Home Blog Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 1

Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 1

Written on February 18, 2011 at 8:07 am, by Eric Cressey

Q: I know this is a loaded question with hours upon hours of answers, but I'm trying to make some sense about the different kinds of ways/philosophies involved in writing strength and conditioning programs. I have read different articles and chapters in books that discuss program development, looked at programs at my current job, and can write a basic one for a new athlete. It's not the exercises; I'm familiar with plenty and love seeing something new. My problems come more with the sets and reps and when they change and why; I can’t seem to map out the actual progression of the program.

What philosophies, if one, do you follow and what basic rules do you find to be the most important when determining the sets and reps?

A: This is a loaded question!  The best way to get better with programming is simply to write a ton of programs and see what works and what doesn't.  However, with respect to your specific questions on sets and reps, what you choose to utilize is going to be dictated by:

1. The duration of a session - You won't be able to do 6 sets of 4 reps if you only have an client/athlete for an hour and want to accomplish other things.  This is, in particular, a big issue in collegiate strength and conditioning programs because the NCAA allows only limited number of hours per week with athletes, and sport coaches and strength and conditioning coaches have to share this time.  Additionally, it's a challenge for personal trainers in private training set-ups where clients may train in 30-, 45-, or 60-minute blocks.

I've written several times in the past about how I would never allow our business model to dictate our training model - and this sets and reps question is one reason why.  At Cressey Performance, we do all semi-private training, which allows for sliding starts and finishes.  It allows us to get in all the work we need to do with clients - regardless of the sets and reps in question.  Likewise, as you'll see in the rest of this two-part series, you'll appreciate that it's why we don't have one program standardized for everyone on the dry erase board; every single CP client has a unique program  because they all have unique needs.

2. Competing demands - The more variety (plyos, conditioning, medicine ball work, etc) that you want to add to a program, the less volume you'll be able to do on strength training.  We have limited time and recovery capacity, so we can't just keep adding all the time.

For me, a good example is what happens over the course of the baseball off-season.  Lifting volume is high when they get back, throwing is a no-go, movement training is 2x/week, and medicine ball is light.  After the first month, medicine ball work goes up, lifting comes down a bit.

Then, at the start of January, medicine ball and lifting volume comes back down and throwing volume increases.  We then get rid of medicine ball work almost altogether and go to 3x/week movement training as the season approaches, throwing intensifies, and guys do more hitting.  So, it doesn't just depend on the exercises; it depends on the big picture.

A great follow-up read to this point would be my post, Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding.

3. Exercise selection - If you're doing more sets, you'll want to do it on "money" exercises like deadlifts and not curls, etc.  Moreover, certain exercises lend themselves better to higher reps than others.  For instance, we never front squat anyone over six reps, because technical breakdown often occurs with fatigue.  You also wouldn’t want to do cleans for sets of 15!

Usually, it’s also good to just “call it” on a particular exercise and move on to the next if someone has already dropped the weight on subsequent sets and form continues to deteriorate.  That energy is better spent on different exercises where technique can remain perfect even in the presence of fatigue.

4. Training age - As a general rule of thumb, the more experienced they are, the more sets and FEWER reps they'll need.  At this point in my training career, I just won't get strong on sets of five. Here's another good follow-up read: Why I Don't Like the 5x5 Workout.

Conversely, beginners generally need more sets and reps to pick up on things.  That doesn’t mean that you should just do three sets of 15 reps on everything with a novice, though.  I find myself teaching squat and deadlift variations with four sets of five reps quite a bit; the load, however, is light enough that the lifter could usually do 10-12 reps.  In other words, it’s just technique practice.

5. The Training Goal and Client/Athlete in Question – While taking heavy singles over 90% of one’s 1-rep max may be ideal for helping folks get strong, working at such a high percentage in some populations warps the risk: reward circumstances. Whether it’s older folks, those with injuries, or athletes who have a lot more to lose by getting hurt than they have to gain by adding five pounds to their squat, you have to take each individual situation into consideration.  I always remind people that we lift weights to improve quality of life, not just so that we can talk about how heavy the weights we lifted were.

6. Whether You Want to Impose or Remove Fatigue – In a “loading” week, volume is going to be higher.  If you’re deloading, though, that volume is going to be reduced.  Aside from beginner strength training programs, volume should never be the same over several weeks in a row.  I discuss several deloading strategies in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.

I’ll be back in a tomorrow with more factors that influence the sets and reps in a strength training program.  In the meantime, if you're looking for a comprehensive strength and conditioning program to take all the guesswork out of things for you, check out The High Performance Handbook.

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  • Hi Eric,

    A study that came out of McMaster U in Ontario last fall says strength gains are a function of TOTAL work and that weight and reps per se are not the driver of strength gains.

    We know how quickly the body adapts to a specific weight/rep combinations so it seems to me changing the demands constantly will force a more constant adpatation repsonse

    If this is true then it seems to me variety becomes the single biggest tool to force optimal adaptation. (periodization is another matter entirley). I’m just talking about how to achieve maximum adaptation from a session, which seems to me , is to make every thing work hard, differently than last time but still functionally, always progressing practices as capabilities evolve.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  • Sylvain

    How many sets and reps is a question that I ask myself all the time!
    Maybe it will come in part2, but I was wondering what is your view on single-set training? I read some studies saying that single-set training is as effective as multiple-set training, at least for strength gains. In this case, is it worth it to do 3, 5 or even 8 sets of 2RM for one exercise? What do you think about this?

  • Mike

    Great article. This is something that has always been a concern of mine as well. The hardest part is working in other types of work (e.g., plyometrics, medicine ball routines, etc.) and strength training.

    From a purely strength training perspective, this http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/hacking_your_strength_training is a good article that references undulating periodization.

    “Undulating periodization aims to achieve those goals simultaneously, so on Monday you’d do four reps per set, on Wednesday you’d do six reps, and on Friday you’d do eight reps.

    The researchers found that undulating periodization was better than linear periodization for strength gains.”

    This has worked best for me. I just pair up exercises with similar rep ranges and vary throughout the week.

    I hope I don’t get bumped as spam.

    Mike

  • Mike

    @Chris

    There was an article in 2008 called \"The Size Principle and a Critical Analysis of the Unsubstantiated Heavier-is-Better Recommendation for Resistance Training.\"

    Here is the abstract:
    The size principle states that motor units are recruited in an orderly manner from the smaller (lower threshold)to the larger (higher threshold)motor units, and that the recruitment is dependent on the effort of the activity. Greater recruitment produces higher muscular force. However, the pervasive faulty assumption that maximal or near maximal force (very heavy resistance) is required for recruitment of the higher-threshold motor units and optimal strength gains is not supported by the size principle, motor unit activation studies, or resistance training studies. This flawed premise has resulted in the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training. [ J Exerc Sci Fit • Vol 6 • No 2 • 67–86 • 2008]

    The authors, however, fail to reach the logical conclusion. At heavier loads, a subject is more likely to achieve maximum motor unit recruitment. Yes, I could reach maximum motor unit recruitment doing pushups but I may die of boredom first.

    Nevertheless, it is an interesting read.

    Eric,

    The problem I have with heavy loads is that it doesn\’t seem to aid my explosiveness. I find that I\’m more explosive when i work in jump squat work with 30% 1RM as opposed to lifting heavy all the time. Do you also cycle this type of work to (i.e., you start off with heavy loads early but as the season approaches you drop heavy load work and replace it with more and more explosive type work)?

    Cheers,

    Mike

  • I find this concept of sets and reps to be the hardest topic to decipher in the world of strength and conditioning. Everyone seems to have the newest and best method. Great job Eric on focusing on the factors that are involved rather than saying just tossing out a bunch of rep schemes.

    I was researching this topic a few months back and came across a great article on t-nation from none other than Mr. Eric Cressey. This article does a great job of aligning rep schemes with a trainee’s goals. I think this is a great follow-up article to this blog post.

    http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_repair/it_looked_good_on_paper

    Looking forward to hearing you speak out at Perform Better Summit In Providence.

    Trevor

  • Mike

    @Trevor

    Thanks for the link.

  • Will

    Great article Eric,

    From a business model perspective, I’m curious as to what exactly you mean by allowing sliding starts & finishes with clients?
    Do you mean they kind of start/end their session as they please and enough coaches are on hand to monitor this?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Daniel

    Eric,

    Could you describe in more detail, or direct me to the description of, the sliding schedule you employ to allow the fluctuations in peoples’ training schedules? It was good seeing you present at the Perform Better Conference in Chicago over the summer.

    Thanks,

    Daniel

  • “I find myself teaching squat and deadlift variations with four sets of five reps quite a bit; the load, however, is light enough that the lifter could usually do 10-12 reps. In other words, it’s just technique practice.”

    I couldn’t agree more! I’ve been using this with my younger clients and I think they “pick it up” faster this way – and with much less technique breakdown.

  • Hi Eric,

    I was wondering if these sets and reps protocols apply for kettlebell training, too.

    My question stems from the fact that kettlebell instructors sometimes do sets for time instead of reps, per se, or try to hit a goal of, say, 100 clean-and-presses in 5min. And yet, they report muscle and strength gains.

    This goes against the principles of high reps training endurance, doesn’t it?

  • Clement,

    This really wouldn’t apply to that, as we’re talking about training muscular endurance a bit more. Anything over 15 reps pretty much throws things out the window.

  • David,

    It’s pretty simple, actually. People schedule their sessions when they want. We don’t have a 9am, 10am, etc. group. Everyone is on an individualized program, so we start when is convenient for them, not just us. As long as you have plenty of staffing and educate clients on exercise selection and technique, it works out great. Much more enjoyable for our coaches as well, as you aren’t coaching the same things all day.

  • I should also add that it means that clients finish when they get to the end of their daily program, not simply when their hour (or whatever length) is up. It might go longer when we load them up, or be shorter when they’re deloading.

  • Thanks, Trevor!

  • Mike,

    Research has shown that power output is maximized at 30% of 1RM in the jump squat – so no surprise there.

    You have to remember that rate of force development and power (work/time) are both dependent on having plenty of force (strength). Working at 30% will help improve power output and RFD, but eventually, a lack of strength can have a ceiling effect on both. So, most people need to train both. Ultra strong people need to spend more time at lower percentages with faster movements, whereas weak people need to spend more time getting strong (even if they are already “fast”).

  • Sylvain,

    I’ll need to see a LOT of research backing that up. While I’m familiar with the studies you’re speaking of, but these just aren’t speaking to a higher level of strength improvements or what happens over an extended period of time. Everything works, but nothing works forever.

  • Makes great sense, Chris – although you have to be careful with just looking at total work. Doing a ton of reps at a very light weight can get you the same amount of work as a heavy set of three reps, but the neural and metabolic adaptations are entirely different.

    Still, good point.

  • Brownie

    Eric I was wondering if you could recommend a body weight strength program. I wish to improve my strength with body weight. Thank you

  • Brownie,

    I’d recommend you go with Craig Ballantyne’s Turbulence Training. It’s an excellent body weight training program.

  • I’m glad you broke this up into two parts because there’s just a lot to think about.

  • Jack

    Eric,

    The link for your deloading program is broken. Is there another place to check it out?

  • Karan

    Eric,

    Great article. What book will you recommend to learn more about creating programs? I recently ordered – Building the efficient Athlete and am really looking forward to the shipment.

    Thanks,

    Karan

  • Hi Karan,

    BTEA is a good start on the assessment and coaching side of things. I’d say that The High Performance Handbook is the most up-to-date reflection of my programming philosophies, and it’ll give you some insights as to how programs can be individualized. 
     
    Honestly, though, I don’t think there is really a great program design product out there on the market.  I think the best bet is to observe a lot of different people’s approaches, try some different programs, write as many as you can, and then fine tune as you go!

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