume set, stimulating more growth. Note that we skip the sets of 3 and 5 reps. The reason is that we want to potentiate the nervous system but get to the 6-rep set without accumulating too much fatigue. So a progression might look like this:
1 rep @ 90-92%
2 reps @ 88-90%
4 reps @ 85%
6+ reps @ 80% (You go to failure. The objective is 6 reps, but if you can get 7 or 8, go for it!)
6/4/2 waves (75-90%): The basic principle of this scheme is the same as the 3/2/1 wave but with higher reps. While 3/2/1 wave loading is one of the most powerful strength-building schemes, the 6/4/2 wave loading approach represents one of the best compromises between strength and size gains. The 3/2/1 method will give you a lot of strength and some size gains, but 6/4/2 will give you good strength and size gains. The 6/4/2 scheme uses more volume, so you hit your limit in waves (whereas it's 4 waves for the 3/2/1 scheme). The first wave is conservative, the second wave would lead to your 3RM, and a third wave would lead to a personal record for 3 reps.
3/5 ratchet loading (75-85%): This is the strength/hypertrophy variation of 1/3 ratchet loading - the same principles (waves of 2 sets, same weight for both sets, increase the reps) but different loads.
Wave 1: 75% x 3 Rest 90 sec. 75% x 5 Rest 120 sec.
Wave 2: 80% x 3 Rest 90 sec. 80% x 5 Rest 150 sec.
Wave 3: 85% x 3 Rest 120 sec. 85% x 5
You only do three waves because of the higher volume.
1/6 contrast (70-95%): This will stimulate high-threshold hypertrophy while also building strength about as well as the 6/4/2 waves. This loading scheme uses contrasts between sets of 1 repetition with 90-95% of your maximum and sets of 6 reps with 70-80% of your 1RM. You perform a total of 6 sets, or 3 contrast pairings. Each pairing is gradually heavier. So it would look like this:
1 rep @ 90%
6 reps @ 70%
1 rep @ 92.5%
6 reps @ 75%
1 rep @ 95%
6+ reps @ 80% (Notice the +. This means that you go to failure. There's a good chance you'll get more than 6 reps because of the neural activation from the preceding sets.)
This approach takes advantage of post-tetanic potentiation - maximum lifting increases neural activation, which improves your capacity to recruit fast twitch fibers in your set of 6 reps. You also get a psychological boost from going to a lighter weight after your set of 1.
3. For Maximizing Size
4 x 8 @ 70%: Boring, bland, but effective! I say that because if you've been involved in training for a decent amount of time, "4x8" will obviously be very familiar to you as it's been THE staple loading scheme of most bodybuilders across the ages. If it's stuck around for that long it's for a good reason - it works. Doing 4 sets of 8 reps close to failure is a decent way to stimulate growth, especially for beginners. It's nothing flashy but the basics never let you down.
10/8/6/20 (50-75%): I learned this loading scheme when I was 17 years old (almost 20 years ago!). A powerlifter friend of mine who held the Canadian Junior record in the deadlift at 181 pounds taught it to me. The first three sets are done with gradually heavier weights and fewer reps and you finish off with a pump set. A workout would look like this:
10 reps @ 60%
8 reps @ 70%
6 reps @ 75%
20 reps @ 50% (roughly)
I really like this approach for pure hypertrophy. It's very effective since it attacks all the zones that have the greatest impact on hypertrophy. I feel that this method will be even more effective when used with Plazma because the main benefit of the set of 20 is to bring nutrient-rich blood into the muscle that was stimulated earlier during the heavier sets.
6 x 6 (short rest) @ 70%: Vince Gironda called this loading scheme "a Mr. Olympia routine," most likely because it was a scheme he often relied on when training Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia. It's based on a high training density, not on load (despite the fairly low reps per set). You perform 6 sets of 6 repetitions with a moderate weight (roughly 70% or a weight you could get 10 reps with) and you must complete the 6 sets of 6 repetitions in as little time as possible.
Gironda's recommendations were normally to shoot for rest periods of 30 seconds between sets, with his more advanced clients being allowed only 15. Remember, the key factor with this loading scheme is density, not load, so if you can't do all 6 sets of 6 reps with 30 seconds of rest, you'd be better off reducing the load until you adapt to the short rest periods.
8 x 8 (short rest) @ 60%: This is another one of Gironda's popular routines. It's basically the exact same thing as 6 x 6 but you do more sets and more reps. This is obviously more demanding and the goal is to create the biggest pump possible in the shortest time possible.
Rest/Pause 6 + 4 @ 75-80%: Rest/pause is one of the most effective techniques to stimulate growth. It's somewhat similar in concept to clusters - you end up doing more reps than you should be able to do with a given load. To do that, just like with clusters, you include a rest period within the set itself. The version that works best for size is using 75-80% (or the most weight you can get 6 or 7 reps with). You do 6 reps with that weight, then rest for 15-20 seconds and try to complete 4 more reps with the same weight. That technique will allow you to stimulate more muscle fibers and thus more growth. It's a very demanding technique, though. I recommend no more than 1 or 2 sets of this technique on an exercise. You could perform one or two regular sets of 6, then end with one or two rest/pause sets.
5-4-3-2-1 HDL @ 70%: This is the hardest form of rest/pause training. It works amazingly well, but it's draining on the body. You shouldn't use it for more than 3 workouts in a row. It consists of doing 5 repetitions, resting 15 seconds; doing 4 reps (with the same weight), resting 15 seconds; doing 3 more reps (still with the same weight), resting 15 seconds; getting in 2 more reps (same weight again), resting 15 seconds; and then doing one final rep. You essentially end up doing 15 reps with a load you could lift 8-10 times.
The Power of Variety
The rep schemes discussed here all work, and work great. They've been proven in the field and you can't go wrong with any of them. But just like with any loading scheme, the body will eventually adapt, but with 22 of them you'll have plenty of options to choose from to ensure continuous gains!