The truth is, there really is no right or wrong set and rep scheme since needs and goals are not the same for all other people. You can make progress with almost any program, provided you work hard. Still, some programs are better suited to specific goals than others. A lot of people don’t know the rep scheme that is best suited for them, so allow me to enlighten you.
Once you’ve been in the training game long enough, your body grows wiser and you realize that you can’t simply force it to do anything anymore. When they stop coercing their bodies to adapt, that’s when strength athletes and body builders alike stop making progress. Likewise, a lot of people get stuck in middle ground training in which they neither gain the muscle size nor the strength they want. You get injured or beat up with no concrete strategy other than “hard work”. Always training with the same set or rep scheme and with the same intensity, devours reasonable progress faster than middle-ground training. If your default training is in the 8, 10, or 12 rep range, you may not be gaining anything but stuck to where you’ve always been.
If you want to maximize your growth and development, there are training tools that will help sharpen your training up.
The Neural-Metabolic Continuum
One of the most important focal element of training is the neural-metabolic continuum, which helps you determine whether you actually work your muscles or central nervous system (CNS), based on key variables. If you want more neural (strength) gains, your program might more resemble this:
5 sets of 3 repetitions
Tempo: As fast as possible
3-5 minutes rest between sets
If you’re after more metabolic (hypertrophic) the squatting program might look like this:
4 sets of 10 repetitions
Tempo: 3 seconds down, no pause in the bottom, 1 second up
60-90 seconds rest between sets
THE LOW REPS
The low-rep focuses on making your nervous system more efficient. Low rep ranges encourage the use of much heavier weights, so if you switch from sets of 10 to sets of 3, you coerce your body to unfamiliar, shocking stressors. It can be defined as anything between 1 rep with near-maximal effort and 5 reps in a set which is often viewed as being geared more for powerlifting or Olympic lifting But you will need to push some serious weight if you really want to make high-threshold motor units work.
More “tightness” and a more intense focus are required for this, and more motor units and muscle fibers are recruited. Your body gets better at turning off opposing muscle groups as well. Your body composition will greatly differ from someone who performs exclusively high-rep sets since your goal focuses more on strength. You’ll notice that power lifters are incredibly strong and can move jaw-dropping weight, but it may also be noticeable that they lack a bit of the size and definition of a well-trained bodybuilder.
THE HIGH REPS
High reps can be defined in the 8-12 rep range but could be as low as 6 reps per set. The goal is to build a bigger muscle if you train with high reps. This said rep set allows you to focus primarily on the muscles, and those who train with this set lend themselves to fewer total sets per exercise. Some people refer to this as structural hypertrophy (which can be mediated by two primary factors: mechanical tension and metabolic stress. While a variety of set and rep schemes have been shown to promote muscle hypertrophy, some methods are more convenient – and possibly more effective – than others), and the necessary stimulus is time under pressure. It occurs by virtue of slowing down the movement, coupled with the sheer amount of reps you do per set. Without controversy, the increases in muscular growth will outpace the increases in strength.
Needless to say, training in that zone will ultimately limit the amount of intensity you can use. Your body will adapt to training in this rep range if you continue it for extended periods of time.
High-rep sets (15, 20, or more reps per set) are probably the exception rather than the rule. Obviously, high reps deliver greater gains.
THE PERFECT PAIR
The low reps facilitate increase in strength, and high reps produce hypertrophy. So if we combine both rep schemes, they will bring forth both muscular and strength development. You need to spend dedicated periods of time in both the high-rep and low-rep ranges to maximize your development. When you become more efficient and then go back to your big lifts, you can use even more weight than before, because you’re just that much more efficient and effective. Low-rep sets build neuromuscular and CNS efficiency, and similarly, high reps build muscle and connective tissue strength, and give your body respite from the grind of low-rep sets.
Often, with physique-focused clients, their set-rep schemes are broken down into one of two categories:
High rep – 8-12 repetitions per set
Low rep – 4-8 repetitions per set
There are other times when you may want to push the weight and work in the 1-5 rep range. Also, there may be times when even higher reps (15-20) could be used. Ultimately, the biggest benefit from switching between these two ranges is that you’ll constantly coerce your body to adapt, to grow, and to improve.
DIFFERENT REP-SCHEMES ON DIFFERENT DAYS
Some people really like undulating periodization, and their rep scheme may look like something like this:
Monday – 3 sets of 10 reps
Wednesday – 5 sets of 5 reps
Friday – 10 sets of 3 reps
Most assume that this weekly program is smart and efficient since you can hit everything in one training week. If you’re newer to lifting or have never tried a protocol like this before, this might work, however, this type of scenario won’t work nearly as well since you’re sending multiple mixed messages to your body as you get more and more advanced.
As you become more proficient, you have to dial up the focus and be the orchestrator to your muscle symphony. If the above example is followed, then most probably Monday’s workout would be for your body to get big, Wednesday’s workout will be for a bit of strength. Then, Friday’s workout will place the emphasis on raw strength and run counter to Monday’s and place. Thus, it can become confusing not only to you but also to your body, and in the same way an elite level sprinter can’t simply wake up one day, decide to run a marathon, and hope to be awesome at both distances. The general rule is to spend at least 4-6 weeks focusing on one end before you even think about heading to the other. You need to spend time on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum, have some patience, and zero-in your efforts one at a time.
The next step is to alternate the level of intensity over the course of the training cycle. You’ll only burn yourself out if you expect to go at 110 percent intensity every time you train. You should layer-in days of high intensity combined with days of low intensity. In a rather unrefined way, simply wavering between high and low rep ranges might already serve this purpose. You can also go for something far simpler which yields amazing results as well:
Week 1 – 3 sets of 10 reps @70%
Week 2 – 3 sets of 8-10 reps @75%
Week 3 – 3 sets of 8 reps @80%
Week 4 – 2 sets of 8 reps @70-75%
This is where you can use a stair-step approach to prepare you for week 3. Consequently, you de-load and get ready to run the cycle again on week 5.Or you can try this intensity set within a training month:
Week 1 – 4 sets of 5 reps @70%
Week 2 – 5 sets of 5 reps @80%
Week 3 – 4 sets of 3 reps @75%
Week 4 – 3 sets of 5 reps @85%
(Notice that it’s not trying to move the same weights or loads on a week-to-week basis.)
In week 1, build a base and get a good weight to build your base from. In week 2, push the limits of your volume. De-load in week 3 which means to lower the intensity and volume to make it an “easier” work week, allowing the body to recover and super compensate. In week 4, you may go for broke with regards to the intensity. It works great as well if you try using this for your squat sometime. Bottom line is, you can’t go hard every single week. Wave your intensity and build up to a series of big workouts, then back off to allow your body time to recover.
Work hard and work smart. Set your goal, and bear in mind that consistency is of utmost importance. By incorporating undulating waves of intensity into your training cycle, and the neural-metabolic continuum, you’re guaranteed to see better results.