“As with all things, when it comes to training, everything works, but nothing works forever.”
When guys attempt to decide on a training program, one of the first questions they ask is: “What’s the best set and rep scheme for gaining muscle?”
Trainers get this question all the time, and it is one of the most difficult to answer accurately. You’ve most likely read a variety of training articles, each claiming to have the best formula for muscle growth. And while some are better than others, most of them work pretty well.
So the simplest and most accurate answer to this question is “all of them.”
Unfortunately, that’s also the most complicated answer.
See, it’s like this: Your muscles are made up of various types of fibers, and the rep ranges you best respond to is going to be a factor partially determined by your particular fiber make-up.
Of course, without dissecting you (which, while undoubtedly fun, would not be very efficacious in terms of your training), there really isn’t any way to tell you what your general fiber make-up is, or what type of rep and set schemes you’re going to respond to. None of which really answers the question, of course.
Looking at it from a different angle, we can begin to decide on set and rep schemes based on a goal — some are better for pure growth, and others for a mix of both strength and size.
Option 1 – Size and Nothing But Size
Let us assume for a moment that the training focus is entirely on growth, and not at all on strength. In that case, your concentration should be on the higher rep ranges — sets of 10-12, 12-15 or even as high as 20 are on the menu. As for the number of sets, well, that is something that will be determined by the number of exercises you do for a particular body part.
It helps to think of things in terms of total volume. If you are training with higher reps, I would try to limit a specific muscle group to around 120 reps per workout.
Here is an example using chest exercises:
-Bench Press – 4×15 (60 reps)
-Incline Dumbbell Press – 3×12 (36 reps)
-Dumbbell Fly – 2×10 (20 reps)
We’re looking at a total of 116 reps there, give or take any extras your were able to squeeze out or reps you were unable to complete.
The reason for the high reps if your focus is primarily on hypertrophy is, once more, fiber make-up. You are training for what is sometimes called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, or fluid hypertrophy, a term that is sometimes debated.
Either way, high rep training is the simplest, fastest and most visibly obvious way for beginners to pack on mass. The drawback is that the higher rep schemes used in this type of training necessitate very light (in relative terms, at least) loads to complete the set.
As a result, strength tends not to increase. In fact, in some cases, you may even notice a decrease if you attempt heavier training.
This is typical “bodybuilder” type training — all show and no go, as they say.
You’ll look strong, but you won’t be strong. However, if all you’re going for is a good look in a tight shirt, this may sound like something you might be interested in.
In most cases, when new trainees hit the gym, they do some incarnation of this, although in many cases it’s as simple as three sets of 10 for four exercises. (As an aside, even in this case, they’re hitting 120 reps.) They progress a bit and then stall out. As with all things, when it comes to training, everything works, but nothing works forever.
From there, trainees look to change it up, and that bring us to option two.
Option Two – Size and Strength
If you’re looking to get both big and strong, you have a more difficult road ahead of you, but with a greater goal at the end. In this case, we’d be talking about training with heavier loads and lower total volume.
Strength increases are the result of training with heavy weight, which by default will place a pretty stringent limit on the amount of reps you can perform on a given set. Strength-oriented training relies on performing sets of 1-5 reps, with the average being 3.
Heavy training is not only optimal for strength gains, but it can also be used to accrue a serious amount of muscle. Training with high weight recruits what are known as Type II b muscle fibers, which are the densest fibers and have the most potential for muscle growth. By lifting heavy, we activate these quickly, which can potentially lead to mass gain — fast.
As you might imagine, it becomes necessary to change things around in a given workout to meet your goals. It’s quite possible to increase size without strength, and the reverse is true here: You can get a lot stronger without getting bigger.
Once more we need to look at things from the perspective of overall volume. In order to allow for the necessary weight, we need to keep the reps per set pretty low. If you followed the generally bullsh*t training most clueless meatheads drop on you, the upper limit for sets would be 3 or 4 per exercise. With heavy training, this would leave you at about 9-15 total reps. Your strength would increase, but this is just not enough to stimulate growth.
So, to bump up the volume to a level that will be optimal for growth, we increase the number or sets. But because of the heavier weight and the toll such training takes on the body, it is better to aim for just about half the total volume of the previous type of training we discussed. Or, simply put, around 60-75 reps.
Once again, here is an example using chest exercises:
-Low Incline Bench Press 10×4 (40 reps)
-Weighted Dip 8×3 (24 reps)
-Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 2×5 (10 reps)
While we’re topping out at only 75 reps, the heavy weight makes each set pretty draining and stimulates a lot of muscle.
Training in this way is, in the long run, generally more effective than high-rep training. Not only will you be stimulating Type II b fiber growth, but the constant exposure to heavier weights will lead to much greater strength increases. Ultimately this will allow you to continue to push out more reps with heavier weight should you ever decide to return to high rep training.
The main drawbacks here are the effects on your body. Firstly, it must be mentioned that constant use of heavy loads puts you at much greater risk of injury, particularly if you’re training any sort of pressing movement in this way.
When you use lighter weight (as in higher reps), the stress on your joints and connective tissue is lesser by far.
For this reason, it becomes more important to employ proper warm-up techniques and practices in nearly every workout, especially as you reach the upper levels of strength work. This is often time-consuming and boring, but it is of paramount importance.
Meet Dave Tate
In fact, Bench Press Czar Dave Tate stressed the importance of warm-up sets, saying, “Don’t leave the weight and jump up until you’re absolutely ready to. There have been times at Westside where we used the bar for 8 sets. These are world-record holders who aren’t ready to go to 95 pounds.”
And if there is anyone worth listening to with regard to benching, it is, as he is known in the industry, Dave F*ckin Tate.
Secondly, another consequence of heavier training is how very draining it is. Training with weights this heavy means you can only lift it 3-4 consecutive times, and it is phenomenally taxing on your body.
In order to recover properly, you need to pay extra attention to your para-workout nutrition, in particular your post-workout shake.
More importantly, there needs to be more time between training sessions to allow for adequate recovery. Generally speaking, when training in this way, I recommend one training session per muscle pairing per week. Contrast this with high rep training, where you can probably squeak in two workouts per week with only a day or two of rest between.
Because of the less frequent, albeit more intense, stimulation, while you’re creating the conditions for great muscle growth, it is sometimes a bit longer in coming.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the discussion, one of the larger factors in all of this is the specific fiber make-up of the individual in question.
Depending on their unique typology (if you’ll forgive the use of some pseudo-scientific industry jargon), some people will just always react better to higher reps, while others respond particularly well to low reps. And, of course, there are the freaks who tend to grow well on any training program, regardless of set structure, rep range or weight.
Again, as previously mentioned, it is pretty hard to ascertain your own fiber make-up, and so the obvious approach is trial and error.
there’s another thing to consider: frequency.
Both of these options are intended for use as part of split routines, in which you train only a few body parts at once. Therefore, you’re only hitting those muscles once per week, two at most.
Some people, regardless of fiber type, respond better to higher frequency. For these people, there are other options.
Come back next week when we look into another of the basic templates for size: full body training.