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Set and Rep Schemes in Strength Training (Part 1)
Training Object ives -> Training Paramet ers -> Variat ions & Progressions
Regardless of your training objectives (increasing strength in specif ic lif ts, increasing strength overall, bulking up, leaning out, rehabilitation, maintenance, etc), key training parameters (intensity, volume, f requency, density) could be varied and progressed on dif f erent time scales. Certain variations and progressions in training parameters are more suited toward dif f erent training objectives, but there exist commonalities between them that we will f ocus on in the current article. Training parameters usually involve intensity, volume, f requency and density that could be analyzed and varied on dif f erent time-scales, and taking all of them into account would demand a whole book. Hence, the aim of the current article is to provide an overview of the common variations and progressions in intensity and volume only by manipulating set and rep schemes on dif f erent time-scales (single workout, week, training block). I know this sounds like a mouthf ul, but in the next couple of pages everything will be perf ectly clear.

Underst anding “Int ensit y”
Depending on whom you ask, there are couples of def initions of training intensity. To cut the long story short, I will present what I think to be pretty neat way to understand training intensity and reconcile dif f erent def initions and opinions. In my opinion intensity has the f ollowing three components.

Now you have the tool to answer questions such as “What is more intensive – lifting 90% for 2, or lifting 75% for 10?” Hint: one involves higher load and another involves higher exertion.

All thre e re p re s e nt inte r-re late d c o mp o ne nts o f training inte ns ity. I lo ve to c all it Inte ns ity Trinity.

Underst anding Load/Max Reps Relat ionship
All lif ters are f amiliar with the f act that they can only perf orm certain maximal number of reps with certain load on the bar. If we express load on the bar as percent of maximal load that could be lif ted (% 1RM) and we assume maximal exertion on the last rep (no reps lef t in the tank) we get load/max reps relationship . T here are numerous tables that quantif y this relationship, but f or the purpose of this article I will use Dan Baker’s table f or experienced lif ters.

Using this table one can know how many maximal reps can be perf ormed using certain load (% 1RM) and also, one can predict maximal load that can be lif ted (1RM) using maximum perf ormed reps and reconverting factor . For example, if one perf orms 10 reps with 225lb, his predicted maximum is 225 x 1.33 (reconverting f actor), which is around 300lb. Please note that this table is dif f erent f or dif f erent lif ters and lif ts, so take this as a rule of thumb and try to create your own table[1].

Underst anding Load/Exert ion Relat ionship
Load/exertion relationship is another crucial concept f or understanding strength training. From load/max reps table we know the maximum number of reps that can be perf ormed using dif f erent loads. T his of course represents maximal exertion. What we want to do next is to quantif y relationship between load, number of reps and exertion level (expressed as reps lef t in the tank). T he f ollowing table is one such solution using mentioned load/max reps f rom Dan Baker. I simply call it load/exertion table . [1] Creating your customized load/max reps table involves testing max reps with at least three dif f erent loads (e.g. 3RM, 6RM and 10RM) and using linear regression to populate other rep slots. T he process is quite simple, but it would demand another article and how-to in Excel.

Even if you see two tables, this is only one table organized in two ways f or easier utilization. For example, if one plans using 75% of 1RM but is not certain what number of reps should be perf ormed f or a given exertion level, table on the lef t can give him answer. On the f lip side, if one plans doing 5 reps per set, but it is not certain what percentage of 1RM to use f or a given exertion level, table on the right can give him answer. T he load/exertion table represent crucial concept f or understanding dif f erent variations and progressions (or set and rep schemes) we are going to cover.

Underst anding Load/Velocit y Relat ionship
Suppose one perf orms single repetitions across range of loads (e.g. f rom 30 to 100% 1RM) with maximal ef f ort. T he higher the load, the lower the achieved velocity of the movement in the concentric range.

What is interesting is that load/velocity relationship could be modeled with simple linear model (a.k.a. a line with slope and intercept) and remains very stable across time. In plain English, what this means is that 80% of 1RM will have very similar velocity no matter the change in 1RM (increased or decreased). Along with that, velocity associated with 1RM (e.g. 0.15 m/s f or bench press and 0.3 m/s f or squat) is very similar across subjects with dif f erent 1RMs and very stable across time (if one improves or decrease his 1RM). T his opens up great number of options f or coaches.

Underst anding Velocit y/Exert ion Relat ionship
Suppose one perf orms reps to f ailure across dif f erent loads (e.g. 50, 70, 90% 1RM) with maximal ef f ort. T here are couple of VERY interesting concepts emerging. First one is that velocity of the last rep in a set to f ailure (regardless of load use) is very similar, if not the same as velocity associated with 1RM. In other words, the last rep in 10RM set will have very similar velocity to 1RM rep. Second one is that velocity associated with “reps lef t in the tank” (exertion level) will be very similar across loads. In plain English, my 8th rep with 10RM load (2 reps lef t in tank) will have very similar velocity to my 4th rep with 6RM load (2 reps lef t in tank). Load/Velocity and Velocity/Exertion relationships and hence prof iles f or each athlete represent novel and very powerf ul concept that is utilize in velocity based strength training – a way to prescribe, monitor and autoregulate strength training. T hese two relationships are of not great importance f or the current article (since we are going to cover set and reps schemes with traditional approach to strength training prescription).

Underst anding “Tradit ional Approach”
Traditional approach, as I love to call percent-based approach involves prescribing strength training using percentages and known (or estimated) 1RM of the lif ter.

T he whole process goes like this: athlete knows his 1RM in particular exercise or he tests it either using 1RM test or reps-to-f ailure test and estimate 1RM using reconversion f actors (see load/max reps table). T he he uses percent-based programs (e.g. 5×5 with 75%) and coverts percentages to absolute loads (e.g. 5×5 with 120kg). And then he goes lif ting f or couple of weeks. T hen either increase 1RM f or some small amount (e.g. 5lb) or test it either with 1RM test or with an open set (basically reps-to-f ailure, usually done on the last lest inside the training program/cycle). Rinse and repeat (or switch to another program). Without going into too many details, there are a lot of problems with this approach. T here are solutions as well. T he biggest problem is lack of adjustment f or dif f erent rates of changes f or dif f erent lif ters. Another problem is lack of auto-regulation on a daily basis, f or both good and bad days. One of the simplest solutions is prescribing ranges f or either load or number of reps. For example, instead of prescribing 5×5 with 75%, one could prescribe 5×5 with 70-80% or 5×4-6 with 75%. T his takes into account good or bad days and reduces daily expectations and anxieties of the lif ter f or hitting certain numbers. A bit more complex solution is using subjective feedback f or exertion level f or each set. T his involves prescribing exertion levels, and omitting either load or number of reps. Mike Tuchscherer, world class power lif ter, developed the whole system revolving around RPE (rating of perceived exertion) which is an easy way to quantify exertion level (RPE10 = no reps lef t in the tank, RPE9 = 1 rep lef t in the tank, RPE8 = 2 to 4 reps lef t in the tank and so f orth). So, instead of prescribing exact load and reps, one could prescribe load and exertion level (3 sets with 80% @RPE8) or number of reps and exertion level (3×5 @RPE8). More attuned lif ters can use this subjective f eedback (rating of perceived exertion) to auto-regulated f or good and bad days and adjust f or individual rates of change in the strength. It takes time and hard work (and a lot of trial and error) to develop such knowledge. T he novel method involves using velocity-based strength training prescription and control. Describing this approach is beyond the scope of this article, but in short it revolves around prescribing initial rep velocity and velocity stop, instead of %1RM and number of reps. Even with all these flaws, traditional or percent-based approach is still the most dominant approach to strength training. It was important to introduce the above relationships between load, exertion and ef f ort, along with the problems of percent-based approach to get the big picture, but f or the rest of this article we will f ocus on common variations and progressions (set and rep schemes) under percent-based umbrella in part 2.

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