SET & REP SCHEMES: THE BASICS
“What is the best set and rep scheme?”, “How do I know how much weight to use on my sets?” and “how many sets and reps should I do?”
Those are questions I will attempt to cover throughout the course of these blogs.
WARM UP SETS
Let’s start by talking about warm up sets….
This may seem tedious subject to talk about but one of the biggest mistakes I see all the time in the gym is people not taking their warm up sets seriously and treating them as an after-thought.
Every rep and set you do has two specific effects on performance:
- Fatigue: which decreases performance potential
- Activation/potentiation: which increases performance potential
The greater the difference between fatigue and activation, the better your performance will be.
For example; let’s say you plan on working up on the bench press to 100kg for about 5 repetitions.
A typical observation I often see is something like so –
40kg x 12
60kg x 10
80kg x 10
100kg x 5 (first work set)
The problem with this approach is that you will ultimately be limiting your performance once you get up to your heaviest weight due to metabolic reasons (fatigue) and not your actual strength.
A much wiser approach would be something like so –
Empty bar x 20
40kg x 10 reps
60kg x 6 reps
70kg x 4 reps
80kg x 3 reps
90kg x 1-2 reps
Work sets: 100kg x 5
Notice how as the weights increase, the repetitions drop. This is often called “pyramiding” (we’ll go over more on this in a moment).
A good rule of thumb is to have one warm-up set for each 10-15% jump you make and always start out with the empty bar if it’s your first exercise.
You can get by with less build up sets, but try doing a longer warm-up while keeping your reps low and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by how much better your performance will be once you get to the heavier weights.
One of the most common mistakes people make is taking too many large jumps in weight…e.g: they’ll go from deadlifting 60kg straight to 120kg or they’ll waste so much energy repping out light weights before they even get to the heavier weights.
The bottom line here is – DON’T RUSH YOUR WARM UP SETS!
Take sensible jumps in weight and treat every single set the same way, not just your heavy sets – the way you set your body, foot placement, bar placement, the force you put into each rep…etc. It’s these build up sets that set you up for the real work, so it’s important to take them just as seriously in your execution and try to replicate the same “feeling” set to set regardless of whether you have 60kg on the bar or 200kg.
If a particular set doesn’t “feel right” then take it again before making the next jump in weight.
For example; let’s say you’re working up to 100kg on a particular exercise and you get to 80kg….for whatever reason…something feels a little off. Don’t be afraid to find your groove and re-take that weight again before making the next jump in weight – just make sure you don’t over-work yourself (a couple of reps should be plenty).
One thing you can incorporate into your training to increase this potentiation effect is to by performing what is often called an “over warm up” or activation set.
The fancy term for this is Post Active Potentiation or PAP for short.
In simple terms – PAP is a way you can make a relatively heavy weight, feel lighter!
The basic idea behind this technique is an increased activation of type 2 “fast twitch” fibres and calcium sensitivity which triggers muscle contraction and controls the amount of force that can be produced.
This technique can be a useful for those who are looking to increase their rate of force development and develop explosive power.
So as a basic example – Let’s say you want to Squat 120kg for 8-10 reps, a weight that’s fairly challenging for you. Rather than work up to that weight in the traditional way, this is how you could use this technique to increase neural potentiation.
Warm up – Bar x 10, 60kg x 6, 80kg x 3, 100kg x 2, 120kg x 1, 130kg x 1, 140kg x 5 second hold (don’t squat the weight). Then go back to 120kg for your 8-10 rep set.
As you can see – the idea is to “trick your nervous system” by working up to heavier weight first, then reducing the weight back to the original weight you intending on doing.
What you should find with this approach is just how much lighter the weight will feel and how much more force you’ll be able to generate.
A quick word on Box Jumps
For those who are interested in improving your box jump height – there can be as much as a 3-5% increase in jump height with PAP!! So if that is your goal, you might be better served doing more work in the squat rack than on the boxes!
You can use the same principle I outlined above to increase your box jump. Go warm up and load up around a 5 rep max weight on the squat, do a single rep with it….rest a minute or so…then go do your box jump. You’ll be pleasantly surprised 😉
A couple of points to be aware of when using this PAP technique:
- It works best with moderate weights, not max attempts.
- PAP only last for a few minutes. So not much benefit for long duration events.
- The effectiveness of PAP depends largely on the training experience and the proportion of type of 2 fibres of an individual. Some people will get more out of this technique than others simply based on their genetic make-up.
SETS AND REP SCHEMES
Now we’ve covered warm up sets, let’s talk about the different ways you can structure your work sets.
There are several ways you can do this, so we’ll cover a few of them now….
- Straight Sets or “Sets Across”
Say your routine calls for you to do 4 sets of 5. Straight sets or “sets across” basically means you would perform all 4 sets of 5 with the same weight.
100kg for 4 sets of 5
An important point to be aware of when using straight sets is to make sure you pick a weight that is challenging, but not maximal effort. So if you were to do 4 sets of 5 as in the example above, you’re not going to be lifting the maximum weight you can handle for a set of 5, but rather you’d need to choose a weight that would allow you to get about 8 reps if you were to push it, but stop at 5 reps. This should allow you to get all 4 sets of 5 and build up an accumulative workload.
Straight sets are typically the most common modality you’ll see in a lot of training programmes – the typical “3 sets of 10” you find in so many magazines comes to mind.
“Ramping” means working up or down in weight from set to set, but keeping the reps fixed.
With this approach, it usually means working up to 1 or 2 “top sets” that are/close to maximal effort.
Let’s say your program again calls for you to do 4 sets of 5 reps and you “think” or “hope” you can get 100kg for 5 on your top set. Your sets and reps might look like this:
60kg x 5, 70kg x 5, 80kg x 5, 90kg x 5, 100kg x 5
Technically, with a ramped approach, you’re acclimating to each subsequent jump in weight as you go, so apart from maybe 1 or 2 lighter, higher rep sets at the beginning – the warm up portion is pretty much self-regulating or built into the system.
You can also ramp down and perform “back off sets”…e.g: 80/90/100/90/80…this again will allow for some of that neural potentiation/PAP stuff we talked about as well as adding to your overall training volume.
Pyramiding means that as the weight increases, the repetitions decrease. Example:
60kg x 10, 80kg x 8, 100kg x 6, 120kg x 4
The numbers don’t have to be a precise sequence here…we’re not looking for the perfect Fibonacci sequence! The general idea is that you decrease the repetitions per set as you increase the weight.
One word of caution on this – if you’re doing a traditional 12/10/8/6 type pyramid – you don’t want to be using a maximum weight on each set. Meaning – don’t load up your 12 rep max on the first set, then your 10 rep max, then your 8 rep max…etc. as you will burn yourself out and severely compromise your performance by the time you get to your heavier sets. Instead, take sensible jumps in weight.
- Reverse Pyramiding
This is just the opposite of the above. Instead of working up to your heaviest weight, you’d start with the heaviest weight and work down.
120kg x 4, 100kg x 6, 80kg x 8, 60kg x 10
The cool thing about this method is it actually builds in a lot of that neural potentiation (PAP) I talked about previously.
Obviously you’d need to warm up appropriately when using this method as you’re starting with the heaviest weight in the sequence first.
So using the example above – this is how the set and rep sequence might look when using the reverse pyramid method.
60kg x 5, 80kg x 3, 100kg x 2 = warm up sets. 120kg x 4, 100kg x 6, 80kg x 8, 60kg x 10 = work sets
Both the standard pyramid and the reverse pyramid model can be combined as well which was actually the original concept of this system – e.g: 12/10/8/6/8/10/12 hence the term “pyramid” (work up to the peak weight, then back down to the start).
- Rep Ranges
Rep ranges generally allow a little more self-adjustment than a fixed rep/set scheme. They allow a bit of wiggle room based on how strong or weak you feel on certain days, so they’re something I’m a big fan of personally and have always used in my own training.
Rather than prescribing a fixed number of reps to hit each set, you use a weight that allows you to work within a range. Like sets of 8-10, 6-8, 4-6, or 3-5..and so on.
For example, say your program calls for sets of 8-10 and on your first workout your heaviest set is with 100kg for 8 reps. The next workout you might try to get 10 reps with that same weight. As soon as you got 10 reps you’d bump the weight up 2.5 to 5% the next time and start back at 8 reps.
Generally, for free weight or multi joint movements – a 2 rep bracket is a good bet…3-5 reps, 4-6 reps, 5-7 reps, 6-8 reps, 8-10 reps….etc. The range will obviously depend on the training effect you want or how heavy or light you’re lifting.
One other thing I should point out here is that with smaller lifts like lateral raises, bicep curls, tricep extensions…etc. it can be difficult to increase the weight regularly, so on exercises like these you might want to allow yourself a broader rep range than you normally would.
For example; you might be able to do a 10kg dumbbell lateral raise for 10 reps and want to make a jump up in weight, but you also want to be able to get at least 8 reps per set to stay within that 8-10 rep range. The next size dumbbell in most gyms is typically going to be 2-5kg heavier. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but that often represents nearly a 20% jump in load which is a bit much for a small isolation exercise.
In this case you might want to keep working with that 10kg dumbbell until you can get 15 reps with it, then make the jump in weight to the next set of dumbbells which would likely put you at about 8 or 9 reps.
WHAT SET/REP SCHEME SHOULD YOU USE?
The truth is, all of these basic approaches have merit and so there really is no “best” method. In fact, I’d often recommend using a different approach depending on the exercise you’re going to perform and the training effect you’re looking to get.
SUMMARY: KEY POINTS
- TAKE YOUR WARM UP SETS SERIOUSLY! – treat each weight you put on the bar the same way. Even if you have 60kg on the bar and planning on working up to 50% more than that, you should try to make that 60kg feel like 120kg both in your execution of the exercise as well as the level of concentration you put into it.
- Every set you do has 2 specific effects of performance – fatigue or potentiation
- Potentiation increases performance, fatigue reduces performance
- There are several ways you can structure set and rep schemes – straight sets, ramping, pyramiding, reverse pyramiding – being the most common.
- Rep ranges are a useful way of auto regulating/self-adjusting to account for fluctuations in performance.
In upcoming blog posts, we’ll delve into a lot more subjects covering various training topics – percentage based training, “speed work”, autoregulation, periodization models, specific body-part training…and anything else that comes to mind.
As always, if you have any specific questions or subjects you’d like to see covered here, post them up in the comments box and I’ll do my best to help.
Jesse is a Personal Trainer at Koru Gym Bishop’s Stortford. If you are interested in training with Jesse, please contact him on 07759 258127.