The Basics, Part 4 – Why we do certain set or rep schemes

[This is a series of posts I wrote for novice lifters I coach, but the information here applies to everyone. If you want to start at the beginning, go to Part 1: Recovering From Workouts  and then read Part 2: Why Resting Between Sets Is Important  and Part 3: Exercise Choice-Dave]

As we learned earlier, our bodies respond specifically to the demands imposed upon them. So squatting makes us better at squatting (and more generally gives us more strength we can bring to bear for any similar movement or exertion, such as coming off the line in a football game, “shooting” an opponents legs in wrestling, etc.), benching makes us better benchers, and so forth.

There are also different ways to drive adaptation. For example, it has been shown (notably by Vladimir Zatsiorsky in his seminal work “The Science and Practice of Strength Training”) that differing ranges of repetitions of an exercise with differing intensities will drive different kinds of strength adaptations. In very broad terms, this breaks down to a continuum:

  • 1-3 reps per set drives an adaptation primarily of maximal strength (i.e., increases the amount you can do for a one-rep maximum effort, or 1RM).
  • 5 reps per set drives an adaptation that increases both maximal strength and muscle hypertrophy (that is, an increase in muscle size and mass)
  • 8-12 reps drives an adaptation that increases muscle hypertrophy (but doesn’t increase the corresponding strength as much; you build more muscle but aren’t as efficient at using it for a 1RM)
  • 15+ reps drives an adaptation that increases muscle hypertrophy and strength endurance

These are very general guidelines, of course, and there’s only a broad consensus about the rep numbers here (i.e., some folks believe 6 reps are better than 5, or that 4 are better, for a combination of size and strength). But they are illustrative for our purposes.

Ultimately, this explains a lot about why I have lifters doing various kinds of rep schemes. It also explains why there’s a broad consensus in the lifting world that sets of 5 reps are kind of “magic” – they serve to build both strength and mass, which are usually two goals of lifting programs (at least, for novice and intermediate lifters).

Similarly, I often have lifters spend some time during each cycle doing higher reps (to stimulate hypertrophy) on their volume-centric lifting days. Other lifting days will focus on sets with lower reps, to drive maximal strength.

With respect to sets, the key for most lifters is to do as many sets as needed to drive the desired adaptation, but without compromising quality of movement. In very general terms, for most new lifters, this turns out to be around 3 to 5 sets of the “big lifts” (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press). For accessory work, it depends very much on how much effort has gone into the big lifts previously during the training session. More work on the big lifts means a bit less on the accessory work, and vice versa.

So now you can look at your training plans and understand the basics of how and why they are laid out with a particular set and rep scheme.

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About Dave Nix

I run a powerlifting club in Houston, Texas. The athletes I coach come from all walks of life, and have found success in the gym and on the platform. As a Masters (over age 40) powerlifter, I've competed and placed at USAPL Raw Nationals, as well as winning and placing in numerous local Texas meets. Follow me on Twitter as @Coach_Dave_VS.

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